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.”
As Iran became the ninth member of the SCO, 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.”
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.