US President Biden has just left Saudi Arabia when Kremlin chief Putin flies to Iran. In the midst of a new political ice age between East and West, influence in the Middle East region is at stake – and possibly even direct support in the Ukraine war.

Vladimir Putin is traveling again. Most of the time, the head of the Kremlin only takes part in international meetings via video link – while other heads of state are jetting through the world again after the peak of the corona pandemic. But now the Kremlin has announced that the Russian President will visit Iran this Tuesday. It is Putin’s second trip abroad since the attack on Ukraine began almost five months ago.

At the end of June, the Kremlin chief visited the allied Central Asian countries of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Now it’s time to leave the territory of the former Soviet Union for the first time – that alone throws a spotlight on the trip. Added to this is the fact that Putin in the Middle East is shaking hands with US President Joe Biden, of all people, whom he hasn’t spoken to for months in view of the ice age between Moscow and Washington.

Putin also wants to meet Erdogan in Iran

Biden returned from Saudi Arabia — Iran’s major regional rival — just over the weekend. It is the declared goal of the American President to reduce the influence of Iran, but also that of Russia and China in the region. “We will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill,” Biden said on Saturday. In other words: In view of the hardening fronts between East and West, the USA wants to consolidate its own interests in the Middle East. Putin is likely to want something similar for his country in Iran.

Ever since the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions, the Kremlin has made every effort to demonstrate that it still has friends in the world. Moscow has repeatedly announced that it intends to expand its economic relations with large emerging countries, pointing to increasing oil supplies to China or improved trading partnerships with India. Iran, where Putin wants to meet President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is also considered an ally of Russia – albeit out of necessity from Tehran’s point of view.

Russia and Iran – a love-hate relationship

For a long time after the 1979 revolution, Iran’s foreign policy doctrine was: “Neither West nor East, only the Islamic Republic.” To this day, Iranian private companies are often reluctant to work with Russians. In political circles, too, one hears again and again that Russia is not a reliable partner – and especially not that of Putin, who could drop Iran at any time for his own interests.

But because of its controversial nuclear program and US sanctions, Tehran has been increasingly isolated for years and relies on Moscow as a partner. Economically, both countries only have a relatively small trade volume of around four billion euros. At the same time, however, Russia is involved in important projects such as the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Persian Gulf. Russia is also supporting Iran with military equipment, which the country is finding difficult to obtain because of US punitive measures.

Officially, the meeting between Putin, Raisi and Erdogan is about improving the situation in civil war-torn Syria. Here, too, Moscow and Tehran are pulling together, both supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is ostracized in the West. Maintaining influence in Syria is a common goal for both countries.

Drones for Russia? Iran denies

Only on Saturday did it become known that a new round of Syria constitutional talks with representatives of the Syrian government, the opposition and civil society in Geneva, which had been planned for July, had been cancelled. A reason was not initially given. However, Russia had previously spoken out in favor of relocating the talks – on the grounds that Switzerland had lost its neutrality due to the sanctions imposed on Moscow.

The US, on the other hand, suspects that Russia’s interest in Iran could currently have completely different reasons: There are indications that Moscow wants to acquire Iranian combat drones for the war against Ukraine, said a high-ranking US government official. A Russian government delegation has apparently already visited an Iranian airport for a demonstration of attackable drones. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, made a similar statement last week.

Iran immediately denied this and firmly assured Ukraine that the American claims were “baseless”. As far as the war is concerned, Tehran is neutral. The Kremlin also said recently that Putin and Raisi would not talk about possible drone deliveries on Tuesday. But when journalists asked how the general situation was with the possible delivery of unmanned aerial vehicles from Iran, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov only replied: “We have no comments on that.”