Senator Claire Chandler – Estimates questions regarding Iran’s support for Hamas

Photo of Senator Claire Chandler
June 3, 2024

I’ve got a few questions for the Middle East team. Is it the government’s understanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to coordinate and provide support for the listed terror groups Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis?

Senator CHANDLER: I’ve got a few questions for the Middle East team. Is it the government’s understanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to coordinate and provide support for the listed terror groups Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis?

Mr Maclachlan: Yes.

Senator CHANDLER: Could you update the committee as to what form of support and assistance this is taking, in the view of DFAT?

Mr Innes-Brown : In general terms, Iran provides training and materiel for a number of groups in the region, including the ones you mentioned.

Senator CHANDLER: What other ones beyond those that I’ve listed?

Mr Innes-Brown : There are a number of Shia militia groups that are operating in Iraq, under the umbrella of the ‘Axis of Resistance’, as I think they style themselves. There are a number of individual groups in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Houthis and, as you mentioned, Hezbollah.

Senator CHANDLER: Islamic Resistance in Iraq is the group you’re referring to. My understanding is that some of those are again threatening to escalate attacks against Israel. Is that correct?

Mr Innes-Brown : I think some of them have launched drone attacks against Israel.

Senator CHANDLER: Does the government believe, as the United Kingdom, France and Germany certainly seem to based on the censure they are proposing to move at the next International Atomic Energy Agency meeting, that the IRI regime is continuing to progress towards the development of a nuclear weapon?

Mr Maclachlan: It is the case that we remain deeply concerned, and my colleague from the international security division will come to the table to fill in more detail. But we remain deeply concerned by Iran’s nuclear activities and the lack of transparency around both its intent and the actual activities. I’ll ask Mr Sadleir to fill in anything that I’ve missed.

Mr Sadleir : Yes, we are very concerned about Iran’s protracted failure to comply with its NPT safeguards obligations and also its reversal of its compliance with the JCPOA monitoring and verification procedures. As a result of that, we are continuing to work deliberately and strategically to apply pressure on Iran for failing to uphold its international obligations, including its nuclear-related commitments.

Senator CHANDLER: What does that pressure look like?

Mr Sadleir : Clearly, this is an area where collective action is critical. We are working very, very hard in the International Atomic Energy Agency, where we’re a member of the board of governors. We have participated in a number of resolutions highlighting and criticising Iran for its failure to cooperate with IAEA and NPT safeguards investigations. There have been three such resolutions passed. We’ve also delivered numerous statements in the board of governors stressing the need for Iran’s full compliance with its safeguards obligations and cooperation with the IAEA’s ongoing safeguards investigations. In September 2023, we joined 63 IAEA members in a joint statement recalling the IAEA’s ongoing safeguards investigations and highlighting the urgent need for Iran to clarify and resolve the outstanding matters being investigated by the IAEA.

Senator CHANDLER: What were the dates of those resolutions that you said we signed? I think you said there were three.

Mr Sadleir : The most recent resolution was adopted in November 2022. I would have to provide you with the details of the other two on notice.

Senator CHANDLER: It seems to me that, despite this strategy of working to apply pressure to the regime, it doesn’t appear to be particularly effective in a situation where, as Mr Maclachlan and Mr Innes-Brown have said, the regime is continuing to arm terror groups and develop nuclear weapons. Would that be a fair assessment?

Mr Sadleir : The escalation in the Iranian nuclear program is a concern. I should point out, however, that the IAEA has not provided an indication that Iran is currently pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, and I should also point out that, in one of its most recent reports in April 2024, the US department stated: ‘Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile and the enrichment efficiency of its centrifuges are key factors in the amount of time the US assesses would be required for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. However, the US continues to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons development activities that the US asses would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.’ Similarly, IAEA DG Grossi has said: ‘A functional nuclear warhead requires many other things independently from the production of the fissile material.’

Senator CHANDLER: Mr Maclachlan, taking that a step further, do you think the broader strategy of attempting to deter this activity of the regime is effective?

Mr Maclachlan: Collective action is the approach that we and our like-mindeds are taking. It’s one that focuses on diplomatic tools. It’s one that applies sanctions where appropriate. It uses international fora to sharpen the focus, if you like, on Iran’s unacceptable behaviour. These are the tools that the international community has available to it in these circumstances. Iran has available to it a choice—a choice as to whether to be a responsible member of the international community or to act otherwise. We wish it had come to that choice sooner. We continue to make our views known, including in the context of the current Hamas-Israel conflict, in relation to nuclear issues, on human rights, and so on. Of course, we wish it were sooner.

Senator CHANDLER: I put it to you, Mr Maclachlan, that the Iranian regime has made that choice and it is not acting as a responsible member of the international community, in supporting conflict in the Middle East in the way that they are.

Mr Maclachlan: Well—

CHAIR: Was there a question there, Senator?

Senator CHANDLER: You can take it as a comment, if you like. I’ll move on. On a similar topic, at the last estimates I raised the role that the Islamic Republic of Iran regime plays in spreading antisemitism and pro-Hamas sentiment in the community—particularly on university campuses, where we’ve seen abhorrent chants like ‘From the river to the sea’ and calls for intifada. The Ayatollah has, in recent days, praised university students in the west and labelled them as having ‘formed a branch of the resistance front’. The ‘resistance front’ of course includes listed terror groups: Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Are you aware that this letter to university students has been circulated on social media by the Iranian embassy in Australia?

Mr Maclachlan: Let me be explicit at the outset: the department takes the view that there’s no room for antisemitism anywhere, in any form. The issue you raise with regard to foreign interference on university campuses is an issue that’s dealt with by the Department of Home Affairs, and they would be best placed to give you an indication of what actions they are taking in relation to this.

Senator CHANDLER: My question was specifically in relation to the fact that the Iranian embassy in Australia has shared that letter on their social media. Were you aware of that?

Mr Maclachlan: I’m not aware of that. I don’t know if my colleague was, but embassies put things on their social media.

Senator CHANDLER: Do you agree that the IRI regime is purposefully attempting to provoke pro-Hamas protests in the West to sow discord and potentially create violence in our communities?

Ms Adams : I don’t think it’s our assessment to make.

Mr Maclachlan: As I said, I think these are properly matters for the Department of Home Affairs.

Senator CHANDLER: Given the known appetite of the regime for spreading antisemitism and violent extremist ideology, is it appropriate for representatives of the Ayatollah to be invited on to our university campuses and into meetings with university staff and academics, which is in effect giving them a pathway to spread their propaganda further?

Mr Maclachlan: Those are matters for individual universities and university administrations.

Senator CHANDLER: At the last estimates, I raised that, despite the fact that a letter was written to our universities asking them not to undertake engagement with the regime—I believe you wrote that letter, Minister—the ANU had hosted the Iranian ambassador and held meetings with him about cooperation. Given the subsequent outbreaks of anti-Semitism, which includes students at the ANU, and the Ayatollah’s propaganda embracing pro-Hamas university protests, what steps has the government taken to reinforce that universities should not be engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its officials?

Mr Maclachlan: The foreign arrangements branch in the department runs periodic engagement with universities, including a day-long session in which we—my colleague, Ms Heckscher, is coming to the table, she’ll be able to detail more of this—engage these universities on situations of concern. We articulate some of the issues, and you’ve identified one already, about the nature of appropriate cooperation with Iranian institutions and the fact that we do not see a place for that. This matter, I think, was on the agenda at the last meeting, which was a few months ago. I’ll pass this to Ms Heckscher and she can provide more information on that.

Ms Heckscher : As Mr Maclachlan has said, there is an awful lot of engagement with the university campuses. DFAT does that on an ongoing basis, pursuant to the Foreign Arrangements Scheme, which we administer, but also because we participate in UFIT, the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which is led by the Department of Home Affairs. From our perspective of engagement with the universities, we spend an awful lot of time conducting in-person outreach. We have a universities forum that we hold twice yearly; that is happening in a couple of weeks time. We take those opportunities to actually talk in a great deal of detail with the universities about foreign policy developments, challenges and risks, such as developments in the Middle East. We’re available to talk to them about specific foreign arrangements that they may be entering into or considering entering into. It is an ongoing and very collaborative process that we have with the university sector.

Senator CHANDLER: When was that most recent meeting that Mr Maclachlan was referring to?

Ms Heckscher : There are meetings that take place in different formats regularly. We participate in countering foreign interference interagency discussions that take place, which are hosted and chaired by the Department of Home Affairs. There was one of those just last week.

Senator CHANDLER: With university representatives in attendance?

Ms Heckscher : No, that was just amongst agencies.

Senator CHANDLER: What I’m trying to understand is when was the last time the department engaged with the university sector, broadly, around the issue of the anti-Semitic protests but also—

Senator Wong: Sorry, Senator Chandler, I’d let this go because I understand we have a responsibility, which is in the foreign arrangements area. But many of the questions you’re asking are not for us; they would be for Home Affairs or ASIO. So we’re trying to assist, and I think the officials are trying to go to those areas for which DFAT has responsibility, which is foreign arrangements.

Senator CHANDLER: Sure. Would DFAT have a responsibility to engage with universities, to caution them against having meetings with representatives of the IRR regime, in a situation where there is a real concern about the role that that regime is playing in spreading anti-Semitism in our community?

Ms Heckscher : I think this would be the responsibility of Home Affairs.

Senator CHANDLER: That would be the responsibility of Home Affairs?

Ms Heckscher : For the kind of discussion and engagement that you’re talking about. We, as a department, engage with universities all the time about specific elements relevant to DFAT’s interests, foreign arrangements and the like. But specific issues occurring on university campuses would fall within the responsibility of other agencies.

Senator CHANDLER: Even if what is occurring on university campuses is universities engaging with a representative of a foreign government, as is the case with the Iranian embassy?

Ms Heckscher : Well, I think that, in terms of engagement with foreign governments, DFAT would have some areas of responsibility, but we would be engaging with both the universities and foreign governments on an ongoing basis.

Senator CHANDLER: What I’m trying to understand is: what representations has the department made to the higher education sector, to universities, saying, ‘We don’t want you to be engaging with representatives of the Iranian regime’?

Ms Adams : I think we’ve said a few times that these questions of foreign interference are not the direct responsibility of this department, and other agencies lead that work.

Senator CHANDLER: Okay.

CHAIR: Have you got anything else?

Senator CHANDLER: I will have things later on, but I’m happy to pass the call on now.

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