Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi

Raisi Set For His First State Visit To China Amid Domestic Challenges

Monday, 02/13/2023

The Iranian president met with the Supreme Leader Monday, a day before his first state visit to China meant to consolidate ties after recent tensions due to Beijing’s close Arab ties. 

During a media briefing earlier on Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani highlighted the importance of Ebrahim Raisi’s trip on the development of Tehran-Beijing bilateral ties, saying, “The visit will be made upon an official invitation by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

“The visit is particularly important from a political perspective. It indicates the existence of a proper political atmosphere in relations and emphasizes the highest political will from the leaders of the two countries to expand bilateral ties based on mutual interests,” he noted. 

China’s Xi visited Saudi Arabia in December and also met members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, followed by a joint statement in which the issue of three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf was mentioned as a claim pursued by the United Arab Emirates.

The Iranian public showed a strong reaction once the joint statement was reported by Persian media, accusing the Islamic Republic authorities of being so weak that its ally China was subtly endorsing the UAE claim.

Kanaani described the deal signed between Iran and China in March 2021 as “a roadmap that outlines the general path and long-term horizon of cooperation between the two countries.” He added that there was a 43-percent growth in Iran-China economic and commercial relations last year, with China being Iran’s first export destination and the second source of imports.

However, there have been other reports in Iranian media saying that trade has declined since mid-2022.

During the meeting with Khamenei, Raisi gave a report on the agenda of the trip and the planned meetings. The readout of the meeting was not released to the media. 

Supreme Leader ALi Khamenei (left) and President Ebrahim Raisi

There are reports that Raisi will follow up on the so-called the 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, which so far has been nothing more than a wish list without a practical implementation plan.

The Islamic Republic is not only facing a strong challenge by dissidents and opponents at home, but also grapples with a serious economic crisis.

In January, a former Iranian ambassador to China said Tehran-Beijing ties are overestimated and only worked as a bargaining chip for China to secure deals with Saudi Arabia. Mohammad-Hossein Malaek, who served as Tehran’s envoy for four years under former president Mohammad Khatami, added that the agreement is a document without any value, especially following the visit by Xi to Saudi Arabia in December, when the two sides agreed “on the need to strengthen cooperation to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” calling on Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to “maintain the non-proliferation regime.”

Raisi himself also penned an op-ed article published in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), emphasizing that “As two living and dynamic human civilizations, Iran and China were connected to each other via the historic Silk Road, and ascertained the fact that prosperity and happiness as desirable popular goals can only be achieved through interaction and cooperation.”

About the 25-year agreement, he claimed that the deal was signed to develop mutual cooperation in various fields because both Tehran and Beijing pursue similar approaches vis-à-vis international developments and are opposed to imperialism as well as unilateralism – a clear reference to the United States. 

Wang Wenbin, the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Monday that "This is President Raisi's first visit to China in office. During the visit, President Xi Jinping will hold talks with President Raisi to jointly chart the course for and steer the future development of China-Iran relations, and have in-depth exchange of views on regional and international issues of common concern."

He also echoed sentiments similar to those of Raisi about traditional friendship, saying that “To consolidate and develop China-Iran relations are their joint strategic choice.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September 2022.

“In recent years, under the guidance of President Xi and President Raisi, the China-Iran relations have maintained a sound momentum of development, with political mutual trust consolidated continuously and practical cooperation in various fields making steady progress,” he added. 

The Chinese spokesman also talked about the so-called strategic agreement, noting that “Taking this visit as an opportunity, China looks forward to working with Iran to further advance China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership and playing a constructive role in enhancing unity and cooperation among countries in the Middle East and promoting regional security and stability.” 

Iranian state media reported that during Raisi’s three-day visit, mechanisms to make the deal operational will be finalized. In a televised interview Sunday night, the political affairs deputy head of President's Office, Mohammad Jamshidi, said, "We are after establishing broad-scale economic cooperation with China, whose framework is the comprehensive Iran-China cooperation document." “We have advanced the mechanisms for implementing the comprehensive agreement between Iran and China, which was a deal on paper at the beginning of this administration. The agreement’s finalization will be followed up during this trip.”

Many Iranians have expressed resentment over the 25-year cooperation agreement with China and a proposed 20-year deal with Russia, saying it is a sell-out. Although Iran has not revealed the details of the agreement with China and what it will entail in political, economic and military terms, some social media users go as far as claiming that the Islamic Republic is "selling out the country and its people" to China and Russia.

Iran has once and again indicated its intention to rely more on Asian countries, particularly China for trade relations as talks with the United States and Europe to resolve differences over Tehran’s nuclear program have not succeeded so far and US sanctions remain in place. However, Beijing has so far has not seriously challenged US sanctions, as it has cultivated closer ties with the Persian Gulf Arab countries and Israel.

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