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.
Putin will meet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Grain exports, Syria and Ukraine will be discussed in Tehran, a Turkish official said.
The Russian leader has limited his international visits to former Soviet states since war broke out in Ukraine.
In June, Putin made his first international trip since February when he visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, both former members of the USSR now led by authoritarian rulers and Russian allies.
Tuesday's visit will offer Putin the opportunity to deepen ties with Iran, one of Moscow's few remaining international allies and a fellow target of Western economic sanctions.
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.
Iran and the Kremlin have increasingly found common ground of late, with officials from both countries repeatedly stating their willingness to expand commercial and political cooperation.
Putin's visit comes about a week after the White House said Tehran is preparing to sell armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. Iran has said technological cooperation with Russia preceded the war, without confirming or denying the US claim.
Amid growing diplomatic isolation, increased trade with Russia could create relief for Iran's economy, which has been foundering under US oil and banking sanctions for years. Russia, on the other hand, sees Iran as a potential arms provider, offering a trade route and expertise in dodging sanctions and exporting oil.
Ankara plays both sides
Turkey, a NATO member, has found itself opposite Russia in bloody conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. 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 in the region.
Iranian leaders, especially the conservative hard-liners currently ruling the country, had always sought to develop their country's ties with Russia but the war in Ukraine has now made Iran a more central element in Putin's diplomacy.
A delicate balance of power
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 so far 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 President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s atomic accord with world powers and reimposed crushing sanctions. Talks to restore the deal have hit a deadlock. On his trip, Biden said he’d be willing to use military force against Iran as a last resort.
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.
(with inputs from AP)