Iran and ASEAN: Can Tehran benefit from cooperation with the Southeast Asian block?
On the sidelines of the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Singapore, Iran's membership in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) was officially ratified by the organization in presence of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Iran’s membership in TAC took place amid Zarif’s shuttle diplomacy during the recent months as the deadline for a snapback of US’ secondary sanctions on Iran is approaching. Can Tehran’s diplomatic offensive help relieve the economic pressure that comes with the return of sanctions? How can ASEAN members help Iran endure US pressures? Iranian Diplomacy has interviewed Mohsen Rouhisefat, Iran’s former economic attaché in Malaysia and Southeast affairs expert on the prospects of collaboration between Tehran and ASEAN members. Below is an abridged transcript:
IRD: Iran has signed a treaty of amity and cooperation with ASEAN. Can membership in such treaties help Tehran cope with sanctions particularly in the economic area?
MR: Historically, all ASEAN members have had cordial relations with Iran. Iran’s approach towards ASEAN is not based on short-term concerns such as the return of sanctions, but on a strategic view which takes the rising status of ASEAN into consideration. Joining the treaty was on the agenda of Foreign Ministry for years. The motives are clear: ASEAN is the fifth powerful economic block in the world. Members of the association have worked out their differences through diplomacy and patience and have turned into a role model for other multinational organizations despite their cultural and ethnic diversity.
The recent ASEAN meeting was important as the members convened in the light of Trump’s unilateralism which has produced results such as Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement despite lengthy negotiations that had led to its establishment. This year’s ASEAN meeting was a show of force and solidarity for the association in the international arena.
IRD: Founding members of the organization, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines have adopted a free market approach and are integrated in the global economy. Other members, such as Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam, are not heavyweights in the international arena. Can Iran expect any support from any of these groups in facing pressure and sanction from Washington?
MR: As I said, Tehran’s interaction with ASEAN was not instigated by the return of sanctions, but on a long-term attitude and awareness of ASEAN’s rising power. In today’s world, blocks are more definitive than states. The balance of power and economy is gradually shifting from the West towards the East. Consequently, ASEAN will become more powerful in future. The association is also in close partnership with some of the world’s largest economies such as India, China, South Korea and Japan. So Iran’s closer cooperation with the block can uplift our economy. This should be pursued regardless of US’ economic sanctions which are of secondary importance. About the question that whether ASEAN members can cushion the blow of sanctions, we know that they are deeply upset about US trade policies and this can be a potential advantage for collaboration with ASEAN.
IRD: But is cooperation possible if secondary sanctions are reinstated?
MR: Private banks and corporations hold a large share in ASEAN’s economy. So it is unlikely that they collaborate with Iran when secondary sanctions return. So Iran may follow its policy of collaborating with small and medium banks which have no connection to United States’ banking system.
IRD: You spoke about shift of power and trade from the West to the East. Should Tehran also shift its focus towards East? Especially when the US has withdrawn from the JCPOA and Tehran is not sure about continuation of the European Union’s support for the JCPOA.
MR: Naturally, Iran should seek expansion and balancing of its relations with the world. Relations with all power blocks, from the EU to ASEAN and BRICS can serve as a buffer against pressures and economic sanctions. But if we want to assign a weight to these blocks, considering our current circumstances, Eastern countries can better serve our purpose particularly in terms of trade and economy. We should establish a sort of balance and foment competition between ASEAN and the EU, or other blocks, to make the maximum of advantage from our relations with them. Unbalanced relations which over-rely on one block may turn into a soft spot and force us to make concessions.
* The full text of this interview is available in Persian in this link.