The leaders of Russia and Iran underscored their growing alliance in the Middle East by declaring their opposition to external attempts to impose a solution to the civil war in Syria, where both have deployed military power.
“Nobody from outside should impose on the Syrian people any form of government of the state, and who personally should govern it,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks at talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Monday. “Only the Syrian people can decide this.”
The talks between Putin, on his first visit to Iran since 2007, and Khamenei focused on the situation in Syria, where both Russia and the Islamic Republic back President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the wider region, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Putin is also due to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
After meeting Khamenei, Putin joined eight other heads of state attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran. The Russian leader’s visit is meant to help his country capitalize on the new freedom to operate in Iran after the July nuclear accord that paved the way for a lifting of sanctions. Russia’s campaign of airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime that began Sept. 30 has also drawn the countries closer strategically, while the U.S. and Europe are pushing for Assad’s ouster as part of any settlement to the war.
“The Americans have a long-term plot and are trying to dominate Syria and then the whole region” Khamenei said at the meeting, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. “This is a threat to all countries, especially Russia and Iran.”
Putin’s arrival in Iran was eagerly anticipated, with the Etemad newspaper running a banner headline that announced “The Tsar of the East in the heart of Tehran” under a front-page picture of the Russian leader. The president is being accompanied on his visit by Gazprom PJSC Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller and Rosneft OJSC head Igor Sechin, according to foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov.
“We expect that after sanctions are lifted Iran will prefer to work with the Russian Federation on many tracks especially in hi-tech areas such as aviation, aerospace, radio electronics, shipbuilding,” Russian Deputy Premier Dmitry Rogozin said. “The Iranians emphasize the pivotal role Russia played in the lifting of sanctions, so if we’re active we’ll open a new market for ourselves. We’re counting on it.”
Russia sees as much as $4 billion in contracts in Iran over three years and as much as $20 billion in the next decade, Rogozin told Bloomberg ahead of the trip. Representatives from several Russian companies have held talks in Iran in the run-up to Putin’s visit and negotiations are continuing, Mehdi Sanaei, the Iranian ambassador to Russia, told Etemad.
Russia, which has built Iran’s only functioning nuclear reactor in the southern city of Bushehr, signed an agreement with Iran last year to establish as many as eight more. The two countries are backing Assad in a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and allowed jihadist groups including Islamic State to spread their influence. Iran backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters who are battling alongside Assad’s troops against opposition rebels.
Putin ordered Russia’s first military campaign outside the former Soviet Union in decades to bolster Assad’s regime. Iran has been a key backer of Assad since the 2011 uprising against his rule that started the war, and Iranian forces have played a prominent role in supporting the Syrian army in a renewed ground offensive in the country’s strategically vital west.