During the January 10 mass rallies of the funeral of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, crowds in Tehran repeatedly chanted “Death to Russia” and “Russian Embassy is the den of spies.” Those chanting are supporters of the popular political opposition, which continue to be repressed by the security services.
Rafsanjani had in recent years become a symbolic figurehead for the reformists. However, the public outburst of disapproval of Russia and Moscow’s policies toward Iran is not a new phenomenon. Such chants have been frequently heard since 2009 when the Green reformist opposition movement was first suppressed by the security services. It is Moscow’s close ties to Iran’s hardliners which makes the reformist political camp in Tehran view it as enabling the worst repressive tendencies of the Iranian regime.
During Vladimir Putin’s highly successful November 2015 visit to Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei unusually praised Putin and let it be known that he prefers greater Russian influence in the Middle East and in Iran to offset American domination.
Khamenei had never in his 26 years as Supreme Leader been this explicit in endorsing closer Iranian-Russian relations. Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s chief foreign policy advisor, admitted that Putin’s unambiguous deference toward the Supreme Leader, whom he visited before seeing President Rouhani, was satisfyingly noted. It was, in Velayati’s words, “the most successful” visit by a head of state to Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
To the outside world, this strengthened political will in Moscow and among the hardliners in Tehran for closer ties is most visible in the shared Iranian-Russian agenda in the Syrian war. But for the domestic Iranian political opposition, Russia’s unwelcome influence is felt much closer to home.