US sanctions have tested Thai-Iran ties

Seyed Reza Nobakhti

Iran is known to be a major exporter of oil to Thailand, despite the economic sanctions imposed on it by the West.

Now, Tehran wants to expand the cooperation between the two nations beyond the petrochemical industry, its ambassador said.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post ahead of Iran’s National Day on Feb 11, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ambassador to Thailand, Seyed Reza Nobakthi, said there are plenty of opportunities to expand cooperation between Iran and Thailand.

While Iran is known for its crude oil exports, Mr Nobakthi said Tehran has become actively involved in the nanotechnology, pharmaceutical and health sectors.

“Right now, Iran’s nanotechnology is ranked fourth in the world — behind the US, China and India — and biotechnology is ranked twelfth. Now, we have more than 800 nano- and- biotechnology productions,” he said.

“Currently, there are two projects where the experts from Iran and Thailand are working together. We have also signed a biotechnology-centre MoU with Thailand,” he added, referring to an MoU signed on March 1 last year between the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec) under the National Science and Technology Development Agency and the National Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (NIGEB) of Iran.

Iran’s technological capacity has allowed it to churn out advanced machinery, such as Sena, a telesurgery system which launched in 2015. Indonesia, the ambassador added, recently purchased two telesurgery robots.

“The quality [of Iranian systems] is comparable to products made by US companies, but ours are three times cheaper,” he said.

The ambassador said the fact that Iran has two home-grown Covid-19 vaccines, named Cov-Iran Barekat and SpikoGen, shows Iran has the potential to become the Middle East’s hub of medical and wellness tourism — an aspiration which mirrors Thailand’s goal to become Southeast Asia’s health hub.

“Open heart surgery may cost a million baht in Thailand, but in Iran, you would only need to pay around 150,000 baht, even in the most developed hospitals,” he said.

He said Iran also has many competent medical professionals, one of the most prominent of whom is Majid Samii, a neurosurgeon living in Germany who is still often asked to perform complex procedures back in Iran.

Beyond the health sector, Iran is seeking Thailand’s cooperation in combatting drug trafficking. Mr Nobakthi said he met Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin in early 2020 to discuss expanding how both countries can work together to end drugs crimes.

“Some Iranians were known to have come to Thailand with drugs. It is important to have active cooperation with the Justice Ministry in Thailand so that we can prevent drug smuggling in the future,” he said.

Iran is also willing to share its experience in dealing with extremism, with the hope that it would help end the violence in the Muslim-majority deep South. “We’ve dealt with extremists in Syria and Iraq, and we are ready to help the government better understand the roots of conflict, the people and their ideology,” he said.

The ambassador also said Thailand can look to Iran for military hardware, saying Iran’s firearms and weapons industries can produce anything the armed forces could need.

“Iran’s military industries are well developed. Our drones are number 1 in the region, and our missiles are also number 1. Iran is the only country that could send satellites into space using its own missiles. Others have to rely on other countries to get them into orbit, but in Iran, it’s important that we are able to do it all by ourselves,” he said.

Though Thailand’s trade with Iran has suffered under the US sanctions regime, Bangkok and Tehran continue to have a good relationship, especially between businesses which continue to trade using proxies and other indirect channels. “We import rice, farm produce, and computer parts from Thailand,” he said.

He said the US sanctions have discouraged Thai officials from engaging with their Iranian counterparts, calling the sanctions “unilateral, not universal”.

The sanctions were lifted when Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action back in 2015, but were promptly put back in place when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord.

In recent days, the Biden administration has since decided to ease them again.

“We cannot force foreign officials to do business with Iran, but we believe that the sanctions will end some day. So, it is up to the officials here [to do business with Iran], but we are always ready to cooperate with Thailand.”