Ali Akbar Velayati served as Iran’s foreign minister for 15 years, from December 1981 to August 1997, and today remains a special advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on international affairs. On the eve of President Ebrahim Raisi’s first state visit to Russia, Velayati gave an interview with the ultraconservative daily newspaper Kayhan, whose editor is also appointed by Khamenei.
In the report published on Monday, January 17, Velayati made three key points on Tehran-Moscow relations. He said Russia had always played a pivotal role supporting Iran at the UN Security Council, that dialogue between the two countries was bilateral and equal, and that Iran, Russia and China are the primary powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Were Velayati’s claims about the Iran-Russia relationship and power dynamics accurate? In this report, IranWire tries to answer this question.
The UN Security Council
In his interview with Kayhan, Ali Akbar Velayati said Russia had “always” played a key role in supporting both Iran and its nuclear program at the UN Security Council. The Soviet Union had at times supported the Islamic Republic on the Security Council, but even this backing was not uninterrupted or guaranteed. Meanwhile, here some of the facts about more recent events:
- When the nuclear file on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program was submitted to the Security Council during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2009, Russia first supported the file’s submission, then actively took part in drafting resolutions passed against the Islamic Republic.
Sending the case to the Security Council was an opportunity for the Kremlin to establish itself as a player in the nuclear tussle, in competition with Britain, France and Germany. Retaining a prominent position on the Security Council was also more beneficial to the Russian government than backing Iran.
- In Resolution 1923, the most severe UN Security Council resolution against the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program, was adopted in 2010. Russia did not oppose or abstain from the unprecedented bans on cargo transit to Iran, but in fact voted in favor of the resolution.
- The Russian government then fully implemented the provisions of Resolution 1923, including refusing to sell its S-300 anti-missile system to Iran despite having already signed a contract. The Islamic Republic's threat of an international complaint against Russia came to nothing, and the missile system was only sold to Iran once the sanctions were lifted in 2015.
- During the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, a provision allowing sanctions to be instantly reimposed if Iran violated part of the agreement ended up being included, to the chagrin of Iranian principalists. The mechanism could easily be implemented at the discretion of any permanent member of the Security Council. It was proposed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Evidently, Russia has not always supported the Islamic Republic’s interests at the UN Security Council. IranWire pronounces this claim by Ali Akbar Velayati a Pinnochio’s lie: a statement that has already been proven to be untrue based on existing research and evidence, or in other words, a blatant lie.
‘Equal’ and ‘Bilateral’ Relations
Velayati continued his interview with Kayhan newspaper by saying: "Relations between the two countries [Iran and Russia] are bilateral and equal." From the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the present, the following events are of note:
- The Soviet Union, as a communist state, was fundamentally and ideologically unacceptable to the authorities of the Islamic Republic. Top-tier loathing of the Soviet Union was such that in the first months after the revolution, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed that the Soviet embassy in Tehran be occupied instead of the US embassy.
- The Soviet Union was one of the most important backers of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. This created even deeper animosity between the two states. Mohammad Javad Zarif, then an employee of Iran's office at the United Nations, writes in his memoirs of that time that Iranian delegations in New York were terrified that KGB agents would publish pictures of them drinking alcohol in reprisal for their criticism of Soviet policies.
- When in 1989, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze went to Tehran carrying a message from the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the ailing Ayatollah Khomeini was outraged. In a lengthy response, he urged Gorbachev to study Islam instead of the "bankruptcy" of socialism. The slogan “Death to the Soviet Union” became a feature of state propaganda during this period.
- The Islamic Republic tried to improve its relations with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but was rebuffed for years until Vladimir Putin took office in 1999.
- Even then, relations remained chilly due to Russia’s neglect of the Buhshehr Power Plant project. In 2008, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, then-head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said that had the plant been built from scratch by any country other than Russia, it would have been finished long ago.
- In the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin backed Iran's proposal for a fair division of the Caspian Sea into five jurisdictions. But Moscow then gradually distanced itself from the Islamic Republic and eventually pursued an alternative plan Iran did not agree with.
- Russia has recently led the Islamic Republic into a ground war in Syria in support of its air force. In an infamous leaked audio file, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Russia had long ignored a request from IRGC Quds Force commander Ghassem Soleimani to visit Moscow. Only after the lifting of international sanctions was he allowed to attend. After that, Zarif said, Russia had sent Iranian troops to the battlefield to advance its military goals in Syria.
- In recent months, after Israel targeted an IRGC-build munitions depot and military bases in Syria, it was reported that Russia had been notified in advance and assured that no Russian forces would be killed. The Russia foreign minister did not criticize the bombardment, simply saying that if Israel sought to contain Iran in Syria, it would be better to discuss the details with Moscow in advance. In other words, the Russian government was aware of the attack before it happened and did not intervene. Tehran’s lack of reaction indicates this may have been expected.
Contrary to Ali Akbar Velayati's remarks, then, relations between the Islamic Republic and the Russian state have fallen apart on several occasions. Moreover, the power balance is skewed at all times toward Moscow. The claim of “bilateral”, “equal” relations is therefore also considered a Pinocchio’s lie.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Finally, Velayati boldly claimed, "Iran, Russia and China are the top three powers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. Of the three assertions checked for the purposes of this report, this was by far the simplest. The record shows:
- The Islamic Republic of Iran has not yet become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
- Its membership has been tentatively approved, but it is likely to take at least another two years for this process to be complete.
- Even then, Iran would not be one of the “top three” states in the SCO in terms of its relative military might, economic clout, or geopolitical influence.
A similar official claim – that Iran had a) become a member of the SCO and b) in doing so, had become the “fourth power in the East”. This remark has already been fact-checked and debunked by IranWire in September last year. As such, this final claim by Akbar Velayati is also awarded a Pinnochio’s lie badge due to its extreme and obvious falsehood.