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Putin visits new friends in Tehran

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Two countries that have been hit hard by sanctions are giving each other support: the Kremlin chief's trip to the Islamic Republic is a sign of growing relations between Russia and Iran.

It is only his second trip abroad since the attack on Ukraine on February 24: Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. To be more precise, it will be a three-way meeting, to which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also expected in Tehran. The heads of state want to talk about the situation in the civil war country Syria, in which Iran, Russia, and Turkey are heavily involved militarily.

The meeting offers Moscow and Tehran, both under severe Western sanctions, an opportunity to flaunt their military and economic cooperation and show the West that they are not isolated.

Iran allegedly supplies drones to Russia

US President Joe Biden only ended his trip to the Middle East on Saturday, which also dealt with Iran's nuclear program. The White House again warned that Iran wants to sell armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine. Tehran replied that technological cooperation with Russia began long before the war. The US claim was neither confirmed nor denied.

In fact, the Islamic Republic and the Kremlin have now found a basis for their relations, and representatives of both countries never tire of exploring further possibilities for economic and political cooperation.

Amid increasing diplomatic isolation, increased trade with Russia could ease the pressure on Iran's economy, which has been suffering from US oil and financial sanctions for years. Russia, in turn, sees Iran as a potential arms supplier, which also offers a trade route and know-how in circumventing sanctions and exporting oil.

The Ukraine war changes the appreciation

The military partnership between Tehran and Moscow developed with the outbreak of the decades-long conflict in Syria. However, it has "mainly remained tactical cooperation in areas of common interest in the region," Abdolrasool Divsallar, visiting professor of Middle East studies at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, told DW.

The hard-line conservatives in Iran's leaders have always sought to develop their country's ties with Russia, but it is the war in Ukraine that has made Iran a more central element of Putin's diplomacy.

Competitors in the energy market

In the past year, trade between the two countries has increased by 81 percent, Putin noted when he also met with Iranian President Raisi on the sidelines of a regional summit in Turkmenistan last month. But energy policy is straining relations.

"Russia and Iran are actually trading competitors, especially on the energy market," Hamidreza Azizi, a researcher at the Berlin Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP), told DW. At the moment, Iran seems to be losing its already small share of the energy market to Russian oil, which is currently being sold at discount prices.

In the past three months, for example, monthly exports of oil by-products have fallen from 430,000 tons to 330,000 tons, Iranian OPEX Secretary General Hamid Hosseini told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) at the end of June. And Iran's biggest steel buyers, including China and South Korea, have also started buying cheaper Russian steel, Iranian daily Shargh reported.

The sanctions severely cut Iran's revenues, which is why oil exports are vital for the country, which is suffering from a severe economic crisis. Inflation is more than 50 percent, and yet Iran has been forced to cut its oil prices further to keep up with Russian price cuts.

Iran and Russia are not yet allies

In March, Russia nearly sabotaged Vienna's Iran nuclear deal negotiations, the conclusion of which could ease some sanctions on Iran's economy. Talks appeared to be moving towards an agreement in the spring when Russian negotiators demanded that their trade with Iran be exempted from Western sanctions against Russia.

"Iran and Russia are not yet allies," emphasizes Professor Divsallar from Milan. "Iran has hesitated to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, but has then repeatedly spoken out against the war, in marked contrast to what is expected of allies." Tehran opposes wars anywhere in the world, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, Iran's state news agency MEHR reported.

Iran needs Russia...

Iran does not need to support Russia's efforts in Ukraine in order to draw closer to Moscow, argues Divsallar. Rather, Tehran has other motives for its pro-Russian course. With nuclear talks at a standstill, "Iran may just want to show the West that it has an alternative, that it can have an impact that goes beyond the Middle East."

The Berlin political scientist Azizi, on the other hand, notes that the rapprochement between Iran and Russia is based on a common worldview and has deepened over the past few decades. "Both countries are opposed to US dominance in international

In addition, tensions between Iran and Western powers have steadily increased since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. These chronic tensions are unlikely to go away any time soon, Azizi says, but will most likely lead Iran to look further east.

... only until the sanctions are relaxed

Unlike Azizi, Divsallar believes a revival of the nuclear deal and the accompanying sanctions relaxation could constrain Iran's ties with Russia by allowing the country to develop new trade ties with the West.

In Russian policy, Iran's motives "can be traced back to its urgent economic needs and the lack of alternatives," said Divsallar. "Iran cannot give up its ties with eastern powers like Russia as long as there are no alternatives in the west."