He came, he saw, he spoke well and left. The Iranian foreign minister's visit to Australia, the first in 22 years, made surprisingly few headlines. Sure, he came without a trade delegation in tow and during the middle of a sitting week but even so, for a massive underdeveloped market of over 80 million people with a significant entrepreneurial middle class and a strong education system, the media focus was pretty parochial.
The trade dimension was really the aim of the foreign minister's visit but the media paid precious little attention to it. An announcement regarding the re-opening of an Austrade office in the embassy in Tehran went largely unnoticed in favour of more locally 'important' news such as whether Iran would accept forcible removal of failed asylum seekers. I couldn't find any photos of the foreign minister and Prime Minister Turnbull in the Australian press, but one did pop up in the Qatari press.
The visit to Australia was the last leg of a six-nation Asian and Australasian trip. It is not unreasonable to believe that Australia and New Zealand were included in recognition of the fact that, among the 'Five Eyes' community, they are the only two which have maintained unbroken diplomatic representation in the Islamic Republic. No mean feat given the diplomatic travails and likely something that has been noted in Tehran.
I attended the speech Zarif gave in Sydney. He is the archetypal foreign minister — a polished professional who was able to play a very straight bat to pretty well every question asked of him. One thing that came through in his comments, which reinforces a theme that the Islamic Republic has been pushing, is that of brand differentiation between Iran and the Saudis. Both are vying for influence in the region, and Zarif was at pains to picture Saudi Arabia as the threat to stability, just as he had with his NY Times editorial earlier this year. Zarif's use of the term 'so-called allies' in reference to America's friends in the Gulf was also notable – the subtext was that these countries are not true allies, and perhaps that Iran could be. Zarif also contrasted Iran's democratic traditions (conveniently avoiding the fact that it exists within a massively constrained system of candidate selection) and the lack of such traditions elsewhere in the region.
Foreign ministers are part politician, part salesperson. On the evidence of Zarif's short visit, Iran has a skilled practitioner at the helm who is adept at both. The tussle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be the defining theme of the next decade in the region and Iran's front-man in that competition will be hard to best.