For Putin, Big Sortie in Tehran: Like Shiite Iran, Russia Developed A Tradition Of Martyr-worship
07 December 2015
By Amir Taheri
By all accounts, the Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tehran last
Monday was a carefully choreographed piece of politico-diplomatic ballet to
serve three precise objectives. The first of these was to show that Russia
recognizes the ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei as the ultimate decision-maker
in the Islamic Republic.
Western leaders often blame Iran's ''unelected officials'', meaning the
''Supreme Guide'', for the Islamic Republic's adventurism on the
international stage. They delude themselves by thinking they could obtain
better deals from ''elected officials'', meaning the President of the Islamic
Republic. Based on that analysis, Western leaders, notably successive US
presidents tried to strike deals with a string of men who served as president
in the Khomeinist regime- from the hapless Abol-Hassan Banisadr to the
enigmatic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and passing by the crafty Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Their current hopes are pinned on President Hassan Rouhani, a protégé of
The Western analysis is wrong because of two reasons at least. The first is
that the words elected and un-elected don't mean the same thing in the
Islamic Republic as they do in Western democracies. This is because only
those authorized by the regime are allowed to be candidates. Even then, the
pre-selected candidates of the regime cannot hope to win unless their
''victory'' is endorsed by a 12-man body of mullahs.
Thus to suggest that Rouhani is the ''elected'' president of Iran requires a
certain sense of humor. (Rouhani's patron, Rafsanjani, was not allowed to
even become a candidate last time!) At the same time, Khamenei can claim to
be as much ''elected'' as Rouhani or anyone else in the Khomeinist system.
This is because the ''Supreme Guide'' is elected by the Assembly of Experts,
which itself is elected by the people in the same fraudulent way that the
president is elected. Thus, in the Islamic Republic all top officials are
elected; only the elections are not genuine.
As a veteran of the Soviet system, Putin understands that perfectly. Leonid
Brezhnev, too, was elected in the same way as Josef Stalin had been and
Khamenei is today. With the Soviet Union having turned to dust long ago,
Putin has rebranded himself as a Russian nationalist. In that capacity, too,
Putin understands the nature of despotic systems in which authority is always
personal, never institutional.
In the Russian system the ruler, or tsar, also claims special religious
attributes just as the ''Supreme Guide'' does in the Khomeinist system. One
of the tsar's titles was ''gozudar'' which means ''Lord of the World'',
drawing the potentate close to a claim of divinity. The founder of Russia as
a nation-state, Ivan the Awe-Inspiring, or ''Terrible'' as Western literature
likes to dub him, located his court in an Orthodox monastery for years. He
claimed ''divine authority'' when he ordered the chopping off of the heads of
nine Tatar Muslim chieftains in 1550.
Western commentators often describe the Russian system as ''absolutist''.
However, the term despotic may be more apt. In that system, a tsar that does
not govern well is not criticized for being inefficient or unjust; he is
branded as ''impostor''. The subtext is that a ''true tsar'' always governs
well and is thus above criticism by the lesser mortals. The real ''tsar''
cannot lose a war, be constantly drunk or even go mad. If he does any of
those things he is an impostor, not a bad tsar. Russian history is full of
adventurers claiming to be ''true tsars'' when things went badly under the
Like Shiite Iran, Russia developed a tradition of martyr-worship in which
secret sects such as Radenyie (zealots) and Khlystii (flagellants) inflicted
corporal punishment on themselves in atonement for the guilt of fathers who
failed to defend the ''true tsar''.
Unlike leaders of Western democracies, Putin has no difficulty understanding
the Khomeinist system. This is why he went out of his way to pay respect to
Khamenei. To start with he agreed to ride in a bullet-proof Mercedes sent for
him by Khamenei to the airport (Putin had brought his own bullet-proof Zyl,
but didn't use it). He drove directly to Khamenei's palace, ignoring the
welcoming ceremony prepared by the rudderless Rouhani. The Russian spent
almost eight hours in Tehran of which one and a half was devoted to the
Again, contrary to protocol, Putin brought a gift for Khamenei, a 300-year
old copy of the Koran. (Gifts are exchanged by heads of states only on state
visits; this was not one of them). The Russian showered praise on Khamenei
and made it clear it was only with him that Moscow would deal with on all key
issues of international and bilateral relations.
That Khamenei was seduced by Putin's show is clear from a long editorial in
Kayhan, the daily that reflects the views of the ''Supreme Guide''. ''Putin's
intelligent move has provoked wonder and consternation in European and
American circles'' it said. By paying homage to Khamenei, the Russian leader
wanted to show that an alliance with the Islamic Republic was a top priority
of Russia's new global strategy. Kayhan also increased the length of the
meeting by half an hour, from 90 minutes to two hours, to heighten its
It was obvious that Putin's decision to put all his chips on Khamenei had
disturbed the rival faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, with
President Hassan Rouhani as its current public face. Rouhani's spokesman
Baqer Nobakht telephoned the Tehran media to inform them that during a visit
to Moscow, Rouhani, too, had received a ''special gift'' from Putin. The
trouble was that Putin's ''gift'' to Rouhani turned out to be a 17th century
Persian shield captured by the Russians in one of their numerous wars against
However, the state-controlled media didn't report that Putin had brought his
own food and water, possibly even a bottle of Vodka, from Moscow which
indicated that he feared being poisoned in Tehran. Putin was acting in
character for a Russian ruler. In 1943, Josef Stalin even brought his milking
cow with him to Tehran for the famous summit with President Franklin
Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (The Soviet despot needed
fresh milk for his favorite cocktail which was a mix of vodka and black
During the '' summit'', Putin agreed to let Iran open a branch of its Free
Islamic University in Moscow and to set up a religious seminary in Russia's
only Shiite majority city Darband, Dagestan. More importantly, Putin at least
pretended that as far as Syria was concerned, it was the ''Supreme Guide''
who would lead the dance. If he wanted Bashar al-Assad to remain, the Syrian
despot would stay; if not he would get the boot. According to Kayhan, the
''Supreme leader'' expressed satisfaction with Putin's policies, ''especially
in the past year and a half.''
Putin's second objective was to throw a monkey wrench in what he thinks is
the American game-plan for Iran over the next five years. In a few hours,
Putin virtually destroyed President Barack Obama's hope that the supposedly
pro-American faction, led by Rafsanjani with Rouhani as its current
field-man, might marginalize Khamenei and lead Iran in a different direction.
Finally, Putin wanted to send a message to others in the region and beyond
that while alliance with the United States, a fickle friend, leads only to
disappointment and grief, cultivating Russian friendship is a wiser strategy.
On the surface, Putin achieved all three objectives in Tehran. However, only
time will show whether those objectives were even worth reaching for.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.