20 December 2011

Reflections on the North Korean regime change

The international tension associated with feelings of “what’s next” associated with the presumed accession to the North Korean leadership by Kim Jong-il’s little-known son and nominated heir Kim Jong-un, has been accompanied by a well-meaning statement (see here) by Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, addressed no doubt to Beijing, that

It is vital that all those with influence on Pyongyang reinforce the need for calm and restraint.

Best of luck.  I am reminded of a somewhat more direct appeal to the Chinese leadership in relation to North Korea when I visited China as a member of Bob Hawke’s delegation in February 1984.  This was just four months after the notorious Rangoon Bombing in which the North Koreans made an assassination attempt against South Korean President Choon Doo-hwan, who was visiting Rangoon with a large delegation.  Choon was to lay a wreath at the Maryr’s Mausoleum to commemorate Aung San, architect of Burmese Independence (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who was assassinated in 1947.

A bomb concealed in the roof of the mausoleum failed to kill Choon, but it killed 21 people, including three senior South Korean politicians and 14 Presidential Advisers, and injured 46 others.

Our last port of call had been Seoul, including a meeting with the intended victim of the Rangoon Bombing, and we had flown directly from Seoul to Beijing in the RAAF B-707 – a rare event in those days of minimal contact between China and South Korea, and we had been escorted to the limits of South Korean air space by South Korean fighters.  In the meetings with the Chinese leadership the subject of our time in Seoul was touched upon and Bob Hawke took advantage of the opportunity to urge the Chinese leadership to attempt to prevail upon the North Koreans to respect the norms of civilised international behaviour.  The Chinese leaders didn’t say anything much by way of response – no quotable quotes – but the way the roll of the eyes, the shrug of the shoulders and the upturned palms told you everything you needed to know.  The Chinese were claiming no influence over the behaviour of the North Koreans.  All that was almost 28 years ago, but I don’t think that situation has changed.

During our stay in Beijing we were quartered in a couple of villas in the Diaoyutai State Guest House, a large compound with a series of detached villas set in nice gardens with ornamental pools etc.  Every evening in that safest of cities that 1984 Beijing was, the PLA man on the front gate locked the gate, after which you needed a pass to come and go.  As it happened the only other guests in Diaoyutai at that time were the North Korean Foreign Minister and Party, in an adjacent villa.  I couldn’t help remarking to Bob and my colleagues one evening that the only people in Beijing who might possibly have a go at us were locked in with us.

14 December 2011

The summer holiday drive

Driving home this afternoon I heard part of ABC Radio National’s Australia Talks, on the subject of that great Australian summer holiday ritual, the drive to wherever the Christmas-New Year holiday is to be spent.

The consensus was that, in spite of the vast improvement in our roads, modern, time-poor city folks don’t want to spend more than about three hours in the car to get to where they are going.  This caused me to reflect on the summer holiday drives of my childhood and youth.

I grew up in Armidale and from 1948 until I left home at the end of university in 1966 we went every year to Port Macquarie for three weeks from a few days before Christmas until the first week in January. The drive was quite a business – in those days the New England Tablelands were very isolated by the bad roads which lay in every direction, including, I can dimly remember, the New England Highway to Sydney having eighty miles of unsealed road between Tamworth and Singleton.  Those were the days when you had to book ahead to get a seat on the train.

There were three possible ways of driving to Port Macquarie.  The most direct route was via Kempsey, down the road through Bellbrook.  I don’t actually know anyone who went that way, although I have seen photos taken on that road before the Second World War by an Armidale Greek family.  In the post-war years it was definitely 4WD territory, but even then it was not always passable.  I travelled some way along it a few times in my early secondary school days when an American student at UNE (David Werner, inevitably known as “Hank the Yank”) used to invite me to accompany him in his searches for specimens in the rain forest at the edge of the escarpment. Stunning scenery, and the leeches were friendly, but the road was definitely not in good shape.

The road of choice in those early years (late 1940s to mid-1950s) was the Oxley Highway, a 158 mile journey that included 108 miles of unsealed road between the outskirts of Walcha and the entrance to Wauchope.  This included a stretch of narrow winding road that wound its way down the mountain through state forest from which timber (the last of the cedar, I fancy) was being harvested, so one would inevitably come up behind a timber jinker and eat its dust for the rest of the journey, there being no possibility of passing it. The 158 mile journey typically took about eight hours in our 1948 Ford Anglia tourer, and one arrived caked with dust.

So when some time in the late 1950s the road to Dorrigo was sealed, it was no contest. The journey via Dorrigo and Bellingen, picking up the Pacific Highway at Urunga, was a longer journey, but faster, safer and definitely cleaner. And by that time we had graduated to an Austin A40, which at least nominally kept the dust out.

Now the roads are all sealed and Google Maps tells me that the journey time from Armidale to Port Macquarie (247km via the Oxley Highway) takes 3 hours and 14 minutes.

Nevertheless, it was exciting doing it the hard way in the little old car, to end the day lying in bed at the Beach Park Holiday Cabins with the sound of the surf crashing onto Flynn’s beach just a couple of hundred yards away.

Jonathan Pollak on the death of Mustafa Tamimi

In the 13 December online edition of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Jonathan Pollak, one of the founders of the Israeli organisation Anarchists Against the Wall, published an opinion piece on the death of the young Palestinian Mustafa Tamimi at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force.  Tamimi was killed by a tear gas canister fired at his head from close range from the rear of an armoured vehicle, during the weekly demonstration at his home village of Nabi Saleh, a demonstration against the theft of their water and land by the nearby illegal settlement of Halamish.  The settlers at Halamish have appropriated for their exclusive use the water from an important natural spring belonging to Nabi Saleh villager Mr Bashir Tamimi, and denied the villagers of Nabi Saleh access to their land.

Under the headline A courageous Palestinian has died, shrouded in stones, Pollack writes:

The army spokesman was right. Mustafa died because he threw stones; he died because he dared to speak a truth, with his hands, in a place where the truth is forbidden. Any discussion of the manner of the shooting, its legality and the orders on opening fire, infers that the landlord is forbidden to expel the trespasser. Indeed, the trespasser is allowed to shoot the landlord.

Mustafa's body is lying lifeless because he had the courage to throw stones on the 24th anniversary of the first intifada, which begot the Palestinian children of the stones. His brother Oudai is imprisoned at Ofer Prison and was not allowed to attend the funeral, because he too dared to throw stones. And his sister was not allowed to be at his bedside in his final moments, even though she is not suspected of having thrown stones, but because she is a Palestinian.

Mustafa was a brave man killed because he threw stones and refused to be afraid of a soldier bearing arms, sitting safely in the military jeep covered in armor. On the day Mustafa died, the frozen silence roaming the valley was only slightly less chilling than the shrilling sound of his mother's laments which fell upon it occasionally.

Read Pollack’s full piece here.

One can understand the empathy Pollak feels for Mustafa Tamimi and his family.  Apart from his support for their cause, he has been the victim of a remarkably similar attack.  Amongst the numerous injuries he has suffered at the hands of the IDF while demonstrating on behalf of the Palestinians, on 3 April 2005 an IDF soldier shot him in the head with a teargas canister from an M-16, from a distance of approximately thirty metres, at a protest against the Wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in (see here).

13 December 2011

Vale Jock McDiarmid, MM, C de G

I was very sorry to hear recently from one of his relatives of the death in 2009, at Tugun, of Jock McDiarmid, former School Sergeant at The Armidale School in northern NSW.

Jock had a very distinguished military career during World War II, which is touched upon in some earlier posts – see Jock McDiarmid, MM C de G, Jock McDiarmid’s MM commendation and On the trail of Jock McDiarmid – and was a fine School Sergeant, someone I feel honoured to have known.

I now have little more information about Jock, and by courtesy of a relative a photo of his Croix de Guerre citation, so in due course I will post a roundup of all the information I now have about him.

Possum on Australian Exceptionalism

A superb essay on Australia’s economic performance over the period since 1985 has been posted on the ABC’s The Drum website.  Written by Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus (twitter handle @Pollytics – well worth a follow) it was first posted last week on Pollytics, his Crikey blog (see here).

Possum analyses the OECD data over the period and finds our economic performance to be nothing short of amazing.

He begins:

"Australian Exceptionalism"… let that phrase roll off your tongue.

Now stop laughing for a moment if you can!

There's something about that phrase that just doesn't sit right with us. We're not only unaccustomed to thinking about ourselves that way, but for many it's a concept that is one part distasteful to three parts utterly ridiculous - try mentioning it in polite company sometime. Bring a helmet.

We'll often laugh at the cognitive dissonance displayed by our American cousins when they start banging on about American Exceptionalism - waxing lyrical about the assumed ascendancy of their national exploits while they're forced to take out a second mortgage to pay for a run-of-the-mill medical procedure. That talk of exceptionalism has become little more than an exceptional disregard for the truth of their own comparative circumstances.

But in truth, we both share that common ignorance - we share a common state of denial about the hard realities of our own accomplishments compared to those of the rest of the world. While the Americans so often manifest it as a belief that they and they alone are the global benchmark for all human achievement, we simply refuse to acknowledge our own affluence and privilege - denialists of our own hard-won triumphs, often hysterically so.

Never before has there been a nation so completely oblivious to not just their own successes, but the sheer enormity of them, than Australia today.

He then goes on to unpack a story that needs to be read in full and savoured, not summarised, with some very compelling charts.   In the process he demonstrates the how our economic achievements have delivered worthwhile social achievements, not been at the expense of social achievement. Indeed, I think our social values have played an important part in our economic performance, but that is a story for another day, to be written by someone with more expertise in this area than I have.

Access Possum’s article here.

08 December 2011

Avner Cohen: Israel’s Iran dilemma

In a recent opinion piece in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, Avner Cohen, Professor of Non-Proliferation studies and senior fellow with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and author of two authoritative histories of the Israeli nuclear program (see below), writes that recent statements by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on the Iranian nuclear issue only drove home the need for a real public debate on the subject.

The essence of Cohen’s piece, an edited version of a lecture he gave at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, is to be found in his last two paragraphs:

The idea of an independent Israeli attack at this time on the nuclear facilities in Iran is both irrational and megalomaniacal. If somebody thinks that Israeli military might can in itself put an end to the ayatollahs' nuclear ambitions, he is daydreaming. Just as the destruction of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 only bolstered Saddam's desire for the bomb, so a military operation against Iran would only strengthen the rule of the ayatollahs and their desire for nuclear weapons.

In the final analysis, only a renewed peace process, on both bilateral (Israeli-Palestinian ) and multilateral (Israeli-Arab ) tracks, a process that would include also delegitimization of nuclear weapons, all nuclear weapons, can ultimately remove the nuclear threat from the Middle East.

The full opinion piece may be accessed here.

The video of the lecture on which it is based may be accessed here.

Avner Cohen is the author of two important books on the Israeli nuclear program, both published by Columbia University Press:

- Israel and the Bomb (1998) – more information here
- The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb – more information here

03 December 2011

What to do with those old colour slides?

I have literally thousands of colour slides – probably 8,000-9,000 of them, from times which range from when my father bought his little Voigtlander Vito B in about 1955 until I took my last colour transparencies in the 1990s.

The question is what to do with them all in the time poor digital age.  How often would one get out the projector and set up the screen, manually load the slides into the projector’s magazine, and settle in for a slide evening?  Answer: effectively never.

Clearly the answer is to harness the technologies of the digital age and digitise the lot.  To that end, in about 2001 I purchased a transparency adapter for my HP flatbed scanner, and produced some acceptable digital photos from some of my favourite slides.  I was pretty happy with this at the time, but it is a process that has couple of downsides It is very labour intensive, and as the scanner is focusing through the screen onto a transparency that is sitting above the glass, its focus will tend to be thrown off somewhat by backscatter from the surface of the glass.  Acceptable resolution is achievable but high resolution is not, and the process struggles to produce a file that will allow a print larger than 15cm x 10 cm.

Also, good old Hewlett Packard decided not to release drivers for that particular scanner for operating systems post Windows XP.  I found some third party software that would allow me to continue to use the scanner but it will only scan at a resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi, and while it offers a range of post-scan processing options it does not permit the simple option of scanning the slide as is and not mucking about with it.

So after a bit of homework on the I web imported from the United States a specialised slide scanner, a Pacific Image Electronics PowerSlide 5000, which as its name suggests scans at a magnificent 5000 x 5000 dpi. This appears to be a clone of a German original made by Braun; I could not find on the web any sign of an Australian retailer for either the Braun machine or the US equivalent.

The machine comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0, and there are options which enable files to be sent to that software for processing, but as I have a copy of Photoshop CS3 I prefer to take the scans as JPEG files exactly as they come off the scanner, and make any tweaks I want to as a separate step.  Any slide with the right exposure will be acceptable without further processing, but the wonderful thing about digital technology is that those very important under- or over-exposed slides of family occasions or long departed friends can be very considerably enhanced and seen as intended.

The slides are fed into the scanner from a standard slide magazine which holds fifty slides.  They can be scanned at any resolution up to 5000 dpi, to either TIFF or JPEG files, using 8-bit or 16-bit colour, with two or three quality options.  After a bit of experimentation I am systematically scanning the whole collection at highest quality in 16-bit colour at full resolution.  This means I am not having to make decisions about which treatment to apply to which slides, and I also have the maximum opportunity subsequently to crop a slide heavily and still have a good quality photo of the reduced field of view, or a detail of the photo.

This approach is not for the faint hearted because it is very heavy on storage; such high quality scans produce files in the range 13-15MB, which means that you are looking at about 500MB to scan one 36-exposure roll of film. 

Scanning at this quality is a pretty slow process – it takes about 4-5 minutes per slide, but as they feed automatically into the scanner it is possible to load up a batch and then go and do something else – as long as that something else is not a process on your computer that requires more than a modicum of RAM, as the process is pretty heavy on memory.

There is a downside to everything of course, and the downside of scanning at such high resolution is that your scans come up with a magnificent high resolution image of every biological colony that has made a home for itself on your slide collection over the course of half a century.  That is where Photoshop CS3’s spot healing tool comes in – it really does a great job of cleaning scratches, smears and the spots of bio-debris from the image.

This of course is only half the story – after putting all this effort in you have gone from having boxes of slides that you never get around to looking at to having hundreds of Gigabytes of files on a hard drive somewhere.

I have two solutions for this, to get me to the point where I actually see some of these precious images.   The first is that I keep as many of them as I can in a master folder on the hard drive of the laptop which I carry backwards and forwards between home and the office.  I point the screensaver to that master folder, so that every time the screensaver cuts in I get a random display of all of the photos in the folder.  As I use an external monitor at both locations, I get to see a selection of my slides in a high quality format quite regularly.

The second (more systematic viewing) solution is that I recently purchased an Apple TV unit for about $139. This plugs into my TV via an HDMI cable, so I can view any chosen subfolder of the master folder simply by firing up iTunes and transmitting the images to the high definition TV screen over the home wi-fi system.  Works a treat.

Expect more pictures on Aussie Observer.

29 November 2011

The Middle East legacy of Dennis Ross

Readers of this blog will be aware that I am no fan of US Middle East “expert” Dennis Ross, one of those members of the US foreign policy establishment who migrates between the State Department and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its offshoot and its offshoot the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), one of those people of whom I feel if you asked the question, “Do you serve the United States or Israel”, they would not understand the question.

Ross, who is known around Washington as “Israel’s lawyer” has never made any secret of his feelings towards Israel, so there is nothing stealthy or furtive about his manoeuvring in support of that country, but this being the case, the reliance that the Obama Administration, supposedly dedicated to creating a new relationship with the Muslim world and with Iran in particular, placed upon him is nothing short of extraordinary.

In March 2009, in Hillary's envoy: not everyone is cheering, I commented on his bizarre appointment as Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, and followed up with a post in May 2009 – Iran: Hillary’s envoy (contd.) – in which I noted the views of an Orthodox Jew who had served as US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, who commented that in Middle East peace negotiations:

The perception always was that Dennis started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs.

Further posts included Dennis Ross on the move?, noting rumours that he was moving to the White House, and Making U.S. Iran policy, an extended analysis of the dysfunctional way in which the US Administration was approaching Iran, and Dennis Ross’s role in that.

Andrew Sullivan addressed this theme in March 2010 in a post Dennis Ross Bats for Netanyahu on The Atlantic’s blog The Daily Dish.

A more extended summary of Ross’s contribution to the failure of Obama’s Middle East policy may be found in my 15 January 2011 post Pro-Israel control of Obama’s Middle East Policy.

An interesting addition to the dossier was published as an op-ed piece in Al Jazeera, 23 November 2011, following the announcement that Ross is leaving his post. Entitled The incomplete legacy of Dennis Ross, it was contributed by Robert L. Grenier, chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. Grenier retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA's Clandestine Service. He served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad before and after the 9/11 attacks.

During the Clinton era he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and saw at first hand how Ross exercised his undoubted influence to undermine rather than strengthen efforts to create a durable peace following the signature of the Oslo accords.

Grenier’s summary assessment of Ross’s contribution over his time in US Government is:

During his eight years as chief architect of the peace process under Bill Clinton, Dennis was not so much a cause as a symptom of the deep, disqualifying political dysfunction at the heart of US policymaking in the Middle East. Without the dysfunction, you would not have had a Ross to exploit it.
And now, we are told, Dennis is leaving, after nearly three years in the Obama administration. His increasing prominence over those three years is a mark and a measure of Obama's growing disappointment and failure. For an administration which started with such elevated goals in the Middle East, it has come to this: Instead of engaging Iran constructively, as it had hoped, it has devolved instead to a sterile, sanctions-based stalemate, with scant international support, strongly shaped by Ross, who advocates an Israel-centric posture against the Islamic Republic. And instead of exerting judicious pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to achieve the two-state breakthrough which US interests would dictate, Obama has had to cave instead to the overwhelming political influence of Binyamin Netanyahu, and has looked to Ross as his shield against a pro-Israel lobby which would otherwise turn against him, and may yet do so.

The problem is, as Grenier puts it:

In his many years of successful advocacy, he has precisely mirrored both the strengths and weaknesses of his client, and therefore must be assessed as having represented his client badly: Like the Israelis, he is a brilliant tactician and a strategic ignoramus. A better advocate might have saved his client from himself. Instead, Dennis' many years of successful temporising have helped to bring Israel to the point where a two-state solution is no longer possible. Thanks in some measure to Dennis' efforts, Israel in future can be Jewish, or it can be democratic: It cannot be both. Having served Israel to the point of helping to destroy Zionism: That is the very definition of catastrophic success.

Read the complete Grenier piece here.

Defence: expenditure delayed is expenditure denied

In an interview with Lyndal Curtis on ABC NEWS 24 on 22 November 2011 (see here) Defence Minister Stephen Smith commented on the need for Defence to contribute to the savings necessary for the government to bring the budget back to surplus:

LYNDAL CURTIS: If there are savings found in Defence will there be real savings or delaying spending? And could, if there is a delay in spending, could that create a capability gap?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly, again I won’t get into the detail; people should wait until my MYEFO comes out or, in some respects more importantly, wait until the budget comes out next year before descending into the detail.

But in terms of capability as we know because you’re dealing with a big capability program and you’ve essentially got a capability plan which covers a span of a decade or more, there’s always movement, there’s always moving around. We’ve seen that in the past and there are no surprises there. And that always occurs not just under this Government but under previous Governments – I suspect it always will. What we don’t want to do is to do things that have an adverse impact on capability or on operations and I’ve consistently made it clear as Minister that if Defence does make a contribution to a general budget outcomes then that will not in any way adversely impact upon our operations. Firstly whether that’s Afghanistan, Solomon Islands or East Timor and secondly, we are always very conscious about capability; but there’s always movement on the capability front either as a result of action by industry or as a result of technical or other difficulties. There’s always movement at that station.

The Minister’s assurance that the savings will not have an adverse impact on operations is entirely appropriate and in the short run at least is entirely achievable, but that is only part of the story:

(1)    The corollary of the protection of expenditure required for operations is that the savings will come from a mixture of the capital equipment program and the budget for through life support (maintenance) of valuable, complex equipment, both of which are an essential part of capability.  This has an inevitable consequence for future operations and the military response options available to future governments.

(2)    As the Minister reminded us earlier in the interview:

In the course of the last budget, Defence effectively made a contribution of about four billion dollars over five years to help return the Government to surplus and that was as a result of more effective work we were able to do under our Strategic Reform Program.

(3)    The savings garnered under the Strategic Reform Program were to have funded the very ambitious re-equipment of the Australian Defence Force outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper, but as the Minister’s remarks make clear, they have instead been harvested as savings.

(4) …The notion that savings merely “delay” defence expenditure (“slip everything to the right”) is a spurious one – in plain English, any savings represent a reduction in expenditure.  In last year’s Budget Defence had its budget reduced by an average of $800 million per annum for five years.  That sounds like real money to me.

(5)    Those savings and the prospect of more in the next Budget make a mockery of the “certainty” that the Rudd Government gave to Defence, in the context of the White Paper, that the Defence budget would increase in real terms by 3.3% until 2018 and 2.3% after that.

Some over-arching comments about the state of the Defence re-equipment program:

(1)    As noted in Defence savings: the impossible dream, I do not think the proposed savings are there.

(2)    Even if they were, nowhere does the Defence White Paper demonstrate that the combination of the $20 billion in savings plus the then projected growth of the Defence budget would be sufficient to cover the cost of the ambitious re-equipment program, let alone the increase in through-life support and personnel costs for an expanded and modernised defence force.

(3)    The reductions in Defence outlays only serve to take the re-equipment program even further from being achievable.

(4)    Delays in decision-making at the National Security Committee of Cabinet are further compromising the program.  To take just one example, as I remarked almost two years ago in Future submarine: no time to waste, the Government was even then bumping up against some severe timelines if it wishes to bring a replacement submarine into service in 2025.  In order to do that we would need to be undergoing sea trials in 2022, and working back from there we would need to be cutting metal in 2016.  That is no longer achievable, so the delays have already committed the Australian public and a future Australian Government to a multi-billion dollar refit of the Collins class submarines, in order to enable us to maintain a submarine capability at all – and that will be a 1990s submarine operating in the demanding environment of the 2020s.  These delays have real consequences.

I think we have arrived at the stage where we need to go back to the drawing board on the Defence White Paper and re-define what it is that we want the Australian Defence Force to do, what capabilities it will need in order to perform its allotted tasks, and what funds Government is prepared to commit to that end. Above all, the stated requirements must be backed up by the necessary resources, or they are just words on paper.

25 November 2011

Exporting uranium to India

The announcement by the Prime Minister that she intends at the forthcoming ALP National Conference to seek a change in the Party’s Platform to permit the export of uranium to India is of concern on three grounds: the content of the policy change; the apparent failure to extract anything in return for what is by any measure a major policy shift; and the extraordinary decision-making process by which this change is to be brought about.

The change has been presented publicly as little more than an administrative matter designed to correct an anomaly in our current export policy.  The narrative runs that the policy discriminates against India because we are prepared to export uranium to China, a nuclear weapon state, but not to India for peaceful use. This is arrant nonsense.

Australia’s uranium export policy was established in the late 1970s following an extensive public inquiry (the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry 1976-77) chaired by Justice Russell Fox.  The policy was a product both of Australia’s strong commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which had entered into force in 1970, and to the finely balanced set of recommendations produced by Justice Fox to garner the widest possible consent to the mining and export of uranium within an area of extraordinary environmental value, inhabited by indigenous people living a traditional lifestyle.

Under the framework set forth by Fox, mining would be able to proceed under a strict regulatory regime, with strong environmental monitoring and research, the Kakadu National Park would be established, and Aboriginal title would be granted over a number of areas of land in the region, including the Ranger Project Area.

This was a package deal, and the Fraser Government wisely decided not to tamper with it.

On the question of exports of uranium, the Fox Report recommended:

No sales of Australian uranium should take place to any country not party to the NPT. Export should be subject to the fullest and most effective safeguards agreements, and be supported by fully adequate back-up agreements applying to the entire civil nuclear industry in the country supplied. Australia should work towards the adoption of this policy by other suppliers.

This has remained the basis of Australian policy to the present day.  It is an approach that has had the advantage not only of supporting the NPT (and hence our own non-proliferation objectives) by making access to the world’s largest supply of low cost uranium available only to parties to the NPT, but also of enabling us to use the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s safeguards and inspection regime as our primary worldwide infrastructure for verification of the appropriate handling of “Australian Obligated Nuclear Material” (AONM).

In implementing Fox’s recommendations the Fraser Government went beyond simply requiring states wanting to purchase Australian uranium to be parties to the NPT.  They were required to enter into a bilateral safeguards agreement which required, inter alia, that in relation to all AONM the importing party would seek Australia’s prior written consent to transferring the material to any third party, enriching it beyond 20% U-235, and reprocessing it.  This has remained the policy to the present day, and the April 2006 agreement between Australia and China embodies those principles.

India is not a party to the NPT, has never been, has developed a nuclear weapons capability as a non-member of the Treaty, and accordingly, is in an entirely different position from China vis a vis Australian uranium export policy.

As part of a deal to enable India to gain access to US and other nuclear technologies, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then President George W. Bush issued a joint statement in July 2005 to the effect that India would separate its civil and military nuclear activities and place all its civil facilities under IAEA safeguards, in return for which the United States would work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India.  An IAEA Safeguards agreement was signed in 2008, and India was granted an exemption by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an export control group that had been established mainly in response to India’s first nuclear test in 1974.

The IAEA Safeguards Agreement with India is not without its critics.  Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington based Arms Control Association notes that:

The agreement is based on the IAEA's facility-specific safeguards (INFCIRC 66 Rev. 2 ) but contains a number of "India-specific" modifications that raise serious questions about the meaning and legal requirements established by the agreement, particularly as they affect its entry into force and the conditions under which safeguards may be terminated on facilities and materials subject to the agreement.

He goes on to say that the agreement contains important ambiguities because there does not appear to be common understanding between the Government of India and the IAEA Board regarding three critical areas: whether or not India can withdraw facilities from the agreement in certain circumstances, i.e., whether material and facilities once placed under safeguards must remain there in perpetuity; the absence of a declaration stating the facilities, items and materials that India is intending to place under safeguards, and the status of material subject to safeguards under previous agreements.  The full analysis of the Agreement by Kimball et. al. may be accessed here.

As a consequence of these changes India is now in the privileged position of being the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the NPT but is permitted to carry on nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.  The discrimination is in India’s favour, not against it.

It may be that this change in India’s circumstances warrants a review of Australian policy, but that is by no means clear.  An equally tenable position for Australia would have been to state that for over 30 years Australia has had a policy that it will not export uranium to countries that are not parties to the NPT and that is not going to change.

Certainly granting India this favoured status has served no discernible non-proliferation objective, and one of the questions which ought to be addressed by Australia is whether any benefits to our non-proliferation objectives can be secured as a quid pro quo for a modification of our longstanding policy.  Perhaps not, but the question ought to be calmly and systematically addressed, and used as part of the bargaining process.

Unfortunately, what we have seen here is yet another example of the Prime Minister’s penchant for making announcements first and entering into the negotiations later.  We saw a classic example of this in relation to the “Malaysia Solution” for the offshore processing of asylum seekers, and one would have hoped that the lesson would have been learned by now.  One of the essential criteria for success in any government to government negotiation (as in most other negotiations) is to have time on your side. It is of fundamental importance to be able to communicate to the other side that you are not in a hurry regarding the matter in question. Once the other side knows you are in a time bind, they have only to wait you out. So once the Government has made an announcement on any matter that it is going to negotiate a with another country a “solution” to what is presented to the Australian public as some kind of a problem for us, the other side knows that the Government looks and feels sillier with every passing day that an agreement is not in place and it is just a matter of time for the prize to fall into their hands on the most favourable possible terms.  The Gillard Government is not unique in this respect. John Howard made it clear that he was so anxious to have a Free Trade Agreement (sic.) with the United States that our great ally knew it would not have to give much away.

As for the process by which this momentous change is to be brought about, it is so extraordinary that you couldn’t make it up. 

Julia Gillard is the Prime Minister of Australia.  As such, she leads the Executive Government, sets the Cabinet agenda and chairs, leads and controls its deliberations.  She has commenced the process of changing Australian uranium export policy by announcing to the Australian public, and then telling the Prime Minister of India face to face, not that Cabinet, after due consideration, has made a decision on this matter, but that she has decided to go to her party’s forthcoming national conference and seek a change in the party’s platform.  

This approach apparently sets aside the requirement to consult colleagues or seek advice from officials beyond her own immediate circle.  It has become a matter of public record that she did not consult the Foreign Minister, the Minister principally responsible for Australian nuclear safeguards policy, indeed all matters relating to non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament.  She is quoted in the 20 November edition of The Sunday Age (see here) as defending her decision not to consult the Foreign Minister on the basis that “It’s a leader’s decision, and I made it”.

Surely the more appropriate sequence would have been to have the Cabinet discussion first, and make a fully informed decision as to whether or not a change in the policy is desirable, and what its ramifications are, then take the matter to the party if needs be, armed with the support of a properly considered Cabinet decision.

When it suits her, the Prime Minister ignores the party platform – vide her steadfast refusal to contemplate abandoning the “Malaysia Solution” and implementing that part of the platform which commits the party to onshore processing of asylum seekers.  And when it suits her, she invokes the Departmental “experts” as the last word in authoritative policy-making (same issue – the “Malaysia Solution).

So why the rush to judgement on this one, why the need to change the platform before the due process of governmental deliberations has taken place, and once she has made an exception for India, what is she going to say to our allies in Pakistan and her dear friends in Israel?

Note: This item was first posted on the ABC’s The Drum website on 21 November 2011. Access it and 136 comments here).

Bio note: As Deputy Secretary in the Department of Trade and Resources in the late 1970s I was directly involved in the Fraser Government’s consideration of the recommendations of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, and in the negotiation of several bilateral safeguards agreements.

18 November 2011

What should we make of Iran's nuclear program?

The Iranian nuclear program is back in the news, with the media publishing a restricted report to his Board of Governors by the Director-General of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, on the subject of the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement with Iran, and the compliance of that country with relevant UN Security Council resolutions (see full report here).

As predictably as death and taxes the news has been accompanied by Israel indicating that it is considering a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and demands from the United States for tighter sanctions.

This report has received more than usual attention on this occasion because the IAEA has crossed a kind of nuclear threshold of its own, coming explicitly to the conclusion, for the first time that I am aware of, that there are aspects of the Iranian program that are only relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device, and stating in its concluding summary:

53.     The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.  After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible.  The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may be still ongoing

Decoding that paragraph just a little, the IAEA feels it has a good picture of a structured program relevant to the development of a nuclear weapons capability prior to the end of 2003, but is not sure what the Iranians are up to now.  This does not tell us much that is new. A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate stated (see here) as the first of its “Key Judgements”:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

The incoming Obama Administration was briefed in similar vein by US intelligence agencies in 2009.

This leaves us with many questions to be addressed. Does Iran have a “legitimate” reason for a nuclear electricity program, and if it does, why is it so insistent on developing its own enrichment capability and facilities?  Why does it have undeclared sites that come to light from time to time, and why are so many of these facilities, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, buried deep underground?  Is Iran developing a bomb, and if so, how worried should we be, and should we try to do something about it?

Many have for a long time drawn dark conclusions from Iranian insistence on having the full suite of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in-country.  This insistence is in fact of little evidentiary value concerning the peacefulness or otherwise of Iran’s nuclear intentions, because Iran’s experience in this field would provide adequate justification for full independence for a purely civil program – which independence is the treaty right of all members of the NPT.

The history of the Iranian nuclear program dates back to the days of the Shah.  In 1978 I was involved in negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement to cover the intended supply of Australian uranium, visited Tehran, and was given a site tour of the power station which had been under construction at Bushehr since 1975 by the German company Kraftwerk Union AG – the same plant that was finally completed by the Russians and began feeding power into the Iranian grid in September of this year (not much sense of urgency there!).  The Shah saw a nuclear power program as an alternative to burning the nation’s valuable petroleum resources, a sign that Iran was at the first rank of technological capability and hence a source of international prestige, and in all probability, the source of a nuclear weapons option – all views that in time came to be adopted by his Islamic Revolutionary successors.

In light of its historical experiences Iran’s attitude to any proposal for dealing with its emerging nuclear technological capability will be governed by three headline considerations:

(1)  Iran will not agree to any proposal which accords to it a status that is inferior to that of other nations. As is the case with China, Iran regards itself as the heir to one of the world’s great civilisations, and is a country which was very much put upon by the West at a time when it was militarily weak. Over the last century or so it has known foreign military occupation (Britain and Russia), resource theft (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as BP), intervention in its internal affairs (the 1953 overthrow by the CIA of the Mossadeq government), military invasion (Iraq, assisted in a variety of ways by the United States), and of course economic and financial sanctions (ongoing). Accordingly, it will not settle for any arrangement which it regards as humiliating, even if there are costs in rejecting what might look like an attractive deal.

(2)  Iran lives under the constant threat of attack by Israel and will not do anything to limit the development of its military response options. I believe for a variety of reasons that Iran has not yet made a decision to move to a military nuclear capability, and is unlikely to do so if it feels it can avoid it, but the ambiguity about the extent of its nuclear capability is part of its deterrence strategy.

(3)  Iran has absolutely no reason to trust the West on this matter. In 1974, during the Shah’s time, Iran lent $US 1 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to build its Eurodif enrichment facility, and acquired a 10 per cent indirect interest in Eurodif through the Franco-Iranian company Sofidif – a stake that still exists. Iran paid another $180 million for future enrichment services to fuel its nuclear power plants. 

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khomeini regime cancelled the Shah’s nuclear program and sought refund of this investment. There followed a decade of bitter litigation, as a result of which Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its 1974 loan plus interest. It remains an indirect shareholder in Sofidif, but under the 1991 agreement which settled the litigation it has no access to technology and no right to take enriched uranium. It has the shareholder’s right to dividends, but financial sanctions against Iran mean that it cannot even receive these dividends.

Iran also has a 15% stake in the Rössing uranium mine in Namibia, the world’s third largest uranium mine, of which the main other owners are Rio Tinto (68%) and the Government of Namibia (10%).  There are two Iranian Directors, Messrs S.N. Ashrafizade and A.V. Kalantari, but Iran does not have contracts for the purchase of uranium. It is ironic that a company partly owned by Iran, and which sells uranium to the United States, cannot sell uranium to Iran.

So a country which has for thirty years had a stake in one of the world’s largest uranium mines and in a uranium enrichment plant, but has seen those stakes effectively frozen all that time, is being asked to believe that it can “trust us” to look after its civil nuclear power needs. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred explicitly to this situation in various public comments.

The development of nuclear weapons capability by Iran or any other country can hardly be viewed as a positive development, but it is not an occasion for the international hysteria that Israel and its US partisans constantly attempt to drum up.  Since the early 1990s, when Israel started to run out of the sorts of threats that would enable it to engage Washington’s attention in a convincing manner, we have been hearing about how Iran is an ‘existential threat’ to Israel.  

There are two elements to this preposterous claim:

- An Iranian nuclear weapons capability is just around the corner, perhaps only months away

- Iran is run by mad mullahs, irrational and unpredictable people who could do anything, and who therefore could not be entrusted with nuclear weapons.

Regarding the first element, in 1992 Benyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that Iran was 3-5 years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, and on the other side of the political fence, Shimon Peres told French TV that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999.  The Christian Science Monitor recently published a timeline of the “breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability” going back to 1979.  The fact that Iran has been “on the brink” of a nuclear capability for almost two decades speaks to the credibility of that argument. 

As for the notion that Iran is run by “mad mullahs”, the fact is that the Iranian leadership has been quite rational and cautious in the conduct of its foreign and military policies, and can be expected to continue to be so. 

On the subject of the supposed “existential threat”, no less an authority than Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said

I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel. Israel is strong, I don't see anyone who could pose an existential threat.

Before he left office in 2008, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said:

Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportion is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.

Whether anything should be done about Iran’s nuclear activities, that is partly a function of how serious the threat is, and partly a function of what the options are.  There are only two options for direct action: sanctions and air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities.

While restrictions on sale of relevant equipment and technologies make some sense, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has something else in mind: the “crippling sanctions” that she calls for from time to time. 
This is a seriously dumb idea, for too many reasons to enumerate here, but here are some of the main ones:

- It is highly unlikely that the United States will get sufficient support for such sanctions to gain agreement to their imposition.

- Even if sanctions are agreed, they will be almost impossible to enforce – Iran has land borders with too many countries, plus coastlines on the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is altogether too porous.

- Enforcing sanctions would almost certainly require patrolling of Iran’s offshore waters, with a high risk of confrontation and military escalation.

- The sanctions regime would cause all kinds of grief for the oil companies that need to do business in Iran in order to supply the West with crude oil.

- Iran demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war an immense capacity to endure suffering. It is unlikely to buckle under any sort of sanctions regime that the West would be prepared to establish.

- Also, this is a society that is proud of its long history and possessed of great self-respect – the sort of self-respect that led Britain to resolve to fight on in the dark days after Dunkirk; in its own mind there was no alternative, no real question to be addressed. Iran will not buckle under external economic pressure.

- As explained in my 2009 blog piece Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has the option of retaliating by closing the Strait of Hormuz. The United States would have to respond, and the ensuing confrontation would pose a high risk of spiralling out of control.

Aside from all of the above, there is the morality of imposing “crippling sanctions” against anyone. As the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime demonstrated, general economic sanctions (as distinct from export controls on particular items of military significance) hit hardest the most vulnerable in society – infants, young children, the ill and the elderly. They do so by reducing access to electricity, clean water, safe food, emergency transport, spare parts for imported equipment upon which life or safety depend. Iran’s very poor air safety record is in part a product of the unavailability of aircraft spares under the existing sanctions. If the proposed “crippling sanctions” are introduced, the scarce available supplies of liquid fuels will be reserved for what the regime considers to be their highest and best use – the uses of the regime itself and of the Iranian military. For everyone else, life will be just that much tougher. In a country of 66 million, a 1% impact on whether any given person will live or die in the next twelve months amounts, across the population as a whole, to 660,000 avoidable deaths per annum. Sanctions are not a peaceful or low-harm way of going to war.

As for the pre-emptive strike option, that is dumber still.  Iran has nuclear facilities scattered across a country the size of Queensland, some of them deep underground and/or defended by Russian surface to air missiles.  Mounting the necessary air raids would be a stretch for the Israeli Air Force, and afterwards the IAF could never be sure whether the known facilities had been destroyed or whether there were alternative unknown facilities that had not even been attacked.  And anyone who thinks that the only possible consequence of an Israeli attack on Iran would be retaliation by Hezbollah from the Lebanon is dreaming.

There are some things in life that one just has to learn to live with, and I think an Iranian nuclear capability, if Iran chooses to go that way, is one of them.

Note: This item was first posted on the ABC’s The Drum website on 14 November 2011. Access it and 298 comments here).