Lowy Institute

In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:

...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.

It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week. 

There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:

Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.

But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.

The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.

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Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'

In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?

Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently. 

It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.

I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers. 

It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.

Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.

In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative. 

But they are wrong. 

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


Over the weekend an Egypt court found Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed guilty on charges of operating in Egypt without a press licence and of ‘spreading false news’. Greste and Fahmy were given sentences of three years in prison; Mohamed was given three years and six months. While Fahmy and Mohamed have been returned to prison, the consequences for Greste, deported from Egypt last February, are also serious.

Greste won’t be able to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt, a fatal impediment to his career as a foreign correspondent. He also now has a criminal record.

It had been hoped that the re-trial would find all three innocent of the charges, after their earlier trial had found them guilty and sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohamed to ten years. Greste has called on Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to grant all three a pardon. The prospects seem slim.

It may well be the case that this was part of the plan all along: that the court would find the three guilty to save the blushes of the Egyptian judiciary, and then Sisi would show his magnanimity by pardoning them.

But because Greste, the only Westerner of the three, is no longer in an Egyptian jail, Sisi will feel less pressure to act; he is hardly likely to spare much thought for Greste’s career.

Indeed these days, Sisi is getting decidedly mixed messages from Western governments. The Al-Jazeera verdict is part of a much broader assault on press and other freedoms in Egypt being mounted by the Sisi regime. In the same week as Greste and his colleagues were found guilty, Sisi introduced new draconian anti-terrorism legislation. In addition to the establishment of special fast-track courts for terrorism offences, and new protections for military and police officers that use violence against terror suspects, the law also imposes fines of between US$25,000 and US$64,000 for journalists who contradict official accounts of militant attacks.

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One human rights activist, Jamal Eid, tweeted that the law marked the establishment of a 'republic of darkness'.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a statement over the weekend saying that she was ‘dismayed’ by the Greste verdict. But she has said nothing about the implication of the new anti-terror law for press and other freedoms in Egypt. The US State Department did at least express concern 'that some measures in Egypt's new anti-terrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms.' But the general pattern of US relations with Egypt since the July 2013 coup that brought Sisi to power has been one of gradual warming. In March of this year, for example, the US resumed military aid to Egypt.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also praised Sisi on a number of occasions, including in his National Security Statement last February, when he singled out Sisi’s call for a ‘religious revolution’ in Islam.

The truth is, however, that Sisi’s heavy-handed policies in Egypt will create more radicalism and militancy than it defeats. Recently, Shadi Hamid did an excellent job at summarising in Foreign Policy how counter-productive Sisi’s policies have been. Hamid’s piece should be required reading for Western policymakers as they consider their approach to Egypt.

I know it's easy to be critical from the outside, and there are few good levers for influencing the Egyptian regime. But at the very least the US and other countries, including Australia, should be delivering a strong and consistent message to the Egyptian regime, and not just when one of our own gets caught up in the regime’s repressive net.

This is not just a moral issue for the West, it is also a practical one.  Western policymakers rightly condemned the former Maliki Government in Iraq for its repressive and discriminatory policies against the Sunni minority – policies that paved the way for ISIS to roll into Mosul and other Sunni towns and cities virtually unopposed.

Yet remove the sectarian dimension, and Sisi’s policies in Egypt don’t look all that different. Under Sisi, the jihadist insurgency in Sinai has already worsened and has seen partisans of ISIS raise the movement’s black flag on the peninsula. Meanwhile, Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is driving younger members toward militancy.

Some Western policymakers will argue that sometimes you need tough measures to defeat terrorism and militancy. This is true. But it is also true that an approach that is all stick rarely ever works. Even the former Mubarak regime came to understand that.

The Sisi regime may eventually come to that realisation too. But for the moment at least, this seems unlikely. As Hamid notes towards the end of his piece: ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mohamed Azazy.


The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to give it its formal title – has already guaranteed us one thing: mutually assured hyperbole.

Barrages of outrage were being fired even before the deal was signed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on 8 July that 'Iran's increasing aggression is more dangerous than that of ISIS, and the true goal of this aggression in the end is to take over the world.'

Bibi's histrionics might be charming were they not so damaging to his cause. His deeply partisan speech to Congress last March has, for example, already made it more difficult for those Democrats with serious reservations about a nuclear deal to stand with Republicans in any veto-proof majority against the agreement. Iranian President Rouhani's comments that the deal came despite Israel's 'best efforts' to stop it even suggest that Bibi's loud complaints helped convince the Iranians to sign ('If Bibi is so dead against it, how bad can it be?').

But there is also plenty of hyperbole coming from those who support the deal. It is being described as 'historic'; the Middle East is about to be 'transformed'. All this before the 80-page agreement has been even lightly parsed.

The truth is, it is way too early to be either heading for the fallout shelter or vacuuming the Nobel Prize podium.

Certainly, the deal is a significant diplomatic achievement, especially at a time when diplomacy has become very unfashionable, and not just in the Middle East. It demonstrates that you can actually achieve something by patient, purposeful and well-executed talking. In fact, it begs the question of why similar efforts are not being made elsewhere in the region, most notably in Syria.

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But implementing this deal will be at least as hard as negotiating it. In fact, it will probably be harder, given that there will be more opportunities for opponents of the deal to throw spanners into its very complex works. As we have learned with other peace agreements in the Middle East, no one should be handing out Nobel peace prizes until the hard work of implementation is done. 

Supporters of the deal also have to acknowledge that there is a kernel of validity in the Israeli Government's complaint that, in signing the deal, the West has surrendered to Iran.

In his remarks yesterday, President Obama claimed that as a result of the agreement, 'every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off.' It is certainly true that one pathway has been cut off: the plutonium route via Iran's reactor at Arak, which is to be redesigned and its spent fuel shipped out of the country. But while other pathways, most notably Iran's enrichment program, have certainly been made longer and will now be subject to inspection and verification measures, it is not true to say they have been cut off.

As significant an achievement as the agreement is, it's founded on an undeniable concession: that Iran will, more or less, retain the means to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran will retain the infrastructure and the knowledge to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, and it may already have, or could relatively easily get, the knowledge to turn that material into a weapon.

Supporters of the agreement would argue that this concession represents not so much a surrender to Iran as a surrender to grim reality, and they are right. For over a decade, the West has tried everything short of invasion and regime change to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program, particularly its enrichment effort. Not only did his effort fail, it failed spectacularly. When the Bush Administration began its highly principled but totally unrealistic effort to talk Iran out of its enrichment program in the mid-2000s, it was negotiating over a few hundred centrifuges. The talks that just ended in Vienna were negotiating over just under 19,000 of them.

Given these circumstances, the purpose of the deal is not so much to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. That jinn is already out of the bottle. Instead, the goal is to create a framework of incentives and disincentives that ensure Iran never makes the decision to produce a nuclear weapon. 

In other words, the agreement is an attempt to convince Iran to be more like a nuclear Japan than a nuclear Pakistan. This relies on the assumption that all governments — democratic, autocratic or even theocratic — make more or less rational cost-benefit analyses of decisions. In this particular case, it relies on Tehran calculating that the costs of producing a nuclear weapon, even covertly, outweigh the benefits.

The problem for proponents of the deal, and the reason why the reality of this deal is likely to prove as grim for them as for its opponents, is that this is a highly complex equation to maintain. Ensuring that the costs of not producing a nuclear weapon outweigh the benefits will rely on what is in the deal, but also on what is not in it – and not all of that will be in the gift of the West.

It's doubtful, for example, that Iran would have made the concessions it has in this agreement if Saddam still ruled Iraq. The improvement in Iran's strategic circumstances caused by the demise of its most immediate enemy and rival is one of the less visible pillars upon which this deal is founded. But if Iran's security circumstances suddenly change, then its calculations around a nuclear program will probably change also.

Similarly, Iran has also been motivated to reach this agreement by the domestic economic damage caused by sanctions, particularly in recent years. But what happens once that damage is repaired and Tehran feels that the new international economic ties it has built can withstand any new effort to re-impose sanctions?

Finally, there is the question of Iran's ambitions. Even taking Tehran at its word (that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon), the regime probably saw its civilian nuclear achievements, and the implicit threat contained therein, as way to buttress its claims to regional leadership. Is the region now simply expected to accede to that leadership to keep Iran from building a bomb?

None of this is an argument against the deal that has just been signed in Vienna. Many of these questions have good answers. Nevertheless, they are a reminder that we are at the beginning of a difficult, complex and uncertain process. They are a warning that accepting the current deal as the best of a lot of bad options is not the same as accepting that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions is now resolved.

As Henry Kissinger once said, 'every victory is only the price of admission to a more difficult problem.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


The Lowy Institute for International Policy is looking for an experienced research editor. The position will be responsible for editing all major research publications, and will assist with the management and administration of research procedures. The role will also provide some editorial assistance to The Interpreter.

The successful applicant will need to demonstrate outstanding editing skills, including at least 5 years' experience in an editorial role. They will also need to possess a very high attention to detail and outstanding proofreading skills. They should also be highly organised and have excellent time management skills. Knowledge of international affairs is highly desirable.

Applicants should submit a CV and one-page covering letter, using the 'Apply Now' button here.

Applications close Friday 22 May. Only shortlisted candidates will be contacted. For more information email Dr Philippa Brant.


Last week's announcement that the P5+1 and Iran had reached agreement on the parameters for a comprehensive nuclear deal has, unsurprisingly, provoked heated debate. This is despite the fact that there is still no deal yet.

Although the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action say a lot – perhaps more than we were expecting – about what a deal would look like, the detail still needs to be negotiated (by the end of June). This has not stopped people rushing to judge the parameters. It helps, of course, if you have already made up your mind about whether negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program is a bad thing or a good thing.

I would argue that there three ways to judge the Parameters: on its own merits; in comparison to alternatives; and in the context of future US policy in the Middle East.

Before examining each of these I want to be clear about my assumptions. First, whatever justification Iran has provided for its nuclear program (everything from energy production to national technical achievement, any of which may be true to some degree), a key purpose of Iran's nuclear program is to furnish Tehran with the technical means to produce a nuclear weapon.

My second assumption is that, because Iran has a track record of deceptive conduct with respect to its nuclear program and has been caught out a number of times, there is little ground for trusting Iran and good reason to assume it will cheat.

My final assumption is that Iran's nuclear program is just one part of the threat the Iranian regime poses to Middle East security and stability. Its support for terrorism, its denial of Israel's right to exist, its threats to the internal stability of many of its Arab Gulf neighbours, and its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East are other key elements.

Of course, one can dispute these and even point to examples of other states in the Middle East posing similar threats (some of them are Western allies). Nevertheless, because Iran is seen as a threat in these and other respects by many of its neighbours, these are fears that must be dealt with in any effort to build a more stable order in the region.

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On the merits

Judged solely on its merits, the deal places significant obstacles in the path of any Iranian effort to build a nuclear weapon, but leaves much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place. In doing so it places an substantial burden on whatever mechanisms are put in place to both ensure that Iran does not cheat and to ensure it is punished if it does cheat.

Iran will have fewer (and older) centrifuges with which to enrich uranium, and will not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium at its Arak reactor, which will be re-built. But these concessions are balanced by the fact that Iran will keep most of its nuclear infrastructure in place, including the underground facility in Fordow that it built in secret. Most of the measures are also time limited, so that after 15 years the restriction on enrichment levels and stockpiling of enriched uranium will end.

What the parameters are least clear on is what would happen if Iran cheated. President Obama has promised a snap-back of sanctions. In theory, military action remains on the table. But unless any cheating is really egregious it will be hard to get international consensus on what to do about it, particularly since, once sanctions are lifted, commercial and other national imperatives will come into play.

The Parameters also say nothing about other negative aspects of Iranian behaviour, from its support for terrorism to its threats against Israel and its Arab neighbours. Supporters of the agreement are right to say that dealing with these issues would make any deal impossibly complex to negotiate. But it is also true that any nuclear agreement will end Iran's political and economic isolation. Even if it limits Iran's nuclear ambitions (at least for a while), any agreement would leave Iran stronger at a time when its reach and influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is already leaving its neighbours feeling deeply threatened.

So, judged by its merits alone, the Parameters do not appear to block every possible pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as President Obama has suggested. Nor is it likely to make Iran's neighbours feel much safer, which is critical to ensuring that any deal does not result in others in the region building their own nuclear weapon.

Comparing the alternatives

The agreement does, however, get higher marks when compared to the alternatives. There are two of these: bomb Iran's nuclear facilities and/or continue sanctioning Iran until Tehran offers deeper concessions.

It is possible to bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure, although it would take the US, rather than Israel, to do it real damage. Estimates as to how much this would delay any Iranian effort to produce a nuclear weapon vary. Some say 2-3 years, some much longer. But it is unlikely to be any longer than the 10-15 years that the Parameters provide for.

More importantly, without having at least attempted an agreement in good faith, it will be difficult for the US to gain support for military action. This matters for a whole lot of practical reasons, from the basing and overflight rights necessary to carry out an attack, to the support needed for sanctions to ensure that Iran did not rebuild its nuclear program quickly after a military strike.

And this is to say nothing of the consequences of a military confrontation in the Middle East involving the US at a time when the region is already in flames.

Others have argued that the international community should stick with sanctions and extract a better deal. The problem is, we have been down this path before. In the early to mid 2000s the Bush Administration insisted Iran would have to give up its right to enrichment as a precondition for negotiations. That principled insistence, backed by a growing regime of sanctions, had only one unfortunate result. In the early 2000s the two sides were negotiating over a few hundred Iranian centrifuges; today Iran has 19,000.

Sanctions have done nothing to slow down Iran's nuclear program. It is true that financial and oil sanctions of recent years have had a deep impact on the regime and the country. This has been supported by an unprecedented international consensus. But using sanctions to get the Iranian regime to the negotiating table is one thing; using sanctions to get the regime to capitulate is another altogether. The Iranian regime is perfectly willing for its people to suffer even deeper economic distress to protect its core interests. And sustaining really tough international sanctions over a prolonged period is difficult, as the gradual erosion of the sanctions regime on Iraq showed.

Moreover, all the things that critics of the current parameters point to — from the possibility of Iran cheating, to the difficulty of proving and sanctioning cheating when it does occur — are possible and in fact more likely under a continued sanctions regime.

US policy in the Middle East

So the Parameters raise questions when judged by their own merits, but look better when compared to the alternatives. How do they fare when examined in the context of future US policy in the Middle East?

Many of America's Middle Eastern allies fear that a nuclear deal with Iran is either a prelude to greater strategic cooperation between the US and Iran or a pretext for an American withdrawal from the region.

Concern about the latter, caused by Obama's efforts to extricate the US from Middle Eastern conflicts, has already driven competition between Sunni Arab states and Iran in the region, from Syria to Yemen. And in the deeply conspiratorial mindset of the Middle East, there remains a real fear that America would love to return to the days of the Shah when Iran was a pillar of US policy in the Middle East.

Indeed, more than anything, this agreement will need to be judged not by what is in it, but by what the US does around it. Washington will need to promise its allies that it is not going to strike regional strategic deals with Iran that cut across their interests. It will need to help allies defend themselves against Iran's conventional and covert threats to their security, and not just the nuclear threat. And most of all, the Obama Administration and its successors will need to reassure America's allies in the Middle East that it will not leave them to face Iran alone.

Photo by Flickr user United States Mission Geneva.


Even for long-time watchers of the Middle East like myself, the region's enmities and alliances have become very difficult to keep track of.

This has just been taken to a mind-bogglingly new level by Saudi Arabia's decision to launch a military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi movement.

Last September the Houthis, backed by Yemen's deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh (whom the Houthis fought against in 2009), stormed the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Since then they have captured large parts of the country, forcing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to the southern city of Aden.

The Houthis are Zaidi Shia, and are seen as closely aligned with Iran, which is a key reason why the Saudis, backed by other Gulf allies and seemingly by the US, have now intervened. But the Houthis are also fighting al Qaeda elements and Islamic State supporters in Yemen.

So in Iraq and Syria, the US, backed by Saudi Arabia (at least nominally), is fighting against al Qaeda and Islamic State, and both groups are also being fought by Iran. But in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, is fighting against the Houthis, who are supported by Iran but who are fighting al Qaeda and Islamic State. 

Confused? So am I.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections last December there was a schizophrenic character to a lot of the analysis. Most observers thought Bibi would probably win again; but there were also predictions that perhaps Bibi had started to run out of political puff.

Closer to the election there were polls warning Bibi might lose; it is fair to say there were many people in Israel and internationally hoping he might. Even in Likud strongholds that once sang 'Bibi, King of Israel', there seemed to be a waning enthusiasm for the Prime Minister, driven by difficult economic circumstances and a growing weariness with the scandals that always seemed to hover around Bibi and his wife Sara.

In fact, a senior member of Bibi's own party reputedly offered this hopeful piece of analysis ahead of the election to an Israeli newspaper (unattributed of course):

If we win, that would be excellent...But even if we lose, it will be a healthy and good process for the Likud. Netanyahu will go home, and a whole generation of potential leaders will finally be able to contend for the leadership and transform Likud from a party that scratches 20 seats to a true ruling party.

And yet, despite exit polls predicting an almost dead heat between Bibi and his Zionist Union rival Yitzhak Herzog (27-26 seats), Bibi's Likud party won 30 seats to Zionist Union's 24, a big win by Israeli standards. (This also suggests, incidentally, that either there is something wrong with Israeli exit polls or some Israelis did not want to admit that they voted for Bibi.)

There is no doubt that a little panic had crept into the Bibi camp.

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A week before the poll he declared that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, because any territory ceded would quickly fall to Islamic extremists. On election day he warned, via Facebook, that Israeli Arabs were being bussed to the polls by left wing NGOs, imploring his supporters to save his nationalist government.

But it also seems that panic worked.

Bibi's emergency campaign to shore up his right-wing base won Likud seats, largely at the expense of other right-wing parties, particularly Naftali Bennet's Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). He now enters the usually febrile period of post-election coalition formation in a strong position. There will, of course, be the usual courtships and tantrums, both real and affected. But people who complained bitterly about Bibi while they were in government with him will happily take their (ministerial) seats again.

The real question is how ideologically narrow the new government will be. Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, whose role it is to invite one of the party leaders to form a government, has called for a government of national unity built around Likud and Zionist Union. But Bibi could also form a more ideologically coherent government of just right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties (Haartez has a great interactive that allows you to explore the options and build your own ruling coalition.)

The former seems unlikely at this stage. In particular, Labor members of Zionist Union will be urging Herzog to stay out. Bibi could also bring in the Centrist Yesh Atid (There is an Alternative) at the expense of the ultra-orthodox parties, but this would mean a kiss and make-up with its leader Yair Lapid, whose spat with Bibi helped prompt the early election.

Yet if a narrow government might be more preferable to Bibi and more politically possible, it will also make Israel's government less palatable internationally. This matters insofar as the new government will be trying to convince the world not to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, and to deflect growing efforts by the Palestinians to condemn Israel in the UN and take it to the International Court of Justice.

Experience has taught me to never rule anything out in Israeli politics. A bit like Bibi's election victory, things that seem unlikely one week, somehow turn out to be inevitable the next.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user IsraeliInUSA.


For most of my professional life I have been addicted to Middle Eastern politics. In recent years, however, I have started to kick the habit, so I had not planned to get up at 3am Sydney time to watch Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his much anticipated and controversial address to the US Congress.

And yet it seems I retain some of the involuntary reflexes of a long-time political junkie. I woke abruptly at 3am and carried myself off to the television. I'm glad I did. Because while 'Bibi' has built his political career on his words rather than his actions (just like President Obama, ironically), you only get the full nuance when you watch him live.

The world was first introduced to Bibi during the 1991 Gulf War when, as Israel's deputy foreign minister, he became a familiar face on CNN, including most famously during one interview, wearing a gas mask. Bibi repeatedly warned of the dangers Israel faced from Iraq's Scud missiles, a number of which did strike Israel during that war.

It was a tense moment in US-Israel relations. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wanted to take military action against Iraq's Scud missile. The Bush Administration, however, wanted desperately to keep Israel out of the war to ensure that the Arab coalition it had carefully assembled against Saddam did not fall apart.

The Administration succeeded, but the Israeli Government's pressure meant that the US military placed a high priority on hunting Scuds in Iraq's western desert. Bibi was very much the public face of that pressure, using the skills he would become famous for: his deep understanding of the media and public relations; his strong command of the English language and his great facility for dramatic gestures.

Bibi's TV appearances also propelled him politically in Israel, which caused great tension between him and his nominal boss, then Israel Foreign Minister David Levy, who did not speak English and had the charisma of a prickly pear.

Almost 25 years later, many of those same elements were at play in another moment of tension in US-Israel relations, this time over Iran.

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Bibi believes the Obama Administration is about to sign a deal with Iran over its nuclear program that will imperil Israel. His address to Congress at the invitation of House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, and in the face of opposition from the Obama Administration, was a typically dramatic gesture. Yet, as numerous Israeli critics pointed out, it also risked undermining bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship by alienating Democrats, some 50 of whom reportedly refused to attend the speech. And many saw the speech as a stunt aimed at shoring up political support for Bibi in Israel's elections in two weeks' time.

Against so rich a background the speech turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

It was all the things we have come to expect from a Bibi speech: dramatic, eloquent, at times compelling, at others condescending, and not a little bit cynical. And there were strong points to Bibi's argument. Two stand out in particular.

The first reflects deep Israeli (and indeed Arab) fears about an agreement. That is, not only won't it stop an Iranian nuclear bomb, but it will entrench Iran's regional ascendancy by ending its economic and political isolation. Indeed the fear among Iran's adversaries is that the Obama Administration is contemplating allying with Iran in the Middle East on issues of common interest.

A significant part of Bibi's speech was devoted to the theme of 'be careful who you get in bed with'. He singled out America and Iran's shared interest in the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 'Don't be fooled', he argued. Iran and Islamic State are no different; they were simply competing for the crown of militant Islam. I don't believe the Obama Administration is blind to the realities of the Iranian regime and its regional ambitions. Nevertheless, Bibi's evocative reminders about the nature of the regime, and the amount of American blood on its hands, will be difficult for the Administration to rebut publicly.

Bibi's second strong point was to point to a flaw in the nature of the agreement, a flaw which worries even some supporters of a nuclear deal with Iran: its sunset clause. Because no deal would ever be able to totally eliminate Iran's nuclear program, the deal instead seeks to place limits on Iran's ability to produce fissile material. Any deal would, however, be time-limited. According to media reports, the US was seeking a 20-year lifespan for the deal, the Iranians want 10, with a compromise most likely to emerge at 15.

Bibi dwelt effectively on the real fear that Iran will just wait out the term of any agreement, pocketing the ending of sanctions along the way, and then build nuclear weapons once it is freer to do so. The truth is that even after the end of any deal, Iran will remain subject to NPT restrictions. But this is always going to seem weaker and much less reassuring to those that fear Iran is wriggling its way out of sanctions by exploiting the short-term horizons of Western political leaders.

The strength of both these points was, however, undermined by the speech's greatest weakness: Bibi's inability to offer an alternative. He was detailed in his exposition of the Iranian regime's perfidy over the years and the flaws of any diplomatic agreement with Tehran. But the detail disappeared when it came to explaining the alternative.

America, he argued, should simply walk away from any deal that didn't eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure. This precondition cuts little ice with anyone except the most partisan of critics of the deal. There is no way the Iranians would agree to negotiate on that basis. As President Obama correctly noted in an interview with Reuters this week, 'there's no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.' Even military action would not achieve that outcome, other than temporarily. Netanyahu also said America should walk away from any deal which fails to end Iran's aggressive regional behaviour. That's an important issue, but impossible to tie into an already complex nuclear negotiation.

In effect, therefore, Bibi argued that America should just walk away.

But then what? He didn't argue the case for imposing more sanctions on Iran, perhaps because he understands that sanctions have not prevented Iran from developing its nuclear program to date. And while increased sanctions over the last year have helped bring Iran to the negotiating table they are unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term, given their reliance on Russian and Chinese cooperation.

Nor did he say anything about military action, perhaps in the knowledge that even among many Republican allies there is little appetite for dragging America into another costly war in the Middle East.

Indeed, under both of these scenarios (more sanctions or military action), the sunset that so worries Bibi and others in any diplomatic deal gets a whole lot closer than 10 or 15 years. Even under intense sanctions, Iran will still develop its nuclear program and probably even accelerate it, as it has done in the past. And as even Israeli military experts have conceded, military action might slow Iran's program by only 2 or 3 years.

I do not think Bibi's speech will scuttle the negotiations with Iran (although that may still happen of its own accord), nor will it irreparably damage US-Israel relations. Where Bibi has done real damage is to the willingness of the Obama Administration to listen to Israeli concerns about an agreement.

These are real and justified concerns, which need to be built into any agreement if it is to bring much needed stability to the region. But because Bibi has made it personal and political, he has made it easier for the Administration to dismiss Israeli complaints about a deal on the grounds that Bibi simply opposes any realistic deal, no matter how good. Moreover, poking your finger in the eye of an American president in the less politically-encumbered final years of his presidency does not seem very smart.

To put it another way, Bibi's speech won't scuttle the deal because Bibi has made it all about Bibi. But for the same reason, the speech won't do deep damage to Israel's alliance with America. One day Bibi will be gone; the US-Israeli relationship will remain.


If you live in an authoritarian state the answer to the question 'How do you fight terrorism?' is relatively straightforward. I say 'relatively' because it is by no means a simple question even for dictators. In recent decades even authoritarian governments have had to weigh up the most effective method of fighting terrorism and it hasn't always just involved applying as much repressive force as possible.

But for a democracy, or more specifically a liberal democracy, fighting terrorism is not straightforward because it is not just a matter of efficacy; it is also a matter of rights and values. In defending itself against terrorism, a liberal democracy is not just protecting the physical security of its citizens, it is also defending the integrity of the political system in which these citizens participate.

So while an authoritarian government must simply find the most efficacious way to fight terrorism, a liberal democracy must find methods that are effective but which do not undermine the rights and values that distinguish the political system, most notably the rule of law and the various freedoms (of expression, of assembly, of the press etc) that make up our civil liberties.

I think we have entered a period, which may well last as a long as a decade, in which Australia will face a far more serious terrorist threat than it faced in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a threat we will face as much at home as we will abroad, as the events at the Lindt Café last December underline. 

But in responding to that threat it is not enough to simply ask what further powers or resources we can provide to our intelligence agencies and police forces. We also have to ask ourselves what damage these and other steps do to the values and rights that define us as a society. We have to ask ourselves: how do we find the balance between security and liberty?

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Of course, this is an old debate, predating even the terrorist threats we have faced in recent years. All democracies to some degree compromise the liberties of their citizens to protect them from a variety of domestic and external threat and to preserve the political system in which they live. Freedom does have some necessary limits.

Yet as old as this debate about liberty versus security is, we are not really having it in Australia at the moment. There are echoes and fragments of it, most often when things go wrong (either a gross transgression of liberty or a terrorist attack). But mostly the two sides of this debate talk past each other rather than at each other.

On the one hand, the proponents of liberty will focus on the rights and the freedoms they argue are being undermined in the fight against terrorism. Too often, however, this group will tend to minimize or downplay the threat. Terrorism, they say, is hyped; more people, they argue, will die falling off ladders than will die at the hands of terrorists.

On the other hand, the proponents of security will argue for significant new resources and powers for the agencies fighting terrorism and new limits placed on those parts of the community from which the threat is seen to come. But too few in this camp ask whether, in taking these measures, we are doing more damage to our society and principles than the terrorists are.

I would like to see a debate in which the proponents of liberty acknowledge the threat, understand that it provokes genuine fear in much of our society (even if more people die falling off ladders or in car accidents) and then ask themselves which of our liberties we should compromise for the sake of security. As the Charlie Hebdo case underlined, we don't even seem to be clear about the liberties we are defending.

I would like to see a debate where the proponents of security recognise that the threat to our societies comes not just from terrorism but from the way in which we fight terrorism, and that we should be prepared to accept certain levels of risks for the sake of preserving our rights and principles.

I am probably being naïve in expecting such a debate to take place. It is not just on this issue that we talk past each other. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we need to have that debate, not least because I fear that we will see more episodes like that which played at the Lindt Café in the years to come.


This morning it was announced that the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have been extended for another seven months; or to be specific, another four months to reach a political agreement and another three months beyond that to finalise technical details.

That the talks did not end simply in a comprehensive failure was no great surprise. The stakes are too high. As I explained last week, for the Rouhani Government and the Obama Administration, a nuclear deal holds the key to critical broader objectives: for Rouhani, it can end Iran's political and economic isolation; for Obama, it can recalibrate America's posture and policy in the Middle East.

Moreover, comprehensive failure would have led to an escalatory spiral of increased sanctions and an acceleration of Iran's nuclear program. We could have seen increased tension between the US and Iran in Iraq, undermining the military campaign against Islamic State. The risk of military confrontation in the Middle East would have risen as well.

Within Iran, the Rouhani Government would have paid a steep political price. Having raised and modestly delivered on popular expectation of an improvement in Iran's economy, a comprehensive failure would have fractured economic confidence and undermined political support for Rouhani. Rouhani's hardline internal adversaries would have used the opportunity to step up their attacks on him and his Government.

Of course, all of this may still happen. The critical deadline here is not in seven months' time, it is in four months. As Secretary of State Kerry made clear in his press conference this morning, 'At the end of four months...if we have not agreed on the major elements by that point in time and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed'.

So what should we take away from this non-failure/non-success?

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First, the failure to outline in any detailed way what progress has been made would suggest that what we have here is a 'negative non-failure'. There had been expectations that the two sides might announce a framework agreement and say that more time was required to work out the details. This would have constituted a positive non-success.

While it is possible that the current situation reflects the old negotiating maxim of 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed', it has to be worrying that the two sides still need another four months to even reach a framework deal. This would suggest that either both, or one, of the sides feel that what is currently on the table won't wash with those who will sit in judgement on the deal.

On the Iranian side, Rouhani has to convince a sceptical Supreme Leader who must ultimately sign off on an agreement. Obama meanwhile has to win at least grudging acquiescence from Congress and allies in the Middle East. 

Kerry made a point of saying how tough the talks are and how the US doesn't 'want just any agreement. We want the right agreement.' At the very least, extending the talks has the virtue of underlining to critics on both sides that neither the Rouhani Government nor the Obama Administration are going to sell themselves cheaply for the sake of a deal. And by not giving the impression that an agreement is close – which may in fact be true – it could help to stave off any efforts to torpedo a prospective agreement over coming months.

Of course, those efforts to derail the deal may come anyway, as patience wears thin among hardliners in Iran and a more hostile Congress takes office next year. It is going to be a fraught four months.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.


Part 1 of this two-part series here.

I would argue that, for the Obama Administration, a nuclear deal with Iran is central to its recalibration of America's policy and posture in the Middle East. Of course it is not explicitly articulated that way, and for obvious reasons cannot be, but it's not difficult to make the case.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, World Economic Forum, 23 January 2014.

Obama's approach to the Middle East can be crudely summed up as 'get out of the wars America is fighting in the region and don't get into any new ones'. By withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has fulfilled the first part of this policy. The second is evident in the way his Administration has either been extremely limited or exceedingly reluctant in its use of military force in Libya, Syria and now Iraq (although in many ways the rise of Islamic State in Iraq is the most serious challenge to his policy).

This second aspect of the policy has also been articulated quite explicitly by Obama, most notably in his West Point speech, where he set out the kinds of things that the US will do in the Middle East, but also the things it won't.

I think Obama also understands that if the US is going to stop fighting wars in the Middle East, it has to come to terms diplomatically with its most difficult adversary, Iran, on the most challenging issue, the nuclear question. There are two key dimensions to this.

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First, a nuclear deal is the key to ending 35 years of enmity between Iran and the US that has on many occasions flared into serious clashes and military conflict. Of course, a deal won't on its own end that enmity or resolve all the difficulties in the relationship. But in the same way as the Rouhani Government wants to remove the nuclear issue as an obstacle to ending Iran's political and economic isolation (see part 1 of my series), I think Obama wants to remove the nuclear issue as an obstacle to gradually normalising relations with Iran.

But there is another dimension. Both enhanced sanctions, and now the nuclear negotiations, are not just designed to stop Iran from getting the bomb, they are also designed to stop some of America's allies in the region taking unilateral military action against Iran. In particular, what I think Obama fears is that any military strike by Israel will risk drawing America into any subsequent conflict between the two. To a lesser degree, by diminishing the nuclear threat, Obama also reduces the reliance of regional Gulf allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, on US security guarantees. This again helps him recalibrate American policy and posture in the region.

The problem, however, is that a comprehensive nuclear deal (even one that places very strong limits on Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon) will leave Iran a stronger regional player. Ending Iran's political and economic isolation will allow it to better pursue its regional ambitions and to realise its economic potential. As I said in Part I, this is what the Rouhani Government hopes for. 

But this is precisely what regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia (as well as their supporters in the US Congress) fear. This is not to say that they do not fear a nuclear-armed Iran. They do, but they also recognise that the utility of nuclear weapons is limited and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be isolated and sanctioned, and would bring even stronger regional security guarantees from the US. 

The Israeli and Saudi preference, therefore, is to see Iran sanctioned and contained. As I argued in part 1, even if a nuclear deal leaves Iran less isolated and more influential in the region and internationally, I think over time, the end of its economic isolation will pose a more direct threat to the regime and to the interests of hardliners than the current sanctions regime. But for those regional countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia with justified fears about what a more powerful Iran means for their interests and the security of their citizens, this is unlikely to prove reassuring.

What this means is that if we do get a nuclear deal next Monday, or more likely, an extension of the current negotiations, there is going to need to be an effort to address these broader concerns as well. The Rouhani Government and the Obama Administration are right that the nuclear issue needs to be addressed first. But it should only be seen as a first step in building a more stable and less conflict-prone region.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum.


Next Monday, 24 November, we will know whether months of talks over Iran's nuclear program will end in a comprehensive deal, a comprehensive failure or an agreement to keep negotiating. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif Stand. Baroness Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State John Kerry, 20 November 2014.

The talks have generated great heat in Iran, in the Middle East and in key international capitals, mainly because Tehran and Washington have never been closer to an agreement (strictly speaking it's a negotiation between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, but who are we kidding?). 

If there is one thing that both proponents and opponents of a deal would agree upon privately, it is that the negotiation is not really about Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Don't get me wrong. At the core of the talks is a highly technical negotiation designed to do three things: (1) prevent Iran from using its nuclear knowledge and technology to build a weapon, primarily by placing limits on its ability to produce fissile material; (2) put in place an intrusive inspection regime to ensure that if Iran does try to make a bomb, the international community would quickly know about it; and (3) establish a sanctions mechanism that both rewards compliance but also has the capacity to quickly punish Iran if it is found to be cheating.

But the thing that clouds judgments about what constitutes a good or a bad deal, the thing that makes this complex technical negotiation even more complicated and makes the atmosphere around the negotiation highly charged, is that for each of the protagonists — the Rouhani Government, its domestic opponents, the Obama Administration and key regional players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia — the talks are a proxy for their broader objectives.

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It is these broader objectives that make the protagonists variously more or less willing to compromise on the nuclear issue. And it is these broader objectives that lead opponents of a deal to charge that the proponents are willing to trade anything to get an agreement, and in turn for proponents to argue that there is no deal that would satisfy opponents.

So what are these broader objectives? Let's start with the Rouhani Government and its opposition within Iran. Rouhani is neither a moderate nor a reformist. His goal is not to change the Iranian regime but to strengthen it. What distinguishes him from his internal opponents is his belief that the best way to do that is by striking a nuclear deal. 

I was in Tehran a few weeks ago attending a workshop organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Political and International Studies (the think tank of the Iranian Foreign Ministry). The workshop included a long session with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif. Two things were evident.

On the one hand, Iran is confident about its position in the region. In particular, it feels that has the upper hand in their long running power struggle with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have failed in their efforts to dislodge Tehran's key ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia's backyard, Yemen, Houthi rebels, seen by many as aligned with Iran, have seized the capital. Even the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, while presenting some immediate challenges for Tehran, has played into Iranian hands. Suddenly the international focus is less on the brutality of the Syrian regime and more on Islamic State. Meanwhile, Iran can portray itself as a bulwark against jihadist extremism in Iraq.

On the other hand, there was a strong sense of frustration that despite its strategic ascendancy, Iran remained politically isolated and economically vulnerable. At the workshop it was noted with strong disdain the way that Iran had been left out of the Geneva talks on Syria last year and the Paris talks on the rise of Islamic State in Iraq this year. This is not just a practical matter for Iranians, it is also a question of pride – a sense that Iran is not being accorded its due deference in the region. 

Likewise, Iran's strategic ascendancy obscures a great economic vulnerability. The limited sanctions relief that has already occurred as a part of the interim agreement, combined with better economic management by the Rouhani Government, has improved the economic situation in Iran, particularly with respect to inflation. But this improvement, and the renewed economic confidence that has come with it, is fragile and susceptible to a breakdown in the nuclear negotiation. You sense that for the Rouhani Government, the nuclear talks are not just about staving off future socioeconomic causes of unrest, it's about realising Iran's full potential – something that won't happen while Iran remains economically isolated.

I have no doubt that the Rouhani Government is bargaining very hard to protect Iran's nuclear program. But it also sees the nuclear issue as a stick that has been used to beat Iran down and keep it isolated. In its view, taking that stick out of the hands of its adversaries is key to both Iran's future and the regime's longevity.

I think for this reason Rouhani has been able to convince Supreme Leader Khamenei to give him the leeway to negotiate. Convincing him to sign off on a deal will be more difficult, however, given that the Leader is more naturally predisposed to the views of those opposing an agreement.

The Iranian domestic opponents of a deal do not form a coherent group, nor do they have a single motive. I am sure there are some within the regime who want to preserve and even enhance Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon should the regime take the decision to do so (and most analysts assume it has not, so far).

But there are two other groups, sometimes overlapping, that are also opposed to a deal for different reasons. First, there are those within the regime who are ideologically opposed to a deal. They tap into a deep vein of distrust of the outside world in Iran (and not just in the regime) that is sceptical of any promise to deliver real sanctions relief in return for deep Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. There are also those who believe that the regime cannot ultimately survive without preserving its ideological enmity to the US in particular, and the West in general. In this view, ending that enmity would remove a key reason for the regime's unity and existence.

In recent years this ideological enmity has, however, overlapped with a more practical opposition to any deal with the US. Parts of the regime have made enormous amounts of money as a result of sanctions. They have done this by either running sanctions-busting schemes or by filling the economic vacuum left by international companies unable to do business in Iran. The expanded role of Revolutionary Guard commercial entities in the economy is one example.

So for ideological and economic opponents, a nuclear deal represents a threat to the regime and in some cases to their personal economic interest. As a matter of fact I think the hardliners are right. In an isolated Iran, the regime and regime hardliners hold all the security cards and increasingly the economic ones as well. A less isolated Iran will empower new economic interest and actors outside the regime. 

In Part II of this post I will look at the broader factors driving external proponents and opponents of a deal.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.


It’s a grim part of a think tankers life (or at least this think tanker’s life): you write your papers and they disappear into the ether. You often receive little or no feedback, nor even much indication of whether anybody has read your paper at all.

But occasionally there are moments that lift your morale. I had one such moment in 2007 when I got a phone call from Gough Whitlam.

I had a written a long Policy Brief entitled ‘Reinventing West Asia’ which was an effort to explain how the Middle East should be viewed as part of Asia, at least in strategic terms, and what this meant for Australia. Our then Executive Director, Allan Gyngell, mentioned that Gough had a habit of calling the Middle East ‘West Asia’ so I should send him a copy of the paper. 

I did and then forgot about it until my phone rang one day. It was our receptionist and she said she had Gough Whitlam on the line for me. Any sense that this was a practical joke was soon dispelled by his distinctive voice.

My memory is not great, but there were three parts of the phone call, which went on for about half an hour, that I will never forget.

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The first thing was that he complimented the receptionist. ‘You have an outstanding receptionist’, he boomed.

Second, he complimented the paper, which is not, however, the point of this post.

Third, and the reason why I am recalling this story, was his probing of my heritage, which underlined both his curiosity and his rich historical knowledge. It went something like this:

‘Bubalo, what kind of a name is that?’


‘Jee-sus Christ!’

‘What part of the Croatia are you from, Venetian or Ottoman?’

‘I was born here. But one parent is from the Venetian part, one from the Ottoman.’

‘Jee-sus Christ! Well it’s a fine paper anyway.’


With the air campaign appearing to have little effect on Islamic State (IS) so far, it seems the US-led coalition is switching to a new strategy: name-calling.

This week John Kerry referred to IS by its Arabic acronym Da'esh, although in the same remarks he also referred to it as ISIL. This follows the French decision to use Da'esh in preference to IS, which is the name the group has given itself. IS has gone through several name changes since the group first emerged in the mid-2000s in Iraq. The Economist and Ian Black in the Guardian provide good explanations.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius argues that the term Islamic State 'blurs the lines between Islam, Muslim and Islamists.' His personal preference is to use the term 'Da'esh cut-throats'. 

Kerry is yet to explain why he is using Da'esh, although he has talked about the importance of delegitimising the group's claim to represent Islam. Previously, President Obama has said that the group is neither Islamic nor a state, hence the decision to stick to the group's next-to-last name, ISIL.

IS, we are told, does not like the term Da'esh – so that's one good reason to use it. Apparently it has threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone heard using it, which, lets face it, is a pretty mild punishment by its gruesome standards.

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Using 'Da'esh' also avoids the argument over whether to use ISIS or ISIL. Both are the acronyms of the English translation of the group's next-to-last name, before it changed to Islamic State. So it is either 'Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' if you prefer ISIS or 'Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant' if you prefer ISIL. The difference turns on the last word in the name – in Arabic, 'al-Sham'. It can be translated as either 'Syria' or 'the Levant' (roughly, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean between Egypt and Turkey). Like any good orientalist I have consulted my trusty old Hans Wehr dictionary and it says Syria (but also Damascus).

None of this helps to answers the question of whether to use IS or ISIS/ISIL/Da'esh, underlining the success of IS's campaign to sow fear and linguistic confusion throughout the world.

I have to admit I have used all four without a lot of thought. I totally agree that the group does not represent Islam, but I am also sympathetic to the idea that you should call a group by whatever name it chooses for itself. A concession to both camps is to use 'Islamic State' without the definite article (ie. 'Islamic State' rather than 'the Islamic State').

But frankly if our strategy for defeating the group's ideas is based primarily on calling it names then we need to think of a new strategy.


Here are three observations on Iraq:

1. Australia does have a core interest in Iraq

One of the arguments already used by opponents of any Australian participation in military action against ISIS is that Australia does not have any core interests in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of whether the strategy for Iraq is the right one, there is no question in my mind that we have a strong interest in what happens in Iraq.

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. These fighters are also developing connections with other extremist groups that will make them a more lethal threat in years to come.

Some will ask: why does Iraq deserve particular attention above other parts of the Middle East that are also helping to incubate a new generation of extremists? It is a good question and we should not lose sight of these other problem areas even as we focus on Iraq and Syria.

But Iraq and Syria do deserve disproportionate attention for two reasons. First, the numbers of foreign fighters is bigger than we have ever seen, even compared with Afghanistan in the period leading up to 9/11. Second, the number of Westerners is also larger, which is bad because their passports and visa-free access to a larger range of countries will make it much easier for them to cross borders.

Some will argue that a military response is not the right one to this threat and that Australia should rely on police and intelligence work and cooperation. They will point to the way this worked in the 2000s, particularly in diminishing the terrorist threat in Indonesia.

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Certainly a military response won't work on its own, but neither will simply waiting for the threat to come to you. One reason the terrorist threat in Indonesia was diminished over time was because it became impossible for extremists to get the training and maintain the connections they had formed in Afghanistan. Those behind the Bali bombings were largely veterans of Afghanistan, and the hardcore part of Jemaah Islamiya behind the targeting of Westerners had intended to keep sending cadres to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, as illustrated by the break-up of the Ghuraba Cell in Pakistan in 2003.

True, the police and intelligence effort in Indonesia was more important. But I don't think it could have been as successful without the military effort in Afghanistan at the same time.

2. The US strategy in Iraq will work, probably

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. In the case of Iraq, those allied forces will be the Kurds, the Iraqi Army and possibly local Sunni militias. In Syria it will be opposition groups opposed to ISIS.

Because it has worked before, it is reasonable to assume that the strategy will probably work again. ISIS is not that big, and is probably not as militarily competent as people think. It is true the Iraqi Army has not covered itself in glory so far, but good units can be found, and with better leadership will probably prove more effective.

But most importantly, once momentum shifts, other local militias will turn on ISIS to make sure they are on the right side when the fighting ends. Here the willingness and ability of the new government in Baghdad to reach out to the Sunnis in northern Iraq will be critical.

Of course, none of this guarantees success and there are risks aplenty. But we should not confuse the way Western countries have mishandled Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown) for what we are about to do in Iraq. We are still pretty good at blowing stuff up. It is the building stuff after that we are not so good at.

3. There will be bleed-out

To say that the US strategy for Iraq will probably work is not the same thing, however, as saying that it is the right strategy. One of the consequences of even a successful campaign will be the bleed-out of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The border with Turkey – the last real route into and out of ISIS-stan – is likely to remain porous, although there will be massive pressure on the Turks to seal it.

Where will these fighters go? They may turn up in other conflicts in the Middle East, or they may head to other countries, but some will go home. In all likelihood this won't be the hard core but rather individuals who received some training, maybe didn't see a lot of combat and are not prepared to stay and die for the cause.

This does raise the question of whether, by targeting ISIS, we are accelerating the problem we are most worried about. In this respect there is a case for a strategy that tries to contain ISIS in Iraq. It would require real pressure on Turkey to seal the border, which may or may not be possible for Ankara to do. It would still require action to erode ISIS on the ground by local forces over a much longer period. And for this to work it would still require some Western support, at a much lower profile than what is being proposed now, to help train and mentor those forces.

But it is a line-ball call. Simply leaving ISIS alone is not the answer. We learned from our experience with Afghanistan that extremists can and do move on to other conflicts. They can and do return home and plot terrorist attacks. Eventually the problem needs to be dealt with.

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted. There needs to some assessment process, therefore, which looks at the legal grounds and prospects for pursuing returnees, but also looks at other factors as well. Hopefully it is something Australian officials are thinking about even as our combat aircraft taxi down the runway.

Photo by Flickr user Andos_pics.