Dicing with the Ayatollahs: the risks of doing business with Iran

Recently I saw that the Prime Minister, John Key, hosted the Iranian Minister for Foreign Affairs in Wellington. This was the first time in over a decade an Iranian Foreign Minister had visited New Zealand. Mr Key talked to Mohammed Javad Zarif as part of the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs international tour.

Whilst it is good that New Zealand is able to have diplomatic relations with Iran, and try to work constructively on issues of common interest, the idea of trying to restore Iran’s place as a significant trading partner does not sit so easily. Given the Government’s reluctance to use its influence to get concessions out of Iran on some of the thornier issues such as terrorism and improving womens rights, I think New Zealand is at risk of being seen to be weak.

Iran is a nation that is not well understood by a lot of people in the West. To some extent the same can also be said of the Arabic nations in the Middle East. Yes it is true that the Ayatollahs support the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, the anti-Israeli Palestinian militant groups and wields considerable regional influence. Yes, this implicates Iran seriously as a sponsor of terrorism, and many conservative Americans believe the Iranian nation would like to see Israel attacked, despite frequent (and possibly deliberate)errors in translating Iranian dialects into English.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Ayatollah’s have significant influence on the Government policy and operate independently of Iran’s judiciary. That means a change in Government policy is not necessarily a change in the stance of the Ayatollah’s. Nor does it mean that official outcomes such as election results will be always respected. This was witnessed in the Green revolution of 2009 where Iranians voted for a new President to get rid of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose Israel rhetoric was often exaggerated in the media, only to for it to be rigged to allow him a second term, causing protests to erupt. These were severely repressed.

However to say that Iran is a terrible nation whose people are all Israel haters, and that everyone should have nothing to do with them could not be further from the truth. The ordinary Iranian despises their Government for a multitude of reasons:

  • Corruption of the authorities is very real including rigging of elections
  • Repression of women and dissidents frequently causes problems
  • The economic system on which the country is based has not been working for some time
  • The anti-western moral crusade of the Ayatollahs is harming the country

The authorities have been implicated in the mistreatment of a number of notable dissidents, including Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian lady who saw a volleyball game in Iran and got arrested and sent to jail without charge. Ms Ghavami started a hunger strike whilst in Evin prison. She was eventually released after a massive international outcry, but the ban on women watching volleyball (and other sports)remains. Another one, Nasrin Sotoudeh was a human rights lawyer who was arrested for challenging the treatment of one of her clients was receiving. Mrs Sotoudeh was released in 2013, again after significant international pressure was applied.

It is not just women who are being mistreated. Iran has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. It is unknown how many of the total number in Iran in jail are on death row, or whether they all received a fair trial in the process of convicting them.

There are things that New Zealand can do which would be constructive, such as offer Iran knowledge on renewable sources of energy, opportunities for education and to learn how to work with the environment. These would not only give Iran significant benefits but show Iranians alternative ways of living to those espoused by the Ayatollah’s.

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