Syria on Vladimir Putin's Mind for 1st Trip to Iran in 8 Years

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani arrive for the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, GECF, summit meeting in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 23, 2015.PlayEbrahim Noroozi/AP Photo
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Iran for the first time in eight years, meeting with that country’s leaders to discuss the conflict in Syria and making a show of closeness against a backdrop of geopolitical manoeuvring as world powers press for a renewed effort to end the war there following deadly attacks in Paris this month.

Russia and Iran are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crucial military backers and their position on his future as leader is being closely watched as a precondition for ending the war in the country. But after meeting today with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran, Putin appeared to signal again that Russia remains opposed to removing Assad, which the United States believes is the basic starting point for any political solution to the four-year conflict.

“No one from the outside can and no one should impose upon the Syrian people any sort of form of rule, or impose who personally should run this,” Putin said during the meeting with Khamenei, as shown on Russia state television. “This should be decided only by the Syrian people.”

The formal reason for Putin’s visit is the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, where the heads of other major energy exporting countries are gathering, but it’s also an opportunity for Russia and Iran to demonstrate the warmth of their relationship as the two decisive allies of Assad’s embattled government at a moment when the Paris attacks are forcing Western countries to re-examine their approach to the Islamic State and the Syria conflict that has given rise to it.

The refugee crisis in Europe and now the intensified threat of ISIS attacks there have recently forced the United States and European countries to accept the need to involve Russia and Iran in ending Syria’s civil war. Following the Nov. 13 killings in Paris, France has proposed working with Russia’s militarily to destroy the Islamic State in Syria. Russian officials have expressed hopes European countries may be moving toward their and Iran’s position on the need to preserve the Syrian government.

In Tehran, the two countries made a show of their closeness. Photos released of the meeting with Khamenei released by the Kremlin showed Putin and the Iranian leader sitting jovially, with an unusually animated Putin smiling broadly.

Iran’s military, and those of its client, Hezbollah, have been essential in propping up Syrian government forces as rebel groups have squeezed them. Iranian ground forces have become more heavily involved in Syria, at the same time as Russia has launched its intensive air campaign in support of Assad in the past two months.

Both countries insist that Assad is Syria’s legitimate ruler and that his fall will lead to rise of a terrorist state.

Putin’s visit -- his first since 2007 -- also reflects how the nuclear deal reached in July with the Obama administration has untied Russia’s hands to develop its relations with Tehran more publicly. Although, Russia has long been a backer of Iran, building the country’s only nuclear power station, in recent years it has bowed to international pressure and kept Tehran more at arms-length.

Since the announcement of the deal, however, Russia has wasted no time in re-energizing relations, declaring immediately that it would unfreeze a contract to supply Iran with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, which the US fears could prevent a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Before flying to Tehran on Monday morning, Putin signed a decree lifting a ban preventing Russian companies from exporting enriched uranium from Iran in exchange for natural uranium, a move envisaged by the deal as one way of preventing Iran from stockpiling the enriched material that can be used in a bomb.

Iran insists that all its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes, a claim that Russia says it believes.