The former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, famously liked to describe himself as a diplomat and often described his role in terms of “parliamentary diplomacy”. The current Speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, has now allegedly tried to position himself as the same – but failed on the first attempt.
According to multiple sources in Iran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was recently hoping to bear a message from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. But for unclear reasons the meeting never took place.
Iranian media outlets first reported that ex-Revolutionary Guards commander’s trip to Moscow was scheduled to take place in late December, but Ghalibaf had then reportedly canceled it because there were no plans to meet with Putin himself.
Other Iranian news websites later stated that anyone wanting to meet Putin had to quarantine for 15 days first, and Ghalibaf had apparently tried to circumvent this by taking a coronavirus PCR test in Tehran. Finally, Ghalibaf's supporters announced that because he had not accepted Russia's exacting public health conditions, the offer of a meeting with Putin had been withdrawn.
Begging for a Meeting
Analysts well-acquainted with to the government, including the journalist Mohammad Mohajeri, have claimed the news about an alleged meeting between Putin and Ghalibaf was always "fake". In his telling, people close to the Speaker had begged the Russian president to attend a meeting with him but when they did not succeed, "they lied ‘We didn’t accept the Russian conditions’."
Instead, Ghalibaf yesterday delivered Khamenei’s message – whatever it was – to his counterpart the Speaker of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin.
Mohajeri and others have linked Ghalibaf's apparent grasping attempt to meet Putin to the upcoming Iranian presidential elections this year, in which he is a prospective candidate. There were even reports that Putin declined any appointment with Ghalibaf so as avoid a discussion about it. Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, who is himself close to former Speaker Ali Larijani, has remained silent on the issue.
Faced by these attacks, Ghalibaf's entourage has tried to highlight the fact that the Supreme Leader had chosen him to send his message, and not a senior cabinet official or diplomat. Mohammad Saeed Ahadian, the Ghalibaf’s official spokesman, wrote that fact the Supreme Leader had wanted "to convey his historical message only through Mr. Ghalibaf".
No details have yet been released about the content of the message, and it is not clear whether it was routine or something exceptional. But regardless of what went on behind the scenes, Ghalibaf has demonstrably failed in his would-be meeting with a head of state. Recent events have also damaged his reputation in the run-up to what would be his fourth presidential election campaign. Ghalibaf came fourth in the 2005 vote and second in 2013, and ultimately withdrew his candidacy in 2017.
Lawmakers’ Past Grief in Russia
This is not the first time that the Speaker and MPs have been humiliated on foreign trips – including visits to Russia. In 2007, Russian airport officials conducted a thorough inspection of Aladdin Boroujerdi, the then-head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, despite the fact that he held a diplomatic passport.
Members of the Iranian parliament have previously been frisked on arrival at Moscow airport and forced to remove their belts and shoes without any deference paid to their official status. When reports of these incidents surfaced, some of the MPs tried to claim it was because Russian security forces had not been informed of the visit.
Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the Speaker of the seventh Iranian parliament, holds the record in this regard. Following a brutal purge of reformist MPs the Speaker had hoped to mitigate Iran’s image on the international stage, but his attempts to do so ended in disaster and even provoked criticism from members of parliament.
In July 2005, Haddad-Adel had been scheduled to travel to Italy and Belgium, but it was then announced that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to meet with the Iranian delegation. "We will not allow a country with rigged elections to teach us diplomacy and politics,” said Berlusconi, “and if the Iranian government does not stop its extremism, it will become more and more isolated globally."
Members of an Iranian parliamentary delegation also refused to attend a lunch hosted by the president of the Belgian Senate, where alcohol was to be served. According to the protesting lawmakers, Haddad-Adel had to wait behind the doors of the Belgian Foreign Ministry in order to meet with the Belgian foreign minister.
Haddad-Adel denied that he had been insulted during these trips, blaming European dissatisfaction with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's electoral “victory” for his treatment. But many MPs did not find his explanations convincing, and Etemad-e Melli newspaper published an excoriating article about Haddad-Adel's travels – headlined "Stop Behind the Alps" – roundly decrying the trips as a failure.