Russia's Putin Expected in Tehran for Syria Summit With Iranian, Turkish Presidents

Trip to Iran for talks with Iran's Raisi and Turkey's Erdogan is Putin's first outside the former Soviet Union since Russia invaded Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks to Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in June.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks to Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in June.Credit: Grigory Sysoyev/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Tehran on Tuesday for talks with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Kremlin leader's first trip outside the former Soviet Union since Moscow's February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

In Tehran, Putin will also hold his first face-to-face meeting since the invasion with a NATO leader, Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss a deal aimed at allowing the resumption of Ukraine's Black Sea grain exports as well as peace in Syria.

Putin's trip, which comes just days after U.S. President Joe Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, sends a strong message to the West about Moscow's plans to forge closer strategic ties with Iran, China and India in the face of the Western sanctions.

"The contact with Khamenei is very important," Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Moscow. "A trusting dialogue has developed between them on the most important issues on the bilateral and international agenda."

"On most issues, our positions are close or identical."

Putin will also meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected last year.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi welcoming Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, on Tuesday.Credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / AFP

Both sanctioned

For Iran, also chafing under Western economic sanctions and at loggerheads with the United States over Tehran's nuclear program and a range of other issues, Putin's visit is timely.

The specter of an emerging U.S.-backed Gulf Arab-Israeli bloc that could tilt the Middle East balance of power further away from Iran has accelerated its clerical rulers' efforts to strengthen strategic relations with the Kremlin.

"Considering the evolving geopolitical ties after the Ukraine war, the [clerical] establishment tries to secure Moscow's support in Tehran's confrontation with Washington and its regional allies," said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named.

Emboldened by high oil prices since the Ukraine war, Iran is betting that with Russia's support it could pressure Washington to offer concessions for the revival of a 2015 nuclear deal.

"We need a strong ally and Moscow is a superpower," said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be identified.

Still, Russia's increased tilt toward Beijing in recent months has significantly reduced Iran's crude exports to China – a key source of income for Tehran since U.S. President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions in 2018.

In May, Reuters reported that Iran's crude exports to China have fallen sharply as Beijing favored heavily discounted Russian barrels, leaving almost 40 million barrels of Iranian oil stored on tankers at sea in Asia and seeking buyers.

Syria, Ukraine

High on the agenda in Tuesday's trilateral talks that will also include Turkey will be efforts to reduce violence in Syria, where Erdogan has threatened to launch more military operations to extend 30-km (20-mile) deep "safe zones" along the border. Turkey, which supports insurgents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has mounted four operations in northern Syria since 2016.

Russia and Iran are Assad’s strongest backers, and both oppose any such action by Turkey. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan that a military strike on Syria would destabilize the region, state TV reported.

"Any military strike on Syria will harm the region and will benefit terrorists," Khamenei said, according to the report.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a meeting in Tehran, Aug. 17, 2015.Credit: AP

Putin, who turns 70 this year, has made few foreign trips in recent years due to the COVID pandemic and then the Ukraine crisis. His last trip beyond the former Soviet Union was to China in February.

His bilateral talks with Erdogan will focus on a plan to get Ukrainian grain exports moving again.

"The talks will try to solve the issues on grain exports," said a senior Turkish official who requested anonymity.

Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations are expected to sign a deal later this week aimed at resuming the shipping of grain from Ukraine across the Black Sea.

Any Turkish operation in Syria would attack the Kurdish YPG militia, a key part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that controls large parts of north Syria and is regarded by Washington as an important ally against Islamic State.

The senior Turkish official said Turkey's planned operation would be discussed, as would reports that Russia and the Kurds were acting together in some areas of Syria.

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