Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in China on Tuesday for a three-day visit, flanked by a large delegation including his central bank chief and ministers for trade, the economy and oil.
Raisi will hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in the capital Beijing, with the pair expected to sign a number of “cooperation documents”, Tehran has said.
Iran and China have strong economic ties – especially in the fields of energy, transit, agriculture, trade and investment – and in 2021 signed a 25-year “strategic cooperation pact”.
Both countries face pressure from Western nations over their positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was launched almost a year ago, and Iran is already under huge US sanctions due to its nuclear programme.
Iran has emerged as one of Russia’s few remaining allies as Moscow has been pushed deeper into international isolation over the invasion.
Western countries have accused Tehran of supplying armed drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, a charge it denies.
In December, Washington outlined what it said was an extensive relationship between Iran and Russia involving equipment such as helicopters, fighter jets and drones, with the latter resulting in new US sanctions.
Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine is a sensitive issue for Beijing, which has sought to position itself as neutral while offering diplomatic backing to its strategic ally Russia.
Raisi and Xi met for the first time last September at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan, where the Iranian president called for expanded ties. This is the first state visit by an Iranian president to China in more than 20 years.
According to Iranian state news agency IRNA, Raisi will take part in meetings with Chinese businessmen and Iranians living in the country.
China is Iran’s largest trading partner, IRNA said, citing the 10-month statistics of Iranian customs authorities. Tehran’s exports to Beijing stood at $12.6 billion, while it imported $12.7 billion worth of goods from China.
Raisi is being accompanied by the country’s foreign minister and ministers for the economy, roads and transportation, oil, industry, mining and trade and agriculture, according to Iranian state television.
His delegation also includes Ali Bagheri, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs and nuclear negotiator.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Raisi would meet with Premier Li Keqiang and top Chinese legislator Li Zhanshu.
“China and Iran enjoy a traditional friendship, and it is the strategic choice of both sides to consolidate and develop China-Iran relations,” Wang said.
Beijing wants to “play a constructive role in enhancing the unity and cooperation of countries in the Middle East and promoting regional security and stability”, he added.
Raisi’s first visit to China comes days after he declared victory over the nationwide protest movement triggered by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following her arrest for an alleged breach of Iran’s dress code for women.
Authorities say hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel, have been killed and thousands arrested during the protests, which they generally label as “riots”.
The judiciary has sentenced 18 people to death in connection with the protests, according to an AFP tally based on official announcements. Four people have been executed, triggering international outrage.