Lowy Institute

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.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jason Reed.


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.’


An IS fighter in the town of Kobani, 7 October. (REUTERS.)

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.


There is an obvious connection between what is happening in Iraq at the moment and the Abbott Government's announcement last week of new measures to fight terrorism at home.

A significant number of young Australian nationals have traveled to fight in conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Some are fighting with the Islamic State (formerly ISIL/ISIS), whose sweep through northern Iraq has now prompted President Obama to launch limited air strikes against the group. The fear is that these Australians fighting with the Islamic State or other radical groups in Syria and Iraq may return home, having picked up military skills and jihadist connections that might one day be used in terror attacks in Australia.

But there is another connection between what is happening in Iraq and Australia that deserves attention.

The main reason the Islamic State has made such gains in Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not ruled for all Iraqis. In particular, by disenfranchising the Sunni minority, he created a fertile field for the Islamic State to plow. There is no way the group's relatively few fighters could have made the gains they did without the implicit and in some cases explicit backing of Sunni communities in Iraq's north.

That backing came not because these communities loved what the Islamic State was offering. Quite the contrary. In fact, the main threat to the Islamic State's gains is not the Iraqi Army (with or without US air cover), but the likelihood that ordinary Sunnis will chafe under the Islamic State's harsh rule. Indeed, it is a significant measure of Sunni discontent with Baghdad that Sunnis are prepared, for the moment at least, to do a deal with this particular devil.

Which brings us to Australia. I am not remotely suggesting that Australia faces an insurgency along the lines of what we have seen in Iraq or that Australian Muslims are as disenfranchised as Iraq's Sunnis. But there is a lesson for Australia all the same. And that is, to defeat terrorism you need the support of communities from which the terrorists might come or within which they might seek shelter and support. To get that support, these communities need to feel included, not marginalised.

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This should be a matter of principle. Political leaders often riff on the line that terrorists target us because they hate what we represent: tolerance, openness, democracy. But that means we need to do more than just pay lip service to these principles.

It is also a practical matter. For those agencies charged with leading the fight against terrorism, Muslim communities in Australia will be the best source of information and knowledge on those from within their midst who are fighting in Syria and Iraq or who have succumbed to radical and violent ideas.

And should that terrible day come when an act of terrorism is perpetrated in the name of radical Islam in Australia, then strong, open and confident ties with Muslim communities will be essential to ensuring that any such attack does not lead to further outbreaks of violence and retribution of the type that will tear deeply into the fabric of our society – precisely what the extremists want.

The risk of a terrorist attack in Australia is grave. More Australians have chosen to fight in Syria and Iraq than chose to fight in Afghanistan in the days when al Qaeda was being formed there.

More generally, the turmoil in the Middle East is seeing the creation of a new generation of combat-experienced jihadists, including some from our own region. Indonesia and Malaysians are also finding their way to Middle Eastern conflict zones.

However, this is not just a case of radical Islam running amok. It flows from the repressive measures being introduced by revived authoritarian structures after the failure of the Arab uprisings. Iraq is the most obvious example. Egypt deserves attention too, especially given the willingness of public figures like Tony Blair to anoint the country's elected autocrat, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a moderate. Egypt's history shows us that the kind of immoderate policies being pursued by Sisi will produce many more radicals than it will ever eliminate.

To combat the next-generation terrorist threat in Australia we need a range of tools, including some of those announced by the Government last week. But we will also need Muslim communities that are not on the defensive because they fear the exposure of one bad egg will foul the reputation of their whole community. Defensive communities won't cooperate with police and intelligence agencies. In fact, fearful and defensive communities will provide exactly the kind of environment that extremists like the Islamic State in Iraq love.

To avoid this outcome requires good leadership from Muslim communities but also from federal and state governments. In particular, those politicians and officials leading the fight against terrorism need to consult, listen and explain widely with Muslim communities. The poor reaction of some Muslim community leaders to the measures announced last week is a political failure that needs to be avoided.

This dialogue with Muslim communities won't always be easy and there is room for greater frankness. But frank discussion needs to be productive rather than accusatory. That responsibility extends to the commentariat and the media. References to '100 year wars' are as unhelpful as they are unfounded.

The good news is that we probably have time. I genuinely believe that conditions in the Middle East today are worse in terms of the production of jihadist ideas and activists than anything we saw in the lead-up to 9/11. But it took time for the forces and conditions that created al Qaeda to have their most deadly effect, and we are probably still in the early years of the evolution of this new threat.

Prime Minister Maliki could have averted the arrival of the Islamic State had he acted in a more inclusive fashion towards Iraq's Sunni community. The situation is very different in Australia, but let's learn the lesson about the importance of communities and inclusiveness.

Photo by Flickr user Jane Dalton.


The latest Gaza war is heading into new and bloody territory with no end in sight. As with previous conflicts in Gaza (and in Lebanon for that matter), both sides are engaged in what amounts to a brutal negotiation.

For Israel it is about how much of Hamas' rocket and tunnel infrastructure it can destroy before international or domestic pressure for a ceasefire forces its hand.

For Hamas it is about leveraging Israeli losses in terms of soldiers killed, civilians terrorised and international reputation lost in the hope of extracting concessions in any ceasefire. Hamas is balancing two pressures: on the one hand, the pressure from the suffering population of Gaza to bring the fighting to an end; on the other hand the pressure to demonstrate to that same population that it has gained something (usually in the form of either prisoner releases or the easing of the blockade on Gaza) from the suffering it has brought down on them.

There is another important element in the effort to reach a ceasefire, however, and that is the role of the mediator.

In the past, Egypt has played this role. It did not just convey messages between the two sides. It also used its leverage with both sides, but in particular with Hamas, to end the fighting. What is conspicuous about the current conflict is how ineffectual Egypt has been. It put one serious ceasefire proposal on the table that was so lop-sided it had little prospect of being accepted by Hamas.

As a number of commentators have noted, this reflects in part Egypt's domestic situation. President Sisi and the Egyptian military have been locked in a deep conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood for almost a year now. This has in turn undermined Egypt's relationship with Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

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As observers noted to me during a visit to Egypt last January, many of the individuals in Egyptian military intelligence responsible for the Gaza file have been moved, part of the reshuffle in the military brought about by Sisi's elevation to the position of commander in chief of the army last year.

The new players will not have had as much experience dealing with Hamas, nor the personal relationships built up over time with key Hamas figures. It may also be that the heat and animus generated by the conflict with the Brotherhood in Egypt has infected the attitude of those Egyptian military officials responsible for brokering a ceasefire with the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot.

The contrast with the last major round of fighting in Gaza is stark. In 2012 the conflict last eight days; this conflict has run over twenty days with no end in sight. In 2012, then Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi (from the Muslim Brotherhood) played a key role in bringing the fighting to an end, and was lauded for it by both the US and Israel.

Despite the fact that Israel welcomed Sisi's ascendancy to power, it needs an Egypt that can play an effective mediation role in Gaza; one that has real leverage with Hamas. Israel does not want the fighting to go on endlessly, it does not want to reassume responsibility for Gaza and it does not want Hamas totally destroyed, lest political power fall into the hands of even more radical groups in the territory.

The ongoing fighting also has domestic implications for Sisi's regime. Egyptians expect their government to play a role in ending the fighting, not just out of real sympathy for the suffering of Gazans but also for the sake of Egypt's regional standing. But Sisi is not going to be able to build a new relationship with Hamas overnight. It's a problem for Sisi, it's a problem for Israel, but above all it's a major problem for the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.


Coming days may well see a de-escalation of the latest confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. I say this more in hope than with real analytical conviction.

Despite the brutal familiarity of this latest confrontation when compared with previous episodes in 2012 and 2008-09, there is no reliable guide to how long these conflicts tend to last. In 2008 the violence lasted for over three weeks. In 2012 it went for eight days.

The Israeli Government may yet decide to mount a ground assault into Gaza. The traditional mediators in this conflict, the US and Egypt, do not appear to have begun a serious effort to negotiate a ceasefire (beyond urging both sides to exercise restraint), and this may lengthen the conflict. Indeed, until a ceasefire is either negotiated or emerges by default, every new casualty adds renewed momentum to the conflict.

But if all these factors make it difficult to know precisely when this confrontation will end, it is possible to predict with much greater certainty how it will end. At some point there will be another ceasefire, formal or otherwise, that both sides will claim as a victory.

Some observers are already asking what either side will have achieved.

Many Israelis will see it as a necessary response to both the callous murder of three teenagers and to the waves of rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities. More practically, the Israeli military will have used the opportunity to once again trim down Hamas' military infrastructure in Gaza and gain a measure of deterrence.

But as in previous episodes of this conflict, all of this will have been achieved at a heavy cost in Palestinian lives and yet more damage to Israel's international reputation, despite its effort to avoid both. At the end of this military operation Hamas will still be in power in Gaza. And, as was the case after 2008-09 and 2012, Israel's deterrence will prove to be relatively short-lived.

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Hamas will revel in its victimhood and 'steadfastness'. It will point in triumph at the increasing range of its rocket attacks and its ability to traumatise Israelis as far north of Gaza as Tel Aviv. But none of this will have done anything to shift the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza one centimetre in a positive direction. In fact, by firing its rockets from densely populated areas, Hamas will also bear a deep responsibility for the innocent lives lost.

At the ceasefire, when it eventually comes, casual observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will reach for the usual aphorisms about stalemates and the fruitless search for peace. Yet more bloodshed and nothing has changed, they will say.

But they are wrong. The status quo does change with each new conflict or crisis, albeit imperceptibly, like a sand dune whose movement across the desert can only be witnessed from a distance and over time.

Twenty years ago at the time of the Oslo Accords it was still possible to talk about what the two sides might be able to achieve together through a negotiated settlement of their conflict. In the decade after the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and in the wake of the second Intifada it has only been possible to talk about what each will side do on its own, and usually to the other.

In the last decade the Israeli consensus coalesced around separation. It withdrew from Gaza and built a fence in the West Bank. More recently it added to these iron walls an Iron Dome, the military system now being used to shoot down or divert Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.

These measures allowed Israelis to develop an iron indifference to the Palestinians. After they built the wall, the suicide bombings stopped and the Israeli economy thrived (at least initially; times are more difficult again now). Support for political parties running on a peace process agenda collapsed. As Israeli journalists and editors noted to me, interest in the Palestinian question among their readers evaporated.

Of course, it seems difficult to imagine this right now as Israelis wake in fright to air raid sirens. But after the conflict ends, the Palestinian question will drift off the agenda once again. Israelis have succeeded in separating themselves both physically and mentally from the Palestinians, at least for now.

Palestinian unilateralism has been less successful. The second Intifada failed to bring Israel either to its knees or to more amenable terms at the negotiating table. Neither Hamas' rockets nor Fatah's diplomatic efforts to gain recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN, or its broader effort to further isolate Israel, have changed the equation in the Palestinians' favour.

Indeed it seems the only gains made in the last decade have been technical ones. It used to be that Hamas' crude homemade rockets made it little further than the towns neighbouring Gaza. Then they began reaching the cities of Ashqelon and Ashdod. Now it is Tel Aviv.

But if Israel's iron domes, iron walls and iron indifference are a necessary defence against the range-creep of Hamas' arsenal, they do not provide much of a future. Not for Israelis nor for Palestinians.

For one thing, domes, walls and indifference have sucked the vitality out of Israeli politics. There is no need to take risks, to use Israel's strength to take bold positions and ask even bolder questions about what it might mean to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Politics has largely become a race to the right, so much so that even an old hawk like Prime Minister Netanyahu starts to look cautious and statesmanlike relative to some of his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, outside the dome and the wall, Palestinian politics is ossifying and failing. In the current environment the only two viable political positions seem to be apathy (if you have money and a job) or militancy.

Unless something changes it is only a matter of time before older-generation leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and groups like Fatah and even Hamas are replaced by more radical and more nihilistic alternatives. And there are plenty around, given the ferment in the Arab world at the moment. That too is happening gradually although, as with the seemingly rapid advances made by ISIS in Iraq, things can change quickly on the ground once momentum shifts decisively.

So no, things will not be the same after this conflict. Relative calm will return. Israel will put its Iron Dome system back in its silo. Hamas will lick its wounds and begin rebuilding its arsenal, this time aiming for rockets that can reach Haifa. The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.

Photo by REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini


Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed at court in Cairo, 23 June 2014. (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.)

In passing comment on the seven-year jail sentence handed down to Australian journalist Peter Greste, it would be all too easy just to join the swollen ranks of the indignant.

You would certainly be in good company. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has described the verdict as 'appalling'. US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was 'chilling and draconian'. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was 'dismayed'. On social media the less famous have also expressed their outrage and support for Greste.

The sentence is, of course, a howling miscarriage of justice and a tragedy for Greste and his family. But our indignation at what happened in Egypt yesterday should not have begun with Greste's sentencing, nor should it end with it.

In the first place, we should spare a little indignation for the treatment of Greste's co-accused Mohamed Fahmy, who also received a seven-year sentence, and Baher Mohammed, sentenced to ten years. Indeed, one wonders how much indignation their sentences would have provoked internationally had Fahmy and Mohammed not been standing in the same dock as Greste.

But even they, alongside Greste, are a small part of a much bigger story that has been playing out in Egypt for many months now. This is a point well made in an excellent piece by HA Hellyer on al Arabiya, published just prior to the sentences being handed down. Hellyer argues the implausibility of the charges against Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed, but also puts their arrest into the context of the 40,000-odd people detained in the last year.

This too is 'chilling and draconian', and yet our political leaders have been somewhat less appalled and dismayed at the dramatic crackdown on all forms of dissent since last year's coup. If anything, Western political leaders seem to be falling into old habits, turning a blind eye for the sake of building a stronger relationship with the new regime.

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As one Guardian pundit noted, this can have embarrassing consequences. Secretary of State Kerry was in Egypt just hours before the Greste verdict was handed down for a talk with the Egyptian president that apparently included a 'candid' discussion of human rights. The Greste verdict also follows hot on the heels of the Obama Administration's decision to thaw a considerable portion of the US$575 million in military aid to Egypt, frozen by Congress in the aftermath of last July's coup.

But what makes all of this embarrassing is not just that it presaged the Greste verdict but that it has followed months and months of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of ordinary Egyptians, who collectively don't seem to warrant the attention of the international community.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's recent intervention also demonstrated the difficulty of trying to separate Greste's case from what is happening in Egypt more broadly. On the eve of the sentencing he called President Sisi to plead Greste's case, while at the same time congratulating Sisi 'on the work that the new government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood'.

Abbott may have been trying to show a bit of diplomatic nouse: show sympathy for Sisi's domestic agenda in the hope of extricating Greste from that agenda. Abbott reassured Sisi that Greste was 'reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than supporting the Muslim Brotherhood'. But the new regime draws no distinction between the two, and its not just because Greste was working for al Jazeera, which the Egyptian military accuses of being the media arm of the Brotherhood. In fact, it matters little to the regime that Greste has no connection or sympathy for the Brotherhood. The crackdown goes way beyond the Brotherhood to include anyone, Islamist or secular, that threatens the regime, including journalists unprepared to toe the government line.

It is these arrests that make a mockery of the regime's claim that it is only fighting terrorists. Indeed, even if every charge the regime has made against the Muslim Brotherhood is true (and some of them are), this still does not explain or excuse the wider crackdown.

Journalists like Greste are being arrested or intimated precisely because, to use the words of the Prime Minister, they 'report the Brotherhood', or anything else the regime does not like. What the Greste case demonstrates is that both as a matter of principle, and on very practical grounds, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to the wider assault on Egyptian citizens while expecting special protections for its own.


ISIS's dramatic seizure of Mosul last week has caused much geo-strategic hyperventilation. Commentators are variously predicting the collapse of Iraq and eulogising (once again) Middle Eastern borders as defined by Sykes and Picot. The prospect of the US – and perhaps allies such as Australia — going back to Iraq is being contemplated, and the wisdom of doing so debated.

The moment requires, however, a measured assessment of the problem, great modesty in evaluating policy options and even greater prudence in the execution of a response. 

There is no question that the problem is serious. Unless it is handled deftly – and the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has shown itself to be anything but deft – it could reignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Such a war will inflame already volatile sectarian tensions and conflicts around the Middle East.

An ISIS-led statelet straddling the Syria-Iraq border will be of enormous consequence to the regeneration of the global jihadist threat. Syria is already providing an easily accessible training ground for jihadists around the world. Its dramatic gains will both encourage jihadist groups elsewhere and, if they are sustained, provide new training opportunities for foreign fighters.

This matters to Australia. A significant number of Australians are already fighting just over the border in Syria, some with jihadist groups including ISIS. Indonesians are there too. As Sidney Jones tweeted over the weekend, many ISIS statements are being translated into Indonesian, underlining that events in Iraq are being closely followed.

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Having said that, Iraq is not about to collapse, Baghdad is not about to fall to ISIS and the borders of the Middle East will probably prove more durable than most pundits seem to think. ISIS will face a real challenge in controlling the territory it has taken – or more accurately, the territory ceded to it by a poorly-led Iraqi army.

It is true that ISIS's advance demands a swift response. But it also demands a cautious one. Rushing Shi'ite militias into Mosul and its surrounds could provoke the sectarian conflict everyone fears. If the US does launch air strikes it will need to exercise even greater care than normal about civilian casualties, as they would invariably be exploited by ISIS in its propaganda campaigns.

In fact, what the situation in Iraq demands of the US (and its allies) is sustained re-engagement, not knee-jerk responses. The Obama Administration is right to rule out sending ground troops (although it will be interesting to see if this also applies to special forces). But the situation in Iraq will still require a more serious Administration re-think of its policies in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Since being elected, Obama has pursued his ambition to recalibrate America's Middle East policy with grim determination. He wants to be the president who ended America's wars in the Middle East and shifted its geo-strategic focus to Asia and a rising China.

Fair enough, but strategies and doctrines cannot be made in a vacuum. It is Obama's misfortune that he inherited wars he did not begin and a Middle East in the throes of its greatest turmoil since World War II. But it is his responsibility to look after American interests in the world as it is, not as he might wish it to be. Sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do, strategies and doctrines be damned.

Much has already been made of how the situation in Iraq is the fault of the Bush Administration's decision to invade. True to a degree, but it is also true that Washington took its eye off the Iraqi ball under Obama. It had the leverage to ensure the Maliki Government pursued a more inclusive politics and built a professional Iraqi military – both shortcomings are at the heart of the Iraqi state's failure to stop ISIS.

It is true that the Administration has cajoled the Maliki Government from time to time. But you get the impression that, as with the Administration's response to other crises in the Middle East, Obama's heart and the power of the presidential office was not really in it. It is as if, on the Middle East, the President has drawn himself red lines that only he fears to cross.

That has to change. The US has to go back to Iraq, not with boots on the ground but with a more focused and sustained engagement using all the wit and clout it can still muster. It needs to set aside pivots and rebalances and deal with the serious threats to its interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Obama may have felt that America is done with the Middle East; the problem is that the Middle East is not done with America.

There is a lesson here too for Australian strategic planners. What is really interesting is that despite all the talk of how Australia is intently focused on the looming strategic challenges in Asia (and how this will be reflected in the forthcoming Defence White Paper), the Australian Prime Minister's instinctive reaction was to not rule out any Australian involvement in Iraq in support of the US.

This is not say Abbott was wrong to imply we might go back to Iraq. His cagey response might even be considered prudent and unsurprising, given the US probably has not yet even asked him for assistance. It is also noteworthy that since the Prime Minister's comments last week, Foreign Minister Bishop seems to have ruled out any participation by Australian ground troops.

In fact, if the immediate US response is airstrikes, there is little Australia could provide in support. More interesting, however, is what Australia could and in my view should provide to support the building of a more effective and professional Iraqi army (something we have done in the past). The fact that Indonesian jihadists are already traveling to the region for training underlines that we still have significant interests at play.

Abbott's instinctive response also highlights once again the need to avoid being captured by abstract strategies and doctrine. As the White Paper drafters beaver away in some airless bunker at Russell Hill, they need to keep in mind that good planning needs to allow for surprises, even if what is now happening in Iraq, or the fact that we might one day go back to the Middle East, is hardly surprising. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you are making strategic plans.