In Iran, political infighting over foreign policy has once again been brought to the fore. This time, the clash is over a recent trip to Moscow by Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Those who support the removal of tensions in foreign policy have severely criticized Velayati’s trip while their rivals have defended it. Meanwhile, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani has tried to play a more neutral role by sidestepping the infighting.
Those in favor of avoiding international tensions over foreign policy say the Foreign Ministry and the Iranian government are responsible for the country’s foreign policy. They have questioned the parallel role being played by Velayati and speculated about whether Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is now being pushed to the sidelines.
Velayati met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials during a four-day visit to Moscow from July 11-14. Of note, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also in Russia for talks with Putin during the same period, which led up to the July 16 summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump in Finland. Velayati’s trip comes as Iran and the European parties have failed to reach a decision on the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) following the US exit from the deal in May. In early July, during a visit to Austria and Switzerland, Rouhani had warned that Tehran may block the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which a major portion of seaborne oil is exported, in retaliation for looming US sanctions on Iranian crude sales.
With the opportunities that had opened to Iran following the signing of the JCPOA starting to diminish and newfound trade partners being lost, Tehran has been left with no choice but to turn to its old options of Russia and China for economic cooperation. Those opposed to the Rouhani administration are in favor of strengthening cooperation with these nations, while those who want a foreign policy aimed at removing tensions are not too keen about the latter. In this context, Velayati’s Moscow visit means that Russia will probably have a stronger foothold in Iran’s economy and politics than before.
The situation concerning Iran’s options was enough to raise serious criticisms of the way forward in Iran. However, things worsened when Velayati, after his meeting with Putin, said the Russians had agreed to invest $50 billion in Iran’s oil and gas industry. The announcement was quickly denied by Moscow, with a Kremlin spokesman saying he could not confirm the claims.
But this was just the beginning. Almost immediately after Velayati’s announcement, Russia’s energy minister said Moscow was considering a plan to trade Iranian oil for Russian goods. This angered many Iranians — especially critics of Velayati’s trip who took to social media to voice their disapproval. Various figures described Russia’s oil-for-goods suggestion as humiliating, with some even arguing that it is the start of a Russian endeavor to isolate and later betray Iran. Against this backdrop, one Iranian lawmaker’s assertion that “we thank Russia for not letting us die of hunger” was like fuel on fire.
Various figures described Russia’s oil-for-goods suggestion as humiliating, with some even arguing that it is the start of a Russian endeavor to isolate and later betray Iran.
Nonetheless, Velayati’s trip has been less scrutinized by officials, including state media. Reformist parliament members Mohammad Reza Badamchi and Mahmoud Sadeghi were among the few exceptions, showing dissatisfaction with the Moscow visit through their personal Twitter accounts. This situation is perhaps because Velayati’s position as an adviser to Khamenei has made it somewhat difficult to direct criticism at him. Regardless of this, most of the criticisms have been about why no explanation has been given for the Russians' contradiction of Velayati’s announcement of a major deal. There have also been questions as to why there is no transparency about the details of his trip to Moscow and whether the claimed agreement is in Iran’s interest.
Shargh Daily is the only major outlet that has questioned whether the claimed agreement with Russia is actually beneficial to Iran. Meanwhile, the conservative Jomhouri Eslami newspaper wrote, “Mr. Velayati spoke of a $50 billion agreement for Russian investment in Iran; an announcement that surprised political and economic observers [in Iran] and even the Russians who denied such a deal and instead suggested an oil for goods program!” The daily went on to ask why Zarif had not made the trip instead of Velayati.
This same question was also addressed to government officials on several occasions, who have offered varied responses.
While Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi has said that Velayati was delivering a message from Iran’s supreme leader and president, Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, who is considered to be one of the closest figures to the president, said, “Velayati’s trip to Moscow was the administration’s decision.” Meanwhile, a member of parliament’s foreign policy and national security commission claimed Velayati’s talks with Putin were upon Rouhani’s request of such a mission from the supreme leader. The lack of transparency as to who or which entity decided to dispatch Velayati to Moscow has indeed raised speculations about the Rouhani administration’s role in all this.
Meanwhile, opponents of the government have pursued a completely different discourse. They see Velayati’s trip as a favor by the political establishment to the Rouhani administration, meaning that the government did not have a role in the initiative. According to hard-line Kayhan, Velayati’s Moscow visit stemmed from the administration’s failure and weakness in negotiating with the Europeans. Other outlets and figures opposed to the government have pursued this same line.
Velayati is a conservative politician who has long been close to the moderate camp; when late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was still active in politics, he was a proponent of removing tensions in foreign policy. However, after Rafsanjani passed away in January 2017, Velayati quickly shifted toward anti-government hard-liners and even became a critic of the JCPOA. As such, it seems as if the factions opposed to the Rouhani administration do not mind if part of the country’s foreign policy initiatives are handed to Velayati, especially since he is leaning more toward the East. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has also shifted Iran as a whole more toward China and Russia. The cementing of this state of affairs effectively means that the dreams of government proponents who seek to remove tensions from foreign policy will go out the window. This is especially the case when the foreign policy adviser to Khamenei is seen as the main player rather than the country’s foreign minister. For Rouhani supporters, the latter means taking the initiative away from a foreign minister who is in favor of expanding relations with the West by using an East-oriented politician. In other words, this could mean Iran’s return to the foreign policy pursued in the era of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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