Once the JCPOA was finalized, the development of economic and political ties flew top on the agenda for Iranian and Australian officials and thus far, we have been witnessing positive progress in the diplomatic cooperation between the two countries. With such geography and rich economic potentials, Iran and Australia can dovetail each other’s activities to access regional markets and joint economic projects. To gain a better understanding over the political vicissitudes in the Middle East and also in Tehran-Sidney relations, we carried out an interview with Paul Foley whose days as the Ambassador of Australia are numbered now. In Canberra, Mr. Foley has led the Counter Terrorism, Middle East and Africa, and Information Management branches and in June, 2013, received the Public Service Medal for his role as Ambassador to Afghanistan.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Paul Foley,
Australia’s Former Ambassador to Iran
Considering your ambassadorship in Afghanistan prior to Iran, how do you evaluate the ongoing trend of stability in Afghanistan?
Obviously Afghanistan is facing a number of challenges in security at the moment and I think the international community including Australia and Iran support the National Unity Government in their efforts to bring stability and peace to the country and it’s in everyone’s interests that Afghanistan does not become again a base for terrorism or instability in the region because of the effects in regional countries’ which history has shown, instability can affect the whole world. I would say Iran is very like-minded with Australia and the rest of the national community in wanting to have peace and stability in Afghanistan and in ensuring that it does not become a base for terrorist movements, that’s an objective between Iran and the rest of the world. We’ve had good discussions with Iran over the years, on Afghanistan and our positions are similar.
What are the roots of violence in Afghanistan which called terrorism? What do groups such as Taliban and their allies mainly seek?
I think a mixture of internal issues and external influences play a role in insurgency in Afghanistan.
What role has Australia played over the recent years in the political stability and counterterrorism in Afghanistan?
Australia is a leading member of the anti-Daesh coalition. We think Daesh represents an abhorrent ideology and the actions that they take are savage and a threat to the whole world, not just the region. So we consider them a threat to Australian security as well as global security. Specifically on Iraq and Syria, when Daesh captured territory in Iraq, our Iraqi friends asked us for assistance to help train their security forces against Daesh and also to take air action against Daesh which we were happy to do. So Australia has soldiers on the ground in Iraq, helping to train the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi security forces, so they can defeat Daesh. We also have aircraft taking action against Daesh, so we are part of the coalition that conducts air strikes on Daesh, both in Iraq and in Syria. I think it’s important to recognize that Daesh does not recognize the difference between Iraq and Syria. They move across the border. So if we are to fight them, it is necessary to be able to do so in both countries.
Australia is a member of the coalition against the IS and in charge of training Iraqi soldiers. We constantly saw that the Iraqi intelligence service was shocked multiple times by the IS and shortly, Mosul fell into the hands of the enemy. Can such shortcoming be reciprocated by military trainings of Iraqi forces and their allies?
Right now Daesh is retreating in Iraq. Our friends in Iraq with help from the national community including Iran, have made very good progress in recapturing areas. They recaptured Ramadi in Anbar some time ago and most recently Prime Minister Al-Abadi has celebrated the recapture of Fallujah. So I think the Iraqi security forces have regrouped and made good progress against Daesh and Iraqi government will start to focus on the recapture of Mosul. So I think Daesh is on the retreat in Iraq, not advancing.
What notable role has Australia played thus far in fighting the IS in Syria?
Our aircraft do conduct air strikes against Daesh in Syria as required. Obviously the situation in Syria is a lot more complicated than the situation in Iraq and Australia was very active in trying to address the issues in Syria, through our United Nations Security Council membership from 2013 to 2014. We were very active on promoting resolutions for humanitarian assistance. We have given lots of humanitarian assistance to help relieve the terrible suffering in Syria and we are now members of the International Syria Support Group. We are working to try to promote a political solution to the war in Syria because we firmly believe like Iran does, that there can be no military solution to the war in Syria. It needs a political solution.
Considering the ethnic and religious diversity in Syria, does the central government of Australia advocate autonomous or federal areas in this country?
Australia supports a political solution to the war in Syria and that political solution needs to be one that the Syrian people support.
Does the Australian government support the independence movements of armed groups in Syria?
The important thing is to end the terrible war in Syria that has displaced millions of people and led to about four or five hundred thousand people being killed. Everyone agrees that the only way to do that is a political solution and I think it’s not up to outside countries to dictate what that solution might be. It’s one that Syrian people need to work out among themselves. However, they may need the help of international community to arrive at that position.
Is Bashar al-Assad a key component in hammering out a political solution?
That’s something for the Syrian people to decide.
Given the upcoming election in Australia, is the country’s foreign policy toward the developments of the Middle East probable to change?
No. Australian elections are usually decided on domestic issues, but all of the major political parties in Australia are united of threat that is posed by Daesh. I wouldn’t expect any change to our overall Middle East policies.
Under current circumstances, what countries are considered to be Australia’s strategic allies in the Middle East?
Australia has friendly relations with most countries in the region. We’ve long had diplomatic and good relation with Iran. We have good relations with the G.C.C. countries. We are helping our friends in Iraq. We have a large communities in Australia from countries like Lebanon. We have good relations with most of the region countries and of course Australia and Israel have friendly and longstanding good relations.
Have the fine, friendly ties between Australia and Israel affected relations between Australia and Iran, esp. when sanctions had reached a zenith?
No, Australia like the rest of the international community took action based on the situation as we saw it at that time and obviously some of the things that were said by the government of Iran at that time were things that were taken into account by the international community, when they made sanctions decisions.
How much of the diplomatic agenda of Australia has come to realization during your three years in Iran as ambassador?
I think in the last three years, things have gone well. Obviously there was a new government in Iran that was elected just after I arrived that made international engagement its priority and I think that priority was supported by most of Iranian people. And there was a very significant achievement of the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1. I think all of those things have made it possible to take forward international engagement. As I mentioned before Australia was on the UN Security Council in 2013 and 2014 and I think we had good discussions with Iran on some key issues but particularly the humanitarian assistance for Syria. We’ve had good discussions on how the international community can work together to fight Daesh and of course Australian Foreign Minister visited here in April 2015. That was the first visit for an Australian minister, for I think over 12 years. This year just before the Dr. Zarif visited Australia as part of his wider visit to Asia and I think that was the first visit by an Iranian minister to Australia for fourteen years and that was very good. Our ministers meet frequently at international meetings. So I think the resumption of high level engagement between Ministers has been the highlight of my time here. َAlso obviously I’m very pleased that in that time we were able to end the tragedy of people, including Iranians, drowning while trying to get to Australia illegally by boat from Indonesia. There’s still some issues associated with that. We are all very pleased that no one is trying to do that anymore. And finally we also have worked well in that time in forums such as Indian Ocean Regional Association where Australia was chair.
What outcomes can the victory of each candidate in the US presidential election leave on the implementation process of the JCPOA?
We very much support the JCPOA as a mechanism that solved through diplomacy a complex international problem and that was an arrangement reached but met the needs of all sides. We hope that it will continue to do so. All countries have their domestic politics and some of the comments that are made on the JCPOA in all of the countries including Iran, sometimes reflect those domestic politics.
The Australian FM announced that the 2013 sanctions Australia passed on Iran may be lifted. How is this matter working out?
Australia has lifted nuclear sanctions against Iran along with other members of the national community. So those sanctions which didn’t come into effect in 2013 and some of them stretch back many years, have been lifted however. As applies in the US, Canada and the EU, we do maintain some specific human rights and terrorism related sanctions which are well-known.
The two countries had talks in the pipelines about the reopening of Australia’s trade office in Tehran. Is there a certain time frame for that?
The Austrade office is it in the process of hiring local staff and the Trade Commissioner has been identified and he has already been here for reconnaissance and to look at what he needs to be doing.In fact he is in Australia at the moment and talking to Australian companies about the interests in Iran and we expect that the office will be fully operational in the next few months.
How will the opening of the Australian trade office in Tehran affect Australian firms? How much will the foresaid office advocate opportunities in agriculture, resources, health, education and water management in Iran?
Australia will focus very much on the areas where we think we have a particular advantage. We work in the areas that we’ve traditionally worked with Iran on, such as food, agriculture, education, perhaps mining and oil and gas, services and we will be looking at what we can offer in other areas such as water, where obviously there’s a lot of similarities between the challenges Australia faces and the challenges Iran faces as well as other areas where Australia may have expertise such as health system management.. And I should say that regardless of what happens with Australian office, the Australian companies who are interested in doing business with Iran are already coming here and pursuing opportunities so there is no sense that companies need to wait for the office. Companies which want to pursue opportunities in Iran are doing so.
What changes did the trade volumes between the two countries bear witness to last year?
Iran and Australia have always had good trade relations But it’s clear that the Australia’s trade with Iran declined like the trade of with most of other countries in the difficult economic situation. The latest trade figures, we have for 2014, Australian exports to Iran was 226 million in Australian dollars. I think Iran’s export to Australia in that time was 107 million dollars. So I think our trade has tended to go up and down from year to year and I think that reflects the fact that there are major export items as wheat and the amount of wheat Iran buys from Australia and other wheat exporting countries, also depends on the crop in Iran and I think in recent years, you’ve had some good wheat crops. So as a result, exports have tended to go down but we remain optimistic that there are opportunities in the areas that I indicated before.
Does Australia have plans for importing oil and gas from Iran?
I think traditionally Australia has not imported oil from Iran. But if it is decided to do so, then I don’t see any impediment.
A considerable Iranian population is now in Australia, while they cannot directly transfer money for their relatives in Iran and that explains the important role of Australia’s banking system. What plans have been ironed out in terms of banking ties between the two countries?
Banking decisions are made by the banks and not by government. So how the banks operate currently is decision for those banks. I think it’s fair to say that some of the international banks, not just Australian banks, are taking a cautious approach to business with Iran and they are doing their risk assessments. I think It’s also because of their having been out of international mainstream that Iranian banks have some work to do in updating themselves to reengage with the wider international banking system which I think they are doing.
Iran’s ambassador to Australia, Mr. Vahaji mentioned in an interview that the Australian Foreign Ministry announced all banking sanctions against Iran have been lifted and that Australian banks should be prepared for interacting with their Iranian counterparts. Is that true?
That’s substantially correct, but it’s up to the banks to make their own commercial decisions. The banks are private. They are not government banks and they make their own decisions in the interest of their shareholders.
As announced by the Australian government, more than 8 thousand Iranian refugees are idle in Australia. Is there any plan to see what should be done about them?
That is the number of Iranian cases in Australia. There are independent processes that determine whether someone is deserving of refugee status or not and those process work as normal and they are working through those Iranian cases.
How many Iranians are in detention in New Guinea and Nauru now?
There are regional processing centers in Papua New Guinea and also in Nauru and the number of Iranians there is in the hundreds.
How many Iranians are resident in Australia according to the latest stats?
I would guess that it’s between forty and sixty thousand but it requires people to identify as such when they’re filling out the census information. You don’t need to show identification for voters in Australian elections. You just go in and you say this is my name and this is my address. You don’t have to present ID.
Is there a precise record of Iranians’ professions and businesses in Australia?
Largely they are in professional occupation. The Iranian community in Australia is regarded as hard-working and law-abiding. They are making a good contribution to building Australia. I think they are well-respected community within Australia.
Is there a tailored plan for boosting scholastic and academic ties between the two countries?
Australian universities are already very active in visiting Iran and looking to promote academic links, now this includes of course Iranian students studying in Australia but they are interested in broader cooperation between academic institutions and that’s already happening and it’s being driven by the universities themselves. We think there is very good opportunities in that field to further expand academic cooperation between the two countries.
You played a role in 2009 in establishing the National Security College in Australia. Was selecting you to have such a role based on any specific reason?
It’s a national security college that is aiming at broadening the approach of public servants and others in national security community in Australia and at the time I was working in the counter-terrorism field in my department, I was asked to go along and help.
You worked in various counterterrorism sections at the Foreign Ministry, which means you can analyze the development trend of the IS in Europe. Considering what has taken place over the past few months, do you think the terrorist attacks will continue in Europe?
I’m not an expert on that. I’ve been out of that field for a while so I leave the commentary to the experts.
The Australian PM voiced his concern over the recent developments, including the UK quitting the EU. How would that affect Australia’s economy?
I didn’t have anything to add to what my Prime Minister said.