After Iranian leader Ali Khamenei met Russian President Putin Tuesday afternoon, Iran’s main news agency found the two moving closer with the Ukraine crisis.

IRNA headlined its account of the meeting with a call, endorsed by both Khamenei and Putin, for United States forces to be driven out of north-east Syria, “east of the Euphrates [river]…an area rich in oil and agriculture,” where American troops, first deployed in 2015, have remained since 2018 to ‘secure’ Syria’s main oil-fields.

But perhaps a more notable part of IRNA’s report was Khamenei’s clearest expression yet of support for Russian action in Ukraine. While describing war as “brutal and hard,” Iran’s leader suggested that had Russia not “taken the initiative, the other side, with its own initiative would have created a war anyway.”

Iran’s leader cited the 2014 Ukraine “coup” – when protests overthrew Moscow-inclined Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and prompted Russia’s seizure of Crimea – and the expansion of Nato, which has expanded to take in 14 eastern European countries since 1999. “Nato is a dangerous creature,” Khamenei said, “[that] didn’t recognize any limits or borders. If you cannot stand up to them in Ukraine, then a little while later, with the excuse of Crimea, they would have started this war anyway.”

World events, Khamenei said, had increased the need for “reciprocal cooperation” between Iran and Russia, meaning that “many agreements and contracts, including in oil and gas…must be pursued…and become operational.” This was a “necessity…especially after western sanctions” against Russia over Ukraine, Iran’s leader said. Russian energy giant Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company signed a $40-billion energy memorandum-of-understanding Tuesday morning.

Khamenei and Putin meeting in the afternoon of July 19, 2022

The effect of US Middle East policies – including in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – was becoming more limited, Khamenei said. The American presence in north-east Syria should end with their expulsion. President Ebrahim Raisi also referred to the US troop presence in Syria Tuesday to Iranian state television, arguing that it destabilized the country.

Cooperation between Moscow and Tehran would reach its “zenith” in the coming period, Khamenei said, stressing the need alongside other countries of continuing to expand trade away “step by step” from the dollar as the world “lost trust” in the US currency. Both Russia and China – whose dollarized bilateral trade fell below 50 percent in 2020 – are encouraging other countries to follow suit, including through groupings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Iran joined last year.

US ‘deceitful’

“Americans were both bullies and deceitful,” Khamenei said, as had been shown by their role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, presumably in fostering nationalism in the Soviet republics.

Putin, IRNA reported, had said that while nobody wanted war, the West’s behavior had left the Kremlin “no choice but to react.” The Russian president said, according to IRNA, that some European countries had opposed talk of Ukraine joining Nato but had been cajoled by the US, revealing their lack of effective sovereignty.

The West did not consider Ukraine as a suitable candidate for NATO membership before the Russian invasion in February.

Putin described the US killing 2020 of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani “as another example of US evil.” He pointed out that sanctions against Russia over Ukraine had punished the west and others through higher energy prices and a food crisis.

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