Putin visits Iran for trilateral summit under shadow of Ukraine war

Russian leader will hold talks with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, centre, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo prior to their talks at the Saadabad palace, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in the Iranian capital on Tuesday for a summit focused on Syria with the leaders of Iran and Turkey.

The meeting follows the so-called Astana Format discussions on Syria and is the first overseas trip outside the former Soviet Union since his country's invasion of Ukraine began in February.

Russia has militarily intervened to support Syria's President Bashar Al Assad, helping turn the tide for the regime in the civil war where Iran, too, is a keen backer of the government. The mutual support for Mr Al Assad has deepened the Russian-Iranian connection. Turkey, by contrast, backs rebel factions in north-western Syria.

While Syria will be the focus of discussions, Mr Putin is likely to discuss the war in Ukraine with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan given the meeting comes only days after Russian and Ukrainian officials met Turkish officials to mediate an agreement on grain exports.

Mr Putin is also likely to discuss the stalled international discussions on reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iranian officials. The US issued a warning last week that Iran was preparing to send Russia hundreds of drones, including models capable of carrying weapons, amid significant losses by Moscow’s military as his war approaches its sixth month.

The National Iranian Oil Company and Russia’s Gazprom signed an agreement on strategic co-operation on projects worth around $40 billion, Iran’s state-run Shana news agency reported on Tuesday. The agreement covers the development of six oil and two gas fields, construction of gas export pipelines, gas and product swaps and the completion of the Iran LNG export terminal.

The meetings will “develop economic co-operation, focus on the security of the region via political solution … and ensure food security”, he said.

Fadahossein Maleki, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s influential committee on national security and foreign policy, on Monday described Russia as the country's “most strategic partner”.

As the West heaps sanctions on Russia and the costly war enters its sixth month this weekend, Mr Putin is seeking to bolster ties with Tehran, a fellow target of US sanctions and a potential military and trade partner.

The newly announced oil and gas deal, if implemented, could soften growing competition between Tehran and Moscow.

Russia has been selling large volumes of discounted oil to China, edging out Iranian exports. A similar story holds true for Russian steel exports, which compete with Iranian output.

Moscow has been forced to heavily discount these key exports due to the sanctions risk buyers face and, in some cases, complete import bans by some countries.

Iran has subsequently lost vital revenue as it struggles to secure market share and limit the impact of the sanctions.

The US State Department is closely watching the talks, and has warned Moscow against buying any drones from the Iranian regime.

In recent weeks, Russian officials visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice to review whether Tehran’s weapons-capable drones could be used in Ukraine, the US has said.

“We’ve spoken about our concerns regarding a potential Iranian provision of UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] technology to Russia. We will continue to watch very closely,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

He said any such transaction would trigger immediate US and other sanctions.

“All of our sanctions remain in force,” Mr Price said. "Any transaction of this sort would implicate a number of sanctions that we have on the books and presumably a number of sanctions that countries around the world have on the books.

Mr Price did not comment on the trilateral talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Tehran. “I will leave it to these three countries to speak to the agenda,” he said

The meeting comes a few days after US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Mr Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov called Iran “an important partner for Russia” in a briefing on Monday, saying the countries shared “a desire to take their relations to a new level of strategic partnership”.

In this fifth visit to Tehran, Mr Putin will also meet Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian supreme leader, with whom he has a “trusting dialogue”, Mr Ushakov said.

Ukrainian grain

Talks to lift a Russian blockade and export Ukraine’s grain will also be on the agenda.

Last week, UN, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials reached a tentative agreement on some aspects of a deal to ensure the export of 22 million tonnes of desperately needed grain and other agricultural products trapped at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

Tuesday’s meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan could help to clear the remaining hurdles, a major step towards alleviating a food crisis that has sent prices of vital commodities such as wheat and barley soaring.

Turkey has not imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, making it a much-needed partner for Moscow.

Tackling runaway inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, Turkey also relies on the Russian market.

Focus on Syria

Mr Putin will also hold talks with Mr Raisi on issues such as Tehran’s nuclear deal, of which Russia is a key signatory.

The leaders met in Moscow in January and again last month in Turkmenistan.

The focus of the talks among the Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents will be the decade-long conflict in Syria, where Iran and Russia have backed President Bashar Al Assad’s government, while Turkey has supported armed opposition factions.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Erdogan was welcomed by the Iranian president. They both later met Mr Khamenei at his office.

A military strike on Syria would destabilise the region, Mr Khamenei, told the Turkish president.

“Any military strike on Syria will harm the region and will benefit terrorists,” Mr Khamenei said, according to quotes carried by state-run media in Tehran.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad is also in Tehran, and will meet senior Iranian officials.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian Supreme Leader, left, meets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. AFP

Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, pooling efforts with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants and Iranian forces and using its air power to shore up Mr Al Assad’s military. This ultimately turned the tide in favour of the Syrian government.

Mr Ushakov said the parties would discuss efforts to encourage a political settlement.

Mr Erdogan is expected to carry out Turkey’s threats of a new military offensive in northern Syria to drive away US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from its borders.

The operation is part of Turkey’s plans to create what it calls a safe zone along its border with Syria that would encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees.

Russia strongly opposes to the planned Turkish incursion, Mr Ushakov said.

Humanitarian issues in Syria have also come into focus since Russia used its veto power at the UN Security Council last week to limit an extension in aid deliveries to 4.1 million people in Syria’s rebel-held north-west.

The council agreed on a six-month extension of deliveries through Turkey’s Bab Al Hawa crossing until January 10 next year. Russia had earlier vetoed a resolution for a year-long extension.

Updated: July 20, 2022, 3:28 AM