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Iran, Syria Seem Overshadowed By Other Issues At Helsinki Summit

FINLAND -- U.S. President Donald Trump throws a football to U.S. First Lady Melania Trump during a joint news conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.

Ahead of the Helsinki summit on July 16, the media expected developments over Iran and Syria to be among the centerpieces of the talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin.

They weren’t. Or if they were, there was very little about Iran’s role in Syria and Tehran’s nuclear program in what the two leaders said in their press conference after one on one talks behind closed doors.

The two leaders seemed to be more interested in the Crimean problem and the issues surrounding Russia’s alleged involvement in the last US Presidential elections.

CBS News said that “the summit ended with no clear resolution,” adding that at the end of the meeting, Trump said that the summit was only “the beginning of a longer process” and a first step toward strong dialogue.”

The New York Times wrote that “The two leaders seemed to agree to disagree on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and on the Iran nuclear deal,” adding that “Mr. Putin made a point of noting that the two leaders still disagree strongly on the Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump withdrew from in May, and which the Russian president hailed as a great success.”

“During the talks we said straight that we are worried by the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. It stays unchanged. I would like to stress that thanks to the nuclear deal, Iran has become a country that is most frequently checked by IAEA worldwide,” said Putin.

On the issue of Syria, “Mr. Putin said that the war in Syria could be “the first showcase example of the successful joint work” between the two countries. But with Russia supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and the United States backing a rebel faction that opposes the government, it is not clear what room there is for cooperation there,” the New York Times noted.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.

Before the summit, The Washington Post predicted that “When President Donald Trump meets Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Monday, the Syrian conflict will be one of the most immediately pressing issues on a wide-ranging agenda.”

The paper said that the issue of Iran’s role in Syria would be “a key part” of the talks. However, it quoted analysts as saying “Any agreement is likely to be general in nature, and discussions are likely to be centered more on limiting Iran’s presence rather than ending it, analysts say.”

The Washington Post added, “A full withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria is a virtual non-starter. After years of ruinous civil war, Iran and its proxy militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, have built up a formidable presence stretching from the Iraqi border through central Syria to Lebanon,” and that “President Bashar Assad, with military and political assistance from Iran and Russia, has recaptured 60 percent of the country, putting an end to any serious talk of regime change. And, amid a declining U.S. role, Russia has emerged as an uncontested power broker in the country.”

Generally speaking, there seemed to be more agreement between the two leaders on the Syrian conflict than on Iran’s nuclear program.

Foreign-based Iranian analysts talking to Radio Farda hours after the summit agreed that there is very little if anything for Iran to do in Syria, as Russia has attained its goal of protecting the Assad regime, and the U.S. has a very clear stance on Iran’s presence in Syria and its cooperation with the Lebanese Hezballah. All the three analysts based in Washington, Glasgow and Berlin saw no future for Iran in Syria although they noted that it is strategically significant for Iran to maintain a foothold in Syria in order to send logistical support to Hezballah in Lebanon.

President Trump said at the press conference that Iran should not be allowed to take advantage of the significance of the fight against terrorism in Syria. This was probably an allusion to the fact that Iran has been using its presence in Syria as a leverage to exert pressure on Israel, the United States’ most important ally in the region.

Iran on its part announced Monday morning that its officials have not asked Putin to raise Tehran’s concerns about Syria in the meeting with Trump.

If that is true, it is not clear why Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top adviser visited Moscow “on a strategic mission”, in his words, and met with Putin while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on a similar tour to Moscow almost at the same time.