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Source: Al Jazeera

Feb 13, 2023

By Maziar Motamedi


Senior Iranian officials, including the central bank chief and the top nuclear negotiator, accompany president Raisi on his three-day trip.


Tehran, Iran Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to depart from Tehran late on Monday as he leads a large delegation to China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.


The three-day trip is Raisi’s first state visit to the Asian economic giant and the first by an Iranian president in 20 years, according to Iranian state media.


Raisi and Xi had first met as presidents on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan in September. China had supported Iran’s now-successful bid to become a full member of the organisation.


The Iranian president, who assumed office in August 2021, is accompanied by a wide-ranging team, including the new central bank governor, pointing to his priorities during the trip.


Six members of Raisi’s cabinet, including ministers of economy, petroleum, foreign affairs, trade, transport and urban development, and agriculture are also part of the delegation.


An op-ed by Raisi was published on Monday in a leading Chinese publication, in which he welcomed expanding bilateral ties. Raisi will hold a meeting with Xi, followed by negotiations between delegations that are expected to lead to the signing of several agreements in the presence of the presidents.


Mohammad Jamshidi, Raisi’s deputy for political affairs, told state television on Sunday that the main goal of the trip is to “finalise the operational mechanisms” of the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement the two countries signed in 2021.


In early 2022, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had said the agreement had entered the implementation stage but no major contracts or projects have been announced under the agreement so far as Iran remains under heavy United States sanctions.


China invested just $162m in the Iranian economy during the first year of Raisi’s presidency, less than Afghanistan and Turkey, according to an Iranian investment official. China, nevertheless, remains Iran’s largest trade partner, with Iranian customs data for the first 10 months of the current Iranian calendar year that ends in March showing Iran exported $12.6bn worth of goods to China and imported $12.7bn.


China also continues to buy oil from Iran despite the US sanctions, but exact volumes are kept under wraps. A number of companies that track data have said Iran’s oil exports hit new highs in the last two months of 2022 and had a strong start to 2023.


Along with Russia, China has also signalled it supports Iran’s bid to join the powerful BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.


Nuclear deal, GCC row

China is a signatory of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that also includes Russia, the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – which Washington unilaterally abandoned in 2018.


The Iranian president is also accompanied by Ali Bagheri Kani, the country’s top nuclear negotiator, who has been holding talks with the West aimed at restoring the accord. The talks, which began in early 2021, however, remain deadlocked.


This could be a signal that the talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, could also be a significant part of the visit. The US publicly maintains that the nuclear talks are currently not a priority amid Tehran’s alleged supply of drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine and following months of deadly protests across Iran.


But Tehran has accused Washington of hypocrisy as it claims messages are regularly exchanged between the two through intermediaries in an effort to restore the JCPOA.


Meanwhile, the Raisi visit also comes shortly after Tehran called in China’s ambassador to Tehran in December to convey “strong dissatisfaction” after Xi issued a controversial joint statement with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.


Xi, who has also pursued closer ties with other countries in the region, including some of Iran’s Arab rivals, had signed the statement that called to question Iran’s ownership of three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, in addition to raising points about Iran’s regional presence and nuclear programme.



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