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Putin to meet Iran’s Rouhani in Moscow

MOSCOW (AFP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was Tuesday to host Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani for talks that will be closely watched for signs of their next moves in Syria.

Rouhani’s first official visit to Russia comes as the two Syrian regime supporters push for ways to end the six-year conflict, having done much to marginalize US influence in peace talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 28, 2017. (AFP-Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 28, 2017. (AFP-Yonhap)
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said ahead of the trip that the leaders would discuss “regional issues especially the Syrian crisis, solutions to end it quickly,” as well as ways to counter “terrorism and extremism.”

The visit also comes as major splits emerge between the countries, the primary allies of the Syrian regime, over the role of that rebel backer Turkey should play in the country.

Moscow has formed a an unlikely alliance with Ankara since 2016, envisioning Turkey as being part of a solution to the Syrian conflict.

But Iran has been more wary about Turkey’s involvement in efforts to end hostilities, with tensions mounting as Moscow and Ankara left Tehran out of a truce they brokered in December.

Rouhani -- accompanied by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and other high-ranking officials -- is expected to sign a slew of economic cooperation agreements with Russia, according to Iranian state media.

The Kremlin said in a statement this month that Rouhani’s trip would focus in part on “the prospects of expanding trade, economic and investment ties.”

It said that a “variety of bilateral documents” will be signed at the end of the meeting but did not specify in which fields.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Moscow was striving to bolster its relations with Tehran, which he said had “very solid potential.”

After arriving on Monday Rouhani met Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, with the Iranian president saying he hoped his visit would mark a “new turning point” in relations, Russian state media reported.

In addition to cooperation on Syria, energy and defence ties between Iran and Russia have grown despite meagre trade relations.

Russia is to build nine of Iran’s 20 proposed nuclear reactors and has emerged as a long-term arms partner, supplying Tehran with the S-300 air defence system.

The relationship has blossomed under Rouhani despite the countries having a complicated history over territory, oil and Communist ideology.

Rouhani is looking to boost Iran’s economy ahead of elections in May in which he is expected to stand for a second term.

Iran and Russia have become increasingly allied in Syria, providing support that has propped up President Bashar al-Assad.

They helped Assad’s forces gain ground in recent months, including in the Syrian army’s major offensive last year to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

Russia’s entry into the conflict in September 2015 -- when it began launching air strikes to shore up Assad’s forces -- helped turn the tide for the Syrian regime, while Iran has provided military advisers and frontline militia fighters. 

More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule.
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