U.S. Looks to Australia to Go Harder on Tehran
Australia will almost certainly be asked by the Obama administration to levy extra sanctions against Iran, beyond those soon to be mandated by the UN Security Council, in a last-ditch effort to stop Tehran going nuclear.
Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, told me in an interview this week that UN Security Council sanctions were imminent.
There has been widespread speculation lately that the Obama administration has lost commitment in its efforts to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability, that it had accepted that sanctions would be ineffective and it would have to embark on robust containment.
Campbell flatly rejects that. "It would be hard for Defence Secretary Robert Gates or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to underscore more clearly our determination to prevent Iran getting a nuclear capability," Campbell said.
"It's a signature issue for the President."
Sanctions are being worked out by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, although they will need to pass a full vote of the 15-member Security Council.
"We're very near to the final stages of the P5 plus one process," he said. "We need to send a very consequential message to Iran, a very strong message of condemnation to Iran. I believe we will have China on board."
If Campbell's judgment on China supporting sanctions is correct, this will make them more effective, although most analysts believe the sanctions under consideration may not themselves be enough to dissuade Iran from its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Campbell believes Australia has played an important role in the diplomacy surrounding the Iran sanctions push: "Iran is reaching out to many other countries. Key countries like India, Japan and Australia remain extraordinarily disciplined in signalling the provocative and unacceptable nature of the steps Iran is taking.
"The most important steps Australia can take right now are private consultations with Iran, and also with China, underscoring that this is not just an issue for the Middle East, but for Asia and the world."
However, Campbell indicates that there is likely to be a second stage in the actions against Iran: "It is entirely possible that there will be an effort beyond UN sanctions. Substantial pressure will need to be applied if Iran does not change its course."
Washington will look to Canberra for assistance in the UN plus approach to pressuring Iran.
Kevin Rudd takes an intense interest in developments concerning Iran and has told me he regards it as one of the most important issues in international politics. It would be highly likely that Australia would support a US effort that went beyond UN sanctions against Iran. This would take the form of more onerous sanctions, in addition to those endorsed by the UN. Campbell thanked Australia for its continued efforts in Afghanistan and confirmed that Washington and Canberra were in the midst of discussions concerning Afghanistan, and what the fallout would be from the Dutch withdrawal from Oruzgun province. Canberra sources suggest Australia might make modest further non-combat increases to its efforts in Afghanistan.
Campbell also said Australian naval experts had been involved in efforts to determine who was responsible for the sinking of the South Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan, on March 26, with the loss of nearly 50 South Korean sailors.
He would not speculate on how the ship was sunk, but it is widely assumed to be the work of the North Korean military, in an extremely dangerous military provocation. Western analysts believe that the move could reflect succession manoeuvres by the son of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il.
Canvassing the exceptionally broad range of issues Washington and Canberra are consulting on, Campbell described the US-Australia relationship as "the richest, deepest dialogue we have with any country".
US President Barack Obama will visit Australia next month and is planning to bring his wife and daughters. It is likely Obama and the Prime Minister will grapple with where to take the international climate change process.
Campbell told me he agreed with a column I wrote suggesting that the world is moving away from emphasis on emissions trading schemes or cap and trade measures. Nonetheless, he underscored Obama's continued commitment to combating climate change: "Generally speaking Copenhagen has given us all a lot to reflect on. As we gear up for Mexico we're contemplating what the best form of action will be.
"We remain committed to greenhouse gas reduction. The questions now are about: is the better focus investing in green technologies or mechanisms for creating incentives for reducing emissions? The (US) Senate is considering a bill that has elements of cap and trade, of innovation and of conservation. The politics are very complex.
"Both President Obama and Prime Minister Rudd remain deeply committed to this (greenhouse reductions) but the politics are deeply complex.
"I think the President feels climate change legislation is still very important. Consensus in the Senate will be difficult to reach. I still remain optimistic that we will develop consensus around a bill."
One of the many reassuring things about Campbell is that he understands the centrality of the US to every issue of consequence around the globe. This is certainly true of climate change. He says: "Progress in the US is essential to global progress. Many states look to the US for a lead."
It would be wrong to over-interpret Campbell words. Clearly the final shape of the US response to climate change under Obama is not yet defined. But his remarks do tend to lend weight to the idea that a series of national carbon caps and carbon trading systems which become part of a global carbon trading regime is probably fading as a serious possibility.
Those who want action on climate change will almost certainly have to find another mechanism. And it will have to include China in a meaningful way. Campbell is the chief architect of US Asian policy. This is good for Australia because Campbell is such an old friend of Australia's. But it is also good because he understands, deep in his bones, the centrality of the US alliance system in the Asian region. He has been spending, for example, a huge proportion of his time working on the US-Japan alliance, which remains the foundation of the US position in Asia.
He says: "There is a deep and profound recognition in the US that probably the key component in our forward deployment in the Asia-Pacific is the relationship with Japan. This is the cornerstone and the lodestar."
Washington is going through considerable teething pains with the new Japanese government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The most vexed dispute is over the relocation of an air base now hosted in Okinawa. The Americans believe the deal they spent a decade negotiating with Japan's former government is still the best solution, but Campbell confirms that Washington wants to show some flexibility and be co-operative with the new Japanese government.
He says: "The new government in Japan is going through some growing pains. They are tending to work more through political channels than through the bureaucracy. They have heard from a number of other countries - Australia, Singapore, South Korea - that the US-Japan alliance is important to the whole region.
"We're very grateful for the role Australia has played in this.
"It's also not lost on the Japanese the uncertainty on the Korean peninsula, and the Chinese naval deployments near their shores."
Which brings us to the Chinese. Campbell reports that there were three key questions discussed between Obama and China's President, Hu Jintao, at their recent summit. They were Iran, North Korea and currency issues.
The US has been pushing for China to revalue its currency, because with the Chinese yuan artificially low its exports flood global markets. Campbell is a committed free-trader, and part of his message to Asia is that the US remains committed to free trade, but at the same time he says quite bluntly that "there will need to be some re-balancing. The US must save more, Asians must spend more. US exports to China and to Asia must rise."
Asian diplomatic sources suggest a Chinese revaluation is on the way. Campbell points out that in the US system only the Treasury Department is supposed to speak publicly on currency matters, but adds: "Chinese friends are in no doubt about the seriousness of the currency issues."
When asked about the Treasury Department's decision not to formally cite China as a currency manipulator, Campbell responds: "That decision is not by any means a permanent decision."
Campbell is a lifelong Democrat and a committed servant of Obama's political vision. His wife, Lael Brainard, has recently been confirmed as the most senior woman ever to serve in the US Treasury Department.
But Campbell also represents the deep well of strategic stability and continuity in the US system. The fact that Obama made his first visit to Asia to Japan is an indicator that the Obama administration fully gets it about the centrality of the US alliance system to this region.
The Obama administration is also determined to build on the strategic breakthrough the Bush administration had in India. And Campbell is pursuing a strong agenda in Southeast Asia. Irony of ironies, Vietnam is one of the nations in the region most keen to intensify and broaden its co-operation with the US.
When Obama comes to Australia and Indonesia next month it will offer an historic opportunity for the US to pursue a strategic breakthrough with Jakarta too, a development which would be profoundly in Australia's interests. Campbell has a lot of work to do.