Iran: The coup that never came off
- US backing precludes Alexander Downer from the top disarmament job,
writes Marian Wilkinson.
Iran: The coup that never came off:
December 17, 2004
Alexander Downer should be counting his blessings. If some
hardliners in the Bush Administration have their way, next year the
Australian Foreign Minister could find himself being asked to
deliver the rationale that would justify a pre-emptive military
strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The extraordinary plan by some US officials to back Downer as the
next director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency is,
in great part, being driven by the nuclear crisis in Iran. The Bush
Administration wants more options to confront the crisis and is
frustrated with the cautious approach being taken by the current
agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei.
And, much to the alarm of America's European allies, there is
serious debate in Washington over whether ultimately the US should
launch a limited bombing raid on Iran's nuclear sites.
The Bush Administration knows ElBaradei is unlikely to produce a
report that could be used to justify such drastic action. So far, he
has not produced a report that has allowed the US to force the
crisis to the Security Council where it wants to push for sanctions.
The White House decided months ago it needed a more supportive
candidate at the agency. Downer was near the top of Washington's
list. But the revelations this week of the crude intelligence
operation to help oust ElBaradei has all but ended this ambitious
plan and any hope of Downer moving to Vienna.
Reports that US officials were combing the transcripts of bugged
telephone conversations between ElBaradei and Iranian officials
searching for damaging material has greatly boosted his chances of
staying on for a third term.
"What the US was doing was childish and counterproductive," an
Iranian specialist, George Perkovich, who believes that ElBaradei
will now almost certainly be re-elected, told the
Herald. "Australia, Israel and a few loyal allies might be
sympathetic," said Perkovich, "but the rest of the states are not in
The Europeans are particularly worried about John Bolton, the
hardline Under Secretary of State for Disarmament and now one of the
most powerful voices in the Bush Administration on the twin crises
of Iran and North Korea.
He is strongly supported by the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and
both have little time for ElBaradei.
Cheney famously slammed ElBaradei's finding before the Iraq war that
Saddam Hussein had no active nuclear weapons program. ElBaradei was,
of course, proved correct but this did not help him in Washington.
What is still unclear is just what role Australia is playing in the
moves to oust ElBaradei and whether we, too, would ultimately
support a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Downer's ducking and
weaving this week told us very little about where Australia stands
either on ElBaradei or how heavily we are backing the US strategy
for dealing with Iran.
After days of silence Downer conceded he had spoken to US officials
about ElBaradei's job but revealed nothing of the
conversations. "I've not taken up the opportunity to demonstrate a
great deal of interest in this job," was the convoluted answer on
what was said in his discussions with unnamed US officials.
Downer now says: "I would rule it out. I don't think there is a
circumstance where I would go for a job like that." But this is
academic. Now Downer, as the US-backed candidate, would be unlikely
to have a chance.
Two big questions remain unanswered. One concerns the intelligence
operation against ElBaradei. No one in Washington or at the atomic
energy agency headquarters is surprised that ElBaradei's telephone
is bugged. Eavesdropping is routinely carried out against senior UN
officials by the US National Security Agency in co-operation with
Britain's GCHQ and Australia's Defence Signals Directorate. Details
of a similar bugging operation on Kofi Annan were leaked by a GCHQ
translator before the Iraq war.
What is more dubious, as James Bamford, an expert on the National
Security Agency, pointed out, is using the product not for national
security purposes but to manipulate the selection of a senior UN
official. Downer brushed aside the bugging operation at a press
conference this week, saying the story was "just an attempt to
attack the Bush Administration".
No it was not. US officials leaked the story and it exposed an
intelligence operation that most likely used Australian assets for
an end that potentially involved Downer.
While no one seriously expects Downer or any Government official to
discuss the bugging operation, the Howard Government's position on
whether ElBaradei should stay or go should be clear. Downer saying
Australia "was not getting involved" is bizarre.
We almost certainly knew of the intelligence operation against
ElBaradei and we are on the IAEA board and where we will most likely
vote is as a loyal US ally.
Australia's position on ElBaradei is, more importantly, vital to
understanding to our position on Iran.
US officials, including Bolton, are deeply upset by ElBaradei's
efforts with the agency board that led to Britain, France and
Germany signing an accord last month with Iran, offering economic
inducements in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear program.
The US has refused to endorse that accord. On November 29, it
delivered its response to the deal in a lengthy statement that said,
in part: "We believe Iran's nuclear weapons program poses a growing
threat to international peace and security and the global
It warned the agency board and the Europeans that the US
reserved "all its options" to go to the Security Council on Iran. It
concluded: "We are all obliged to do whatever we can to persuade
Iran to make the right choice."
At the same time, US officials leaked a string of damaging stories
on ElBaradei accusing him of withholding evidence damaging to Iran
from the agency board and "whitewashing Iran". The leaks appear to
be based, at least in part, on the bugged phone conversations.
Perkovich believes ElBaradei may have "trimmed" some of the
reporting on Iran. But he may have felt completely justified in
doing so. "Other states are worried about what might flow from a
negative report on Iran. The US has been such bullies that much of
the rest of the world is afraid of what the US is planning to do on
ElBaradei denies keeping any detail out of the reporting on Iran
that was relevant. But there is no doubt his reports and his efforts
have kept Iran in the diplomatic game and forestalled a crisis.
While he has angered the US, he has left many other countries
In reality, there are few good military options for dealing with the
Key nuclear sites are hidden, the bombing would likely kill hundreds
of innocent civilians, unite the country behind the hardliners and
prompt Tehran to retaliate, probably in the form of terrorist
Yet despite these obvious drawbacks, in Washington the military
option appears to be gaining some ground. And if push comes to
shove, will Australia support a pre-emptive US military strike
against Iran? It is critical to know where the Howard Government
stands in this crisis whether or not the Foreign Minister goes to
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