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Australia is About to Start Sharing Intelligence With Iran — And The US Wants to Know Why

Australia's foreign minister came to an informal agreement with Iran that will focus largely on information about Australian citizens traveling to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State.
April 24, 2015, 7:25pm
Photo by AP/Vahid Salemi

Australia publicly announced an intelligence sharing deal with Iran this week, becoming the first country in the western alliance against the Islamic State (IS), even as allies like the US refuse to share intelligence with the country.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop brokered the deal with the country during her weekend diplomatic mission to Iran. Bishop has called the agreement an "informal deal," one that will particularly target Australian citizens traveling to Iraq and Syria to join IS.

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"During my discussions with the national leadership here it was agreed that we could share intelligence," Bishop said at a press conference in Tehran on Sunday. "We discussed the opportunities to share intelligence, information on who is in Iraq — clearly we want information on Australians and they agreed that they would be prepared to share intelligence."

Australia is one of the largest Western contributors of ground forces committed to fighting IS in Iraq, with the country's troops operating in the US-led coalition along with countries like Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Australia has sent approximately 500 troops, including nearly 200 special forces, in an advisory capacity to Iraqi forces, as well as supplying aircraft that have conducted bombing raids on IS. Australia is also part of the Five-Eyes alliance of western intelligence services, giving them access to big chunks of US intelligence assets.

In a press briefing on Monday after the deal was announced, the acting US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf addressed the issue.

"We've seen the reports and are trying to get a little more information about what that actually might look like," Harf said when asked about Australia's agreement with Iran. "We just don't have a lot more details at this point."

"We will not be coordinating with Iran, we will not be sharing ­intelligence with Iran," she said in response to a question about cooperation between the US and Iran.

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Related: Afghanistan and Iran get cozier — which is good news for the US. Read more here.

Some within Australia have criticized the government in the wake of the announcement. Independent member of parliament, Andrew Wilkie, who was formerly an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments, spoke out against the deal. In a statement on Monday, he said Australia was "flirting with evil" by agreeing to the deal with Iran. He insisted Iranian intelligence was not to be trusted.

"Iran also routinely obtains intelligence through torture," he added. "Not only is this unethical and cruel, the intelligence is useless as people will say whatever you want to hear to stop the torture.''

Siamak Ghahreman, a refugee from Iran and the chairman of the Australian Iranian Community. He told VICE News that while he supported closer relations between the countries, intelligence sharing could bring risks for political dissidents who fled Iran for the safety of Australia.

"I'm very concerned if Iranian intelligence and the revolutionary guard ask for information on Iranians in Australia," he said. "The community is monitored by Iranian intelligence, in Australia and other countries, and it would be very useful for them to access information that the Australian intelligence have on the Iranian community here."

"Most of the people who oppose the government, who have fled, still have families in Iran," Ghahreman explained. "That can be used against them."

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Bishop cited the Sydney siege, which was conducted by the Iranian-Australian Man Haron Monis, as a major factor behind negotiations on  ramping up intelligence cooperation between the two countries.

The deal was struck against the backdrop of tense negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program between the Islamic Republic and the US, which Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu has waged a fierce campaign against. Despite the geopolitical tensions, Bishop lauded Iran's Revolutionary Guard and their presence in Iraq.

"They are very present in Iraq," Bishop said. "The Revolutionary Guard are on the ground right there working with the militia and Iranian security forces. They are carrying out operations in Tikrit, they are all over the place."

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps's Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which is the organization's special operations branch, has reportedly been instrumental in the fight against IS ever since the Iraqi government requested Iranian assistance in June.

The IRGC-QF has also had a presence in Syria, where they have been deployed since at least 2012 supporting the government of Bashar al Assad. The organization is alleged to have a hand in conflicts across the region. The Associated Press on Tuesday reported claims from US Sources that a convoy from Iran was headed to Yemen, suspected of carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels who are allegedly backed by Iran.

Related: The UN's envoy to Yemen explains why he quit. Read more here.

Talk of the Revolutionary Guard western leaders is not typically positive. In April of 2011, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order, placing sanctions against the IRGC-QF. The White House described the group at the time as, "the military vanguard of Iran."

The US government placed sanctions on the IRGC-QF for providing support to groups like the Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Hamas. But Bishop, who also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during her visit, insists the relationship will bare fruit for the fight against IS.

"He was talking about it in such depth that I told him we would very much value further dialogue to consider their insights," she said.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell