Russia Praises Iran and Their Joint Wins in Syria as U.S. Tensions Rise

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his country's relationship with Iran at a meeting alongside his counterpart from Tehran, highlighting their strategic partnership at a time when both faced tense relationships with the United States.

After talks Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Putin said that "relations between Russia and Iran are multifaceted, multilateral" and that "this concerns the economy, this concerns the issues of stability in the region, our joint efforts to combat terrorism, including in Syria." The two countries are the top supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's campaign against rebels and jihadis that once claimed most of the country after a 2011 uprising.

The rebellion was supported by the U.S. and Middle Eastern allies including Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which remained the leading backer of the beleaguered Syrian opposition. Ankara too, however, has joined Moscow and Tehran in an effort to solve the eight-year conflict and Putin praised "the joint success" of all three powers Friday.

The U.S., which now backed a mostly Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, has largely shifted its focus from the war-torn country since the defeat of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in March. President Donald Trump and his administration have since focused on the Persian Gulf, where Washington has accused Tehran of being behind a recent series of attacks near the world's most important oil chokepoint in the Persian Gulf.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit it Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, June 14. The two leaders formed a strategic partnership to support the Syrian government and, though their regional interests have begun to diverge, both faced tense relations with the U.S. Kremlin Press Office

U.S. Central Command—designated a terrorist organization by Iran after the U.S. branded Tehran's elite Revolutionary Guards with such a label earlier this year—released footage purporting to show a Revolutionary Guards vessel removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of the Front Altair, one of two foreign tankers damaged in apparent attacks Thursday in the Gulf of Oman. The incident was the second in just weeks involving commercial ships in the strategic waterway, located less than 100 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world's maritime oil traffic passes.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly cast the blame on Iran that same day and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan soon followed suit. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that "suspicious doesn't begin to describe" the incidents as they coincided with a historic meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The two vessels, one bearing the flag of Norway and the other of the Marshall Islands, reportedly carried "Japan-related" cargo. To further complicate things, both the U.S. and Iranian navies responded to the explosions that hit the ships. Up to 23 sailors were apparently transferred to the Iranian port city of Jask after initially being picked up by a South Korean ship, while the U.S. claimed that 21 were rescued by a Dutch vessel.

Russia has confirmed that 11 of its nationals were in Jask and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov spoke out Thursday "to warn against hasty attempts to pin the blame on those who are unwanted by a number of well-known states." Moscow has repeatedly criticized Washington's interventions across the Middle East, its role in expanding the NATO Western military alliance, its decision to abandon historic arms control treaties and sanctions targeting Russian businesses and state entities.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington, June 13. Pompeo accused Iran of being behind attacks on two tanks in the Gulf of Oman and the Pentagon produced footage the following day purporting to prove it amid Iranian denials. AFP/Getty Images/ERIC BARADAT

Moscow and Tehran were far from completely aligned in their Middle East vision, with the former maintaining close ties with Israel as the latter championed an "Axis of Resistance" including Syria, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement and various like-minded groups backed by Iran. But their ties have yet to significantly fray. Even as the two began to compete for influence in Damascus, Putin noted Friday that their mutual success there was "thanks to, in particular, the active position of Iran."

"We are developing economic relations, and in very many areas," Putin added. "From time immemorial, humanitarian ties have been quite dense, and mutual interest in the Russian world, on the one hand, in Persian culture, on the other hand, has always been a very significant part of our dialogue."

Rouhani, for his part, noted Russia's continued support for the 2015 nuclear deal still backed by China, the EU, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, but abandoned last year by the Trump administration. The U.S. has since laid out strict sanctions against Iran intended to completely sever its trade ties, including lucrative oil exports.

"Amid the current conditions, with serious external influence and external sanctions being imposed, the need for interaction between countries in the region, in particular between our countries, is becoming more urgent every day," Rouhani said.