Fereydoun Majlessi: China is the only remaining significant possibility for the Iranian foreign trade

Interview with the Iranian foreign policy expert on current international relations issues around Iran: the Iran-Saudi deal, the relations with Russia and China, the Iranian nuclear deal, the conflicts in Caucasus, the Shia axis of resistance in the Middle East and Iran’s relations with the Global South

iran in international relations

Vladimir Mitev, The Persian Bridge of Friendship

Fereydoun Majlessi is a former diplomat, who served in Washington DC and in Brussels in the European community before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Since then he has been a manager and an entrepreneur, as well as a writer and translator. He has translated Gore Vidal into Persian. At present he is a freelance journalist, columnist and a foreign policy expert. 

He spoke to the Persian Bridge of Friendship about Iran in international relations today.

Saudi-Iranian deal’s effect

Mr. Majlessi, what changes should we expect in the Iranian internal and foreign policy after the reconciliation with Saudi Arabia?

I really cannot foresee any important political change in the bilateral relation. Maybe there will be some facilitation for the consular affairs and pilgrimage visits could be provided. Saudi Arabia has made its decision to prefer the economic and social developments to the political and military resistance and jihad in her regional policies. Even though Iran, just like Saudi Arabia, tired from expenditures in the Yemen war, it still persists in its resistance against Israel, and rejects the peaceful solutions in this regard. So, this part of the problem remains open for a while!

How is the Iranian-Saudi peace deal resetting international relations in the Middle East? To what extent is it possible that there comes Israeli-Iranian rapprochement and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in a Middle East that is under the aegis of China?

The Iranian-Saudi deal could probably provide a precondition for a peaceful solution in Yemen, maybe a sort of federal state. I don’t see if there might be an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in the near future! The problem is the animosity of jihadist Palestinians in Gaza. China, having an apparent role in this settlement between Tehran and Riad, has important business interests in Iran, and more important interests in Saudi Arabia. This factor contributed to the Chinese effort to do conflict settlement, because it wanted to have better business opportunities and balance her relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. China also has business interests in relations with Israel, so the Palestinian affair doesn’t have an important role for them.

Tehran’s policy of cooperation with Beijing and Moscow

Under president Raisi Iran has been following a foreign policy of “looking to the East”, that is to China and Russia. What are the results and benefits of this foreign policy for Iran? 

Relations with China are important for Iran. China is the only important remaining open window for Iran foreign trade. Russia in turn is the largest and wealthiest neighbour of Iran and naturally under normal international relations they should have much more important interactions. But the fact is that presently Russia is not a buyer of Iranian petroleum products (contrary to China), and also is a competitor in that field, as well as the steel market. Iranian businessmen are not very familiar with the Russian market. But of course, if we take into the account the importance of Iranian governmental companies, they might establish their own relations. As far as the theory of China and Russia being in the same block, namely East, I believe, this might be a sort of misunderstanding from the Cold War era, and not an actual reality that China sees itself in this way!   

Iran has been supplying kamikaze drones to Russia for its war with Ukraine. What is the Iranian logic behind that? What is the nature of the Iranian relations with both Russia and Ukraine?

That is a question that I am not aware of its nature and reality, so not qualified to answer, but personally, I am against any military interference in other conflicts. Russia is the powerful and rich neighbor of Iran, it stands next door, so geography says it can be a more important partner for Iran, while Ukraine is an important European country which requires friendly relations!

The Iranian nuclear deal

To what extent does the Iranian nuclear deal remain a viable foreign policy option for the West and Iran? Why did Iran and the US not reach an agreement in the times before 24 February 2022? Aren’t Iranians, especially those of the middle class traditionally pro-European and pro-Western?

I hope that Iran and the world will bring themselves near to a peaceful solution for Iranian nuclear activities under surveillance of the UN. I don’t consider the Iranian middle class pro-Western. Today there are no differences between Europe, China, Brasilia, and India, in business relations. Any country with a more open attitude, better price and quality is preferred as a partner. The Iranian middle class believe that the Iranian international relations should not be monopolized by any country that will damage the national interest. We want to have our free choice, and we will be glad to have much more competing options in the international market.  

The conflict in Caucasus

What are the Iranian foreign policy considerations regarding the Caucasus, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan? 

I am not in a position to be informed and could answer your question. But my own wish is to have best relations with both neighboring countries. I believe that peace could be reached if these Caucasus countries recognize the legitimate rights of each other. Armenia has a historic and established right to the Armenian part of Nagorno-Karabakh, not more, which requires an access passage right between the main land of Armenia and the Armenian part of Nagorno-Karabakh; and Azerbaijan Republic has also a legitimate expectation for being given an access passage right between her main land and the divided province of Nakhijevan. Iran could be the intermediator to make peace between the two nations and benefit the mutual good neighborly relations.  

What is the role which Turkey plays for Iran in its regional foreign policy – an ally, an economic partner, a competitor, a rival? What would change in the Turkish-Iranian relations if Kemal Kilicdaroglu becomes Turkey’s president?

It is also in the benefit of Turkey to take part in such a regional arrangement and benefit the peaceful relations despite animosity!

Iran’s international allies and partners

What are the perspectives before the so-called axis of resistance – the network of Iranian Shia allies in the Middle East? How are the anti-Iranian sanctions and changes in international relations with the move towards bipolarity or multipolarity affecting Iranian regional foreign policy?

I hope that they come to a normal international term of relations, and finish these unfortunate and destructive policies. A sort of ceasefire could help!

Iran is engaging the Shanghai Security Organization and the BRICS member states, as it aims for a post-unipolar world order. How realistic is it that Iranian cooperation with the Global South provides economic resources and political clout for Iran so that it could resolve its internal social and economic problems?

I think before returning Iran to the international platform and accepting the protocols of FATF (the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog – Iran is one of the very few countries, who do no adhere to the standards and supervision of FATF – note of the editor), there might be no hope for those aims better than now.

Social and economic condition of Iranians

What is the current situation with the Iranian Protests over the mandatory hijab? Aren’t these protests also provoked by the Iranian president’s abandoning of the principle “Neither West, nor East”, and its replacement with the “Look to the East” in Iranian foreign policy?

It takes a little more time for the ruling circles in Iran to accept the social changes of the new generations. I don’t regard either the ad-hoc slogan of “Neither West, nor East” or the slogan of “Look to the East” as a real rule of government. An independent state should take her political decisions, with regard to East or West, according to the requirements under actual circumstances.   

What are the economic perspectives before Iran and Iranians in 2023?

It is really not easy to predict. Opening relations with Saudi Arabia could be regarded as a new way of returning to the international forum according to the principles of realpolitik. If this policy expands, there could be a prediction for a better condition. Otherwise, with the continuity of present regional conflict, the perspective of the future wouldn’t be better than it actually is!

Photo: The then foreign minister of China Wang Yi (center), the Saudi Arabian national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban (left) and Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani (right) agreed to a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation of the basis of a reactivation of a 2001 security cooperation accord as well as another earlier pact on trade, economy and investment.

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