To everyone's surprise, it was announced on Monday that Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop intends to travel to Tehran in April 2015. The visit isn't about the nuclear negotiations with Iran. After all, while Australia would rather not see Iran go nuclear, it isn't exactly a foreign policy priority for Australia.
The trip will instead be about guaranteeing Australia a place in the running should the large Iranian market open up after a nuclear deal. It will also be about engaging Iran on the ISIS threat.
It's a smart move by the Government, yet Bishop's visit is surprising for a number of reasons.
First, no senior Australian official has set foot in Iran in over a decade. In fact, no senior Western official other than Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the EU, has been to Iran in that time. Secondly, Iran is not a foreign policy priority for Canberra. The little communication that has existed between Canberra and Tehran focused on addressing concerns about 'boat people'. The only other way Iran figured on Canberra's radar is because of Tehran's importance to the US, Australia's most important ally.
But things have changed and Canberra is exploring its options.
While a nuclear deal with Iran is by no means guaranteed, the P5+1 and Iran are making significant progress towards a political framework agreement. Should they sign a comprehensive agreement by mid-2015, the complex web of sanctions imposed on Iran will then begin to be untangled. This won't be easy and will likely take a number of years. But it will result in Iran's market of over 77 million people opening for business. Australia and Iran's Gulf neighbours already share a significant economic relationship, but trade with Iran is negligible: $302 million in 2013-14. It's a far cry from the early 1990s, when Iran was Australia's largest export market in the Middle East.
The potential economic relationship is not the only issue on the table. Today, the Middle East is filled with security concerns for Canberra, even after the end of Australian military operations in Afghanistan. The Government estimates that 110 Australians are fighting in Iraq and Syria (a conservative estimate compared with numbers floated by others, which go up to 205), who pose domestic security risks when they return from overseas.
Australia was one of the first countries to respond to the US call for assistance in building a Coalition to fight ISIS. In September, Tony Abbott pledged 600 military personal and aircraft to the coalition, and more may be on the way. While the reasoning might be questionable, the decision was made and Australians are once again back in Iraq.
Why is this important? Because Iraq is a high stakes effort for Iran, more so than for the Coalition. Iraq is Iran's backyard. It is strategically significant to its national interests for economic, energy, political and religious reasons. What's more, ISIS cannot be defeated with just airstrikes. But that's the only significant contribution the West is prepared to make. The coalition needs local and regional support.
Whether we like it or not, Iran is a large, resource-rich and a potentially powerful partner. It has the capacity to pursue a serious foreign policy in the Middle East, and it shares a 910-mile border with Iraq. What's more, only Iran has the means and the willpower to send in a large number of ground troops for a long time should it be required.
Today, Canberra is uniquely positioned to engage Tehran on this issue and to create a space for Australian businesses that could be interested in Iran.
While the US no longer needs a go-between to talk to Iran on the nuclear issue, other questions remain taboo and hardliners on both sides remain mutually suspicious. Canberra faces no such constraints. While other countries cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, Australia quietly kept its embassy open. Australian officials are not viewed with as much suspicion as other Western officials despite Canberra's sanctions on Iran. Building on the somewhat favourable view of Australians within the Iranian leadership is also important for future economic relations; it's no secret that the Iranian market is opaque and difficult to navigate. Entering it requires Iranian goodwill and assistance. Australia knows this, given the exchanges between the two countries in the 1990s.
Accepting Foreign Minister Zarif's invitation to Tehran was a smart move by Canberra. Bishop will be the first high-level Western leader in the last decade to travel to Iran to talk to her counterpart on a range of issues unrelated to the nuclear question. It will allow Australia to register its interest in the potentially lucrative Iranian market, build trust with the leadership in Tehran and contribute to Canberra's leadership in a surprisingly unlikely, but nonetheless significant, area of international affairs.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user UN Geneva.