Raisi: Iran Joining China-Russia Bloc Is Economic 'Opportunity' for Mideast

At a sideline press conference at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hailed his nation's recent joining of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an economic opportunity not only for the Islamic Republic itself, but for its neighbors to the east and west.

Responding to a question from Newsweek about the priorities and prospects of Iran not only pushing to boost relationships with China, Russia and other SCO states but also seeking to rebuild ties with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Raisi responded that "the SCO is an opportunity for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran is an opportunity for the SCO."

"We see the SCO having members that are Asian countries, of course, and this organization can connect various financial, economic and trade foundations in Asia — connect them closer together," he added.

Following Raisi's attendance at last week's SCO leaders' summit in the Uzbek capital of Samarkand, Iran's status was officially upgraded from observer state to full-fledged member, joining China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

He said Thursday that this development "certainly has benefits for the Islamic Republic of Iran, which can unify our economy with theirs."

"This is a great deal of trade volume, given the membership of countries like China, Russia and India in the SCO — other Central Asian countries are SCO members [as well]," Raisi said. "We believe that to be a very good opportunity to promote growth and economic and trade ties as well as other sectors."

He said that part of what Iran had to offer was its unique geography and connectivity as the SCO's first member in the Middle East.

He called Iran's membership "a mutually beneficial opportunity both for the organization, by using connections and geographical opportunities that the Islamic Republic has from west to east, north to south," and that "the Islamic Republic can also use these foundations that are already within the SCO to promote and expand upon trade and economic ties."

"Thereby, I believe this will be a guarantor for future benefits and multilateral benefits," he added.

Raisi expressed his gratitude to SCO states for their decision to admit Iran, and said his nation would take the opportunity to "extend that hand for collaboration and cooperation to east and west among our neighbors in order to fulfill that cooperation."

Iran, President, Ebrahim, Raisi, at, UNGA, NY
Iran President Ebrahim Raisi walks through the 77th United Nations General Assembly on September 21 in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

On the same day that Raisi spoke in New York, his top general, Chief of the Iranian Armed Forces' General Staff Mohammad Bagheri, told a news conference at a military paradein Iran that the naval forces of Iran, China and Russia would hold a joint exercise together this fall, according to the semi-official Mehr News Agency.

But the SCO was indeed expanding beyond the trio to include an increasingly diverse array of nations in Asia. As Iran became the ninth member, a number of states signed memorandums of understanding in order to join as dialogue partners.

These included six Arab countries — Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as well as the Maldives and Myanmar. Five of the Arab signatories are located just across the Persian Gulf from Iran on the Arabian Peninsula.

Revolutionary Shiite Muslim-led Iran's relationships with most of these wealthy Sunni Muslim monarchies have gone through decades of strain, especially since 2016, when Riyadh cut ties with Tehran altogether over Saudi Arabia's killing of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric. Iranian protesters responded to that event by burning down the Kingdom's embassy in the Islamic Republic. But diplomatic initiatives have slowly reemerged in recent years, including the UAE's decision last month to fully restore ties with Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have also been pursuing quiet talks, which have taken place primarily in Iraq. While no breakthroughs have been announced, both sides have continued to demonstrate a willingness to engage in dialogue toward easing tensions, and both have also increasingly invested in their relationships in the East, including China and Russia, a development that has unsettled the United States.

For Iran, these ties have the potential to offset the economic damage wrought by the US. 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the revival of which remains uncertain, as Washington and Tehran once again appear to have reached an impasse, leaving U.S. sanctions against Iran in place.

During Thursday's press conference, Raisi defended his country's insistence that Iran be provided guarantees against further economic damage in the event of a future U.S. withdrawal, and that an ongoing dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency be resolved as necessary conditions before a lasting agreement could be reached.

He also said his administration sought to increase it's engagement with other other nations.

"Engagement is with everyone," Raisi said, "Eastern countries as well as the West."

He said cooperation with China and Russia has been a particular focus for him, because his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who oversaw the signing of the JCPOA, had prioritized the West.

"I can describe the current foreign policy as balanced," Raisi said. "Any country that wishes to cooperate with the Islamic Republic of Iran, we wish to have engagement with them, as well as giving particular priority to neighboring countries, which we will pursue vigorously."

"Our report card shows we have followed that policy without wavering," he added. "If any country wishes to cooperate with the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will certainly pave the way to do that."

This extended even to nearby nations who normalized relations with Iran's archfoe, Israel, a longtime bitter foe of the Arab world that has since made significant inroads in the region. Two years before the UAE resumed relations with Iran, the Emirates led the Abraham Accords agreement to forge diplomatic ties with Israel, an initiative also joined by Bahrain and later Sudan and Morocco as well.

"For us, relations and contacts with neighbors are, of course, a priority," Raisi said, "these relationships must be given plenty of pathway to grow."

"However, at same time," he added, "we are allowed to have differences of opinion, to criticize one another."

Raisi argued that supporting the Palestinian struggle for statehood on territory that included soil claimed and occupied by Israel remained a priority as well for the Islamic Republic, as well as many across the Muslim world. He accused Israel of committing atrocities against Palestinians as part of the decades-long dispute between the two sides and asserted that any normalization equated to "a stab in the back of Palestinian rights."

With Iran's economic ties to the West wrapped in the uncertainty of the JCPOA, another challenge beset the Islamic Republic from within amid Raisi's first visit to the U.S. Protests have emerged nationwide in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being detained in Tehran by Iranian authorities who enforce the country's strict morality codes.

Amini's family and eyewitnesses have alleged that she was beaten by authorities prior to her death, though this account has been denied by officials. A coroner's report also denied foul play, but Raisi said he would continue to investigate the matter as he urged protesters act in an organized and legal manner.

"Demonstrations are good because certain people may have expressions of opinions they may bring forth on specific issues," Raisi said Thursday. "There are things today in the Islamic Republic of Iran that are debated, that in which there exist very different opinions, on political, cultural, social issues."

"There is no problem with opposing certain issues that are unaccepted by some," he added. "But when we get to destruction and vandalism, we must differentiate between legitimate demonstrations and those."