Analysis |

Tehran's Unity Summit Won't Make Biden Sweat

Turkey is suspicious about Iranian operations, Moscow and Tehran are fighting over oil, and all three are in conflict with Syria. The image of unity between Putin, Raisi and Erdogan is little more than a mirage

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Tehran International Conference Hall, Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Tehran International Conference Hall, Tuesday.Credit: Mustafa Kamaci / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The three presidents “reaffirmed the determination to continue their ongoing cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate terrorist individuals, groups, undertaking and entities,” declared the joint statement issued at the end of this week’s trilateral meeting in Tehran between Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The picture of the three leaders with hands clasped and held high to demonstrate brotherhood and victory was supposed to symbolize this unity. But anyone who feared for even a moment that Tehran was forging a new strategic alliance, one that could threaten the “Arab coalition” U.S. President Joe Biden failed to establish during his visit to Saudi Arabia last week, should take note of the deep divides separating the leaders of this bloc.

For instance, each has his own definition of what terrorism is and which terrorists must be fought. For Turkey, “Kurdish terror” perpetrated by the PKK and the Syrian Kurds is the ultimate threat, one requiring large-scale military operations in Syria and an invasion to create a 30-kilometer-wide (19-mile) buffer zone from which Kurdish forces would be ousted.

Iran, by contrast, sees Turkey’s planned invasion of Syria as a grave threat to its own security, and especially to its position in Syria. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Erdogan that invading Syria would harm both Iran and regional security, and in closed conversations, Iranian officials have warned that Turkish troops might encounter Iranian forces if they do invade.

The three presidents pose together in Tehran this week.Credit: SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/AFP

Russia has its own terrorists in Syria: the Syrian rebels – primarily Tahrir al-Sham, which is the current incarnation of the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida offshoot, but also other militias in Idlib province that are supported by Turkey.

Under an agreement Russia and Turkey signed in 2018, Idlib was supposed to be demilitarized and jointly supervised by both countries. This agreement halted Russian and Syrian plans to conquer Idlib by force at the last minute.

But the condition Russia set for this agreement was Turkey clearing the province of all its armed militias and disarming them, and Ankara has yet to satisfy that condition. So when Turkey now seeks Russia’s support for its military operations in Syria, Russia reminds it of the bilateral agreement it still hasn’t complied with.

Putin and Raisi in Tehran, this week.Credit: SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/AFP

Putin signed off on the joint statement, which also said the three leaders “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism, including illegitimate self-rule initiatives.” That statement is seemingly aimed at Syria’s autonomous Kurdish districts. But the denunciation of “attempts to create new realities on the ground” was also meant to warn Turkey not to invade Syria and create areas under its own protection or control.

If anyone thought Erdogan might be planning to refrain from invading Syria, his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, stressed that the Turks “never ask permission for our military operations.” A few days later, Turkey bombed a resort in the Duhok province of Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Turkey, killing at least nine civilians. Turkey’s National Security Council also continues to work on plans for the invasion.

In addition, Ankara blames Iraqi Shi’ite militias, which have been integrated into Iraq’s army but operate under Iranian orders, for several attacks on a Turkish base in Iraq. It also accuses Iran of granting protection to PKK fighters who fled to Iran to escape Turkish bombing in the Qandil Mountains.

U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, this week.Credit: OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP

Moreover, Ankara is still keeping a suspicious eye on Iranian agents’ activities in Turkey, following a thwarted plan to attack Israeli targets there. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian paid an urgent visit to Turkey on June 27 to apologize and promise that Iran wouldn’t conduct any hostile activity on Turkish soil. But Turkey is in no rush to calm down.

A Turkish official told Haaretz that unrelated to Turkey’s warming relationship with Israel, “We don’t trust that the Iranian Foreign Ministry can stop the operations of Quds Force commanders,” referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit responsible for military and political activity outside Iran’s borders. “We’re already heard similar promises in the past.”

There’s no love lost in the Iranian-Russian axis, either. Russia managed to keep Iran away from any of Syria’s vital economic assets when it secured licenses for all future offshore oil exploration from Syrian President Bashar Assad. Tehran had to make do with promises that it will get a share in Syria’s reconstruction once the civil war ends and contracts for infrastructure repair. Some of these have come to fruition, but they lack a stable source of funding.

Moreover, Tehran still hasn’t succeeded in convincing Moscow to stop Israel’s attacks in Syria. The Iranian media outlets have even accused Russia of cooperating with Israel against Iran as part of an “international plot.”

On the sidelines of the trilateral summit, a deal was signed for the Russian company Gazprom to invest some $40 million in developing Iranian oil fields. But neither Russia nor Iran currently has any spare dollars in their coffers.

Moreover, under a multiyear agreement between Iran and China, it’s the latter, not Russia, that will own Iran’s oil. The details of that agreement are still secret, but based on Iranian reports, China will get all of its oil needs met at preferential prices in exchange for $400 billion worth of investments over 25 years.

Meanwhile, as it waits for this agreement to be implemented, Iran is watching fearfully as Russia steals the Chinese and Indian markets from it by charging rock-bottom prices for its oil in order to circumvent Western sanctions.

For years, Russia and Iran have talked about increasing their bilateral trade, but without great success. This trade has stabilized at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, just a third of the volume of Iran’s trade with Iraq. The Iranian media pay more attention to Russian officials’ harsh statements about Iran than to friendly statements by their respective leaders.

In a recent interview with the Iranian internet news site Hawar, Russia’s veteran ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, was asked about the power outages caused by the irregular supply of electricity from the Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr. Dzhagaryan, furious at the question, responded, “Iran owes us hundreds of millions of dollars for that reactor.”

He also told the interviewer that “Russia has always stood together with Iran, but the West wants to introduce its absurd values into the country, like homosexuality and all those other filthy things. We oppose that.” Members of parliament, human rights activists and even state-owned media outlets were outraged and demanded that the government respond to this crude intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs.

Nor is this the first time the Russian ambassador has caused a storm through his blunt remarks. He once said Russian tourists don’t visit Iran “because of the hijab requirement and the lack of alcohol.” That time, it was the clerics who were outraged.

Incidentally, the Bushehr reactor, whose construction took around 20 years, only supplies around 1.25 percent of Iran’s electricity, though plans are being discussed to expand it at a cost of some $10 billion. Iran’s goal is to increase its production of natural gas as a source of electricity. But its gas exploration and production agreements have been signed with China, not Russia.

In February, a harsh dispute with Tehran erupted when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded that Moscow’s interests in Iran shouldn't be harmed as a result of the Iranian nuclear agreement. So if the sanctions on Iran are lifted, Russia can continue its economic cooperation with Tehran even if the sanctions on Russia remain in force.

Iran responded angrily. “There is an understanding that by changing its position in Vienna talks Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive for Vienna nuclear talks,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters at the time.

Even if Russia changes direction or tries to block the agreement, Iran will prioritize its own interests, the Iranian official added, asking: “Why should we sacrifice billions of dollars on the altar of our alliance with Russia?”

A month later, Russia received a written commitment from the United States guaranteeing that the sanctions on it will not harm its cooperation with Iran if a nuclear agreement is signed, but the Iranians' suspicions toward Russia – which years ago described Iran as a partner but not a strategic ally – continues to guide Iranian foreign policy.

Those who rushed to describe the tripartite summit as a “natural alliance of anti-Americans” – a muscle-flexing vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli-American alliance – may have been looking at Putin and Raisi but seem to have forgotten that Turkey is a NATO member and also a new member of the Arab-Israeli club. And it's now waiting for U.S. approval of its purchase of 40 new F-16s and 80 kits for upgrading its older planes.

A number of bitter disagreements exist between Biden and Erdogan, but Turkey knows how to leverage its relations with Washington in its power game against Russia – and it has no intention to give up its membership in NATO or its relationship with the United States.

It seems that the summit in Iran, similar to the one in Jeddah, only bolstered the realization that not every summit creates a new bloc that requires new strategic preparedness or a nerve-racking military alert.

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