Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi gave a speech on Monday in which he outlined Iran's regional and domestic goals. It contained an interesting and important series of talking points that hinted at the regime's focus. Here are several key takeaways from the speech.
Iran and China enjoy increasing bilateral ties. These include a 25-year agreement, increased investment in trade and closer work in the political sphere. The overall trend is that Iran is moving closer to China and also cementing an alliance with Russia, because it does not want to rely on the West anymore.
After the experience of the Iran nuclear deal and the endless talks about a return to it, Tehran has concluded that working with Beijing is more reliable than working with the West. This is important because while other countries in the region also work with China, many of them are still oriented toward the West.
The Iran-China relationship can transform Iran's weak economy. But Beijing also has hurdles today with a weakening currency and crisis in its housing sector. Declining demographics in China and the pandemic are continuing to send shock waves through the government over its ability to continue the current growth rate. Iran might think it is tying itself to a rising economy only to find out that China will use Iran instead and not empower it the way Iran thinks it will.
Delayed response to Israel's actions
Raisi did not focus extensively on Israel but did hint that Iran might choose to respond to the Jewish state at a later date of its choosing. This delayed response is in contrast to Iran's usual boasting about destroying Israel. Tehran appears to be biding its time and considering its approach. It wants to use proxies such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad to confront Israel in smaller engagements and then wait for a larger crisis to emerge. The Islamic Republic prefers to sacrifice others against Israel, rather than its own officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran is increasingly focused on domestic issues. It wants to beat inflation, increase wages and provide more Internet access. The government is focused on defeating corruption as well. Raisi's general view is that the previous Iranian government squandered resources and time and that he has had to pick up the pieces of a shattered and weak economy.
Tehran wants to work on establishing more trade routes to the East and connecting road and rail networks so it can move goods from the North, such as from Azerbaijan and Turkey to southern ports and also connect Central Asia to Iraq and the Gulf.
Iran reaching out to Russia, Turkey and the Gulf
The Islamic Republic is positioning itself to be a more responsible partner in work with Russia and the Gulf states, as well as with Turkey. This is in contrast to Iran's usual role of destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon through the use of proxies. It wants clearer bilateral ties and, in this regard, is openly talking up its ties to Russia and Turkey as well as reconciliation with Saudi Arabia.
That being said, Iran continues to condemn the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for their peace agreements with Israel. This is the Janus-face of the Iranian regime. It is addicted to using proxies such as Hezbollah or the Houthis to undermine states in the region, but it also wants to find a way to have real economic and possible defense ties with Moscow.
It's not clear if it can do both. Moscow, Turkey and the Gulf have their own goals, which don't always intersect with Iran's. For instance, pro-Iranian militias target Turkey in Iraq and Iranian militias in Syria undermine the regime's authority. Iran's role in Yemen threatens Saudi Arabia. In each case where Tehran wants better ties, it may have to create a trade-off for them.
Nuclear industry, but no nuclear weapons
Raisi argued that the country has a right to nuclear energy development. In this regard, he said Iran will not give up its rights to nuclear development, and that it doesn't want to develop nuclear weapons. He said this in a roundabout way. Iran wants sanctions relief and some safeguards to make sure the West doesn't again renege on the deal sometime in the future.
This is the usual narrative of the Iranian regime, focusing on the "right" to have nuclear technology but claiming that it doesn't want nuclear weapons. Iran has claimed in the past it has a religious edict against the development of such weapons. However, resorting to such claims seems to mask the reality in which Iran has a long history of duplicity.
"We have declared many times that nuclear weapons have no place in our nuclear doctrine," the Iranian president said. "Many times, the leadership has declared that it is forbidden, and we have also declared in our foreign policy that it has no place in our foreign policy." This is a comment that refers to previous comments, but in which the Iranian leader doesn't state his own preference.
This is the usual attempt at distraction regarding the fact that Iran has been enriching uranium and installing advanced centrifuges, while saying, "We said in the past we don't want nuclear weapons." But what about today? Saying Tehran doesn't want nuclear weapons for its foreign policy or doctrine doesn't really solve the puzzle of whether it wants the weapons in general. Iran knows how to use language to hide its real intentions.
Tough talk on Washington
Iran wants the US to know that it doesn't need a deal and isn't begging. It isn't trying to please America or even put forward propaganda to help the Iran lobby in the US push a deal.
Raisi isn't pretending to be a "moderate." His message is clear: Iran wants sanctions relief and it wants a return to the nuclear agreement, but it won't do anything to get to that agreement because it views the West as having let it down. The Islamic Republic wants America to know that it has other options, such as China and Russia, and will do as it pleases.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.