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Tuesday, 27 September 2022
Tehran’s revealing summit
Ian Black

Last week’s Tehran summit, involving Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ibrahim Raisi attracted less attention – at least in western media - than Joe Biden’s visits to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia in mid-July. The main multilateral topic, formally at least, was Syria. But it provided fascinating insights into how the whole world, including the Middle East, has been changed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

 Notably, it was only Putin’s second major visit outside Russia since he launched his “special military operation” against Kyiv in February. It reflected his determination to demonstrate he is not as isolated as the West claims, but retains influence after the visit to the region by the American president.

 Putin was working hard to solidify an Iranian-Russian alliance that has been emerging as a counterweight to US-led efforts to contain western adversaries. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a declaration of support for the war in Ukraine of the kind that even other countries close to Moscow have so far stopped short of making, exactly reflecting the Kremlin’s own narrative.

 It was also useful for Erdogan as a mediator since there were signs of progress over the lifting of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain which has threatened a famine across Africa. Indeed last Friday a deal was signed, with help from the United Nations, on that grave international crisis, in Istanbul.

 Syria came last, with no signs of agreement on Ankara’s threat of a new military offensive to drive away US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from Turkey’s north-west border. The operation is part of Turkey’s plan to create a safe buffer zone along its frontier that would encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, a move that would be popular inside Turkey as Erdoğan prepares for difficult elections next year, in the face of nightmarish inflation.

  “War is a violent and difficult endeavor, and the Islamic Republic is not at all happy that people are caught up in war,” Khamenei told Putin. “But in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war.” The summit’s choreography mirrored Putin’s determination to resist attempts to punish and isolate Russia, engaging with fellow American adversaries like Iran and with other countries like Turkey — a Nato member — whose alliances are far more complicated.

 Khamenei’s endorsement of the war went well beyond the much more cautious support offered by another key Russian ally, China, embracing Putin’s claim that the Nato and the West had left the Kremlin no choice but to act. Raisi conveyed the same message.

 It was a signal to the world that with Europe and the US now hitting Russia with sanctions comparable to those that have suffocated Iran’s economy for years, the long-fraught relationship between Moscow and Tehran may be becoming a true partnership.

 “Russia and Iran still don’t trust one another, but now need each other more than ever,” one regional expert was quoted as saying. “This is no longer a partnership of choice, but an alliance out of necessity.” For years, Russia was careful not to get too close to Iran, even as the two countries shared an adversarial relationship with the US and cooperated militarily after Russia’s intervention in Syria. For Putin, his attempts to build relations with Israel and Arab countries prevented a fully-fledged alliance with Tehran.

 But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus. Increasingly cut off from western markets, Russia is looking to Iran as an economic partner, as well as for expertise in skirting sanctions. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has signed a nonbinding $40 billion deal to help develop gas and oil fields in Iran. And, American officials say, Russia is looking to buy much-needed combat drones from Iran for use over Ukraine, a matter that was not addressed publicly in the Tehran summit’s bilateral meetings.

  It wasn’t all positive for Putin: he was left awkwardly standing in a room in front of a throng of reporters while waiting to meet Erdoğan. Footage taken ahead of the meeting last Tuesday shows Putin fidgeting, shifting his weight and pulling a series of uncomfortable faces in front of cameras for nearly a minute before he is finally greeted by the Turkish president. But Erdogan later referred to Putin as “my friend.”

 It was unfamiliar terrain for the Russian leader, who has developed a reputation for keeping world leaders waiting, on purpose, sometimes for hours after scheduled talks were due to begin. Some media speculated it may have been payback for a 2020 meeting in Moscow that saw Erdoğan wait so long to enter the meeting room that he took a seat.

 Erdoğan also signed economic and trade cooperation agreements with Iran, and said he opposed western sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. The US has again threatened to increase sanctions on Iran if it does not agree to revive the nuclear deal, which seems increasingly unlikely.

 In these turbulent times the Tehran summit was another sign of shifting national and regional interests. Pragmatic and unpredictable are the name of this game.