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Thursday, August 26, 2010

As Iran sanctions threaten, Iran sees new friend in Cambodia

Leaders from Iran and Cambodia met this month in their most senior exchange to date. Some say it is a sign that Iran sanctions are pushing Tehran to develop new trade partners.

By Stephen Kurczy, Staff writer

Iran seems to have found a new friend in the unlikeliest of places: Cambodia. Tehran hosted a high-level delegation from the Southeast Asian nation earlier this month to discuss bilateral trade and mutual dislike of American "interference."

It's the latest sign that the Islamic republic is seeking out new partners – no matter how small – in the face of increased sanctions.

"There is no doubt that Iran’s growing isolation, resulting from the force of UN sanctions, is behind Iran’s push to improve relations with Cambodia and other willing states," says Alon Ben-Meir of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. "The sanctions against Iran are having a serious effect. For this reason, Iran at this juncture will trade with any country it may find. Cambodia happened to be an easy target because of its energy vulnerability."

In June, the United Nations, European Union, and United States all passed sanctions in an effort to target Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

"To impose sanctions against Iran is not a solution," Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Aug. 16 in Phnom Penh, days after his meeting in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Hor advised "negotiations and engagement" instead.

Iran offers trade, technology
The two countries established formal relations in 1992 as Cambodia emerged from civil war, but Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says this is the most senior bilateral exchange to date.

"Iran requested to have a diplomatic relation with Cambodia. We don't see any objection to that," says Mr. Khieu, who is also the minister of Information. "Our policy toward Middle Eastern countries is to sell more of our products, mainly agricultural, and try to get more knowledge on oil management."

The summit touched on trade, investment, tourism, and oil, which is notable in light of Cambodia's hopes to tap recently discovered offshore oil reserves. After years of exploration and speculation – from international firms such as Total and Chevron – oil production is projected to begin in 2012. Then, in mid-August, a top Cambodian official told Nikkei news agency that Cambodia is looking into nuclear technology and hopes to build its first nuclear power plant as early as 2020.

President Ahmadinejad "voiced readiness to share Iran's experiences with Cambodia in various fields of agriculture, science, technology, and research," according to Fars News Agency. The two sides agreed to establish a joint economic commission to explore opportunities, according to The Tehran Times.
Shared dislike of American 'interference'
They also found common ground in rejecting pressure from the US. “My country has always been opposed to the interference of the United States in other countries’ internal affairs," Hor said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

Economic ties remain minimal between Iran and Cambodia. The two countries’ trade value during the past Iranian calendar year (ending March 20, 2010) stood at $539,000, according to The Tehran Times. In the three months prior to June 21, Iran exported $120,000 and imported $66,000 to and from Cambodia.

Even more than a new economic partner, Iran is apparently looking to Cambodia as a conduit to reach greater Southeast Asia through the 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). "Cambodia can play a key role in connecting Iran and the association," Iran's Accredited Ambassador to Cambodia Seyed Javad Qavam Shahidi told the FARS news agency after Hor's visit.

Web of geopolitics
In the complex web of geopolitics, it makes sense that Iran would warm relations with Cambodia, says British historian Philip Short. China woos Cambodia and Burma as counterweights to regional power India, while also wooing Iran and Pakistan as counterweights to longtime rival Russia, he says.

"So, for Cambodia and Iran – both Beijing’s good friends – to get cozy isn't a surprise at all. In fact, one wonders why it didn’t happen earlier," says Mr. Short, author of the Khmer Rouge history "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare" and the biography "Mao: A life."

"For Cambodia there’s an obvious economic interest," continues Short. "And for Iran, which is still pretty isolated, the more diplomatic support it can garner the better."

China has invested millions in infrastructure projects in Cambodia. In December 2009, Beijing pledged $1.2 billion in aid and soft loans. That made China a bigger benefactor to Cambodia than all other countries combined. In July, international donors pledged $1.1 billion in annual aid to Cambodia, which was still the most ever from them. "China is Cambodia’s best buddy," says Short.

But Cambodia has also been courted avidly by Washington in recent years. In July, US soldiers participated in a peacekeeping exercise with troops from 23 Asia Pacific nations as part of the US-run 2010 Global Peace Operations Initiative. Washington and Beijing have long competed for influence in the region, with China supporting the Khmer Rouge insurgency against a US-backed government of the 1970s.

No warning from Washington?
Cambodia's business community appears unfazed by the country's newfound friendship with Iran.

"If Iran wishes to offer any material support to Cambodia, why shouldn’t they accept it? Cambodia is a neutral country with a lot of needs, and welcomes all the help it can get," says Douglas Clayton, CEO of the private equity fund Leopard Capital, which has attracted international investors to a $34 million multisector equity fund in Cambodian businesses.

A spokesperson from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh says that Washington urges "all UN Member States, including Cambodia, to fulfill the objectives of UNSCR 1929 (United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929) by meeting not only their mandatory minimum obligations but also by applying accompanying measures." UNSCR 1929 was passed in June to target Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

While Cambodia's government spokesman says that Phnom Penh has not been warned against developing ties with Iran, Professor Ben-Meir of New York University suspects the US may have dropped a hint to Cambodia against getting too close.

"Soon Cambodia itself will begin to feel the pressure from the international community to stop trading with Iran," he says. "Cambodia therefore will continue to play a balancing act, swaying from which side it is getting the greater benefit. For this reason, the United States and the EU will have to come up with some aid to Cambodia if they wish to distance Cambodia from Iran."

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My Semester off: Volunteering in Guatemata and Cambodia

YouthGive contributing writer Nate Parish shares his story from travels in Guatemala and Cambodia

After attending my first semester of college last fall at St. Louis University in Madrid, Spain, I realized that I was not fulfilling the reasons why I wanted to go to college. In fact, I recognized that I wasn't quite sure what those reasons were any more.

College is supposed to be a place where there is a balance between working hard at one's studies and enjoying a fun social life. Unfortunately I could not find the right balance at my school. Everyone around me was always out at a bar and not even worried about school. I got wrapped up in this situation. When I received my transcript and saw that even though I was not working as hard as I could and still getting A's, I decided it was time for a change. I was not going to be paying all this money to just party in Spain for four years, even though that would have been fun.

My parents were worried that I would waste my time off, but there are many ways to make a break from schooling more productive than a semester in college. I decided to combine my love of travel with volunteering.

I started my journey by taking a week-long trip with my mother and a group of two surgeons and three doctors traveling down to Guatemala. I learned that these trips are vital as the largest health care providers in Guatemala are Christian groups from America who come down and offer free or extremely inexpensive medical care. Our group was focused on doing simple surgeries like fixing hernias and cleft lips. It was all fascinating. Not only did this experience give me a passion for medicine, and specifically surgery, but I got to see just how hard these people's lives are, and that my small contribution of time made a huge difference in their lives.

During one surgery, the doctor let me scrub in to assist him with tying the tubes of a forty-five year old woman who already had ten children and didn't want any more. As we finished, the doctor told me to switch places with him and handed me the clamp and needle. As he instructed me, I began sewing up the gaping hole in this woman's stomach. I had never done anything like it in my life, and at that moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor (see photos below).

Even though sewing up the incision was the coolest thing I have ever done, it was nothing compared to the gratitude this woman showed me when she woke up. She didn't speak English or Spanish, but while I sat and fed her soup, she gave me the biggest smile I have ever seen and a huge hug. My mom was watching and her eyes started to tear-up. Luckily I was able to hold myself together.

I returned home to San Francisco for some time to relax, but I missed that sense of accomplishment like I had in Guatemala. When my friend Matt invited me to Cambodia to volunteer with the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), I bought my tickets the next day and two weeks later met him in Asia.

CCF is an organization started by Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood executive who dropped his career and moved to Cambodia after witnessing the lives of the children living on the trash dumps in Phnom Penh. To learn more about Scott and the CCF, check out Matt's article or their website.

Our volunteering was focused on teaching English and working in the daycare center with the younger kids. Each day was harder than the one before it, but also more rewarding. We would start teaching by 7:30 a.m. and not get back to our hotel till 8:00 p.m., feeling tired and accomplished. I would teach four hour-long English classes to kids between the ages of 9-16. I played games and taught them the sounds of the alphabet. They absolutely loved any learning activity that involved laughing and high energy.

One day during lunch I was talking with Scott Neeson when one of the girls ran up and jumped into my lap. Scott leaned over to me and quietly said, "This girl was raped by her father." I was stunned and my heart broke for this poor little girl who wasn't more than twelve or thirteen. The pain in this child's life is unimaginable, and I felt so bad for her. I had been teaching her and seen her happily playing with the other girls. If Scott hadn't said anything, I would've thought that this girl had come from a loving family. It was then that I understood the importance of CCF. It takes kids out of their traumatic childhood situations and gives them the support system that every child deserves.

While we got more tired as our volunteer days progressed, the kids got more and more comfortable with us. Each time we arrived at a facility, more kids than the day before would be there to greet us with huge smiles, hugs, and even letters saying, "I want to set you as my brother." These heartfelt signs of affection were the source of energy that Matt and I used to finish the two weeks of volunteering.

We could see that by just showing up everyday we were changing these kids' lives. For the older kids we were two strange but extremely fun and playful teachers, and for the little kids we were two play structures that they could jump all over. But most of all, just showing them a little affection makes all the difference. I have never worked harder than in those two weeks, but I have never felt more fulfilled either.

Volunteering overseas enables you to see the true culture and people of the countries you are visiting. On most vacations, families might travel to developing countries, but they are not able to see how the majority of the country is actually living, and unfortunately might get an unrealistic idea of what the country is really like.

Global volunteering is so important because you really get to experience people in their daily life. You make human connections that can last a lifetime. I am still emailing with students each week so that when I return to Cambodia these wonderful young people will still know me as the fun-loving teacher they had back in 2010.

My service time in Guatemala and Cambodia gave me a learning experience that I never could have imagined getting at college. I can now take the lessons I have learned from these two experiences and implement them into my life as I start my first semester at Colorado College this fall.
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