Iran is emerging as a key to the future of the live export industry, with a number of companies stepping up efforts to re-establish links with what was once a lucrative market for WA farmers.
Former Kalgoorlie MP Graeme Campbell is lobbying for a resumption of live exports through Qeshm Island, which is part of Iran's free trade zone. He also has an interest in Iranian company E1 Airsa, which is seeking to buy a 50 per cent share in the Shark Lake abattoir in Esperance.
E1 Airsa plans to air freight chilled meat to Iran before expanding the trade to include shipments of frozen meat.
Mr Campbell said E1 Airsa chairman Allie Shafaghee was due in WA next week to inspect the abattoir with a representative from the Iranian veterinary office.
E1 Airsa also operates stock handling facilities on Qeshm. Mr Campbell said the company planned to build an abattoir on the island, had recently leased an abattoir on the Iranian mainland and was ideally placed to receive shipments of WA sheep.
"The Iranian market is as big as the whole Middle East market at the moment, potentially bigger. I'd expect we'd be quickly back to a million sheep a year which is about what we were selling when they closed the market 30 years ago and I reckon we would go well beyond that," he said.
Mr Campbell said the trade could not resume until there was a memorandum of understanding between Australia and Iran.
He accused Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig of dragging his feet on the issue despite months of lobbying. A spokesman for Senator Ludwig said he was supporting the work of the Department of Agriculture in developing an MOU. "This MOU is intended to cover all of Iran, including the Qeshm free trade zone," the spokesman said.
The push to reopen the live export trade comes as the Iranian economy reels from sanctions imposed by the West over fears Tehran may ultimately be able to develop nuclear weapons. The embargo on oil sales and banking restrictions have cut Iran's foreign currency revenue, slowed the economy and disrupted trade.
WA Live Export Association chairman John Edwards said that while there were a number of hurdles, re-establishing live exports would provide a much-needed boost for WA sheep farmers.
Mr Edwards said no trade could occur until there was an MOU, an animal health protocol and relevant approvals under the Department of Agriculture's exporter supply chain assurance system. "They are three mechanisms that need to be finalised before anything can be done. However, it was a significant market for Australian sheep in the 1970s and early 80s when they were a large buyer of sheep, particularly from WA producers," he said.
"I am aware that a number of exporters are looking in earnest at that market and have made an intelligence trip there to size up the market. It would be windfall for WA sheep producers given the current downturn in live exports, particular with a number of Middle Eastern markets not being ESCAS compliant."
Mr Edwards said that although it was "business as usual" for the live export industry, with two shipments leaving Fremantle on Sunday, sheep prices remained well down.
Prices fell from about $100 a head in September to as low as $50 but have recovered recently in a range of $70 to $75.