At the tripartite event (meeting? alliance?) held on Tuesday in Tehran between Khamenei, Putin and Erdogan, the choice of topics was plentiful. They spoke about three wars, gas, nuclear, Ukrainian grain and economic agreements.
A summit full of paradoxes, at least on the surface. The most obvious was that it was attended by two states, Russia and Iran, who are under sanctions from the West, and one, Turkey, which is a member of NATO but which isn’t sanctioning either of them and instead seeking to come to an agreement with them in a tri-polar diplomatic format born years ago in Astana over the Syria war, but which also plays against Biden’s recent trip to the region and competes with the anti-Iranian Abrahamic Accord between Israel, the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies.
In Tehran, that “piecemeal third world war” that Pope Bergoglio has been talking about – mostly unheeded – for years was on the agenda. The three wars are those in Ukraine and Syria, and another one, not officially declared, being fought between Israel and Iran over nuclear power. People want to ignore it, but The Financial Times, for example, which put it on the front page, does not. The risk of a nuclear race in the Middle East is just around the corner.
Diplomatic efforts in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal sought by Obama in 2015 and cancelled by Trump in 2018 are stalled. Israel insists, despite Tehran’s denials, that Iran is on the “threshold” of having nuclear weapons; Biden, who came to the White House with the intention of restoring the deal, has given no concrete positive signal to Tehran (which has been in the grip of U.S. sanctions for 40 years), and the Jewish state is conducting strikes against Iranian scientists, generals and members of the Pasdaran whenever the opportunity arises, with Washington’s acquiescence or help.
Also discussed was Putin giving the Israelis a green light in Syria to target the Iranians’ military posts. Putin’s Russia supports Iran, and thus also Bashar Assad’s Syria, a historical ally of the ayatollahs, but only up to a point and when it suits them. This is, of course, also a game of playing different sides, which, as we will see, was seen again on Tuesday.
In turn, Tehran, in the new international context, has decided to delay. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing international polarization, the possibility of a Republican victory in the midterm elections (which would make ratification of a new agreement unlikely), and the prospect of reaching the nuclear threshold soon convinced Iran to take the risk of forcing a confrontation with Israel, the U.S., and the Gulf states.
Against this backdrop, Erdogan wanted to get the Iranians to give the green light for one of his endless military operations against the Kurds in northern Syria, which had been preceded by a strengthening of Turkish military positions on the Idlib-Aleppo-Latakia highway, facing Russian and Iranian troops. But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in his meeting with Erdogan, was clear that an attack in Syria would be “harmful,” adding that Iran, Turkey, Syria and Russia “should end the Syrian problem and the terrorism issue through dialogue.”
Not only that: the Iranians also opposed Erdogan’s plan to create a 30-kilometer-deep security strip from the Turkish-Syrian border at the expense of Rojava and the Kurds.
Translated, this means: 1) that protecting the Kurds (at least indirectly), at this time, is certainly not the purview of Westerners and the U.S., who have been using them as their infantry against the Caliphate; 2) that Tehran and Moscow already have too much difficulty in mobilizing more soldiers in Syria to curb the Sultan’s NATO ambitions, incidentally also seen by the Russians and Iranians as a useful disruptor to the enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance, where Erdogan had opposed the entry of Sweden and Finland until dozens of Kurds and opponents of Ankara would be extradited from these two countries.
All this has not stopped Erdogan from signing economic agreements with Tehran (to reach a trade volume in the $30 billion range) and increasing gas supplies from Tehran, which accompany Turkey’s copious imports from Russia and Central Asia: that Turkey wants to become an international gas hub is no mystery, and it’s doing so in defiance of Western sanctions. Let’s not forget that Iran has the world’s second-largest gas reserves, a pipeline with Turkey and enormous energy potential.
And this is where Russia – which, on paper, is a competitor to Tehran — also came into play on Tuesday, with the signing of an estimated $40 billion deal between the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom for investments in the North Pars gas field and oil.
Everyone in Tehran got something they wanted. For Erdogan, the first face-to-face with Putin, who invested him as the West’s mediator – a nice position to have for the slaughterer of the Kurds. Iran, a probably unreformable regime, wanted to show it was able to pit its own military alliances against those of the U.S., Israel and the Arabs. The Russian leader showed that in the Middle East he can talk to everyone without any issues, from the Turks to the Iranians, from the Israelis to the Saudis.
While Biden has also essentially cleared the killer prince Mohammed bin Salman of all wrongdoing on his trip, Putin is, as always, shaking all the bloodstained hands he wants. Nothing new for him, and perhaps nothing new for us either.
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