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Iran's diplomatic drive: Raisi's focus on the Global South

July 14, 2023 at 8:55 am

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) is welcomed with an official ceremony by President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa (R) in Harare, Zimbabwe on July 13, 2023 [Iranian Presidency – Anadolu Agency]

It’s been quite a busy year for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in terms of diplomatic engagement. In February he made an official state visit to China, where 20 agreements were signed, in addition to receiving pledges from President Xi Jinping to strengthen security and economic cooperation – more on that later. Beijing was also the venue where Raisi’s administration agreed to resume diplomatic relations with regional rival Saudi Arabia the following month.

In May, Raisi visited close regional ally Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and signed long-term cooperation agreements. During his visit, Raisi also symbolically prayed at the historic Umayyad Mosque, achieving a gesture that Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once famously vowed to do in 2014 at the height of the country’s crisis. Following his Damascus visit, Raisi travelled to Indonesia, with the aim of enhancing “political, economic, commercial, cultural, and civilizational relations” with Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

Last month, the Iranian president embarked on a three-nation Latin America tour, visiting Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. These countries, like Iran, face sanctions imposed by the US. Despite efforts by the Islamic Republic’s adversaries in the region and the West to isolate it politically and economically, Raisi showcased that such attempts have not materialised.

On the contrary, Iran continues to strive to extend its outreach and influence worldwide, including in what is considered “America’s backyard”. In Caracas, Raisi hailed the new world order favouring independent states, noting that “imperialism is falling.”

Yesterday, Raisi concluded his three-nation Africa tour with a visit to Zimbabwe, where he received a warm welcome from President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who greeted him as “his brother”. Hundreds of Zimbabweans, including members of the Muslim community, also welcomed Raisi, waving banners and Iranian and Zimbabwean flags.

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Prior to his visit to the Southern African country, Raisi had visited Uganda and Kenya as part of his continental tour. The purpose of these visits, as stated by Iran’s foreign ministry, was to “promote economic diplomacy, strengthen political relations with friendly and aligned countries, and diversify the export destinations.”

During his trip, the Iranian leader signed 21 cooperation documents, covering various fields. These visits marked the first time an Iranian president had visited the African continent in 11 years since former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another principlist politician like Raisi.

It is worth noting that Iran’s previous President, Hassan Rouhani, who pursued a policy of engagement with the West, did not prioritise Africa in his foreign policy agenda. Rouhani’s approach, which aimed to improve relations with Western powers, faced criticism domestically, with some viewing him as an appeaser of the West. It was during Rouhani’s tenure, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reimposed sanctions on Tehran and even conducted the audacious and provocative assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. These events demonstrated that despite the Rouhani administration’s attempts to reach out and mend ties with the West, making concessions with foreign powers has only led to negative outcomes for Iran.

Speaking in Nairobi, where five cooperation agreements were signed, Raisi emphasised the potential of African countries, stating: “Africa is the continent of potentials. Iran views African countries as full of capacities, talents and natural and mineral resources. We also have many potentials. The exchange of these potentials can help the two countries progress.”

While in Uganda, a country that has faced criticism from the West regarding its anti-LGBT legislation, Raisi addressed the issue of Western exploitation of human rights as a political tool, stating, “Western colonialism seeks to exert pressure on sovereign nations by exploiting the human rights issue, using it as a political tool, and applying double standards.”

Significantly, in Zimbabwe, which like Iran is sanctioned by the US, President Mnangagwa told a press briefing after talks with Raisi that “It is critically important that we, the victims of Western sanctions, are talking to each other… that we show them that we’re united.”

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Raisi’s Africa tour signifies Iran’s renewed focus on fostering stronger political and economic ties with African nations and enhancing cooperation within the Global South. Unlike his predecessor, the hardliner president is sceptical of excessive engagement with the West and favours pragmatism to preserve the national interest. Under Raisi’s tenure, the 25-year strategic agreement with China was put into motion and recently, Iran became a fully-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

While Rouhani prioritised negotiations and conciliation with Western powers, Raisi is emphasising a more assertive and independent foreign policy approach. By strengthening ties with states outside of the so-called “international community” (essentially G7 countries), Iran aims to diversify its partnerships and reduce its reliance on Western markets and technologies. This strategic shift showcases Tehran’s determination to forge its own path in the global arena.

Raisi’s latest tour is an integral part of Iran’s broader strategy to enhance cooperation within the Global South. By reaching out to Asia, Latin America and Africa, Iran aims to foster solidarity and forge stronger alliances with countries that share “common political views” and challenges. Through this Africa tour, President Raisi aims to advance the idea of a more equitable and multipolar world order, which he spoke of in Venezuela. Furthermore, Iran’s accession to the SCO strengthens its commitment to expanding connections beyond Western countries and fostering closer relationships with nations in Eurasia.

This regional alliance, comprising major Eurasian powers China and Russia, presents a powerful platform for Iran to extend its political influence and strengthen economic ties with key partners. It opens avenues for greater economic cooperation, joint security initiatives and enhanced diplomatic engagement, all of which contribute to Tehran’s efforts to counter Western isolation attempts.

The whirlwind of diplomacy in recent months suggests that Iran is far from isolated, contrary to the West’s aspirations. The Africa tour also signifies a paradigm shift in Iran’s foreign policy approach at least compared to the previous government. By emphasising the importance of closer ties with African nations, Raisi is actively pursuing increased Global South cooperation through solidifying political and economic ties.

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As such, it is unlikely that Raisi’s next visits will include G7 nations. However, there are numerous other options available for diplomatic engagement. The rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, led to an official invitation extended by Saudi’s King Salman to President Raisi.

Additionally, earlier this month, Raisi received a formal invitation from South African President Matamela Ramaphosa to attend the upcoming BRICS+ summit in Johannesburg next month. This development is notable as both Saudi Arabia and Iran are keen to join the group.

The remaining months will be interesting as to where Raisi will head next, but with Global South cooperation high on the foreign policy agenda, it is probable that he will prioritise visiting a country that seeks to bypass Western sanctions or favours de-dollarisation, in alignment with Tehran’s advocacy for a multipolar world order.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.