As the war in Ukraine approaches the five month mark, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is keen to project the appearance of business as usual. Hence his arrival on Tuesday in Tehran for a meeting of – of all things – the Astana process, the still-stumbling-on dialogue between Russia, Turkey and Iran over the future of Syria.
The real focus of the meeting was not Syria, however, but the various conflicts and political tussles in which the trio find themselves: For Russia, the Ukraine war; for Turkey, Kurdish militias; for Iran, relations with the West and the nuclear deal. Each was hoping to gain something from the others to advance their own interests.
That, indeed, is why suggestions that Russia is forging a new “anti-western” alliance in Tehran are far off the mark. Coming so soon after US President Joe Biden visited a pair of Middle Eastern countries, there is a certain logic to the fear. But Putin is not offering an anti-western alliance, nor an alternative to the western system. And even if he were, Turkey and Iran are not looking to take up the offer.
The Ukraine war has upended much of the established wisdom about security in Europe. It has had a lesser impact beyond the West, though still a considerable one. In particular, it has offered new ways for countries to gain leverage and play politics.
Turkey has already tried to leverage the desire of Finland and Sweden to join the NATO alliance to gain political advantage, an attempt that largely succeeded. Now Erdogan will be looking to use leverage over Russia to get Moscow to agree to a new military operation against Kurdish groups in Syria.
Iran, too, is looking for something. Russia has discounted its oil to China, displacing some Iranian sales. But with Russia reportedly interested in purchasing Iranian drones for the Ukraine war, there may be space for a compromise. Ahead of the visit, Russia was reported to be exploring how Iran has weathered years of western sanctions.
Turkey occupies an unusual space in the Moscow-Ankara-Tehran axis. On the one hand, because of NATO, Turkey is very much in the Western orbit – indeed, committed by NATO treaties to come to the aid of the West should it be attacked by … Russia.
On the other hand, it has tried to remain, if not neutral, then with a foot in both camps over the Ukraine war: selling drones to Ukraine whilst offering to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. It hasn’t been an especially successful balancing act, if only because Ankara is now distrusted in both the West and Moscow.
The Astana meeting offers a new opportunity. But ultimately, the meeting is only about horse-trading, not about forging a new defense pact.
There’s a certain overlap, in fact, with the other major Middle East trip this month, when Biden touched down in Tel Aviv and Jeddah.
In that case, there was also a suggestion that some larger defense pact might be agreed, but in the end the trip ended with whimper rather than a bang – a fist bump rather than a handshake, perhaps.
In both cases, however, allies are unable to fully commit to each other because there is a lack of some larger goal.
Russia does not have a larger vision of its role in the Middle East than merely to advance its interests piecemeal – allying with Bashar Al Assad in Syria here, securing a deep-water port at Tartous there. Gaining leverage left and right.
But there is no bigger vision, no big idea that Iran and Turkey, and even smaller countries, could potentially buy into.
For all the talk that Putin wants to remake the Soviet Union, that goal is far from realized, and the Ukraine war has not brought it closer. There isn’t even an intellectual framework for how that would work, given that Russia today doesn’t espouse a separate system, but a simulacrum of the western one: democracy with just one winner, capitalism run by oligarchs.
Because of that, Moscow cannot easily persuade Tehran or Ankara to join it on some larger mission; it becomes a vaguely anti-western alliance, but one that is always subject to fracture. Turkey is half-in, half-out, because of its role in NATO and its desire to be closer to Europe. Even Iran is hoping to use Moscow as leverage to gain more in its negotiations with the West.
The same is true, in fact, of Biden’s America. Again, America has piecemeal goals in the region: to stop the Gulf states embracing China and Russia too much; advance its security interests and protect its allies; and make sure there is enough oil in the system to stop prices spiking at the pump in the run-up to the midterm elections.
But there is no great vision of what America’s role in the Middle East could be. This dilemma is an example of how day-to-day politics relies heavily on an overarching vision, something that is often not well understood. In a way, it is a parallel to the issue of NATO prior to the Ukraine war. That for years – decades – the alliance was drifting, unable to find a new focus post the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Without that vision, neither America nor Russia can bring other countries along. The best they can hope for is an ad-hoc alliance. For both Turkey and Iran are still, to use an imperfect metaphor, playing poker on a western table. They are merely looking to Russia to supply fresh bargaining chips.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.