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Can Australia play good cop amid US-Iran tensions?

As a citizen of both Australia and the United States, I am acutely aware of the very few areas of foreign policy where both countries have shown some divergence.

Iran is a country that stands out most significantly in this regard and I had personal experience of this when I visited Tehran earlier this year.

Thanks to my Australian passport I was able to get a visa on arrival at Imam Khomeni International airport and was generally well received during my stay in the country.

I had the consolation of also knowing that there was an active and responsive Australian embassy in the capital, whereas the former American embassy was now a training centre for the Iranian revolutionary guard.

With the current unrest in Iran unfolding, I am drawn back to my observations and conversations earlier this year in Tehran to gauge what might be a possible role for Australia in mitigating both internal violence and broader conflict between Iran and United States.

Could the Australian diplomatic presence play a particularly more constructive role than the European or British missions in Tehran? If so, what would be the terms of engagement and the channels for communication that could be most effectively deployed?

The walls of the former American embassy in Tehran are emblazoned with anti-US graffiti.

To answer these questions we must first consider the most significant factors that impact Iranian society on a day-to-day basis.

The shadow of sanctions

The broad range of international sanctions against Iran and the specific features of the United States Iran Sanctions Act have clearly had an immense impact on Iranian society, even if they have not managed to garner all the goals they intended.

First and foremost, the sanctions have led to Iran becoming self-reliant in manufacturing and services far beyond what one would expect of an oil-rich country.

Thus the sanctions have, ironically, helped the country avoid the fabled "Dutch Disease" of export reliance which mineral-rich export-oriented economies such as Saudi Arabia have allowed themselves to be infected with.

This silver lining of self-reliance notwithstanding, the sanctions have certainly taken a very heavy toll on the financial sector of the country. Due to sanctions, our usual international credit card conveniences are not available and while Iranians have their own internal electronic payment system, foreigners have to pay for everything in cash.

Iranian students also have to contend with challenges of paying their tuition overseas for higher education and getting scholarships for study. Despite the impact of sanctions, Iranian universities continue to produce highly capable scholars, including the late mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (the first woman worldwide to win the Field Medal in Mathematics).

Iranian protesters scuffle with police, chanting 'death to dictator'

Diaspora diplomacy

Australian universities have been more welcoming to Iranians in recent years than American institutions and this has created a pathway for citizenship for young Iranians who grew up in post-revolutionary Iran.

In contrast much of the Iranian diaspora in the United States is dominated by elite Iranians who fled after the revolution and have far more entrenched and intransigent views against the current Iranian Government.

The Australian Iranian diaspora, although smaller in numbers and percentage than in Europe and the United States, may have more connectivity with Iran.

Canada could have played a similar role but its relations with Iran were deeply damaged following the arrest and death in custody of Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi in 2003. Subsequent hostility due to arrests and foreign policy disagreement eventually led to a severance of diplomatic relations in 2012.

Australia's Iranian diaspora has avoided the same level political acrimony with their homeland, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been able to deftly manage any altercations and both countries have maintained diplomatic relations continuously since 1968.

A group of protesters faces off against armoured police.

It is perhaps this positive reputation of Australia within Iran which also led to a steady wave of asylum seekers from Iran on boats and the comprise the largest proportion of any nationality represented in this category of migrants. This has no doubt been a complicating factor in diaspora relations, particularly as the conditions of Iranian asylum seekers on Manus Island have been vividly documented by Kurdish Iranian journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani.

Current strategic interests

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visiting Iran in 2015

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's 2015 visit to Iran was no doubt partially prompted by the Iranian asylum seeker challenge and some of the current diplomatic delicacies between the two countries have involved this sensitive matter. However, there are also significant economic interests at play with Iran being a significant destination for Australian wheat and dairy products.

Australia welcomed the 2016 Iran nuclear deal and a trade delegation was dispatched soon thereafter which returned with a very promising outlook.

The Australian relationship with Iran has been significant enough for the current government that when the Iran nuclear deal was being threatened earlier this year by the US administration, Ms Bishop made a rare public statement strongly warning against such moves.

She noted that the United States risked its credibility with other intractable international players, such as North Korea, who would see a renunciation of the Iran deal as a sign that any accords with major powers could not be trusted.

At the same time, Australia has not been shy in offering tempered criticism of the Iranian regime's treatment of minorities and its approval of hundreds of asylum applications from the country is clearly an acknowledgement of the internal political strife in the country.

Is mediation possible?

Given this backdrop of history, Australia has considerable potential to play a constructive role in helping to moderate America's response to internal political struggles in Iran while also exploring ways of strengthening the Iran nuclear deal.

The fact that Australia has a physical diplomatic presence in Iran is important for citizen diplomacy but also for vital and constructive intelligence gathering efforts.

The United States Government, despite its current posturing, respects Australia's assets in this regard.

A remarkable sign of America's interest in Australian diplomatic presence in countries it views as hostile was the revelation earlier this year that the CIA had requested Canberra to host a North Korean Embassy and to open its own mission in Pyongyang in 2014.

Deaths reported during anti-government protest in Iran

Thus, even if there is bluster and unilateralism from the US administration, there could be back channels of diplomatic and intelligence gathering efforts that Australia could play in fostering a US-Iranian detente.

Despite the sabre-rattling from Iran, the country's theocracy has a pragmatism that is often missed. For example, even at the height of Khomeni's invective towards Israel, the Iranians were willing to buy weapons from the Israelis to assist them in their war against Saddam Hussain. The detailed dynamics of this deal have been well-documented in Trita Parsi's award-winning book on the topic.

Paranoia at play

On my last day in Iran's capital, I visited the Tehran Peace Museum in one of the central parks of the city. It's a small but moving set of exhibits that documents the challenges the country endured during the war with Iraq, including chemical weapons attacks.

Against all odds, the Iranians were able to vanquish an enemy that was supported at the time by the United States.

Not only that, they built Tehran's subway system and continued with development projects regardless of the war effort.

We should not underestimate the resilience of the Iranian people or the current theocratic regime.

Many of its current follies and indiscretions are a result of paranoia and distrust that stems from past foreign policy mistakes of Western powers as well.

Australia has a wider view of context, given its history of engagement with Iran, and should use this intellectual and diplomatic capital wise for constructive engagement.

Saleem H. Ali is Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware and a professorial research fellow at the University of Queensland. He was selected by the World Economic Forum as a "Young Global Leader" for his work on novel ways of resolving global conflicts. Follow him on Twitter at @saleem_ali

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