Naturally, another factor in these trends is Iran’s own eagerness to reenter global markets. But the Wall Street Journal observes that European importers are starting from a weaker position in trying to take advantage of the effects of the JCPOA. European imports of Iranian oil and gas have indeed been growing in the wake of the nuclear agreement, but unlike India, China, and others, Western European nations took no such imports in the previous year. Furthermore, it has been widely reported that European reentry into Iranian markets has been constrained by the persistence of non-nuclear sanctions measures. 

But recent articles at Iran News Update have also emphasized that the Islamic Republic has been criticized over the past year for declining to take certain steps that could have brought it in line with international banking regulations and otherwise improved the prospects for reconnection with the West. Those articles went on to suggest that Iran may be deliberately dragging its heels in this regard while focusing on expansion within Asian markets. 

It was perhaps with this in mind that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani undertook a trip last week to three Southeast Asian countries, to explore comprehensive expansions in economic relations, as well as security cooperation. On Friday, Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that Rouhani had said of his first stop on that tour, Vietnam, that it could become the center of Iran’s economic activity in East Asia. The Daily Mail added that the specific target outlined during his visit was two billion dollars in trade, as compared to the 350 million last year. 

Rouhani’s discussions with the Vietnamese were followed by similar visits to Malaysia and Thailand. Malaysia Kini reported on Friday that during Rouhani’s second stop, the Malaysian Prime Minister expressed only slightly less ambitious hopes, namely a mutual effort to double trade in the shortest period of time possible and to continue expansion from there. And during Rouhani’s subsequent visit to Bangkok, he met not only with the Thai leadership but also with visiting Chinese Vice President Lu Yuanchao, according to Xinhua News Agency. 

The focus of Iranian-Asian trade relations will certainly be crude oil, but they will also include natural gas exports and various industrial and consumer goods. Trend News Agency notes that during his Asian tour, Rouhani expressed Iran’s intentions to expand natural gas exports to Asia, alongside the steadily increasing crude oil exports. And the Wall Street Journal points out that India and China are competing to make serious investments in Iran’s oil production and overall petrochemical industry.  

The Sunday meeting between Rouhani and Lu sought to expand upon comprehensive cooperative plans that were generally outlined on January, relating not only to Iran and China themselves, but also to broader aims to continue an Asian cooperative dialogue. Rouhani’s week of meetings in Asia led the Daily Mail to reiterate the possibility of an ongoing “turn to the East” for Iranian foreign policy and trade. Such observations may reinforce the conclusion that the Islamic Republic is deliberately eschewing trade with the West, even as the highest ranking figures, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, insist that the US is holding back Iran’s reintegration by continuing to enforce economic sanctions and banking restrictions that were not covered by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.