Russia refuses to play Iran’s political games
The first foreign trip made by Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf last week turned out to be both a PR disaster and an embarrassment, sparking massive controversy across Iran and a barrage of public criticism and mockery targeting Ghalibaf and the Tehran regime.
This was because Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to meet with Ghalibaf at the Kremlin, where the speaker had planned to hand over a letter to Putin from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The primary objective of the letter was reportedly to emphasize the strategic nature of relations between Iran and Russia and the need to ensure that these relations continue on solid, long-term foundations for the coming 20 or 50 years, covering the political, economic and military spheres and all other vital areas of cooperation.
In addition to the declared objective of Ghalibaf’s visit, it also apparently had other, more covert goals, such as reassuring the Russian leadership that Iran will take the Kremlin’s interests into account during any negotiations regarding the 2015 nuclear agreement with the new US administration, as well as seeking to allay Russian concerns about any potential Iranian-Western rapprochement in the future.
Ghalibaf first expressed his desire to visit Moscow and meet with President Putin more than two months ago. However, the Kremlin did not include this visit in its schedule, citing health reasons following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases among several Iranian lawmakers. Ghalibaf’s visit to Russia was conditioned on him undergoing two COVID-19 tests before he would be allowed to meet with Putin. The first would be conducted in Tehran and the second on his arrival in Moscow.
The Iranian side did not make any official comment on Putin’s refusal to meet with Ghalibaf. However, Tehran attempted to mitigate the intense embarrassment it suffered by shifting the focus away from this humiliation. It raised another issue instead, namely lodging an official message of complaint to Moscow in protest at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s use of the term “Arabian Gulf” rather than “Persian Gulf” on its website.
This Iranian reaction proves that the regime lacks the capability to diplomatically express any concern it has or diplomatically embrace Moscow’s shifting positions, to say the least. Maybe this is because Tehran is well aware that the objective and timing of Ghalibaf’s visit were thoroughly ill-conceived and completely wrong.
The Iranian leadership’s choice of Ghalibaf for this visit was so puzzling that local media outlets raised multiple questions about why he, rather than Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or one of the country’s senior diplomats, was selected for such a sensitive diplomatic task. A seasoned diplomat could have handled the situation much better and allowed the Iranian regime to save face.
Some have suggested that the principal reason for the Iranian leadership’s insistence on entrusting Ghalibaf with the visit was his standing as one of Khamenei’s closest confidants and one of the primary candidates for the coming presidential election, which is scheduled to be held in June. If so, this indicates that Khamenei has once again proven to the world that he has little interest in diplomatic protocols or upholding his country’s international repute. His primary interest is to ensure the implementation of his policies.
The supreme leader apparently deliberately shunned the customary diplomatic channels for delivering official letters in order to polish Ghalibaf’s image and begin his preparations for the presidential election through sending him on a prestigious foreign visit. The plan was to bolster his reputation and encourage greater public support among Iranian voters.
After it became clear that Ghalibaf had been given the cold shoulder by Putin, his advisers attempted to salvage the situation by claiming that the speaker had not agreed to the health procedures stipulated by the Kremlin and was simply traveling to Moscow to deliver Khamenei’s letter to Putin’s representative. However, it seems that this claim is dishonest, since the health procedures did not prevent Putin from meeting with several other foreign officials during the same period. Indeed, it was clear from the beginning that Putin would decline to meet Ghalibaf despite the diplomatic crisis it would cause.
It is possible that Putin believed Ghalibaf wished to use his visit to promote his potential presidential campaign, with Russia wishing to avoid accusations of interfering in Iranian affairs by polishing his image and elevating his credentials.
Iran has experienced such behavior from Russia in the past. Putin has not met with Zarif during any of his 30 visits to Moscow, even though he met with a number of European foreign ministers, as well as his counterparts from the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey during their visits to the Russian capital.
Putin refused to meet with Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf at the Kremlin.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
This cold Russian attitude toward Iran — a country that is among Russia’s closest allies — seems to spring from Putin’s awareness of the Iranian regime’s weakened state, which has left it mired in political and economic crises and compelled it to uphold relations with Moscow and coordinate with it on several issues. This situation has been brought about by Tehran’s radical policies, which have contributed to making it one of the most isolated regimes in the world. Given these circumstances, Putin is aware that he has the upper hand and sees no reason to play along with Khamenei’s political games and fulfill Ghalibaf’s political and diplomatic wishes and aspirations.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami