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Putin in Tehran for talks with leaders of Iran, Turkey

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By Associated Press


TEHRAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Tuesday in Iran for a visit 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.

As the West heaps sanctions on Russia and the costly campaign drags on, Putin is seeking to bolster ties with Tehran, a fellow target of severe U.S. sanctions and a potential military and trade 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.

Iran rolled out a long red carpet for Putin at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, where Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji greeted him warmly before he was whisked into his presidential convoy to the city.

But perhaps most crucially, the Tehran trip offers Putin a chance for a high-stakes meeting with Erdogan, who has sought to help broker talks on a peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as help negotiations to unblock Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

Turkey, a NATO member, has found itself opposite Russia in bloody conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. It has even sold lethal drones that Ukrainian forces have used to attack Russian troops. But Turkey hasn’t imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, making it a sorely needed partner for Moscow. Grappling with runaway inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, Turkey also relies on the Russian 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.

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.

It was a tough 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 and the United Arab Emirates have declined to pump more oil beyond a plan approved by their energy 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 U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s atomic accord with world powers and reimposed crushing sanctions. Talks to restore the deal have hit a deadlock.

Backed into a corner by the West and its regional rivals, the Iranian government is ramping up uranium enrichment, cracking down on dissent and grabbing headlines with optimistic, hard-line stances intended to keep the Iranian currency, the rial, from crashing. 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 … 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.

In his fifth visit to Tehran, Putin will meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he has a “trusting dialogue,” Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said. He will also hold talks with President Raisi on issues including Tehran’s nuclear deal, of which Russia is a key signatory. The leaders met in Moscow in January and again last month in Turkmenistan.