[Viewpoint] The Iran balancing act

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[Viewpoint] The Iran balancing act

Korea’s economic relationship with Iran is facing a serious crisis. In addition to the United Nations resolution to prevent Iran’s nuclear proliferation, the United States is trying to apply strong sanctions against Iran and has asked the Korean government to follow its initiative. Washington has demanded Seoul to apply a level of sanctions similar to the European Union, restricting not only weapons trading but also financial transactions. This would virtually end all our economic relations with the largest Middle Eastern market, so the Korean government is deeply concerned.

Let’s look at what Iran means to Korea. With a population of 70 million, Iran is a major agricultural power in the Middle East, with the third largest petroleum reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. As the largest market for Korean products in the Middle East, annual trade amounts to 10 billion dollars. Although the focus of attention is concentrated on economic interests between the two lands, cultural relations with Iran might have more profound significance.

Recently, I returned from Iran after completing some field research there. For the last five years, I have been involved in an anthropological excavation project and a Korea-Iran joint research to investigate the remains of ancient cultural exchanges on the coast of the Caspian in Northern Iran. Last month, an 800-page ancient Persian text titled Khushname was discovered. The epic poem surprised academia as it illustrates the lives of the ancient Korean dynasty, Silla. During my visits to Iran, I was especially impressed by the unimaginably passionate interest in Korean culture the Iranians have shown. The Korean drama series Daejanggeum had ratings above 90 percent, and other Korean dramas such as Haesin, Sangdo and Jumong were also very popular. The Hanryu, or the wave of Korean pop culture, was directly translated into dollars and cents, and Korean products have the highest market shares in appliances, IT and automobile industries. The Iranians are truly affectionate of Korean brands. In order to promote Korean culture, the National Museum of Iran is currently planning an exhibition dedicated to relics of the Silla Dynasty. Today, Korean brands have become icons that are truly indispensable in the lives of the Iranians.

However, to the U.S., Iran is one of the most powerfully hostile nations. The U.S.-Iran partnership began to crack when Washington backed a coup to overthrow elite nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and the pro-American Pahlavi dynasty, and the two nations became irreconcilably hostile after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Therefore, it is understandable that the U.S. considers Iran as part of an “axis of evil” and a terrorism sponsor nation, especially as Iran gears up a nuclear industry. At the same time, the Korea-U.S. alliance and close cooperation is a matter of national interest that Korea cannot give up. Nevertheless, the relationship between Korea and Iran is at a different level from the U.S.-Iran relations. Is there any delicate and selective strategy to control and embrace the relationship with Iran while not disturbing international nonproliferation efforts and the foundation of the Korea-U.S. alliance? Do we really not have Korea’s own national interests to protect and a global strategy to do so? The time has come for Seoul to display its diplomatic capabilities.

First of all, we need to reinforce communication channels to seek a sufficient rapport and reasonable alternatives with Iran. If Seoul explains Korea’s stand and efforts, Iran will understand Korea’s position as a responsible nation in the international community.

To prepare for the suspension of operations of Bank Mellat’s Seoul branch, which has helped Korean companies with investments in Iran, alternate finance routes through Dubai or other Arab banks need to be provided after consultations with Iran. Moreover, the companies need to make their own decisions rather than having the government get involved. At the same time, Seoul should use all its diplomatic skills to explain the unique relationship Korea has with Iran to the U.S. and consult on the level of sanctions it’s willing to support.

Furthermore, Seoul could attempt a new idea and try to play the role of mediator between the U.S. and Iran. We can take a cue from Turkey, a close supporter of the NATO with pro-western policies. Turkey has avoided placing extreme sanctions on Iran by playing mediator and proposing a compromise plan regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. In the end, Korea has to keep up with international trends within the boundary set by the U.N. resolution while keeping a certain distance from the comprehensive sanctions against Iran initiated by Washington. Furthermore, Korea needs to expand nonpolitical exchanges in academia, culture and sports as tokens of sincerity. We desperately need flexible long-term strategy to understand and embrace Iran.

*The writer is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hanyang University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hee-su
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