TEHRAN, Iran — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran starting Tuesday is intended to deepen ties with regional heavyweights as part of Moscow’s challenge to the United States and Europe amid its grinding campaign in Ukraine.
In only his second trip abroad since Russian tanks rolled into its neighbor in February, Putin is scheduled to hold talks with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the pressing issues facing the region, including the conflict in Syria and a U.N.-backed proposal to resume exports of Ukrainian grain to ease the global food crisis.
The West is placing sanctions on Russia. As this costly campaign drags out, Putin wants to improve relations with Tehran. Tehran is another target of U.S. harsh sanctions, as well as being a possible military and trading partner. In recent weeks, Russian officials visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice to review Tehran’s weapons-capable drones for possible use in Ukraine, the White House has alleged.
Most importantly, though, Tehran provides Putin an opportunity for high-stakes meetings with Erdogan. Erdogan is seeking to help facilitate talks to a peaceful resolution of Russia-Ukraine’s conflict and help negotiate the unblocking of Ukrainian grain through Black Sea.
Turkey, which is NATO member, found itself in conflict with Russia during the bloody wars in Azerbaijan and Libya. But Turkey hasn’t imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, making it a sorely needed partner for Moscow. Turkey, which is struggling with high inflation and rapidly declining currency, also depends on Russia’s market.
The gathering has symbolic meaning for Putin’s domestic audience as well, showing off Russia’s international clout even as it grows increasingly isolated and plunges deeper into confrontation with the West. It comes just days after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visited Israel and Saudi Arabia — Tehran’s primary rivals in the region.
From Jerusalem and Jeddah, Biden urged Israel and Arab countries to push back on Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence that has expanded with the perception of America’s retreat from the region.
This was not an easy sell. Israel maintains good relations with Putin, a necessity given Russian presence in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and frequent target of its airstrikes. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia have not yet agreed to increase oil production beyond what was authorized by their alliance with Moscow.
But all the countries—despite their long-standing rivalries—could agree on drawing closer to counter Iran, which has rapidly advanced its nuclear program since former President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s atomic accord with world powers and reimposed crushing sanctions. Talks to revive the agreement have been blocked. On his trip, Biden said he’d be willing to use military force against Iran as a last resort.
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With the West and other regional competitors backing them, Iran’s government has been able to increase uranium enrichment and crack down on any dissent. It is also grabbing attention with its hard-line, optimist stances that will prevent the Iranian currency the rial (or any of its derivatives) from plummeting. Without sanctions relief in sight, Iran’s tactical partnership with Russia has become one of survival, even as Moscow appears to be undercutting Tehran in the black market oil trade.
“Iran is (the) center of dynamic diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian wrote on Twitter, adding the meetings will “develop economic cooperation, focus on security of the region via political solution … and ensure food security.”
Fadahossein Maleki, a member of the Iranian parliament’s influential committee on national security and foreign policy, described Russia as Iran’s “most strategic partner” on Monday. His comments belied decades of animosity stemming from Russia’s occupation of Iran during World War II—and its refusal to leave afterward.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov called Iran “an important partner for Russia” in a briefing Monday, saying the countries shared “a desire to take their relations to a new level of strategic partnership.”
In his fifth visit to Tehran, Putin will meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he has a “trusting dialogue,” Ushakov said. He will also hold talks with President Raisi on issues including Tehran’s nuclear deal, of which Russia is a key signatory. They met again in Turkmenistan last month and in Moscow in January.
The focus of the talks among the three presidents will be the decade-old conflict in Syria, where Iran and Russia have backed President Bashar Assad’s government, while Turkey has supported armed opposition factions. Russia intervened in the conflict in 2015, pooling efforts with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants and Iranian forces and using its air power to shore up Assad’s fledgling military and ultimately turning the tide in his favor.
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Ushakov said the parties will discuss efforts to encourage a political settlement, while Erdogan is expected to take up Turkey’s threats of a new military offensive in northern Syria to drive away U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from its borders. The operation is part of Turkey’s plans to create a safe zone along its border with Syria that would encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees.
Ushakov stated that Russia strongly opposed the Turkish invasion. Humanitarian issues in Syria have also come into focus since Russia used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council last week to force a restriction in aid deliveries to 4.1 million people in Syria’s rebel-held northwest after six months, instead of a year.
Talks to lift a Russian blockade and get Ukraine’s grain into global markets will also be on the agenda. Last week, U.N., Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials reached a tentative agreement on some aspects of a deal to ensure the export of 22 million tons of desperately needed grain and other agricultural products trapped in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports by the fighting.
Tuesday’s meeting between Putin and Erdogan could help clear the remaining hurdles, a major step toward alleviating a food crisis that has sent prices of vital commodities like wheat and barley soaring.
Isachenkov reported in Moscow. Isabel DeBre (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) and Suzan Fraser (Ankara, Turkey), were Associated Press reporters.
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