Analysis |

The New Mideast Strategic Alliance Worries Iran and Russia

For Iran, the Biden-led alliance wouldn't merely be a tactical threat, but one that could deprive it of its strategic position in Syria and beyond

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, last month in Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, last month in Turkmenistan.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev /AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A day before U.S. President Joe Biden was slated to land in Israel, Russia announced that its own president, Vladimir Putin, will hold a summit next week with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The timing of this statement was not accidental.

On Friday Biden is slated to go to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea coast, for another summit to be attended by the leaders of Gulf States Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. This meeting is intended to lay the cornerstone for regional defense cooperation against common threats to the alliance’s members.

Iran needs no explainer to conclude that this an Israeli-American initiative aimed at mobilizing Iran’s neighbors in a joint front against it. But a rational analysis of the real threat this alliance would pose to Iran could show that the Islamic Republic doesn’t have much to fear.

Tehran has held multiple rounds of talks with Saudi Arabia aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. The United Arab Emirates has signed several agreements with Iran on economic and security cooperation.

Qatar and Iraq are Iran’s economic and diplomatic allies, and Iraq is also being dependent on Iranian energy. Egypt has already made clear that it doesn’t intend to join a military alliance against Iran.

Even Washington has said it has no intention of getting involved in military action against Iran. So in practice, even if such an alliance were formed, it wouldn’t substantively alter the threats Iran has faced thus far.

But this analysis provides cold comfort to Tehran, which sees that it is gradually losing its bastions of strategic support in the region. Until a few months ago, Iran could rely on cooperation with Russia and China to evade the American sanctions it is under, and Turkey was considered part of the same safety net.

In February, however, Russia invaded Ukraine and became an ostracized country suffocating under its own harsh international economic sanctions. Consequently, its ability to help Iran financially and militarily has been dramatically reduced. If it is true that Iran plans to send Russia hundreds of drones is true, as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said, the two countries' roles have now reversed: Iran has become Russia’s arms supplier.

Moreover, Turkey has repaired its relationships with the UAE, and Saudi Arabia and will soon appoint an ambassador to Israel. So China alone continues to buy Iranian oil, and it isn’t buying enough to extricate Iran from a severe economic crisis that threatens the stability of the regime.

Iran is also fearfully watching developments in Syria given Turkey’s declared intention of conquering additional parts of the country's northern region. Ankara’s goal is to create a buffer zone some 30 kilometers deep against the Syrian Kurds, whom it deems terrorists that threaten its security.

For Iran, this isn’t merely a tactical threat, but one that could deprive it of its strategic position in Syria and beyond. Tehran was quick to charge that this is a Turkish-Israeli plot meant to enable Turkey to get as far as Aleppo, a major city, with the goal of preventing Syrian President Bashar Assad from controlling the whole country and pushing Iran even further out of a strategic theater, the one through which it arms the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Iran has already taken several steps to counter the Turkish threat. It has bolstered the militias it supports around the Shi’ite villages of Nubl and Zahraa, which are within arm’s reach of the Turkish forces. Its own forces have taken over several bases that Russian troops evacuated when Russia reduced its presence in Syria in order to beef up its fighting force in Ukraine. Tehran is also putting diplomatic pressure on Ankara to refrain from invading.

On June 27, Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian visited Ankara for an angry meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu. The latter warned Iran about plotting acts of terror on Turkish soil. Amir-Abdollahian apologized, but also demanded that Turkey not invade Syria. According to Turkish media reports, Çavuşoğlu told him Turkey’s security is at stake, and that it therefore can’t promise it won't invade.

Invading Syria would also put Turkey on a collision course with Russia. Moscow wants Assad to regain control of the whole country, and it certainly isn’t ready to deal with another military conflict requiring additional troops, much less one with Turkey – the only NATO country that hasn’t joined the sanctions on Russia and which even tried to prevent Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.

Nor is Putin blind to the initiative taking shape in the southern part of the Middle East – one that returns Washington at least to diplomatic engagement after it had seemed that Biden planned to complete America’s disengagement from the region and leave it open to Russian and Chinese leadership.

All this explains the urgency of next week’s planned Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit. Putin, who can’t stop Turkey’s diplomatic moves or annul any agreements reached during Biden’s visit, has to at least preserve his existing assets.

Officially, the summit in Tehran is being defined as another round of the Astana talks, which have so far been fruitless. Those talks were aimed at forging agreements between the Syrian government and the Syrian rebels about the country’s future.

But neither Syrian government officials nor opposition representatives have been invited to this summit, as they have to all of the previous rounds of talks. As a result, next week’s meeting can have only one key goal: preserving Russian leadership of the anti-American bloc (which has cooperated well in the past but is now on the brink of collapse), or at least maintaining a façade that such a bloc still exists.

Given this goal, it’s also worth noting the dramatic change in Turkey’s position. Just four years ago, it was forced to kowtow to Putin after the latter imposed months of stifling sanctions on it due to Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane along the Turkish-Syrian border. Now, Ankara looks like a bride whose train is being carried by Putin.

It seems unlikely that Erdogan will be willing to relinquish this asset, which gives him the power to dance at Russian, American and Iranian weddings.

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