reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Russia as the U.S.-Iranian Mediator?

4 MINS READFeb 9, 2007 | 09:00 GMT
Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, reportedly to deliver a message from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Velayati, a former chief diplomat, has not embarked on a diplomatic mission in years; bilateral meetings of such a nature are usually handled by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki or national security chief Ali Larijani. Velayati has a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that goes back to 1981, when Khamenei was president and Velayati became foreign minister. Though Khamenei initially appointed him as prime minister, Velayati failed to secure parliamentary approval. But for the past several years, Velayati has been Khamenei's adviser on international affairs. Velayati's sudden return to the diplomatic arena, especially when U.S.-Iranian dealings over Iraq are reaching an impasse, is a sign that Khamenei has decided to directly take over foreign policy matters. It also means the executive branch has been asked to confine itself to the more mundane matters of governance. This is why it is Velayati who has been dispatched on a special mission involving Russia. Moscow has been able to mediate between the United States and Iran — a role the Kremlin thinks will help it to advance its own interests. The Russians have offered to help the United States get out of Iraq if Washington cuts back in its support of anti-Moscow elements in Ukraine. Such mediating also gives Russia an enormous amount of international clout. Aware that the Iraq issue cannot be solved without Iranian help, and knowing that directly dealing with Tehran is not something that will sit well domestically for the Bush administration, Washington has likely taken Russia up on the offer. That said, there is another critical issue that weighs heavily in the U.S. decision to accept Russia as a go-between — Moscow has recently sold the TOR-M1 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran. Tehran and the Kremlin are also negotiating the sale of the Russian S300 missile. This is something the United States does not want to see realized because these missiles would make it difficult for U.S. warplanes to conduct airstrikes against Iran, should Washington ever take the military option in dealing with Iran. The Iranians have been preparing for negotiations with the United States for quite some time, but since they are having difficulty in getting Washington to cooperate, Tehran is only too happy to see Russia help out; but the Iranians have not only been working with Russia. Earlier this week during a visit to Iran, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition, said U.S.-Iranian dialogue on Iraq is critical. It should be noted that al-Hakim is not just the most pro-Iranian of all Iraqi Shiite leaders, he also is Washington's closest Iraqi Shiite partner. The Iranians also have been working with their rivals. In January Tehran began significant negotiations with the Saudis and even reportedly sought Riyadh's assistance in getting the Bush administration to the negotiating table. Saudi national security chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Tehran a few days after Larijani traveled to Riyadh. Larijani, who also reports directly to Khamenei, will attend the Munich Conference on Security Policy on Feb. 9-11 in Germany. World leaders including Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will also be in attendance. Larijani said Thursday that he will be holding talks with several Western officials. Since Gates dealt with the Iranians during the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s and also was involved in the Iraq Study Group that recommended that Washington approach Iran diplomatically on Iraq, a Gates-Larijani discussion on the sidelines of the conference is not out of the question, though it likely would be through middlemen. Regardless of what happens in Munich, it appears as though a serious and complex diplomatic game involving the United States and Iran is under way.

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