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Iran, Russia and Turkey Meet in Tehran as Partners, Competitors and Opponents

Iran, Russia and Turkey Meet in Tehran as Partners, Competitors and Opponents

Thursday, 21 July, 2022 - 05:30

On July 19, three sets of meetings were held in Tehran involving Presidents Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The first meeting was the 7th High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) meeting between Iran and Turkey.

The second was a bilateral meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey.

The third was a Trilateral Summit Meeting in Astana format with leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey. The Astana process was launched in 2017 when the crisis in Syria was at its worst in many ways.

Each of these three countries are special in terms of stance and role in regional and international politics.

They are all located in the same area and their paths often cross in their region and beyond, in places such as Syria, South Caucasus, Iraq and Libya. They have an interesting relationship with each other, based on common interests on the one hand, conflicting interests and competition on the other.

As a NATO member, Turkey is one of the countries which has signed the Madrid NATO Summit Declaration and NATO’s new strategic concept in June 2022. In these documents, Russian invasion is very strongly condemned, coupled with a pledge to support Ukraine. Russia is defined as the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.

Despite these commitments and being openly critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey is able to engage with Russia regarding some problems with global implications such as food security. Just recently, Turkey hosted the representatives of the two warring nations and the United Nations to discuss a plan to establish a grain corridor in the Black Sea.

South Caucasus is another area where all three countries are present and eye each other with suspicion. The 44 days war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 and Turkey’s role and the outcome was an important landmark in the Great Game in the region.

There is also the issue of which country takes the lion's share in becoming the regional hub, in terms of transit routes (land, rail and energy). Turkey is working on the so-called “Middle Corridor” (from China to Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey and onto Europe). Iran is trying to work its way through Russia to its north and the areas to its south.

Syria constitutes a very important aspect of relations among the three countries. Russia and Iran are on the side of the Assad regime and Turkey is Assad’s opponent. Despite this, three countries have reached an agreement in 2017 (de-escalation zones) which carried the crisis in Syria to another phase. The war as we have known until then stopped. But the problems which caused the crisis have not come to an end. Tension continues with sporadic fighting and constant risk of renewed full-fledged war.

Russia and Iran work to bring Assad back to the international community and legitimize his rule. One problem is that Assad feels he has won the war and is not interested in any attempt which could lead to some sort of power-sharing, as such is the case in Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva.

The other problem is that, ironically, these two countries themselves are “outcasts” in the international community. In any case, they must be taking their chances on the tendency of the international community to keep issues separate if they think it is to their advantage.

The other disadvantage is the very presence and role of Iran. One of the major hurdles before the crisis in 2011 was Syria’s relations with Iran. At that time, Syria had started to distance itself from Iran whereas now, Iran is a “must be there country” for the Assad regime. Some in the Arab world think that embracing Assad could pull him away from Iran whereas others do not think that this approach would work.

In the meantime, it is no secret that Russia and Iran compete for influence in Syria. They have their own cliques and armed formations within the system. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s presence in Syria has been more visible. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdullahian has visited Damascus four times since he became a minister in August 2021. Iran wants to keep its influence in Syria, maintain the connection with Iraq, and keep the Shia belt running from Iran to Lebanon.

The topical issue in Tehran was Turkey’s declared intention of a military operation in northern Syria. Both Russia and Iran have stated that they acknowledge Turkey’s security concerns but they have also made clear their opposition to a military operation. They suggest Turkey talk directly to the regime about its concerns.

These two Assad-supporting countries have not limited themselves to verbal warnings but they have also taken some kind of action. Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements and Shia militia have been deployed in the area and Russia has organized meetings between the regime and YPG with the aim of bringing them together (to act jointly against any outside intervention, mostly meaning possible Turkish operations).

Then, there is the issue of who is whose friend and whose enemy. Turkey, to a certain extent, has managed to mend strained relations with a number of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. These countries are among the most watchful against Iran as a threat.

Back in June, Turkish security services arrested several members of a cell who were said to be part of an Iranian-engineered assassination plot against Israelis in Istanbul. Israel publicly thanked Turkey for its role in preventing the plot. A few days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Abdullahian was in Ankara. Messages of friendship were delivered at the press conference. So what has happened? As a Turkish politician belonging to the ruling AKP party said during Turkey’s recent municipal elections (on alleged election rigging) “even if nothing has happened, I am sure something has happened”.

The leaders of the three countries all have disagreements with the west. All three have at various times stated their views on a new world order. In this regard, trading with national currencies has been one issue that they have emphasized on a number of occasions, even though no concrete step has been taken, yet.

Against this background, and looking at the declarations in Tehran; the leaders of the two most sanctioned countries, Russia and Iran, declared their allegiance. They also met the President of a NATO member state. These subtitles alone make Tehran meetings important.

NATO member Turkey may come under criticism for engaging with Russia and Iran. The Turkish President would probably say that diplomacy is being able to talk to everyone and this is what he is doing.

They said they agreed to further enhance trade and economic relations but everyone is well aware of various limitations.

There was an expectation for a Black Sea grain corridor agreement to be announced. This did not happen. Putin thanked them for the efforts but pointed out that some problems remain.

Combatting terrorism was emphasized repeatedly but I am not sure if they all meant the same thing.

Turkey reiterated its concerns regarding northern Syria. Russia and Iran reiterated their objection to a military operation there. I would say this issue hangs in the air and maybe a spoiler.

On a last note, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad reportedly arrived in Tehran on the same day. There was speculation about a possible meeting with his Turkish counterpart. As far as it is known, there was no such meeting but indirect contacts or even meetings between some officials might have taken place. In any case, by having Mekdad there, Iran has stressed its support to the Assad regime and that it is always consulted and in the picture.

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