After UNGA, what have we learned about Iranian President Raisi's foreign policy?

Gatherings at the United Nations often shed light on the ever-changing diplomatic outlook of Tehran

President Ebrahim Raisi addressing the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. EPA
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On the 34th floor of a skyscraper on a busy Manhattan intersection is Iran’s only diplomatic presence in the US: its permanent mission to the UN. Its embassy in Washington has been closed for decades, as has the US embassy in Tehran. The Iranian New York mission, however, has remained a rare constant, and a reminder that even in the face of deep bilateral tensions, countries always have an opportunity to engage on the world stage.

The UN, particularly its annual UN General Assembly (UNGA), gives all countries, big and small, a moment to announce their geopolitical priorities in front of the world. This is even more consequential for countries such as Iran, whose tendency towards unpredictable and dogmatic foreign policy often isolates it on the international stage. At the UN, the world gets a strong sense of where Tehran intends to head that year, for better or worse.

In the aftermath of 9/11, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami grabbed the world's attention, particularly in the West, with a speech at the Assembly in firm solidarity with the victims of the attacks, labelling the terrorists responsible as a “cult of fanatics who had self-mutilated their ears and tongues”. He called for all countries around the world to foster harmony and empathy and enter into a dialogue of civilisations. It was arguably the most conciliatory gesture from an Iranian president since 1979. On the other hand, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the platform on multiple occasions to imply 9/11 was a conspiracy.

Today at the 76th UNGA, Iran's new President, Ebrahim Raisi, is giving the world similar clues as to what his administration will mean for Iran's global position. While he has not taken the conspiratorial path of Mr Ahmadinejad, early remarks make it clear that he is also not pursuing Mr Khatami's conciliatory tone. The new President has already hailed the end of US "hegemony" in international affairs, saying that the "project of imposing westernised identity has failed miserably”.

Outside the UN, Mr Raisi has been busy pursuing diplomatic initiatives that play well to his conservative base. He constantly stresses the need for western powers to restore Iranian trust in negotiations for a new nuclear deal, stressing that talks must ensure his country's "rights". On Sunday, he met Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to ask Toyko to release funds that have been frozen in Japan because of US sanctions.

It is of course legitimate for Iran to voice constructive diplomatic cases to the world, both at the UN and outside. In return, it must expect them from others, too. It must acknowledge petitions such as Wednesday's call from Saudi Arabia's King Salman to keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East. It must allow the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, which earlier this month described how Tehran had hampered its inspectors at the Natanz nuclear facility. And Yemenis, 16 million of whom are at risk of starvation according to the UN's World Food Programme, deserve Iran's input in solving the country's conflict and reining in the Houthis, a particularly violent Iranian proxy.

Iran must realise that the respect it demands from other countries will only be won if it, too, shows willingness to engage and listen to the countries and organisations that are concerned about its destabilising activity. Going into his presidency, there may be a temptation for Mr Raisi to use platforms such as the UNGA to deliver the defiant, aggressive statements of old. This would be missing the point of the world gathering at the UN to come up with necessary solutions.

Published: September 24, 2021, 3:00 AM