President Vladimir Putin left Russia for a rare international trip Tuesday and received a handsome reward: a meeting with a prominent world leader who voiced a full-throated endorsement for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Traveling to Iran, Putin worked to solidify an Iranian-Russian alliance that has been emerging as a significant counterweight to US-led efforts to contain Western adversaries. He met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who issued a declaration of support for Putin’s war in Ukraine of the kind that even other countries close to Russia have so far stopped short of making.
“War is a violent and difficult endeavour, and the Islamic Republic is not at all happy that people are caught up in war,” Khamenei told Putin, according to the supreme leader’s office. “But in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war.”
Putin also held a three-way summit meeting focusing on Syria with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and their Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was also in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
The day’s choreography crystallized Putin’s determination to push back against attempts to punish and isolate Russia, engaging with fellow US adversaries like Iran and with other countries like Turkey — a NATO member — whose alliances are more tangled.
Khamenei’s endorsement of the war went well beyond the much more cautious support offered by another key Russian ally, China, embracing Putin’s claim that the West had left the Kremlin no choice but to act.
It was a signal to the world that with Europe and the United States now hitting Russia with sanctions comparable to those that have suffocated Iran’s economy for years, the long-fraught relationship between Moscow and Tehran may be becoming a true partnership.
“Russia and Iran still don’t trust each other but now need each other more than ever,” said Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group. “This is no longer a partnership of choice but an alliance out of necessity.”
For years, Russia was careful not to get too close to Iran, even as the two countries shared an adversarial relationship with the United States and cooperated militarily after Russia’s intervention in the civil war in Syria. For Putin, his attempts to build relations with Israel and Arab countries precluded a full-fledged alliance with Tehran.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus.
Increasingly cut off from Western markets, Russia is looking to Iran as an economic partner, as well as for expertise in skirting sanctions.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has signed a non-binding $40 billion deal to help develop gas and oil fields in Iran, according to Iranian reports. And, US officials say, Russia is looking to buy much-needed combat drones from Iran for use over Ukraine, a matter that was not addressed publicly in Tuesday’s meetings.
Before Putin’s visit, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told an Iranian broadcaster that Iran and Russia could soon sign a treaty on strategic cooperation that would expand their collaboration in banking and finance. He evoked the 16th-century diplomacy between Russia and Persia to set the scene for what he promised would be a new era of friendship between Tehran and Moscow.
The courtship between the two countries started even before the war began Feb. 24, as Russia’s tensions with the West were escalating. In January, Raisi, the Iranian president, went to Moscow. Then last month, the two men met again at a regional summit in Turkmenistan, where the Russian leader sought to cement support from countries on the Caspian Sea.
On Tuesday, as he and Raisi met for the third time this year, Putin said the two countries’ relations were “developing at a good pace” in economic, security and regional affairs. He said he and Raisi had agreed to strengthen cooperation in energy, industry and transportation, and to increasingly use national currencies — rather than the US dollar — to denominate their trade.
Raisi sounded a similar note.
“Everything is developing very quickly, including with regard to our bilateral relations,” he told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
Khamenei said that “long-term cooperation between Iran and Russia is deeply beneficial for both countries” and called for the pending contracts between the countries, including in the gas and oil sector, to be carried out.
In the statement put out by his office, the supreme leader called the NATO alliance a “dangerous entity” and repeated Putin’s claim that the West had been ready to start a war with Russia to help Ukraine recapture the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“If the road is clear for NATO, they know no boundaries or limits,” Khamenei said. “And if Ukraine had not been stopped, they would have started the same war, with the excuse of Crimea.”
The war in Ukraine has forced other countries to take a fresh look at their alliances. Last week, with rising oil prices damaging him politically, President Joe Biden — who had once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” nation after the murder of a dissident — traveled to Jeddah and bestowed a fist bump on the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
It is too soon to tell how much Iran can really help Russia keep its economy afloat amid the crush of Western sanctions — or whether competition on the global energy market or diverging political interests might yet derail their partnership.
As Russia pushes to find new buyers for its oil to get around the sanctions, for example, it is cutting into the market share of two of its allies — Iran and Venezuela — and setting off a price war that could hurt them all, market participants recently told The New York Times.
And even as the Ukraine war hung over Tuesday’s meetings, another conflict also loomed large: the war in Syria, where Turkey has been threatening to launch a fresh military offensive in two northern cities against Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists.
Erdogan has described the possible operation as a way to keep the Turkish border secure from Kurdish militants and create a zone to which some of the millions of Syrian refugees who have poured across the border into Turkey during the war could return.
On Tuesday, Khamenei warned Erdogan against carrying out such an operation. In a separate meeting, he told him that any military attack in northern Syria would be harmful for Turkey, Syria and the entire region.
Over more than a decade of civil war in Syria, Iran and Russia have been the staunchest international allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But Turkey has backed armed groups fighting for the removal of Assad and has mounted incursions into northern Syria.
“Terrorism must definitely be confronted, but a military attack on Syria will only benefit the terrorists,” said a message posted on Khamenei’s Twitter account Tuesday alongside a photograph of his meeting with the Turkish leader.
Erdogan did not back down, at least publicly.
“Our fight against terrorist organizations will continue everywhere,” he said after the meeting. “We expect Russia and Iran to support Turkey in this struggle.”
Putin said the three countries had agreed on a joint declaration to work together for a “normalization of the situation” in Syria. He made it clear that to him, this meant eliminating any Western involvement in the country and ensuring the rule of Assad.
The “destructive policy of Western countries led by the United States,” he said, is aimed at the “dismemberment of the Syrian state.”
Despite their differences on Syria, the leaders took care to exude bonhomie.
Putin, who took extraordinary social distancing precautions for much of the pandemic, meeting with visiting leaders across a long table at the Kremlin, could be seen chatting up close with Erdogan and Raisi in a video shared by Russian state media. Erdogan stood with his hand on Putin’s back.
The three leaders read out statements to the press seated next to each other on a dais lined with white flowers. Putin said that their next three-way summit would happen in Russia, and that he had invited his “Iranian and Turkish friends” to visit the country.
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