Russian President Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei Meet to Discuss Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Iran in nearly a decade on Monday, as he deepened ties with the Kremlin’s foremost partner in the fight to shore up Syria’s government forces and signaled tighter economic cooperation.
Mr. Putin arrived in Iran’s capital, Tehran, to attend a gathering of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and met for more than 90 minutes with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Monday’s meeting signaled what might be a new era of cooperation between Moscow and Tehran following an international deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian president brought the ayatollah a copy of an old handwritten Quran, underscoring Moscow’s charm offensive in the Middle East.
Iran is a critical ally in Mr. Putin’s effort to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the battlefield and counter Islamic State militants. Iranian forces and the Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant and political organization, have offered crucial on-the-ground support for Mr. Assad’s offensives. The Kremlin has avoided committing ground troops and instead offered support in the form of airstrikes.
Pro-Iranian media outlets in Syria and Lebanon hailed Mr. Putin’s visit as the “meeting of the titans.”
With the help of Russian warplanes, pro-Assad forces and Iran-backed militias on Monday captured from Islamic State the town of Maheen and the nearby village of Hawareen, about 50 miles southeast of the central city of Homs, according to Syrian state media.
The battlefield gains, confirmed by opposition activists, including the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, are expected to be touted as an example of what Russia can accomplish with the help of pro-government forces on the ground. But overall, the progress of Mr. Assad’s military has been slow since Russia entered the war at the end of September.
Syria dominated the agenda at the meeting between Messrs. Putin and Khamenei, where both criticized the U.S. and other Western nations for insisting that any political settlement in Syria should exclude Mr. Assad.
“No one can or should force any form of government upon the Syrian people from the outside, or decide who should rule them,” Mr. Putin said in a video clip of the meeting aired on Russian state news channel Rossiya 24. “This should be decided only by the Syrian people.”
Mr. Khamenei also offered words of support for Mr. Assad. “The Syrian president has gained the majority vote of the Syrian people with different political, religious and tribal views, and the U.S. doesn’t have the right to ignore this vote and election,” Mr. Khamenei said, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
The supreme leader praised Russia for countering Washington’s influence and accused the U.S. of not being trustworthy. According to IRNA, Mr. Khamenei said that, apart from the nuclear talks, Iran wouldn’t hold bilateral negotiations with the U.S. regarding Syria or any other issue.
The summit was surrounded by tight security measures rarely seen in Tehran. The road next to the site in a leafy neighborhood was blocked by a dozen police with a helicopter hovering above. Security forces on nearby streets carried automatic weapons and wore body armor.
Mr. Putin’s visit to Iran comes a day before the king of Jordan is to arrive in Moscow for talks with the Russian leader. A U.S. ally, Jordan has assisted certain groups of rebels countering Mr. Assad.
The Russian leader is also due to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while in Iran. The two have already met twice this year, once at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in July and again at the United Nations in September. Before that, the two had met only once, during Mr. Putin’s last trip to Iran in 2007.
The Kremlin is trying to forge a broader coalition against Islamic State after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. French President François Hollande is due to arrive in Moscow later this week to discuss that effort.
Russia and Iran have found common ground in their political ambitions to counter Western influence and prop up Mr. Assad’s government. The countries have established a number of overlapping economic interests, particularly in nuclear energy and defense.
On Monday, Mr. Putin formally approved an order that eases Russia’s ban on supplying Iran with nuclear technology for its energy program. Russia has also expressed interest in selling arms to Iran, as it increasingly looks for international buyers of its weaponry.
But observers say any closeness between Russia and Iran may amount to a short-term alliance of convenience. Tehran’s political goals in the broader Middle East and its economic ambitions in the international energy market in many cases diverge from Moscow’s interests.
Once sanctions are lifted in full, Iran stands to compete with Russia in the natural gas sector and already wants to export it to Europe, a market Russia has long dominated. Iran has long hoped to build a gas pipeline through Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. For years, European countries have been trying to reduce their dependency on Russia for gas.
Even in Syria, the two countries may engage in a political and economic contest for influence once the fighting subsides.
“They will be cooperating until the battles stop, then the rivalry will begin,” said Nikolay Korzhanov, a former Russian diplomat in Tehran and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
A Russian trade delegation is heading to Iran next month with the hopes of signing a raft of deals, particularly in the defense sector. Already, Russia has signed a contract to supply Iran with S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.