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Long Read: How Raeisi revitalized Iran's intl. standing with pragmatic foreign policy

By Maryam Qarehgozlou

President Ebrahim Raeisi, who passed away in a tragic chopper accident in northwestern Iran’s East Azarbaijan province on Sunday, had enthusiastically pursued the policy of good neighborliness since taking the helm.

He relentlessly strived to untie Iranian national interests from the West and to neutralize the impact of sanctions while emphasizing building self-reliance and bolstering ties with regional countries.

“Look East Policy” is what he pursued with great success in forging closer ties with regional countries, friendly nations and Eastern powers in defiance of the West’s relentless economic pressure campaign.

Iran’s thirteenth president, Raeisi, and his companions, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, were martyred in a helicopter crash while returning from an event on the border with Azerbaijan, which was in line with his government’s policy to boost economic ties with neighbors.

He always asserted that his administration seeks to work out strategies to neutralize the cruel sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic and at the same time pursue diplomacy to have them lifted without pinning hopes on the West to meet Iran's national interests.

“Iran’s foreign policy does not begin with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and does not end with it either,” he said at his first press conference after taking office in 2021, pointing to the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after the US withdrawal under then-President Donald Trump in 2018.

President Raeisi’s administration began fostering stronger political, economic, and strategic connections with regional countries, including those in the Persian Gulf, and countries in the Eastern hemisphere, particularly those in Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America.

The goal of cultivating closer and stronger ties with these countries was to broaden alliance networks and nullify the impact of sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by Western hegemonic powers.

To implement his foreign policy centered on closer ties with neighboring countries as well as countries across the world that oppose US-led multilateralism, Raeisi embarked on many historic foreign visits.

First stop in Tajikistan for SCO summit

In September 2021, nearly a month after he assumed office, President Raeisi traveled to Tajikistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The full membership in this powerful regional bloc will remain one of the key highlights of his presidency.

Raeisi’s visit to Dushanbe was expected to culminate in Iran being welcomed as a full member of SCO after waiting for years as an observer to join the Eurasian political, economic and security alliance which was launched in 2001 by China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics.

Iran, which acquired observer status in the multilateral organization in June 2005, was expected to make a strong pitch for permanent membership at the summit, with the support of all-weather allies Russia and China.

It finally materialized in July 2023 when Iran gained full membership of the world’s largest regional organization in terms of geographic scope and population.

Iran’s close partnership with SCO member states, in particular the economic giant China, has already dealt a major blow to Western monopoly and paved the way for a new world order, according to experts.

During his stay in Dushanbe, he met his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon and the two sides signed six memorandums of understanding (MOUs) in line with his 'good-neighborliness' policy.

“I hope that this trip will open a new chapter in our relationship with Tajikistan, and we will witness the expansion of cultural, tourism and scientific relations along with economic and trade ties,” Raeisi said at the time.

Turkmenistan trip for 15th ECO Summit

In November 2021, President Raeisi embarked on another historic foreign trip, this time to Ashgabat to attend the 15th summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization, known as ECO.

The international standing of this multilateral organization, established in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey with the aim of promoting economic, technical and cultural cooperation between the member countries, has consistently grown over the years.

The regional organization is the antithesis of the West’s policy to weaken convergence in the Asian region, especially anything that involves Iran’s participation.

One point of its strength is its role in helping defeat the economic blockade of Western powers and neutralizing their sanctions as well as developing regional trade.

On the sidelines of the summit, Iran also signed a trilateral gas swap contract with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to swap 2 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan every year.

With both sides determined to engage in more bilateral trade, in June 2022, President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedow paid his first visit to Iran, just three months after he assumed office, seeking to forge closer ties with his country’s southern neighbor.

His trip was seen as the start of a new chapter in Tehran-Ashgabat economic cooperation.

First visit to Russia: ‘A turning point’

In January 2021, President Raeisi, at the head of a high-ranking delegation, met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, in a visit that grabbed headlines in the corporate Western media.

On the first day of his historic trip, which he described as a “turning point” in Iran-Russia relations, Raeisi held a three-hour meeting with his Russian counterpart.

During the meeting, the Iranian president said the Islamic Republic seeks to forge closer and stronger strategic relations with Moscow in different arenas.

Raeisi also said the two sides discussed steps to challenge the dominance of the US dollar and continue trade in their national currencies.

It turned out to be a hugely successful foreign trip for any Iranian president since the 1979 revolution, which is reflected in the way the two all-weather allies have gone on to take their ties to another level.

Trip to Qatar, first by Iranian president in 11 years

In February 2022, President Raeisi traveled to Qatar, which was the first official visit to the Persian Gulf country by an Iranian president in 11 years.

During the visit, Qatar and Iran signed 14 memoranda of understanding in the fields of aviation, trade, shipping, media, cancellation of visa requirements, electricity, standards, education and culture.

“We view this visit as a step towards activating diplomacy with neighbors, especially Persian Gulf countries, and to use their capacities to develop political and economic ties,” Raeisi said before departing Tehran for Doha.

The historic trip proved critical in opening a new chapter in their relations at a time when the American influence in the region is waning and a new multilateral world order is taking shape.

Trip to Oman, harbinger of closer ties

In May 2022, President Raeisi traveled to Oman at the invitation of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said.

It marked his first visit to Oman since the appointment of Tariq al-Said as the Arab country's ruler in January 2020 following the death of his cousin Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

During the trip, Iranian and Omani officials signed 12 cooperation documents and memoranda of understanding aimed at the expansion of bilateral cooperation in various fields.

“In meetings with senior Omani officials, it was emphasized that it is necessary for the two countries to have this cooperation at the regional and international levels, even as the positions of the two countries are remarkably in sync on many issues,” the Iranian president said at the time.

Second visit to Turkmenistan for regional summit

In June 2022, President Raeisi traveled to Ashgabat on his second visit to Turkmenistan to attend the 6th summit of the heads of state of the Caspian Sea littoral states to discuss regional cooperation and other important regional and international issues.

“The Caspian Sea littoral states will be discussing ways to prevent foreign interference,” Raeisi told reporters before leaving Tehran for Turkmenistan.

In a communiqué, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan emphasized the importance of cooperation among the Caspian nations.

The presidents of Iran and Turkmenistan also reviewed agreements reached between the two sides, noting their full implementation would open a new chapter in bilateral ties and bring a leap in economic and commercial relations between Tehran and Ashgabat.

Uzbekistan trip for SCO summit

President Raeisi traveled to Samarkand in September 2022 to attend the much-anticipated summit of the SCO for the second time during his tenure.

He held wide-ranging discussions with his counterparts from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Belarus, China, Turkey, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan as well as the prime ministers of India and Pakistan and the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The trip also resulted in the conclusion of 17 cooperation documents in the fields of energy, industry, agriculture, sports and culture and a meeting between Iran and 11 SCO member states.

Trip to New York for 77th UNGA summit

In September 2022, President Raeisi also traveled to New York for what was his first appearance at the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session.

His speech at the UNGA was the highlight of the summit in which he exposed and denounced the policies of Western hegemonic powers.

“The United Nations should truly be an organization for nations not that of powers,” President Raeisi said in a meeting with António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, at the time.

He delivered a speech about the Islamic Republic’s stance on a “fair international order through economic multilateralism.”

During his speech, he called for the prosecution of former US president Donald Trump, stressing that Iran will pursue the assassination of the country’s top anti-terror commander, General Qassem Soleimani, directly ordered by Trump on January 3, 2020.

President Raeisi surprised everyone by holding a photo of General Soleimani on the podium of the UN General Assembly and blasting those who assassinated him.

On the sidelines of the UNGA summit, he met and held talks with the presidents of France, Bolivia, Switzerland, Finland, Serbia and Zimbabwe and the prime ministers of Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Japan and Armenia, as well as the president of the European Council.

Kazakhstan trip for 6th CICA summit

In October 2022, President Raeisi left for Astana to attend the 6th Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), stressing the importance of cooperation between Iran and Asian countries to ensure peace, stability, and security in the region.

“Cooperation with these organizations is a good opportunity and can strengthen convergence, neighborliness and multilateralism,” he told reporters before departing for the summit.

CICA member states cover 90 percent of the area of the Asian continent and host almost half of the world’s population, which lends it strategic importance.

President Raeisi’s participation in the summit and his meetings with many Asian leaders allowed Iran to engage in the dialogue about solving Asian problems and finding an effective way to promote initiatives for interaction and confidence building at the highest levels.

On the sidelines of the one-day visit, he also held talks with the Qatari emir and the Azerbaijani president.

A historic, game-changing visit to China

President Raeisi paid a three-day historic visit to China in February 2023, the first state visit by an Iranian president to the country in 20 years.

During the visit, the two sides signed 20 cooperation documents worth more than $10 billion in the fields of agriculture, trade, tourism, environmental protection, health, disaster relief, culture and sport.

Iran and China signed the landmark strategic partnership agreement in March 2021, which seeks to enhance cooperation between the two countries in economic, political, cultural, security, and defense areas for the next 25 years.

The $400 billion deal was announced during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tehran in 2016.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kan’ani at a weekly press conference at the time, said President Raeisi’s visit to China would pave the way for the implementation of plans and projects foreseen in the 25-year agreement.

The deal also paves the way for Iran’s likely participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe.

China’s rapidly expanding economy and growth indicators imply that it will keep improving its global position and achieve further economic growth and directly challenge America’s economic dominance, which explains the unease caused at the time in Washington by Raeisi’s China visit.

President Raeisi's visit to China came shortly after President Xi Jinping joined Persian Gulf Cooperation Council leaders to issue a statement on Iran's Persian Gulf Islands, which didn't go well with Iran.

The highlight of the visit was China's offering to mediate in the restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which eventually produced goods when officials of Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing and agreed to restore ties after almost seven years of tension.

A ‘strategic’ visit to Syria

In May 2023, President Raeisi traveled to Syria on an official invitation by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit took place after 13 years in continuation of the administration’s neighborliness diplomacy.

The Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi described as “strategic” Raeisi’s two-day trip to Syria, saying it boosts bilateral relations and reinforces the Axis of Resistance.

Pertinently, Iran stood up to the Syrian government in the most difficult times when West-backed terrorists and mercenaries were creating havoc in the Arab country.

President Raeisi's visit to Syria came after many Persian Gulf and European countries agreed to restore ties with Syria and recognize the democratically elected government led by Bashar al-Assad.

Landmark visit to Indonesia

President Raeisi traveled to Jakarta in May 2023 at the invitation of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo.

According to Indonesia’s Trade Ministry, Raeisi’s trip to the Muslim-majority nation was expected to improve mutual relations as Tehran seeks alternatives to the US-led Western domination of international affairs and further cooperation after the two states concluded negotiations on the Indonesia-Iran Preferential Trade Agreement at the time.

The ministry’s data at the time showed that trade between Indonesia and Iran amounted to $54.1 million between January and March 2023, while the bilateral trade value a year before that increased by more than 23 percent to $257.2 million.

Senior officials of Iran and Indonesia signed 11 documents and agreements to strengthen cooperation.

According to the agreements, Tehran and Jakarta would improve cooperation in preferential trade, cancellation of visas, cultural exchanges, and supervision over pharmaceutical products, science and technology as well as oil and gas.

Speaking to the media before his departure, President Raeisi said Iran and Indonesia are united against unilateralism and that the two Muslim countries support lasting peace and security in the region.

“Indonesia is an important country in Southeast Asia and has an important position in regional and international developments,” he told reporters.

Groundbreaking Latin America tour

In June 2023, President Raeisi left Tehran on a five-day tour of three Latin American countries, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, nations that, according to the Iranian president, share Iran’s views on “opposing hegemony and unilateralism.”

He held talks with the officials, economic players and business leaders of the three countries and signed 35 documents and agreements to boost cooperation in various fields such as energy, industry, mining, power plants and biotechnology.

“We will pursue a balanced view of the East, the West, Latin America and all countries [across the world]… It was necessary to review and activate our relations with Latin America as a strategic center in the world,” he said after returning to Iran.

Iran and the three Latin American countries have shared experiences of facing US sanctions and refusing to be bullied into submission despite overt and covert pressures.

Tour of Africa, the 'land of opportunities

President Raeisi in July 2023 embarked on a three-nation tour of Sub-Saharan Africa, the first in 11 years by an Iranian president, which aimed at increasing Iran’s footprint in a region with an economy of $600 billion.

He travelled to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda at the head of a delegation describing the continent as the “land of opportunities” whose potential should not be overlooked.

A total of 21 documents on cooperation in different areas were signed during the three-state tour to Africa.

“We believe that the world is not limited to the West,” Raeisi said, stressing that Iran’s foreign policy is based on engaging with the whole world.

“Africa is as important as America and Asia,” he added.

Trip to New York for 78th UNGA summit

In September 2023, President Raeisi traveled to New York for the second time during his presidency to take part in the 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and hold talks with senior officials attending the event.

In his thumping speech at the UNGA session, he said the project to “Americanize” the world has “failed.”

“The world is irreversibly transitioning into a novel order. The Western domination equation does not work for the world anymore, and the old liberal order that used to serve the interests of imperialists and insatiable capitalists, has been brushed to one side,” he added.

In a brave and widely lauded move, he held a copy of the Holy Quran in his hands and blasted those who fan the flames of Islamophobia, including the acts of Quran burnings in Western countries.

"It shall never burn. It is eternal," he remarked.

Second visit to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

In November 2023, President Raeisi traveled to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the second time during his term in office.

During his one-day stay in Tajikistan, the Iranian delegation signed 18 documents on commercial, industrial, transportation, energy, cultural and scientific cooperation, as well as fighting narcotics trafficking.

He then travelled to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, to attend the 16th summit of ECO, under the chairmanship of Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

First trip to Saudi Arabia after rapprochement

In November 2023, President Raeisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met for the first time since the two countries agreed to restore relations as part of an agreement reached in Beijing.

The meeting was the most high-profile encounter between senior Iranian and Saudi Arabian officials since the two regional powers severed bilateral ties over the execution of a top Saudi Shia cleric and critic of the kingdom's rulers, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Iran and Saudi Arabia then moved to reopen their respective embassies while exchanging trade delegations to deepen their economic cooperation.

Second important visit to Russia

In December 2023, President Raeisi met his Russian counterpart, Putin, for the second time in two years.

The main agenda of his one-day trip included consultation on bilateral issues, including economic interactions, as well as discussion on regional and international issues, especially the issue of Palestine and developments in Gaza.

During the meeting, Putin said the signing of a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union mission is on Russia’s agenda.

‘New chapter’ in ties with Turkey

In January 2024, President Raeisi traveled to Turkey’s capital Ankara, where he met and held talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Raeisi and Erdoğan oversaw the signing of 10 joint cooperation documents in various fields, including culture, media and communication, rail and air transportation, electricity, energy, economic and free trade zones.

Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said at the time that the visit and its results would mark “the beginning of a new chapter” in bilateral and regional cooperation between the two powerful neighbors.

First presidential visit to Algeria in 14 years

In March 2024, President Raeisi traveled to Algeria on what was the first trip by an Iranian president to the North African country in 14 years.

During the visit, which came at the official invitation of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the two presidents signed several memoranda of understanding aimed at boosting bilateral ties.

Raeisi, heading a high-ranking politico-economic delegation, also attended the 7th meeting of the leaders of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF).

He also met other top officials from the 19-member gathering of the world’s leading natural gas producers.

Raeisi’s trip was part of Iran’s efforts to revive and boost relations with countries in North Africa, including Sudan, with which Iran has had strained relations in recent years, as well as Egypt, a country that has had virtually no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979.

Trip to Pakistan to bolster security, trade ties

In April 2024, heading a high-ranking politico-economic delegation, President Raeisi arrived in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

According to the president's office, the visit was aimed at boosting economic and trade ties between the two neighboring countries, especially after recent tension.

“In line with its neighborliness policy, the Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to take new steps to develop and promote relations with neighboring countries,” Raeisi said at the time.

He also said that the two neighboring countries aim to increase the value of their trade and economic exchanges to $10 billion given their great capacities.

Trip to Sri Lanka to inaugurate mega project

After his trip to Pakistan, President Raeisi traveled to Sri Lanka to take part in the inauguration ceremony of a mega-multi-purpose project built by Iranian contractors, which was long delayed due to international sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

The Uma Oya project includes two dams, a 28-kilometer water transmission tunnel and a 120-MW underground power plant.

The multipurpose super project, valued at $514 million, is one of the largest in providing technical and engineering services in Iran to other countries in the fields of dam construction, water transfer, and electricity production.

During his one-day trip to Sri Lanka, Raeisi also held talks with the officials of the South Asian country, attended several inauguration ceremonies and signed five memoranda of understanding.

Last stop: Iran-Azerbaijan border

President Raeisi and his Azerbaijani counterpart Aliyev inaugurated a dam built jointly by the two neighboring states on the Aras River at their common border last Sunday.

The Qiz Qalasi dam, with a capacity of 62 million cubic meters, is projected to generate 270 megawatt hours of electricity per annum. It is the largest joint water project between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

While returning from the ceremony, the helicopter carrying the president and his companions crashed in a mountainous area due to inclement weather.

Their bodies were found the next day after a night-long search and rescue operation by dozens of teams.

Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, who was among his companions, also lost his life in the tragic accident.

Last week, Iran's top diplomat said trade between the Islamic Republic and its neighbors has reached over $90 billion because of the Raeisi administration attaching great importance to closer relations with neighbors.




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