The Australian government announced on Wednesday that it would contribute a limited military effort to the U.S.-led coalition patrolling the Strait of Hormuz amid tensions with Iran.
The announcement made by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison came after weeks of deliberations by the National Security Committee of Cabinet on how to respond to a formal request from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Australia to join the effort to combat Iran’s “unprovoked attacks.”
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow stretch of water between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman with Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies on the other. Though the strait is small, it’s a geopolitically and financially crucial choke point, with around 20 percent of the global oil supply moving through year-round.
The operation to patrol the strait is in response to attacks on and the seizure of several oil-tankers in the region that have occurred in recent months.
Tensions flared in early July after British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar under suspicion it was headed for Syria, which is under sanction from the European Union. Iran responded three weeks later by seizing a British oil tanker in the strait, accusing the ship of “violating three international naval regulations.”
The escalation is set on a backdrop of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, which regional experts say is a consequence of American sanctions against Iran and its withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
While other signatories to the deal have tried holding it together, the United States has applied “maximum pressure” on Iran.
While addressing the media, the Australian prime minister was quick to assure reporters that Australia’s decision to contribute to the effort was not part of America’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
“This is about freedom of shipping. They’re completely separate issues and I think to conflate those issues would be ill informed,” Morrison said yesterday.
“This is a modest, meaningful, and time-limited contribution that we are seeking to make to this international effort, and it will be separate from any other matter in the region.”
While little is known about the role Australia will play in the operation, the prime minister has said Australia’s contribution will be limited to around 200 troops.
Australia has agreed to commit a surveillance plane for one month before the end of 2019 and an Australian frigate for six months as of January next year. Morrison did not rule out extending the operation if required.
While Australia’s main opposition party supported the move as “appropriate,” the former secretary of the defense department, Paul Barratt, told the Guardian that Australian involvement could be illegal, and argued it was “very foolish for Australia to get involved in this provocative behavior.”
Security experts are also concerned that Australia could be dragged into another American-led military effort in the Middle East despite concerns of an increasingly aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific region.
A report published just this week by the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney found that Australia spent a total of AU$14.7 billion on operations in the Middle East between 2001 and 2018, compared to only AU$3.9 billion for operations in the Indo-Pacific over the same period.
The report’s co-author, Ashley Townshend told ABC News that the Middle East is not the right part of the world for Australia to be getting more engaged in. “It’s the right part of the world for Australia to be scaling back its commitments,” he said.
“My principal concern is the broader issue of sustained long-term commitments at great cost not just to the Australian tax payer but more importantly at great cost to our own strategic interests… The opportunity costs that the Middle East continues to impose on our ability to have resources available to focus on what matters most, and what matters most is the Indo-Pacific. “
Townshend went onto blame U.S. President Donald Trump for creating this current crisis and suggested that Australia and its allies urge the United States to return to a path of diplomacy with Iran.
“A sensible condition to the deployment may well have been to say to the Trump administration that we will contribute to a freedom of navigation operation if you return to the diplomatic table and return to a sensible cause of negotiations with the Iranian regime,” he argued. “This is really where this crisis began, and this is where this crisis must end.”
In another report published on Monday, John Coyne, the head of Australia’s Security program and the Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, concluded that now is the time for Australia to think more about defense along its northern frontier, partly in response to Beijing challenging the international order and in doing so introducing new levels of strategic uncertainty.