LONDON/DUBAI, July 19 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Iran on Tuesday with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Kremlin leader since Moscow’s first trip to the former Soviet Union since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
During his visit to Tehran, Putin will also hold his first face-to-face meeting with NATO leader Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan since the invasion to discuss a deal to restore Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports as well as peace in Syria.
Putin’s trip, days after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, sent a strong message to the West that Moscow plans to develop a closer strategy with Iran, China and India in the face of Western sanctions relation.
Footage of Putin’s meeting with Khamenei showed the Russian leader sitting with the Iranian president in a modest white room just metres from the Supreme Leader. Only an Iranian flag and a portrait of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini can be seen in the background.
“The engagement with Khamenei is very important,” Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Moscow. “There is a trusting dialogue between them on the most important issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”
“On most issues, our positions are close or the same.”
For Iran, also annoyed by Western economic sanctions, and at odds with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program and a host of other issues, Putin’s visit is timely.
In the face of the emerging U.S.-backed Gulf Arab-Israeli bloc, the group’s civilian leaders are keen to strengthen strategic ties with Russia, which could shift the balance of power in the Middle East further away from Iran.
“Our two countries have good experience in counter-terrorism, which provides a lot of security for our region,” Laisi said after talks with Putin. “I hope your visit to Iran will strengthen cooperation between our two independent nations.”
Emboldened by high oil prices since the Ukraine war, Iran is betting, backed by Russia, that it may pressure Washington to make concessions to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
However, Russia has intensified its tilt towards Beijing in recent months, drastically reducing Iranian crude exports to China – Tehran’s main source of revenue since U.S. President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions in 2018.
Reuters reported in May that Iranian crude exports to China had fallen sharply as Beijing favored heavily discounted Russian crude, causing nearly 40 million barrels of Iranian oil to be stored on tankers off Asia and looking for buyers.
Before Putin’s arrival, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russian gas producer Gazprom (GAZP.MM) signed a memorandum of understanding worth about $40 billion.read more
In trilateral talks on Tuesday, Turkey will also work to reduce violence in Syria, where Erdogan has threatened to launch more military operations to extend a “safe zone” 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep along the border. Both Moscow and Tehran oppose any such action by Turkey.
“Maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria is very important, and any military attack in northern Syria will certainly damage Turkey, Syria and the entire region, and benefit the terrorists,” Khamenei told Erdogan.
Erdogan said terrorism remains a common concern and threat for Iran and Turkey, and the two countries need to fight all threats, including Kurdish fighters in Turkey, Syria and Iran, which Ankara considers terrorists.
Any Turkish action in Syria would target the Kurdish YPG militias, a key part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls much of northern Syria and is seen by Washington as a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
A senior Turkish official said Turkey’s plan of action would be discussed in Tehran, and there were reports that Russian and Kurdish forces were operating together in certain areas of Syria.
Russia and Iran are the strongest supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports anti-Assad insurgents.
Putin, 70, has rarely traveled abroad in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent Ukraine crisis. The last time he left the former Soviet Union was to China in February.
His bilateral talks with Erdogan will focus on plans to get Ukraine’s grain exports moving again.
Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations are expected to sign a deal later this week aimed at resuming grain shipments from Ukraine through the Black Sea.read more
Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Parisa Hafezi and Dominic Evans, Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean and Alistair Bell
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