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As sanctions bite, Iran's Raisi talks business in China  

The trip came at a moment of increasing international isolation, which has left Iran with fewer options than ever before in selling its lifeline oil.  
President Xi Jinping held talks with President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran on his state visit to China on Feb. 14, 2023.

TEHRAN — Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in China on Tuesday for a three-day state visit, where according to his spokesman, trade was topping the agenda.

Raisi is heading a high-level delegation comprising ministers of oil, finance, transport, agriculture, industry and foreign affairs as well as the country's top nuclear negotiator and the central bank governor.  

In the first few hours of the visit, the state-run IRNA news agency reported that 20 memoranda of understanding were inked between the two sides, encompassing a diverse range of fields from trade, agriculture and information technology to health care, environment and tourism.

Also expected to be signed is a key transport agreement worth $12 billion that allows Chinese investment in a high-speed rail line project connecting the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad to the capital Tehran, while giant Chinese projects in the development of Iran's strategic southeast Makran coast are to be in focus as well.   

'Look to the East' policy  

Ahead of the visit, Raisi sat down with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to local media, for what seemed to be last-minute tips and advice on the visit. As the man maintaining the absolute final say in all major foreign policy and domestic matters, Khamenei has for years been robustly advancing what is known in Iran as the "Look to the East" policy.  

The strategy seeks to explore alternative paths of trade and diplomacy in China and Russia to ease the onerous burden of Western sanctions that have targeted the Iranian economy over the past four decades.

To materialize the notion, Khamenei ordered the administration of former President Hassan Rouhani in 2021 to sign a 25-year strategic partnership deal with China. Bypassing legislative procedures, the accord drew ferocious criticism at home for its shadowy and controversial nature, leading to speculation that the Islamic Republic was effectively taking the first step toward turning into a China colony over time.


Nearly two years into the deal's signing, Iranian authorities continue to remain vague on the status of the progress. Pursuit of the very same agreement, Iranian media said, is at the core of the talks during the ongoing Raisi visit.  

Facing draconian international banking restrictions, Iran has had a hard time selling out its crude, the lifeline to its ailing economy, and has thus been hoping for sanctions relief by reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the dim prospects in the negotiations have further shrunk Iran's options, making it more reliant on China as the top customer, which enjoys generous discounts during the desperate sanctions times.

Whether the Islamic Republic should be putting all eggs in the China basket is also a pressing question raised by pundits at home, as they cite Washington's particular fixation on Beijing to reduce purchases from Tehran.

China's latest approach in its ties with Iran's regional rivals — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have not been the best of what the Islamic Republic could be expecting. Back in December, Chinese President Xi Jinping threw his weight behind Abu Dhabi's claim on three disputed Persian Gulf islands controlled by Tehran, a highly sensitive sovereignty issue in the minds of Iranian authorities.

Yet minding the fine line and cautious not to risk losing one of the very few remaining partners, the Islamic Republic only expressed mild and diplomatic criticism. Despite relentless pressure from domestic media, Iranian officials did not "summon" the Chinese ambassador, but rather asked him for a "meeting" at the Foreign Ministry to present him with Iran's expression of "discontent" rather than condemnation.

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