Iran-Russia alliance grows as Biden heads to Middle East amid growing threats
President Biden’s trip to the Middle East risks being overshadowed by Vladimir Putin, who is heading to the region directly after Mr Biden for meetings in Iran – a move announced by the Kremlin a day after the Biden administration accused Tehran of supplying drones to help Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russian officials said on Tuesday that Putin would meet with Iranian leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Erdogan recently met Mr Biden at a NATO summit and sought to position himself as a mediator in the hot war between Russia and Ukraine.
The Putin-Erdogan meeting risks being overshadowed by Mr. Putin’s push to counter Mr. Biden’s attempts this week to show leadership in the Middle East. Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its network of regional allies against the United States will be discussed.
Mr. Biden’s trip begins Wednesday in Israel and will be followed by a visit to Saudi Arabia. Administration officials said an overall goal of the visits was to promote stronger security coordination between Arab powers and Israel, both of which are hostile to Tehran.
The once unthinkable pursuit has become an increasingly viable goal with shared Arab and Israeli concern over threats emanating from Iran. The Biden administration indicated this week that the threats go far beyond the Middle East and involve direct Iranian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
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The White House said Monday it believed Russia was looking to Iran for “hundreds” of drones, some capable of carrying weapons, for use in Ukraine.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said it was unclear if Iran had already supplied any of the vehicles to Russia. He said the United States had information indicating that Iran was preparing to train Russian forces to use the drones as early as this month.
Russian forces suffered heavy casualties early in the invasion, which Mr Putin ordered on February 24 when Ukrainian drones proved adept at finding and targeting Russian tanks and command locations.
“Our information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to supply Russia with up to several hundred [unmanned aerial vehicles]including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,” Sullivan told reporters on Monday.
The Kremlin responded within hours, announcing that Mr Putin would travel to Tehran on July 19 for a trilateral meeting with Mr Erdogan and Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi. It will be a rare trip abroad for Russia’s increasingly reclusive leader since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the meeting will focus on talks on Syria. Turkey, Syria and Russia are the main supporters of the Astana process in search of a peaceful settlement of the Syrian civil war which has lasted for more than a decade. Russian forces provided essential support to prevent Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime from collapsing.
The process was thorny. Turkey, a NATO ally that borders Syria and has complex relations with Russia, has provided military support to rebels fighting Mr Assad’s forces. Russia and Iran stand together as the main political and military supporters of the Assad regime.
The Russian-Iranian alliance has grown over the past year. Tehran has signaled support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but Russia is a signatory to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr Biden hopes to revive.
Putin’s visit to Tehran will be his second trip abroad since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. The Russian president visited Turkmenistan in late June for a Caspian nations summit that included an appearance by Mr Raisi.
Mr Putin hosted the Iranian President in Moscow weeks before ordering the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At the January summit, Raisi endorsed Kremlin complaints about NATO’s eastward expansion, which Russian officials have tried to use as a justification for invading Ukraine.
“NATO infiltration in any form in the Caucasus and Central Asia will threaten the common interests of independent countries,” the Iranian president said at the time, according to an Al Jazeera report. The report notes that Mr. Raisi and Mr. Putin discussed strengthening Iranian-Russian ties on several fronts.
An analysis by the American Institute for Peace published after the summit said that “Russia and Iran have had a difficult relationship since the beginning of the 19th century, when the Russian Empire annexed a large part of Iranian territory”.
“But the two countries have expanded their political, economic and military cooperation since the early 2000s,” the analysis says, noting that “both oppose the US-led world order, support the regime of Assad in Syria and see Sunni jihadist movements, such as ISIS, as serious threats.
Iranian officials have made no secret of their military support for Russia. A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday did not deny the US claim that Tehran would provide drones and train Russian forces.
“Iran’s cooperation with Russia in some sophisticated technologies predates the Russian-Ukrainian war,” a spokesman for Iran’s foreign minister said. “There have been no particular developments in this regard recently.”
Iran has a long history of working on drone development, including the so-called stray munitions, “kamikaze” drones like the Switchblade that the United States delivered to Ukraine.
Due to national interests, Israel and Saudi Arabia have resisted adhering to Western sanctions to punish Russia for its action in Ukraine. With Russia now largely cut off from Western markets and banks, Moscow and Tehran have even more in common than before the invasion.
Mohammad Reza Pour Ebrahimi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s economic committee, told the official IRNA news agency that Putin’s trip would help improve economic relations between the two sanctions-hit countries.
• This article is based in part on reports from the telegraph services.