Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and the Philippines in January, 1964 bilateral relations have been developing based on mutual respect and cooperation. Treading this path, the two countries have signed numerous agreements in agriculture, commerce, investment, culture, education, aviation, sports and parliamentary cooperation. The appointment of the Philippines’ new Ambassador to Iran brings enhanced efforts on the part of the Embassy to further strengthen economic and agricultural relations. To learn more of the economic and political ties between the two countries, we held an interview with Wilfredo C. Santos, Philippine Ambassador to Iran which you may find below.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Wilfredo C. Santos, Philippine Ambassador to Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
You served as the Philippines’ Ambassador to Qatar between 2015 and 2017. What importance does the Philippines attach to the Persian Gulf States in relation to your country’s foreign policy?
The GCC countries comprising of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is home to more than 2 million overseas Filipino workers. The protection of the interests and promotion of the welfare as well as the safety of these Filipinos are the primary concern of the Philippine Government.
For decades, Philippine foreign policy in the GCC was based on the three “O”s: Oil, Overseas Filipinos, and Overseas Remittances. Because of the demand for jobs in their oil and gas industries as well as their service sectors, the GCC countries have been a source of gainful employment for Filipino professionals and workers since the 1970s. These Filipinos are engineers, architects, doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, teachers, ICT professionals, technicians, welders, hotel and service industry personnel and domestic workers. These Filipinos contribute to the Philippines’ national economy through the sending of their remittances to their families and relatives back home. These foreign exchange remittances contribute in turn to the build-up of the country’s dollar reserves.
The GCC countries are also important to the Philippines in terms of our energy security. Of the top ten countries that represent all sources of crude oil imported to the Philippines last year, Saudi Arabia (34.9%), Kuwait (28.4%), and United Arab Emirates (15.6%) are ranked in the top three suppliers while Qatar (5.2%) and Oman (2.0%) are ranked number sixth and eighth respectively.
Lastly, the GCC countries have also been a reliable source of foreign investment to the Philippines. These investments have focused largely on economic sectors such as infrastructure, real estate, tourism, skills development, handicrafts, agriculture and food. Pledges of commitment to invest in other sectors of the Philippine economy by the GCC countries, particularly Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have likewise been made in recent years.
In Southeast Asia, there are always reactions to the presence of Western forces, especially those from the United States, on their soil. How do the people of the Philippines view this matter?
There are no more permanent American military facilities in the Philippines following the rejection by the Philippine Senate in 1991 to extend the Military Bases Agreement with the United States. Under the Philippine Constitution, no foreign country can establish military bases nor station its troops permanently on Philippine soil. These former US military bases at Clark and Subic have been successfully converted for civilian use by the Philippine Government.
However, under the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, the United States is allowed temporary rotational deployment of its troops in the Philippines for joint military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. Nevertheless, these joint military exercises have lessened greatly in recent years as the Philippines has pursued an independent foreign policy based on its view that the country is “friends to everyone and enemy to no one.” This foreign policy thrust also includes reaching out to non-traditional partner countries like Russia and China.
Since January 20, 2017, you began heading the Philippines’ Embassy in Tehran. What have your most important priorities been since you arrived in Tehran?
My job as Philippine Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran is primarily to advance our national interests and strengthen the bilateral relationship between our two countries. The Philippines and Iran established diplomatic ties on January 22, 1964. Our bilateral relationship is based on mutual friendship and respect. Our two countries have signed numerous agreements in various areas of cooperation including agriculture, trade, investments, culture, education, air services, sports, and parliamentary cooperation.
Since arriving in January 2017, I have focused on increasing exchanges between our two countries and peoples in different fields, particularly in business, trade and investments, culture and tourism.
The Philippines has always been a traditional supplier of agricultural products to Iran, especially bananas. Iran is a huge market for our other tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples, coconut oil, and tropical fruit drinks. The Philippines in turn can be a destination for Iranian apples. In addition, Iran can serve as a gateway for Philippine products to Central Asia including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — two countries under the jurisdiction of the Philippine Embassy in Tehran.
Our two economies complement each other. While the Philippines can provide Iran with a wide array of its agricultural and other products, the Islamic Republic can support the efforts of the Philippine government under the leadership of H.E. President Rodrigo Duterte to rebuild its infrastructure network under its “Build, Build, Build” program by being a supplier of steel, cement, and energy.
The Philippines and Iran have an existing joint ministerial commission on trade and economic cooperation; a consultative committee on political, economic and cultural cooperation; and a joint consular consultations meeting. We can utilize these bilateral mechanisms to expand our ties and exchange high level visits between our two countries.
Significantly, the last Philippine President to visit Iran was His Excellency former President Fidel V. Ramos in 1995. Likewise, the last Iranian President to visit the Philippines was His Excellency the late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also in 1995. I have a personal recollection of that visit which happened 23 years ago. I served as protocol officer to President Rafsanjani during his visit to the Philippines. I did not know then that my career will take me to Iran as the Philippine Ambassador. It would be to the benefit of our two countries if we can exchange presidential visits after a hiatus of years.
In April 2017, following the lifting of Iran’s sanctions, the participation in building LNG companies and refinery suppliers became a subject of negotiations between Iran and the Philippines. Are the talks final yet?
The Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Iran’s National Oil Company in March last year for various exploratory projects related to the development of oil and gas fields in Iran, as well as a proposal for supplying oil as feedstock for a possible refinery in Mindanao.
The PNOC is currently discussing with the INOC on the possibility for the Philippines to resume crude oil imports from Iran. Before 2011, Iran used to supply crude oil to the Philippines.
In November 2016, Iran and the Philippines agreed to develop bilateral ties and strengthen their economic cooperation by establishing banking relations. How are the banking ties given the current developments?
During the visit of former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour in Manila in November 2016, discussions were made on expanding the bilateral relationship between the two countries, including in the area of banking. The Philippines made assurances to assist Iranian officials in establishing a branch of one of its banks in the country and also explore the possibility of setting up a branch of the Land Bank of the Philippines in Iran to address the banking and remittance needs of Filipinos in the Islamic Republic.
Last month, in the course of the visit of former Speaker of the Philippine Parliament H.E. Jose de Venecia, Jr. to Iran, the issue of the expansion of banking ties between the two countries was raised during his meeting with Iran’s Deputy Central Bank Governor Akbar Komijani. Iran assured the Philippine side that it is prepared to expand cooperation between the commercial and central banks of the two countries.
What consultations have been conducted regarding trades, investments and joint economic opportunities this year?
The Philippines and Iran are still in discussions for the schedule of the next meeting of the Joint Ministerial Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, to be held in Tehran on dates that will be mutually agreed upon by the two countries. This meeting will be headed by the trade ministers of both countries.
Significantly, the Philippine Embassy in Tehran is now in the process of submitting the name of the incoming Agricultural Attaché of the Philippines to Iran for accreditation, following the approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow the establishment of an Agricultural Section at the Embassy. With a permanent Agricultural Attaché at the Embassy supported by a local Iranian staff, we believe this development will lead to the facilitation of engagements with Iran in the area of agriculture and contribute to increase in trade between the two countries.
Related to this is the plan of the Philippine Embassy, in coordination with our Agriculture Attaché based in Dubai, to arrange the visit to Iran of H.E. Emmanuel Piñol, Minister of Agriculture of the Philippines. He will be accompanied by a delegation composed of members of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry from Davao City, the hometown of President Duterte.
The planned visit of Agriculture Minister Piñol to Iran is expected to reinvigorate our bilateral engagements in agriculture and allow our respective private sector representatives to work together on mutually beneficial projects.
How large was the trade balance between Iran and the Philippines in 2017? What horizon do you depict for 2018?
Prior to my arrival in Tehran in January last year, the bilateral trade between the two countries was only USD 45 million in 2016. This figure increased to around USD 146 million in 2017, reflecting the improving level of trade between the Philippines and Iran.
According to the Philippine Department of Trade, the total exports of the Philippines to Iran in 2017 reached USD 55.39 million while its total imports from the Islamic Republic amounted to USD 90.70 million, indicating a trade deficit for the Philippines of around USD 35.31 million.
Of this number, around 40 percent of the country’s trade with Iran comes from the export of Philippine bananas to the Islamic Republic. The Philippines also buys copper ores and bitumen in large quantities from Iran. I expect the level of trade with Iran to improve further as the Philippines intends to ship not only bananas but also other tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples and various fruit drinks to Iran.
Before 2011, our two countries’ bilateral trade reached a peak of more than USD 900 million but this was largely due to the purchase of Iranian crude oil by the Philippines.
How will the US’ decision to leave the JCPOA affect the trade ties between Iran and the Philippines?
The US decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in May 2018 may not have a significant impact on the level of trade between our two countries as it is still minimal and improving at this time. Nevertheless, the recent depreciation of the Iranian currency vis-a-vis the US dollar will have an effect on the importation price of Philippine agricultural and other products to Iran.
The price of fresh Cavendish bananas, sweet pineapples, as well as coconut oil and other by-products from the Philippines will increase and become more expensive.
What are the Philippines’ most significant exported items?
The most significant export items of the Philippines to Iran are fresh bananas, fresh pineapples, and coconut oil and its various by-products. As of May 2018, the total exports of fresh bananas to the Islamic Republic amounted to USD 3.8 million, while the comparative figures for fresh pineapples and coconut oil stood at USD 404,500 and USD 79,000 respectively.
Do you have any plan to exchange knowledge with Iran in electronics?
Philippine expertise and proficiency in the field of electronics continue to increase and develop, as evidenced by the presence of more than 400 multinational firms in the country. The electronics sector is currently the largest foreign exchange earner for the Philippines in 2016 bringing in about PhP 49.3 Million in foreign direct investments, surpassing our traditional exports of coconut and sugar.
Philippine excellence and global competitiveness in semiconductor manufacturing services (SMS) and electronics manufacturing services (EMS) can be an area ready for cooperative exploration with Iran, under the right conditions and appropriate incentives.
The electronics sector employs about 3.2 million individuals in the Philippines and brings in about USD 29 billion in exports. If Iran is interested in a partnership in semiconductor and electronics technology, research and development, training and manufacturing, the Philippines can certainly lend a helping hand.
In 2016, Iran recommended sharing of information to the Philippines for counterterrorism purposes and to avoid the ISIS from rooting in the region. How are security collaborations going on between the two countries?
The Philippines condemns all forms of terrorism and crimes against humanity being perpetrated by ISIL/ISIS and other terror groups and has pledged its support to UN Security Council Resolution 2178-2014 to counter the phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, radicalization and recruitment to join ISIL/ISIS. The fight against violence and extremism is a commitment which the Philippines shares with Iran.
Our two countries are both victims by ISIL/ISIS. Tehran came under attack from ISIL/ISIS in June last year when the latter assaulted the Iranian Parliament and the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini. The Philippines on the other hand waged war against ISIL/ISIS during the “Battle of Marawi”.
That five-month-long armed conflict in southern Philippines was started on 23 May 2017, by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who were supported by foreign terrorist fighters. It was the longest urban warfare experience in Philippine modern history.
The Philippines would like to work closely with all countries, including Iran, in addressing the growing problem of terrorism and violent extremism through intelligence information sharing. We also welcome security cooperation with Iran on drug trafficking. As most would already know, the Philippine government is waging a serious war against drugs.
You have won two Presidential Awards and one of them relates to Your Honor’s achievements in your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Have you proposed to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs the facilitation of consular relations with Iran?
We are coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran for the holding of the 7th Joint Consular Consultation Meetings between our two countries. The Philippines will host this next round of talks on consular matters with Iran in Manila. This bilateral mechanism has allowed our two countries to meet regularly and discuss issues of mutual concern on consular, legal and other important matters.
As the former Assistant Secretary of the Office of Consular Affairs in Manila, I am confident in saying that consular relations between Manila and Tehran is a very active field of engagement. The Philippine Embassy welcomes any opportunity to further improve its consular ties and strengthen this facet of our bilateral relationship with Iran.
What measures have you considered to enhance tourism between Iran and the Philippines? What steps have been taken to lift visas between the two countries?
The Philippine Embassy in Tehran supports easing of visa regulations in favor of bonafide tourists coming from Iran and has made recommendations to this effect for the broader consideration of the capital.
As it stands, there are no direct flights from Tehran to Manila which would otherwise make for a more compelling cause to establish travel frequency between our two countries.
In 2011, a Memorandum of Agreement for the Waiver of Visas for both our government officials holding diplomatic and official passports was signed by Iran and the Philippines. As far as I am aware, Manila has yet to receive any official indication from Tehran if it wishes to discuss a bilateral agreement that covers the travel of regular passport holders for both sides.
This would surely facilitate not just tourism but also business and more people-to-people exchanges.
How many Filipinos live in Iran? Do they have any well-organized community here?
There are currently an estimated 1,184 Filipinos in Iran. Most of them are actually spouses and children of Filipino-Iranians who studied in the Philippines. They married their Filipino spouses and brought them to Iran to raise their families. Some of these Filipinos work in Iran as teachers and a few are doctors and dentists. We have a small number of Filipino professionals and workers employed in the oil and gas industry in Iran.
The Filipino-Iranian Community is a close-knit community which still has ties to the Philippines. They speak Farsi, having lived in Iran for decades. They are situated in many provinces of Iran, with the greatest concentration in Tehran.
Most are active members of their communities and are participants in activities organized by their groups, in coordination with the Philippine Embassy. I consider the Filipino-Iranian community as an important pillar in our bilateral relations. They reflect the strong foundation in the cultural and people to people ties between the Philippines and Iran.
What cooperation is there between the national teams of Iran and the Philippines?
Iran is a regional sports power and the Philippine Sports Commission recognized the opportunity for mutual benefit when it concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Sports Cooperation with Iran in 2014.
Various Iranian sports teams in basketball, volleyball, football, and Tae Kwon Do have visited the Philippines several times and Philippine national teams in karate, wrestling, and football have also undergone training or played friendly games with their Iranian counterparts. A few years ago, Iranian athletes reportedly played with Philippine football teams and the Meralco Bolts basketball team even recruited an Iranian player for one of the Philippines’ professional basketball leagues.
Significantly, the Philippine Embassy has also taken cognizance of the growing popularity and following of the Philippine national sport and indigenous martial art arnis in Iran. Also known as eskirma or kali, arnis is characterized by the use of swinging and twirling movements, accompanied by striking, thrusting and parrying techniques for defense and offense.
Just this May, a 15-minute demonstration of arnis was showcased at the Sa’Adabad Cultural and History Complex in Tehran, as the Philippine Embassy’s participatory activity in celebration of the “World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development 2018” organized by UNESCO. The Iran Arnis Committee performed the exhibition on behalf of the Philippine Embassy whose cultural diplomacy program is a priority thrust in enhancing friendship among Iranians and Filipinos.