Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister, holds a special status. He’s Ali Khamenei’s secret envoy every time the supreme leader needs a particularly loyal person, one who is discrete, intelligent, conservative and who understands him. This week Khamenei sent Velayati to Moscow during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit, officially to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about “regional problems and the cooperation between Russia and Iran.”
Velayati, 73, who has served as foreign minister for more than 16 years under conservative and less conservative presidents, knows most of the world’s leaders well. With some of them he has proved he can be counted on when things get dicey. Like his involvement in Irangate in the 1980s. He is also suspected of planning, with Khamenei and others, the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.
Velayati is extremely close to the cliques running Iran’s economy and the Revolutionary Guards. A pediatrician by profession, he specialized in the field at Johns Hopkins University and made a fortune off franchises to set up private hospitals in Iran. His name is on the board of directors of Iranian government institutions and companies that are knowledge- and capital-intensive.
In other, less sensitive circumstances, Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif would have been tasked with the mission to Moscow. But Zarif, who skillfully negotiated the nuclear agreement, doesn’t set strategy or dictate policy. He’s also President Hassan Rohani’s man and belongs to the reform camp. Now that Iran is facing fundamental decisions about its future, Velayati’s has been put into action.
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He discussed two fundamental issues with the Russian leadership: the withdrawal of Iran’s forces from Syria, or at least much further from the Israeli border, and Trump’s sanctions on Iran. The two are connected. If Trump calls the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the “deal of the century,” then the agreement on Iran’s status is the most important “regional deal.”
The American sanctions are already having a dramatic effect on the Iranian economy. European companies have reduced or suspended their activity in Iran, container and shipping companies like the Danish conglomerate Maersk, which was joined this week by the giant French CMA CGM, the third largest in the world, are cutting off ties with Iran. India, South Korea and Japan said they’d reduce gas purchases from Iran, and European Union states, despairing of saving the nuclear agreement, haven’t succeeded in forging a united policy against the American sanctions.
In fact, even if they produce a plan that guarantees the large companies’ money, it won’t suffice to allay the companies’ fears of the American sanctions. Losing the oil markets in early November is Iran’s largest problem and if it thought its leaving the market would jack up oil prices, it found itself facing an unsentimental coalition in which Saudi Arabia and Russia are acting together. The first undertook to increase its oil production to compensate for the 2.5 million daily barrels Iran produces today, and Russia, which already signed oil deals with Saudi Arabia, said it would increase its amounts.
Velayati found himself in the embarrassing position of begging the Russian president for his country, while his host himself is preparing to ask Trump, at their summit in three days’ time, to lift the sanctions that were imposed on Russia following the war with Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea.
In these meetings, there are no free lunches. It’s not clear if Trump will agree to lift the sanctions on Russia, as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are encouraging him to do, as the New Yorker reported. But if he does, he will demand that Russia push to withdraw the Iranian forces from Syria or at least move them beyond the 80-kilometer line from the Israeli border. The reports from Russia after Putin’s meeting with Netanyahu show that Russia indeed plans to act to withdraw the Iranian forces in exchange for an Israeli promise not to hurt Assad or his regime.
But publishing the Israeli agreement to the Russian condition isn’t a big deal. Despite the threats of some Israeli ministers to harm the Syrian regime, Israel is interested in Assad’s survival, in his full control of Syria and in resuming the 1974 separation agreements his father Hafez Assad signed. Israel objects to the entrance of Syrian forces to the Syrian Golan Heights to take over the remaining militias there, but will agree to Russian policing forces in the area until circumstances enable UN observers to return to the region.
Such an Israeli undertaking, which doesn’t cost Israel anything, may give Putin political ammunition when he persuades Iran to withdraw, but Israel is demanding more. According to Western diplomatic sources, Israel wants Russia to draft a strategic plan for after the war, which will prevent Syria from becoming a transit country for weapons between Iran and Hezbollah. Israel’s real payment to Russia is expected to come from Washington, which will have to legitimize the international reconciliation with Russia and perhaps revoke some of the sanctions.
Iran has few cards to counteract this scenario. It can announce its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and resume enriching uranium, risking a rupture with Russia, its important ally China and even face a military offensive. Another possibility is to agree to withdraw from the Israeli border and even remove some forces from Syria. But such a move will leave Iran with the American sanctions intact and in a deepening economic crisis.
The third option is that Iran agree to remove its forces from the border and at the same time negotiate another agreement dealing with its ballistic missile plan, which won’t necessarily replace the nuclear agreement. This plan may gain Russian and European support and could satisfy Trump’s demands and portray him as a diplomatic hero who didn’t bow to Iran but forced it to back down.
But satisfying Trump and Netanyahu’s demands is far from being Iran’s intention. The internal power balance will determine Iran’s moves. Its internal struggle is described in the West simplistically as conservatives against reformists, with Khamenei, Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, on one side, with Rohani and most of his ministers on the other.
But the power struggles within each camp don’t necessarily correspond to Iran’s national interests. In view of massive pressure from the conservative faction, Rohani will be forced to replace a few ministers and appoint a Revolutionary Guards man as cabinet minister. This could undermine his ability to protect the nuclear agreement and increase the Guards’ influence.
A reconciliation between Russia and the United States, which would lead to a coordinated policy between them, could determine Iran’s future moves. When senior Washington officials announce they are not seeking to topple Iran’s regime, and when Russia protects Assad, Iran’s ally, whose regime can ensure Iran’s continued influence, even without military presence on the ground, there’s a better chance for the diplomatic moves to yield results that are desirable for Iran, the West and Israel.