Does Australia have a new Middle East policy?

Yesterday, in reluctantly welcoming the nuclear deal with Iran, the Prime Minister said “we certainly want a nuclear-free Middle East. The Middle East is the most unstable and dangerous part of the world. If any country in the Middle East were to get nuclear weapons that would be a horrifying escalation of tension.”

As Abbott would know, that statement on its face makes no sense. Israel has nuclear weapons — it has had them for a very long time. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is one of the motivations for Iran to pursue its own nuclear program. It’s a classic example of Western double-think that Abbott could declare his wish for a “nuclear-free Middle East” while subconsciously excluding Israel, and for the statement to be treated as entirely anodyne. It’s assumed by “Middle East” Abbott means the non-Israel bits, the Muslims. They’re subjected to a higher standard of behaviour and more onerous requirements than Israel, which is more or less allowed to do whatever the openly racist Netanyahu government wants to do without fear of international sanction.

Netanyahu himself reacted to the nuclear deal by describing the Iranians as a threat “several times greater” than Islamic State (which Iran is doing the heavy lifting of fighting on the ground in Iraq) and that Iran was hell-bent on “taking over the world”. That, by the way, sits rather poorly with the Australian government’s official position that Islamic State is the greatest “existential” threat in world history.

But the phrase “nuclear-free Middle East” is a little problematic in Australian diplomatic circles. Egypt has long led a push to establish a nuclear-free Middle East; in April this year, the US blocked a push by Egypt for a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East to which all countries in the region, “without exception”, would be invited. The Netanyahu government was sufficiently relieved that it took the unusual step of saying something positive about the Obama administration. That long-term push by Egypt was one of the causes of friction between then-foreign minister Bob Carr and Julia Gillard over Israel. In 2012, Carr wanted Australia to back the short-lived Morsi government on the issue, but his decision was reversed by Gillard. Carr later described her position on the Middle East as “shameful, in lockstep with Likud.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office declined Crikey invitation to clarify the matter about whether Australia now supported a nuclear-free Middle East, or merely a nuclear-free Middle East for the people who aren’t like us.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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