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Iran looks down under for new opportunities

Eager to diversify its foreign policy, Iran under President Hassan Rouhani is maneuvering to reach out to Southeast Asian nations as well as Australia and New Zealand.

TEHRAN, Iran — Upon taking office in August 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani initiated a new foreign policy in sharp contrast to that of his conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani’s policy of detente and constructive engagement was quickly welcomed internationally. Instead of only Asian, African and Latin American countries hosting Iranian diplomats, Europe also welcomed the idea of expanding relations with Iran.

Meanwhile, within Iran, especially as far as hard-liners were concerned, this shift — including the developments it brought about — was not seen as very desirable. Factions opposed to the administration were rather enraged by Rouhani’s foreign policy and repeatedly expressed this anger and worry. Indeed, the core of their concern was that Rouhani was unnecessarily focused on relations with Europe.

Mehdi Mohammadi, a conservative analyst who was part of the team of former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and who is one of the most serious critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has argued that “Rouhani’s administration spends a lot of money in Europe trying to keep this deal alive. Rouhani goes out of his way to make the Europeans happy in order to ensure the survival of the JCPOA.”

This reading of the situation does not, however, appear to be completely accurate. In a conversation this author had with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif back in February, Zarif talked about the importance of expanding cooperation between Iran and other countries in the fields of economy and security. To achieve this goal, and to overcome any possible future obstacles thrown in its way by the United States, Iran needed to change and diversify the scope of its activities. Indeed, the Iranian foreign minister is of the conviction that predisposition toward either the East or the West no longer works, and is not even possible. Thus, to implement this vision, Iran has needed to adopt a more proactive approach toward regions that had previously gone unnoticed.

Earlier this year, Zarif was slated to travel to Latin America along with a major economic delegation. However, this tour was postponed due to the escalating tension and eventual halt in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which was triggered by the execution of dissident Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the ensuing storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by hard-line protesters. In this vein, it is said that the Latin America tour will take place next month.

Meanwhile, Zarif’s plans to visit the Asia-Pacific region in March were left unchanged. Zarif had very important economic goals for this tour, which included stops in four Asian countries (Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand) and two Pacific ones (Australia and New Zealand). Of note, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in parallel brought up the importance of collaborating with Asian countries. During his March 15 meeting with the visiting president of Vietnam, Khamenei indeed stated that cooperation with Asian nations is Iran’s definite policy.

One of the senior Iranian diplomats who accompanied the Iranian foreign minister on his Asia-Pacific tour told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The No. 1 priority of these visits was to expand bilateral economic relations with these countries. Iran wants to expand and diversify its economic relations with other countries. As such, this tour was in a way a declaration of Iran’s capabilities and [about] encouraging these countries to pay attention to the Iranian market.”

The senior Iranian diplomat, who spoke to Al-Monitor onboard the plane carrying Zarif from Bangkok to Canberra, Australia, also talked about the details of the various meetings with Asian officials. “In some of the countries, what we were talking about was redundant. For example, in Thailand and Singapore, we had to repeat what we had already said in Brunei. We were trying to do marketing and talk about our abilities in the areas of tourism, hospitality, fishery, energy, oil and natural gas. We were more successful in Brunei and Thailand compared with Indonesia and Singapore, and both Brunei and Thailand expressed their interest in collaborating with Iran in the fields of hospitality, tourism, oil and natural gas,” he said.

However, from the very beginning, it was obvious that to Iran, Pacific countries were more important than Asian countries. Brunei’s and Thailand’s gross domestic product are not comparable to those of Australia and New Zealand, and Australia’s and New Zealand's technology are also much more advanced.

Zarif’s March 15 visit to Australia was the first by an Iranian foreign minister in almost two decades. The previous Iranian foreign minister who visited was Kamal Kharazi, under former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

Iran’s relations with New Zealand also have plenty of room to grow. Under Ahmadinejad, bilateral ties reached an all-time low amid stepped-up sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program. Trade between the two countries was estimated at more than $182 million in 2006, a year after Ahmadinejad took office. However, by 2015, this figure had dropped to $74 million, of which only $4 million was of Iranian exports to New Zealand — a country with a GDP of $171 billion and $182 billion in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Zarif was warmly welcomed in Wellington, New Zealand and Canberra, with his schedule packed with one meeting after the other, most of which were focused on paving the way for economic cooperation. One of the Iranian diplomats who participated in these meetings told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “In Australia, aside from the issue of Iranian refugees, we also talked about the possibility of collaboration in various technological fields such as the water industry and use of the desert. The two sides showed their willingness to consider expanding their collaboration with each other.”

However, although these Asian and Pacific countries showed a readiness to engage with Iran, the way forward might not be as easy as it seems. These countries are hesitant about expanding their economic relations with the Islamic Republic, and especially about transferring assets to Iran. More importantly, the campaigning ahead of the presidential election in the United States later this year, which has featured various candidates threatening to tear up the JCPOA, has added to anxieties. For now, one can only wait and see whether, as Zarif puts it, Iran’s behavior alone is enough to neutralize the threats of the United States and whether it can help expand Iran’s cooperation with the world.

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