Putin meets Raisi (left) last month on the sidelines of a summit in Turkmenistan. Photo: Iranian Presidency Handout via Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for a summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Why it matters: With Syria, Ukraine and oil on the agenda, all three leaders have something to gain from the summit. So, potentially, does the world, as Putin and Erdoğan will discuss a deal to resume grain exports from Ukraine that is reportedly close to completion but doesn’t yet have Putin’s explicit backing.

Driving the news: Putin, Erdoğan and Raisi will discuss the future of Syria as part of the Astana format, which excludes another key player — the U.S. Each pair of leaders will also meet bilaterally.

  • Erdoğan, who was on the opposite side of Syria’s civil war as Russia and Iran, announced on June 1 a planned incursion to target Kurdish “terrorists” and solidify a buffer zone inside Syria, into which he hopes to deport Syrian refugees. He previously launched a major cross-border offensive in 2019.
  • Iran, Russia and the U.S. have all urged Erdoğan to back off.

Between the lines: Erdoğan has coordinated previous moves into Syria in summits with Putin, but this time the Russian president is “throwing him in front of Raisi” as well, says Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute and author of three books about Erdoğan.

  • It’s still unclear whether or where Turkey will make its move, and striking different locations along the border would anger different foreign players, Cagaptay notes.
  • Iran and Russia both backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during the civil war, and they wield significant leverage inside the country.
  • Russia has maintained its operations in Syria since the invasion of Ukraine and recently vetoed a UN resolution to extend an aid corridor to the last rebel-held enclave there for a year (it was extended by six months last week).

A Kremlin spokesperson confirmed that Ukrainian grain exports would be on the agenda, while a senior Turkish official told Reuters that while “small problems” had to be ironed out, a deal would most likely be concluded this week between the UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine.

  • Context: Russia has blockaded Ukraine’s major ports, which Ukraine has also mined to prevent Russian incursions by sea.
  • That’s left around 9% of the world’s wheat supply and 44% of its sunflower oil blocked, contributing to a global food crisis.
  • Russia is also a major grain exporter. According to the WSJ, Moscow has proposed additional grain deliveries to Iran, where bread prices have spiked, in exchange for help evading Western sanctions.
Putin and Erdoğan in Moscow in 2019. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

But while Iran and Russia are aligned in challenging Washington, the two sanctions-hit countries are increasingly competing economically, WSJ reports.

  • Iran has been selling its oil and other commodities at a discount for years, but Russia is now undercutting those prices and stealing some of Tehran’s business in China and elsewhere in Asia.
  • Stopping the price war is probably on top of Iran’s agenda for the meeting, according to Eurasia Group’s Cliff Kupchan.
  • Russia, meanwhile, hopes to purchase hundreds of drones from Iran to use inside Ukraine, according to the White House. Iran denies that, but National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Saturday that Russian officials had made two trips to Iran this summer to inspect the drones.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Putin’s visit was announced just as President Biden was jetting off for his own Middle East trip, on which Biden raised the need to counter Chinese, Iranian and Russian influence.

  • Putin has sharply curtailed his foreign travel since the pandemic began. This will be only the fifth time he’s left Russia since January 2020 and the second since Russia invaded Ukraine, following his visit to Central Asia last month.
  • But it will be his third meeting with Raisi this year, in a signal of that relationship’s growing significance at a time when Russia’s links to the West are being actively severed.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has further complicated Putin’s relationship with Erdogan, who has condemned Russia’s invasion and supplied Ukraine with drones, but continued to play a spoiler role within NATO.

  • The Turkish president on Tuesday resumed his threats to block Sweden and Finland from joining.

What to watch: Cagaptay doubts that Erdoğan will fully detach the Syria issue from his efforts to mediate a major agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

  • “I think he will offer to Putin a grain corridor deal, administered by Turkey, that is at least in some form favorable to Russia in order to convince Putin to agree to a Turkish incursion,” he says.

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