Putin visits Iran on first trip outside former Soviet Union since Ukraine war


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LONDON/DUBAI — 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 Feb. 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.

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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 dialog 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.

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.

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Its clerical leaders are keen to strengthen strategic relations with Russia in the face of an emerging U.S.-backed Gulf Arab-Israeli bloc that could tilt the Middle East balance of power further away from Iran.

“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.

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Still, Russia’s increased tilt towards 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.

Ahead of Putin’s arrival, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russian gas producer Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding worth around $40 billion.

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. Moscow and Tehran both oppose any such action by Turkey.

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Russia and Iran are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest backers, while Turkey supports anti-Assad insurgents.

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 was 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 (SDF) 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. (Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Gareth Jones)

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