July 19, 2022
Tuesday’s three-way summit in Tehran, the first to bring the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran together since 2019, put many common issues on the table, but with a diverse agenda. So diverse, in fact, that the chances of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ebrahim Raisi agreeing on everything, when the three are facing unique challenges, were remote at best.
The Tehran meeting came a few days after US President Joe Biden participated in an extraordinary high-level meeting in Jeddah, hosted by Saudi Arabia and attended by the GCC leaders plus the heads of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. The outcome of the Jeddah summit was in contrast with the bilateral US-Israel declaration signed only two days before while Biden was visiting Israel.
While the main component of the so-called Jerusalem Declaration was a vow not to allow Iran to militarize its nuclear program, the message from Jeddah was articulated in a way that keeps the door open for an Arab reconciliation with Iran. There was no mention of an anti-Iran Middle Eastern version of NATO, with Israel as a member.
The Iranian leadership will appreciate the value of the messages coming from Jeddah. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that Riyadh continues to extend its hand to Tehran. The UAE announced that it is considering sending an ambassador to Iran, which Tehran has also welcomed.
But the leaders’ meeting in Tehran had other issues to consider. Putin wants to sign with Iran a comprehensive strategic treaty, whose main objective is to lessen the effect of Western sanctions on Moscow and create an anti-American alliance. Tehran can go as far as siding with Putin, but not at the expense of losing an opportunity, feeble as it may be, to end Western oil sanctions.
Tehran can go as far as siding with Putin, but not at the expense of losing an opportunity to end Western oil sanctions.
For Iran — where a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Kamal Kharrazi, announced this week that Tehran had the capability to build a nuclear bomb but it chooses not to — an 11th-hour deal to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement remains possible. An anti-Western alliance with Moscow at this stage would not help conclude a deal that Tehran badly wants.
For Putin, any semblance of support from states with an axe to grind with America is a good thing. But there are limits to such support. For Tehran, normalizing ties with Riyadh would carry huge geopolitical value. Such rapprochement could end many of the region’s conflicts. At the end of the day, Iran is aware of its geographical destiny as a neighbor of the Arab Gulf states.
For Erdogan, a pragmatic leader who has no qualms about shifting sides and switching positions, cementing his presence and influence over two anti-US countries is enough to keep Turkey a major geopolitical player regionally and beyond. He has been threatening to launch a major military operation in northern Syria for weeks. But Moscow and Tehran have different takes on such an operation. Why Ankara wants to engage in a risky military adventure in northern Syria is difficult to fathom.
Iran has stated that it opposes any operation that threatens the territorial integrity of Syria. Moscow is also not happy with Turkey’s meddling in Syria, which it sees as an extension of its own geopolitical influence in the region. The fact that Moscow is caught up in the Ukrainian quagmire makes it apprehensive about any serious shift in the balance of power in Syria.
Topping all this is the fact that Israel, in the wake of Biden’s visit, has made direct threats toward Tehran. On Monday, Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi said that the military is preparing for the possibility it will have to act against Iran’s nuclear program. Israel and Iran have been engaged in an indirect war for years. But the fact that Israel is considering an attack on Iran does not please anybody. The US, the Europeans and the Arab countries are in no mood to see another unpredictable war break out in the region. Certainly, when it comes to potentially igniting another war in the region, Israel is in a minority of one.
While the Tehran summit offered much in terms of a photo opportunity, a platform for some fiery statements and a semblance of an accord, the reality is that the three leaders have less in common than it appears. Their personal agendas are not in synergy and, while joint challenges may bring them together for now, dealing with them leaves much to be desired.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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