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Tehran talks strong on symbolism, short on substance

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Sanam Vakil
July 20, 2022

While the talks put the respective leaders in the spotlight, the implications for regional stability, economic cooperation, food security and the war in Ukraine remain opaque, write Sanam Vakil and Galip Dalay.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan standing together
Despite the show of unity, tensions between Russia, Iran and Turkey are simmering beneath the surfaceImage: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Officially Tuesday's meeting in Tehran was part of the "Astana Format," a process through which the three actors have negotiated their interests in Syria. That process has proved to be effective in reshaping the conflict map in Syria, but has not advanced a political vision for dealing with the conflict, leaving the format largely defunct. 

The symbolism of this meeting is conspicuous for three reasons. First, this was Vladimir Putin's highest profile visit since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24. Putin's aim in Tehran was to convey the message that Russia is not as isolated as the West portrays it to be. 

Second, the talks came on the heels of US President Joe Biden's Middle East tour, where he tried to reassure traditional US partners about US security commitments to the region; further solidify the anti-Iran regional bloc and align on China and Russia. 

Third, it coincided with Turkey's attempts to mend ties with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, and at a time when tensions between Ankara and Tehran relations are growing. Uncertainty over the revival of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) also looms large. Whether or to what extent Turkey will join the growing anti-Iran coalition in the region is a question that is on the minds of many actors.

Thinking in geopolitical categories

A joint picture of two think tank experts
Galip Dalay (left) and Sanam Vakil of Chatham House

Compartmentalization has long been a hallmark of the relationship between Turkey and Iran and will continue to be the guide going forward. For example, there's the issue of Turkey's planned new military offensive in northern Syria directed against the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG forces, and Turkey's military operations in Iraq. Iran opposes those plans and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unsurprisingly pushed back firmly to showcase Iran's influence in both arenas. 

In addition to both countries' desire to boost their trade ties, Iran is one of the largest sources of energy for Turkey and as such their gas export contract was extended for a further 25 years. While there were no further breakthroughs in their talks, such meetings help to prevent the simmering tension in their relations from spiraling out of control. 

Another major issue that dominated the talks is how to establish a safe grain corridor from Ukraine. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to push ahead, Putin wants the discussion to drag on so that Moscow can use it as leverage vis-a-vis different actors. But if Putin concedes on this point down the road, it will not only spell good news for the question of food security in places like Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but will also boost Turkey's international stature.

While details remain scant, we can assume that Putin raised the thorny issue of Turkish combat drone sales to Ukraine that have exacted a cost on Russian forces and have become a major irritant in ties between Russia and Turkey. Despite its support for Ukraine, Ankara will tread carefully in order not to antagonize Russia.

A map showing Mideast countries who support/don't support Iran

Russia still sees itself as an important geopolitical player

The ties between Russia and Iran are also characterized by compartmentalization. Historical tension and suspicion pervade their relationship. US claims that Russia is looking to purchase Iranian drones to use against Ukraine put a further strain on their ties. Meanwhile there's no sign of any progress to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.

Tehran has denied taking sides in the war against Ukraine, but after the meeting suggested that Putin had been provoked and that war would have been inevitable. Iran's security-minded establishment sees strategic and economic opportunities on the horizon due to the economic sanctions on Russia that are starting to take a toll. 

Where they do see eye to eye is in their mutual suspicion of Western policies and values. If Iran does export drones to Moscow, its pro-Russian posture could be the nail in the coffin for the JCPOA and firmly tilt Iran toward Russia and China in the geopolitical realignments that are underway. 

And then there's the issue of energy supplies. Despite facing Russian energy competition from Russian oil on the market, Tehran is eager to cement the long-term cooperation agreements and can offer Moscow sanctions-busting and survival strategies that include using Iran as an export corridor. Notably, Gazprom and Iran's oil company signed a $40 billion (€39 billion) Memorandum of Understanding to develop Iran's North Pars Gas Field. And, of course, Tehran will also hope to benefit from grain deliveries.

At the end of the day, the trilateral talks were short on major breakthroughs, however, they achieved their aim of drawing attention to Russia's continued reach and influence within the multipolar politics in the Middle East.  

Sanam Vakil is the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House, where she leads project work on Iran and Gulf Arab dynamics.

Galip Dalay is Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House specializing on Turkish politics and Middle Eastern affairs. He is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.

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