Putin heads to Tehran for talks with leaders of Iran and Turkey

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TEHRAN, Iran — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran, beginning Tuesday, is intended to deepen ties with regional heavyweights as part of Moscow’s challenge to the United States and Europe amid its grueling campaign in Ukraine.

In only his second trip abroad since Russian tanks rolled over his neighbor in February, Putin is scheduled to hold talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the region’s pressing problems, including the conflict in Syria and a UN crisis . supported proposal to resume exports of Ukrainian grain to alleviate the global food crisis.

As the West imposes sanctions on Russia and the costly campaign drags on, Putin is trying to strengthen ties with Tehran, another target of heavy US sanctions and a potential military and trade partner. In recent weeks, Russian officials have visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice to check Tehran’s weaponized drones for possible use in Ukraine, the White House said.

But perhaps most importantly, the Tehran trip offers Putin a chance for a high-profile meeting with Erdogan, who has been trying to broker talks for a peaceful settlement to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and backing negotiations to release Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

Turkey, a NATO member, has found itself pitted against Russia in bloody conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. It has even sold deadly drones used by Ukrainian forces to attack Russia. But Turkey has not imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, making it a much-needed partner for Moscow. Turkey, struggling with runaway inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, also relies on the Russian market.

The meeting is also symbolic for Putin’s domestic audience, as it shows Russia’s international influence even as it becomes increasingly isolated and plunges deeper into confrontation with the West. It comes just days after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia — Tehran’s main rivals in the region.

From Jerusalem and Jeddah, Biden called on Israel and Arab countries to roll back Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence, which has expanded with perceptions of America’s withdrawal from the region.

It was a tough sell. Israel has good relations with Putin, a necessity given Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and a frequent target of its airstrikes. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have so far refused to pump more oil than their energy alliance with Moscow has authorized.

But all countries could – despite their longstanding rivalries – agree on a rapprochement with Iran, which has been fast-tracking its nuclear program ever since former US President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and imposed crushing sanctions. Talks to restore the deal have stalled. During his trip, Biden said he was prepared to use military force against Iran as a last resort.

Cornered by the West and its regional rivals, the Iranian government is pushing ahead with uranium enrichment, cracking down on dissent and making headlines with optimistic, tough stances aimed at preventing Iran’s currency, the rial, from crashing. With no relaxation of sanctions in sight, Iran’s tactical partnership with Russia has turned into a partnership for survival, even as Moscow appears to be undercutting Tehran in black-market oil deals.

“Iran is (the) center of dynamic diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian wrote on Twitter, adding that the meetings will “develop economic cooperation, focus on regional security through a political settlement… and ensure food security.” “.

Fadahossein Maleki, a member of Iran’s parliament’s influential Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, on Monday described Russia as Iran’s “most strategic partner”. His comments belied decades of hostility that resulted from Russia’s occupation of Iran during World War II – and its refusal to leave afterward.

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov called Iran “an important partner for Russia” in a briefing Monday and said the countries shared “a desire to take their ties to a new level of strategic partnership.”

During his fifth visit to Tehran, Putin will meet Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he is conducting a “trustful dialogue,” Ushakov said. He will also hold talks with President Raisi on issues such as the Tehran nuclear deal, of which Russia is a key signatory. The leaders met in Moscow in January and again in Turkmenistan last month.

The talks between the three presidents will focus on the decades-old conflict in Syria, where Iran and Russia have backed President Bashar Assad’s government while Turkey has backed armed opposition factions. Russia intervened in the conflict in 2015, pooling its efforts with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces, and using its air power to shore up Assad’s fledgling military and ultimately turn the tide in his favor.

Ushakov said the parties would discuss efforts to promote a political solution, while Erdogan is expected to heed Turkey’s threats of a new military offensive in northern Syria to drive US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from its borders. The operation is part of Turkey’s plan to create a security zone along its border with Syria, designed to encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees.

At a meeting with Erdogan, Khamenei urgently warned of the planned Turkish invasion.

“Any kind of military attack in northern Syria will definitely harm Turkey, Syria and the whole region and benefit the terrorists,” Iran’s top leader said, stressing the need to “end the issue through talks.”

Humanitarian issues in Syria have also come into focus since Russia last week used its veto power in the UN Security Council to force a six-month cut off on aid to 4.1 million people in rebel-held north-west Syria, instead of a year.

Talks on lifting a Russian blockade and introducing Ukrainian grain to world markets will also be on the agenda. Last week, officials from the United Nations, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey reached a tentative agreement on some aspects of a deal to ensure the export of 22 million tons of much-needed grain and other agricultural products trapped by fighting in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports were.

Tuesday’s meeting between Putin and Erdogan could help clear the remaining hurdles, a key step in easing a food crisis that has pushed up the prices of essential commodities like wheat and barley.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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