Moscow is Trying to Influence Iran’s Presidential Contest

For four decades Tehranis have heard so many weird slogans chanted in their streets that almost nothing comes as a surprise to them. And, yet, last week many Tehranis were surprised to hear a group of youths, all adorned with suitable beards, shouting: “Russian Embassy is a Nest of Spies!”

“Nest of Spies” was first launched in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini as a label for the US Embassy which had been raided and which diplomats were held hostage by the so-called “Students Following the Lead of Imam”. The operation that provoked a 444-day long stand-off between Tehran and Washington had been quietly encouraged by KGB elements in Tehran working through the Tudeh (Communist) Party and its smaller left-wing affiliates as a means of driving the US out of Iran.

At the time no one could imagine that one-day it would be the Russian Embassy’s turn to be thus labelled. True, Iran already has a history of raiding the Russian Embassy. In 1829, a mob, led by mullahs, attacked the Tsarist Embassy ostensibly to release two Georgian slave girls who had sought refuge there. Alexander Griboidev, the Embassy’s ambassador was seized, sentenced to death with a fatwa and beheaded. (Griboidev was more than a diplomat and had made a name as a poet and playwright.)

It is, of course, unlikely that the regime would allow anyone today to raid the Russian Embassy and seize its diplomats as hostages. Nevertheless, the anger expressed by the small bunch of demonstrators is real.

But why has the Russian Embassy become a target for militant anger some four decades later?

The question is all the more pertinent as the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has launched what he calls a “Looking East” strategy based on an alliance between Tehran and Moscow. That strategy is in direct violation of Khomeini’s famous: “Neither East nor West” slogan (Na sharqi, na gharbi!) Khomeini insisted that unless Russia converted to Islam it should not expect to be treated any differently than other “Infidel” powers. (The ayatollah sent a formal letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inviting him to embrace Shiism.)

However, two years ago, in a four-hour long summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khamenei agreed that his Islamic Republic would take no position on major international issues without “coordinating” with Moscow. That historic accord was quickly put into effect in Syria where Putin provided air cover for an alliance of forces assembled by Iran around the beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin played a key role in exempting Iran from cuts in its oil production under an agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC producers to stabilize prices.

Putin also lifted the ban on sale of advanced surface-to-air missile systems that Iran says it needs to face any US air attack. At the same time, Moscow has done quite a lot to shield the Islamic Republic against further concessions on the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin went even further by tacitly acknowledging Iran’s lead in shaping policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan.

Working in favor of strategic alliance with Moscow are several elements within the Islamic regime. These include the remnants of the Tudeh, the People Fedayeen Militia and assorted groups of anti-West activists. However, the proposed alliance also enjoys support from powerful clerics who believe they need Russian support to face any future clash with the US.

“By courageously defending the Syrian government, Russia has proved it is a true friend,” says Ayatollah Muhammadi Golpayegani who heads Khamenei’s personal cabinet.

However, to sweeten the bitter pill of alliance with Russia, a power which has a 200-year long history of enmity and war with Iran, the mullahs also claim they could seize the opportunity to spread their brand of Islam in the Russian Federation where Shi’ite account for less than three per cent of the estimated 30 million Muslims. (The only place where Shi’ites are in a majority is Darband in Dagestan.)

In his typically sly way, Putin has encouraged such illusions. He has promised to let Qom set up seminaries in both Darband and Moscow to train Russian Shi’ite mullahs. Putin has also set up something called Strategic Committee for the Spread of Islam led by Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minikhanov.(Tatarstan is the largest Muslim majority republic in the Russian federation.)

Having allegedly tried to influence the latest presidential election in the US and the current presidential election in France, Putin is also accused of trying to do the same in Iran. Last week he sent a 60-man delegation, led by Minikhanov, to Mash’had, Iran’s largest “holy” city to meet Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the man regarded as one of the two candidates most likely to win the presidency. Minikhanov was accompanied by Tatarstan’s Grand Mufti Kamil Sami Gulen who told reporters that Putin wants Iran and Russia to work together to “present the true face of Islam to young people” and “counter propaganda by terrorist circles.”

Kremlin-controlled satellite TV channels have played up the meetings, casting Raisi as a statesman of international standing.

However, to hedge his bets, Putin had already received the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani during a hastily arrange visit to Moscow last month. However, some observers claim that Putin regards Rouhani and his faction as “too close to the Americans.”

Some senior members of Rouhani’s administration who are rumored to be US citizens or holders of “Green Cards”, may cast doubt on their sincerity to embrace a strategic alliance with Moscow.

There are signs that not everyone in the regime is happy about tying Iran’s future to that of the Putin regime. The slogan “Russian Embassy is Nest of Spies” is just one small example of that unhappiness. Other examples include a series of features published by the official media, including IRNA, about Russian historic aggression against in Iran.

One curious feature published by IRNA even claimed that US President Harry S Truman helped Iran recover two of its provinces occupied by Russian despot Stalin in 1946. Another feature, published by a news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard narrates the “shameful” history of pro-Russian factions in Iran from the 19th century onwards.

An old Persian saying claims Russia is a big bear to admire from afar; if he embraces you he will crush you.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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