Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey on Tuesday in a trip intended to demonstrate his continued international influence during the invasion of Ukraine.
The summit with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran nominally focused on peace talks in the war in Syria, but the conversation among the three leaders was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine. Mr. Putin used the trip to shore up friendly relations with both Iran and Turkey, and to push back on the international isolation imposed on him by the U.S. and Western allies.
The three leaders gathered on Tuesday evening around a vast round table, trading prepared statements about the situation in Syria.
Earlier in the day, the agenda for a series of separate meetings included discussions on security, Turkish involvement in the war in Ukraine, and a United Nations-backed proposal to resume exports of vital Ukrainian grain supplies via the Black Sea. Russia and Iran also agreed to deepen cooperation on energy, signing a $40 billion memorandum of understanding for oil-and-gas projects on Tuesday.
Mr. Putin’s trip comes days after President Biden’s visit to the region last week in which he sought to rally Middle East nations against China and Russia in a broader confrontation among world powers resulting from the attack on Ukraine.
“It’s the definition of pushback,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director and senior adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group. “They now share a vision of a coalition of sanctioned states, comprised of countries like Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela.”
The trip is only the second time Mr. Putin has left Russia since he ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, and his first foray outside his immediate sphere of influence, following a visit to the small Central Asian country of Tajikistan in June.
“Our relations are developing at a good pace,” Mr. Putin said at the start of his meeting with the Iranian president. “We are strengthening our cooperation on international security issues, making a significant contribution to the settlement of the Syrian conflict.”
The Russian president also met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, part of a visit intended to deepen ties with one of Russia’s closest partners in the region. The two countries both back the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and are both the target of U.S. sanctions. Earlier Tuesday, the Turkish president held talks with Mr. Raisi and met Mr. Khamenei.
The invasion of Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions have drawn Russia and Iran closer together. Russian and Iranian officials say the two countries are hoping to extend economic ties, despite them both being energy exporters competing for market share with their shared buyer, China.
It follows years in which Russia has carefully cultivated relations with a range of Middle Eastern nations, including opponents of the West and traditional U.S. security partners such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, preying on fears of Washington scaling back its commitment to the region, analysts say.
“Putin is a vulture in this regard. He is able to exert outsized influence compared to the size of Russia’s economy and its actual power by feeding off the insecurity of nations,” said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Hours before Mr. Putin’s arrival in Tehran, National Iranian Oil Co. and Russian state-owned gas producer Gazprom PJSC signed a memorandum of understanding worth $40 billion calling for offshore-gas projects, gas-and-oil products swaps, and the installation of a gas-export pipeline, in a sign of deepening energy ties between the two countries.
Mr. Putin was also expected to discuss security ties with Iran. The Iranian government is planning to provide Russia with armed drones, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier in July, citing American intelligence. Iran denied the accusation. Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told Russian state news agency RIA that Mr. Putin didn’t discuss drone purchases with either Mr. Raisi or Mr. Khamenei on Tuesday.
Ms. Hall said the U.S. revelation was likely an attempt to push Iran’s foes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, to join the U.S. effort to support Ukraine and oppose Russia.
Turkey has sought to straddle the divide between the West and Russia, selling armed drones to Ukraine while choosing not to impose sanctions on Russia, welcoming inflows of Russian money, and hosting two unsuccessful rounds of peace talks. Mr. Erdogan has positioned himself as a key interlocutor with Mr. Putin in hopes of eventually brokering a peace deal in Ukraine.
Also at stake in the meeting between the Turkish and Russian leaders is the fate of a U.N.-backed proposed deal to resume exports via the Black Sea of some 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain that have been trapped in the country due to the invasion. The U.N. is helping to broker the deal in hopes of addressing rising food prices contributing to a global hunger crisis.
Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish negotiators reached agreement on the broad outlines of a plan to ship the grain, which has been trapped in the country in part by sea mines laid by both Ukraine and Russia. Mr. Erdogan’s meeting with Mr. Putin is one key opportunity to convince the Russian leader to approve the agreement, a Western official said last week.
Mr. Putin thanked Mr. Erdogan for his efforts to mediate in the grain issue at the start of his meeting with the Turkish president.
“With your mediation, we have moved forward. Not all issues, however, have been resolved. But the fact that we have moved forward is already good,” Mr. Putin said, according to brief remarks shown on Russian television.
Mr. Erdogan said Russia had shown a positive approach during the last round of grain negotiations. “A result from them regarding the grain export will affect the whole world positively,” he said.
Officials will likely hold another meeting on the proposed grain corridor later this week, Turkish and Ukrainian leaders said this week. Turkey’s defense minister said Monday that at the next meeting the parties would reach a final decision on the plan.
The summit in Tehran is also an official meeting of the so-called “Astana format” negotiations over Syria, a diplomatic process launched in 2017 between Turkey, Russia and Iran. The series of meetings exemplifies how the three countries have come to dominate the broader civil war in Syria, where the U.S. still has some 900 troops stationed.
Mr. Erdogan also renewed threats to launch a new incursion against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, an operation that would further destabilize Syria while possibly displacing tens of thousands of people, according to U.S. officials. Any such attack by Turkey would likely require Moscow’s approval due to the presence of Russian troops in the area. Mr. Erdogan said a new operation was necessary to clear two areas of Syria of what he called terrorists.
Iran, whose own forces are also deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, warned against a new Turkish military operation in Syria. Mr. Khamenei told Mr. Erdogan during their meeting, “Any military attack in north Syria will definitely be a detriment to Turkey, Syria and the entire region.”