(from left) U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, and Australian Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds pose for a photo at the Parliament of New South Wales building, Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
Washington has asked for Australian support to participate in a coalition maritime Persian Gulf security force. The request was formally announced as part of Sunday’s AUSMIN talks.
It is the type of request that Australia would prefer not be made. Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its subsequent pursuit of a “better deal” – without actually saying what kind of “better deal” was envisaged – only served to open a Pandora’s box. It was a tactic lacking a strategic aim, and it had little support among Washington’s closest allies.
Iran’s response was hardly difficult to predict: use proxies to raise the cost to local allies of the US, and selectively disrupt maritime trade in the Persian Gulf to raise the cost more broadly. In other words, attack some targets, seize a ship when the UK seizes an Iranian one, and (in the last few days) commandeer another vessel on a charge of “oil smuggling”. The fact that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign lacked any additional protective measures with a multilateral face says much about how well-crafted the White House’s planning is.
For all the talk about what’s in Australia’s “sovereign interest”, the decision will come down to a pretty simple calculation – what is the cost of saying no? It’s pretty likely that most people in Canberra will be wary about having Australia drawn into a confrontation originating largely in Donald Trump’s desire to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy, rather than in any grand principle.