The Iranian president receives his Russian and Turkish counterparts in Tehran to discuss the situation in Syria with a view to strengthening trade and military relations

Putin relies on Erdoğan and Raisi to shield himself from Western sanctions

photo_camera SPUTNIK/KONSTANTIN ZAVRAZHIN - Russian President Vladimir Putin arriving in Tehran, Iran, on 19 July 2022

This is the third time Vladimir Putin has left Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February. After visiting Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the Russian president landed in Tehran on Tuesday to attend the Astana summit, a trilateral meeting aimed at resolving disputes in Syria, where he met with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and again with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whom he met a few weeks ago in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. This is a golden opportunity to strengthen the Kremlin's external role in the midst of the isolation to which it is being subjected by the West.

In addition to the Syrian chessboard, the war in Ukraine, bilateral relations and trade agreements, and the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran signed in 2015, have been some of the issues that have defined the agenda in a context marked by the recent tour of the Middle East by US President Joe Biden, in which he closed ranks with Israel and smoothed out differences with Saudi Arabia, Iran's nemesis. Now, Putin is taking the opportunity to level the scales and distance himself from Iran.

Putin Raisí Erdogan
Erdoğan's plans in Syria

The Turkish president arrived in the Iranian capital late on Monday accompanied by a large delegation of political and economic advisors and several members of his cabinet. The trip was an important one. One of Erdoğan's objectives was to restore commercial and strategic ties with Iran after the setback caused by US sanctions and aggravated by the pandemic. And so it has been. Ankara and Tehran have sealed a total of eight agreements worth $30 billion to increase the volume of bilateral trade. 

Prior to the signing, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had received the Turkish president in the aseptic room of the Saadabad Palace, accompanied by Raisi, to discuss Turkey's plans on the Syrian chessboard. Ankara has launched four military operations in the neighbouring country between 2016 and 2020, and controls large areas in northern Syria. Erdoğan is now planning a new intervention. He intends to establish a 30-kilometre-deep security strip covering the cities of Tall Rifat and Manbiy to expel Kurdish militias, which he considers "terrorists" because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Jamenei

Erdoğan could act unilaterally, but if he wants to play it safe he needs the approval of the Kremlin, which has troops deployed on the ground despite concentrating efforts in eastern Ukraine. Iran's position is also important because, like Russia and Turkey, it has been deeply involved in Syria since the early stages of the conflict, which erupted in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring. Each has different interests. While Moscow and Tehran supported Bashar al-Assad's regime, Ankara pushed to unbalance Damascus by wholeheartedly supporting the Free Syrian Army, the spearhead of the opposition. Despite distances, the parties maintained relations. 

Russia and Iran, however, oppose Erdoğan's umpteenth gambit in Syria. Upon learning of his plans first-hand, Ali Khamenei expressed his rejection of intervention. "Any military attack will harm Turkey, Syria and the whole region, will benefit terrorists and will not bring about the expected political action by the Syrian government," said the veteran Iranian head of state. "Syria's problems must be solved through negotiations, and Iran, Turkey, Syria and Russia must put an end to this problem through dialogue," he concluded. The international community fears further destabilisation in the country now that al-Assad enjoys some stability.

Erdogan Raisi
Turkey, on two sides

Erdoğan has made the most of Turkey's geographical, religious, strategic and political conditions to turn the country into an influential actor on the international stage. Riding on the back of a multi-vector diplomacy, albeit evolving from the "strategic depth" coined by former Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and based on the theory of "zero problems with neighbours", to military expansionism, the Islamist leader maintains a key position as a NATO ally, but at the same time as a partner of Russia and Iran, not without difficulty. 

This strategy has allowed him to reconcile with the Gulf monarchies or to move closer to Israel while maintaining good relations with Iran. It has also served to set itself up as an arbiter between Russia and Ukraine. In March, Turkish diplomacy hosted the first contact between the parties since the beginning of the invasion in order to unblock a ceasefire, but the Bucha massacre brought the end of the negotiations in Istanbul. Last week, Russian and Ukrainian officials met again in Turkey with the aim of unblocking grain stranded in Ukrainian ports, without success.

Raisi Erdogan

In the framework of the trilateral summit in Tehran, Erdoğan is trying to persuade Putin to allow Ukrainian exports and thereby alleviate the famine threatening the African continent and the Middle East. The context seems complicated, especially since it has been reported that numerous Russian and Syrian vessels have taken advantage of the situation to steal Ukrainian grain and take it to their coasts. Putin intends to advance positions in Ukraine in order to force concessions in a hypothetical negotiation, in which Ankara is expected to play a mediating role; no concessions are expected. 

Russia and Iran, allies? 

Vladimir Putin landed early this afternoon at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport, where his Turkish counterpart had landed hours earlier. Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji was waiting for him on the tarmac to greet the Russian president. This was no coincidence. Hours earlier, the signing of a $40 billion deal between Russian energy giant Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) had been announced. The largest foreign investment in Iran's oil industry in history, according to CEO Mohsen Khojastehmehr.

In the midst of diplomatic, economic and commercial isolation with the West, Russia is seeking to weave alliances in different latitudes to stem the bleeding caused by sanctions. Iran's conditions are ostensibly worse, with an economy that has been ravaged for years by restrictions imposed by Washington and Brussels. Cooperation would benefit both. Moreover, Tehran is adept at circumventing sanctions and exporting oil surreptitiously, methods that would help the Kremlin evade responsibility for future operations. The problem, however, is that their economies excel in the same sectors, complicating bilateral trade. On paper, they are natural competitors. 

In favour of the nuclear deal 

The revival of the JCPOA seemed imminent earlier this year following the unilateral abandonment of the deal by the United States, undertaken in 2018 by former President Trump. The Biden administration had made the nuclear pact the centrepiece of its foreign policy after the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, confident of revalidating Obama's 2015 conquest. However, Russia's aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent cooling of relations between Washington and Tehran after successive clashes with Israel made the deal difficult to achieve.

Putin Raisí

For the time being, Biden flatly refuses to lift the Revolutionary Guard's designation as a "terrorist organisation", even if it means breaking off negotiations, a more symbolic than material issue, but one that irritates the Ayatollahs' regime. The Democrat has hardened his message, distancing himself from a political resolution, especially after the regional tour that took him to Jerusalem and Jeddah. Meanwhile, Tehran fuels its nuclear weapons development machine, a scenario that no one wants, not even its closest partners. 

Russia threw a spanner in the works of the JCPOA by demanding that its trade with Iran be exempted from Western sanctions triggered by its invasion of Ukraine. Turkey, for its part, is not part of the 5+1 group that agreed the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. In any case, both welcome the resumption of the deal as long as the sanctions imposed on Tehran are eased. Erdoğan spoke in favour of the JCPOA, as did the Kremlin's diplomatic adviser Yuri Ushakov. All three, with their differences, have been able to partner with each other.

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