Iran, Russia, and Turkey’s presidents met in Tehran for a trilateral summit a few days after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden returns from his trip to the Middle East. It is speculated that Ebrahim Raisi of Iran and Vladimir Putin attempted to dissuade Turkey from going to war that Turkey is preparing as its own “special military operation”—this time against the Kurds in northern Syria— while Russia is actively involved in the conflict in Ukraine.
As the most serious geopolitical problem in the world right now, Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to dominate international news, but Syria’s ten-year-old, globally interconnected conflict may yet have some surprises up its sleeve. Other international participants in the Syrian conflict continue to express their concerns over Ankara’s objectives as the danger of a new Turkish military incursion into northern Syria looms. Iran, which has been at odds with Turkey since 2011 over its ambition to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its support for a number of armed opposition groups, has recently become more outspoken in its opposition to a potential new Turkish military operation.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, announced in June that as part of a larger offensive, two towns close to the Turkish-Syrian border would be targeted. Syrian government troops, backed by Russian airpower are preparing for confrontation with Turkish forces or at least seeking to deter their advances.
The three presidents issued a joint statement in which they “expressed their opposition to the illegal seizure and transfer of oil revenues that should belong to Syria” and “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground, including illegitimate self-rule initiatives” in the war-torn nation. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued in favor of launching an offensive against Syria’s Kurds despite a caution from Iran’s supreme leader against doing so. If there is no strategic advantage for Russian interests, the president of Russia, who is also the key ally of Damascus, is unlikely to endorse Erdogan’s stance.
Although Turkey and Russia often find themselves in opposite camps in a variety of international wars, from those in Syria to those in North Africa to those in the Caucasus, it is noteworthy to mention that the only nuclear power plant in Turkey is being built by Russia, while Russian tourists bring in much-needed funds to help Turkey’s struggling economy. Besides, a crucial element in the strategic relationship between Russia and Turkey is also the dependence of Russian trade on the Turkey-controlled Bosporus Strait. However, despite their complex relationship, Russia and Turkey also agreed to ship grains from Black Sea ports in order to restore the supply chain in response to the world food crisis.
Iran has experienced a sudden rise in importance as a transit and transportation hub connecting China and Central Asia to Europe, as well as Russia and India, along the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), amid the disruption of global trade and transportation routes brought on by the Western sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine. The INSTC will not only emerge as a viable alternative to the rising East, but also serve as a major alternative framework for energy supply to South Asia. A $40 billion memorandum of agreement signed between the Russian state-controlled energy behemoth Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) is only a confirmation for the notion. The Raisi administration has taken steps to strengthen infrastructure connectivity with Central Asian neighbors, boosting Iran’s geo-economic status in Eurasia, and has focused on economic diplomacy with ‘Eastern’ powers—Russia and China. This has delinked Iran’s economic policy from the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran was one of the topics Joe Biden discussed during recent meetings he had in the Middle East. The United States has made it clear that it does not wish to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement. Instead, it is reiterating its “maximum pressure” campaign to compel Iran to make more concessions. Iran has stated categorically that the commitments it made in the initial accord are all that will be made.
From Jeddah and Jerusalem, Biden called on Israel and the Arab world to counter the perceived expansion of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence in the area. Given that Russia has a foothold in Syria, Israel’s northeastern neighbor and a regular target of its bombings, it is imperative that Israel maintain strong relations with Russia. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have declined to pump more oil beyond the boundaries of a pact endorsed by their energy cooperation with Moscow.
States in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) disagreed with the US intentions. All GCC wants with Iran is to normalize their relations and more thoroughly integrating into its neighborhood despite US sanctions. It is a very positive move in favor of Iran, and the gas and transit agreements will support some economic growth even as the United States imposes more sanctions. Consequently, Russia, India, and China can and will disregard them.
Moscow is searching for new venues now that its connections to Europe have been severed, and the huge region of Middle East, with all of its intricacies, presents a welcome chance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia before the trips of the Russian President, where he also had meetings with peers from the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. At this time, it appears that Russia’s relations with the West, specifically Europe, are beyond repair, and Moscow appears to have undertaken a clear and decisive pivot eastward and southern, toward Asia. More importantly, Russia is acting as a guarantor to maintain the balance between Turkey, Iran and the Arab world. And for a proper balance, all parties are pursuing a strategy that can be described as compartmentalized policies for each country in order to achieve a greater collective result that satisfies domestic objectives.
Although there are many disagreements between Russsia-Iran-Turkey, all parties work to ensure stability in the Middle East and Central Asia for greater geopolitical benefits. Realizing the opportunities, Russia appears to have quickly handled relations with nations that are at odds with one another.
Besides, its approach to Middle Eastern and North African nations also enables it to broaden its BRICS outreach to potential allies like Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. Suffering western sanctions and hostility, Russia is attempting to establish a support network to counteract the animosity and pressure from the west thanks to its close ties to China and India. In this context, only when Tehran and Ankara align themselves with Moscow’s concerns, Russia-Iran-Turkey troika will offer a challenging perspective for the US-led west.