By Abdolsalam Salimipoor
A Thursday meeting between Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's chief foreign policy advisor, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has become the subject of debate in Iran.
Although Velayati has no official role in Iran’s Foreign Ministry, he is widely regarded as Khamenei's second most trusted advisor on Syria after Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force.
Velayati has visited Damascus as Khamenei's representative several times. But the fact that Iran's Syria policy has been shaped largely by Khamenei has drawn criticism from members of President Hassan Rouhani’s government.
Sadiq Zibakalam, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, recently noted that Huseyin Emir Abdullahiyan, an aide to Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, has repeatedly said that Iran plans to maintain its military presence in Syria.
“Abdullahiyan was dismissed by [Foreign Minister] Javad Zarif, yet he continues to say that Iranian military advisors will remain in Syria,” Zibakalam said.
“But what authority does he have in terms of setting Syria policy?” he asked.
Omid Fraction, Iran’s largest pro-Rouhani parliamentary bloc, recently said in a joint statement: “Regional policymaking has been out of the Foreign Ministry's hands for almost a decade now.”
Before Thursday’s Velayati-Putin meeting, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasimi had said that Velayati was meeting the Russian president “with a view to emphasizing the importance of strong Iran-Russia relations”.
Iran’s Arman Daily, which is known for its close links to Rouhani, covered the meeting with the following headline: “An important message from Tehran to Moscow.”
The newspaper went on to assert that Qasimi's emphasis on the need for “strong Iran-Russia relations” actually indicated that Tehran’s relations with Moscow had come under strain.
Arman Daily quoted Ali Bigdeli, an Iranian specialist on foreign affairs, as saying: “With Russian prompting, Iran is being forced to make a decision in Syria, and this decision must be arrived at through negotiations.”
“Perhaps with Velayati’s visit to Moscow, we can maintain our relations with Russia, whose relations with the rest of the world are improving,” Bigdeli said.
“We don't want to lose the Russians,” he added. “We’re already on the brink of losing the European Union.”
Much of the Iranian public is suspicious of Russia, especially in terms of Syria. And Putin's recent meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump have only exacerbated these suspicions.
Speaking recently with Iran’s Entekhab website, which is also known to be close to Rouhani, former Iranian Ambassador Nusretullah Tajik commented on current relations between Tehran and Moscow.
“Putin cannot sell our investment in Syria to Trump,” Tajik said.
“In line with its national interest, Russia may reach an agreement with Trump,” he added. “But Tehran must convey to Russia that any such agreement cannot come at Iran’s expense.”
*Ali Murat Alhas contributed to this report from Ankara