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Putin in Tehran for Syria talks

The Russian president's visit to Iran will be dominated by talks on the Syrian conflict and the Islamic State group
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets officials at Russia's National Defence Control Centre (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived on Monday in Tehran for talks with Iran about the devastating conflict in Syria where the two nations are allied in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

On his first trip to Iran in eight years, Putin met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's ultimate authority, who has backed Assad since an uprising broke out in 2011.

Attention is currently focused on stopping Islamic State group militants, who last year took control of large parts of Syria and surged into Iraq, from breaching Assad's defences and taking Damascus.

The threat from IS has taken on new potency and spread into Europe since IS committed coordinated gun and bomb attacks in Paris 10 days ago, killing 130 people.

For Russia, protecting Assad and confronting IS has become more important since the militants blew up a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on 31 October, killing all 224 on board.

Russia had one month earlier launched a wave of air strikes in support of Assad. 

Both Iran and Russia, which has a major naval base in Syria, are seeking to limit US leverage in the Middle East.

Their shared goals have seen Iran send commanders from its elite Revolutionary Guards to support and advise Assad's forces, with Tehran coordinating a collection of Shia militias on the ground.

Putin's trip coincides with a major summit in Tehran of gas exporting countries but his talks with Khamenei are likely to dominate.

Russia is emerging as a long-term arms partner for Iran, despite the countries having a complicated history over territory, oil, business and communism.

Business also on table

The former Soviet Union was the first state to recognise Iran as an Islamic republic after the 1979 revolution, though Moscow later provided Saddam Hussein with weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

A long-delayed delivery of an advanced missile defence system, the S-300, is due from Russia by the end of 2015.

Putin's visit was planned before the UN Security Council on Friday authorised countries to "take all necessary measures" to fight IS in a France-sponsored resolution one week after the Paris attacks.

Moscow's aim of an international coalition made up of Iran, Jordan and other regional and Western countries against IS is coming up against a deadlock over Assad's future, which recent peace talks in Vienna failed to break.

The US and Arab countries, most vocally Saudi Arabia, plus Turkey, all want Assad to go, and have said the Russian air strikes were aimed at destroying "moderate rebels" fighting the Syrian president since 2011.

Iran, however, says only the Syrian people, not outside powers, can choose to dump Assad in elections following a ceasefire.

Russian companies are eyeing business opportunities in Iran after sanctions are lifted, a step expected in the next two months as Tehran's 14 July nuclear deal with world powers reaches its "implementation" stage.

Moscow has announced the opening of a $5bn credit line for Iran and help for Tehran's struggling banking sector is also expected.

Several leaders from a dozen gas-producing countries - who together hold 67 percent of proven reserves - will be at Monday's summit.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, with whom Putin will also hold talks, is hosting seven presidents, including Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

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