Putin Meets Iran's Supreme Leader on First Visit in 8 Years

  • Iran, Russia back Syrian leader Assad in fight against rebels
  • Two countries bolster business ties after Iran's nuclear deal

Russia and Iran underscored their growing alliance in the Middle East by bolstering business ties and projecting a united front on the civil war in Syria, where both have deployed military power to support President Bashar al-Assad.

“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, who visited Iran for the first time since 2007 on Monday, said in televised remarks at talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Only the Syrian people can decide this.”

Russia’s campaign of airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime that began Sept. 30 has drawn the two countries closer strategically, while the U.S. and Europe are pushing for Assad’s ouster as part of any settlement to the war. Putin also used the trip to boost business ties to capitalize on the imminent removal of international sanctions on Iran after its nuclear accord with world powers.

The talks between Putin and Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, focused on the situation in Syria as well as the wider region, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Iran’s Support

Iran has supported Assad since the start of the conflict in 2011 and Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally, has sent fighters to back government forces against dozens of rebel and militant groups, including Islamic State.

“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.”

Mark Toner, U.S. State Department spokesman, described the comments as fitting "a pattern that we’ve seen from the supreme leader in terms of the bellicose rhetoric." The U.S. is "trying to find, especially in Syria, a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict there," Toner told reporters in Washington on Monday.

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 was 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. he also joined eight other heads of state attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran.

Stronger Cooperation

During the visit, Russia pledged to boost cooperation on the use of national currencies and extend $5 billion in export loans for important projects, Putin said late Monday after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Russia’s development bank and export insurance agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran’s central bank to expand investment activity. Companies from the two countries also signed agreements for the construction of a 350-megawatt thermal power plant and water facility in Iran.

“We expect that after sanctions are lifted, Iran will prefer to work with the Russian Federation on many tracks, especially in high-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.”

Contracts

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 before 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.

Putin said Russia is coordinating with Iran on the military campaign in Syria, while working toward a political solution.

"There is no other alternative to the political-talks track to resolve the problem of Syria in the long term," he said.

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