Amos Yadlin

What does this week's Iran-Russia-Turkey summit mean for the Middle East?

Results may not be as straightforward as they might seem...

July 22, 2022 10:26

The three leaders who gathered in Tehran this week are no allies of Israel. The Iranian hosts would like to see the Jewish state wiped off the map, and the Russian and Turkish guests have complicated relations with Israel. But the tripartite summit between the presidents of Iran, Russia, and Turkey did not focus on Israel, which was barely a minor agenda item.

With all due respect to Israel’s “war between the wars” – its covert ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria – on the table in Tehran were two other strategic issues. The first is the confrontation with the US against the background of the conflict in Ukraine and the international sanctions against Russia and Iran. The second concerned the Turkish threat to invade northern Syria around the cities of Tel Rifat and Manbij, west of the Euphrates. In these areas, controlled by the Kurdish YPG, Turkey perceives terrorist elements that need to be eradicated.

On the issue of Iran-Russia relations, Putin can sum up the visit as successful. Iran has wholeheartedly taken Putin’s side against the US by justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Supreme Leader Khamenei declared that “the US and its European allies left Moscow with no choice but to invade,” and that they would have declared war on Russia in any case if Moscow had not pre-empted them. Iran’s unequivocal political support is consistent with the information recently revealed by the US administration, that Iran is preparing to provide Russia with hundreds of drones, including armed drones, on an accelerated schedule for the fight in Ukraine. Presidents Putin and Raisi also called again for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, in line with their common goal to expel the Americans from the Middle East.

On the issue of Turkey’s invasion plans, it appears that the summit did not produce results. Erdogan declared that Turkey needs more significant assistance from Russia and Iran but can act against Kurdish terrorism in Syria even without them, and that words alone are not enough. The joint concluding statement on the issue provides an achievement for all parties, but without agreement on the central issue of Syria's territorial integrity and political future. In the tripartite statement the parties emphasized their determination to work together to fight terrorism but rejected any attempt to change the reality on the ground.

The summit illustrated the familiar modus operandi of Russia, which knows how to maintain good relations on both sides of every confrontation in the Middle East: Saudis and Iranians; Turks and Kurds; Syrians and Israelis; Cypriots and Turks; Hezbollah and Israel; Israelis and Iranians; Palestinians and Israelis. It is important to remember that between Iran and Russia and between Turkey and Russia there are also difficult historical legacies of wars and crises, and inherent strategic rivalries.

Against the US however, the conflict is direct and intensifying. Russia and Iran are looking for ways to break out of their political isolation, break the American (and in the case of Russia European) sanctions, and find a replacement for the Dollar as an international trading currency. Iran can assist Russia in bypassing sanctions and providing it with weapons systems that it lacks, such as drones. Russia can develop Iran’s oil and gas fields, which are suffering from a lack of investment due to US sanctions, and give Iran diplomatic backing in the negotiations on a return to the nuclear agreement.

Before Putin landed in Tehran, Iranian TV reported that the Russian energy corporation Gazprom had signed a historic $40 billion contract with Iran for joint investments in gas and oil projects. It is unclear whether Russia, which is subject to harsh sanctions, really has the technological and financial capability to assist Iran. It is worth recalling that the development of oil and gas fields has been promised to Iran in its strategic agreement with China and not yet implemented.

It must also be said that the war in Ukraine creates tensions between Moscow and Tehran. They are competing for the Chinese oil market, which bypasses sanctions, and Beijing is exploiting their situation to demand lower prices. Moreover, signing the nuclear agreement would return Iranian oil to international markets and lower energy prices, while weakening Russia and its leverage against the West. Russia is also a party to the nuclear agreement with responsibility for aspects of its implementation (absorbing enriched uranium that will be removed from Iran if the agreement is restored), enabling Moscow to put a spanner in the works if it wishes.

It is also important to understand that Erdogan is not a natural partner in the anti-American alliance. Turkey is a NATO member (even withdrawing its veto over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance), has provided Ukraine with attack drones that badly damaged Russian forces, has taken a mediating position between Ukraine and Russia, and faces an economic crisis affected by the increase in oil and food prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

So what is the Israeli angle in all this? At the diplomatic level, a condemnation of Israel was included in the margins of the concluding tripartite statement, which referred to “Israeli attacks in Syria, including against civilian infrastructure, that contravene international law.” Erdogan agreed to this despite his efforts to warm ties with Israel.

But strategically, it is difficult to see Russia spoiling its relations with Israel in favor of Iran in Syria, and there is no logic that would push it to open a front against the IDF. In Syria, Iran and Russia have a complex relationship of partnership and competition. They each support Assad whilst competing for influence over the regime, the military, infrastructure projects and revenues. Russia benefits both from the concern Iran causes to Israel, which creates a need for Moscow in Jerusalem, and from Israel’s attacks on Iran in Syria, which increases Tehran’s need for the Kremlin’s services.

It is important to note that there is no agreement between Israel and Russia for coordination or approval of Israeli activities to prevent Iranian entrenchment, even if there were past agreements to remove Iranian forces from the border of the Golan Heights, which were partially implemented. What exists is a collision prevention mechanism that serves both sides in their activities in Syria. Israel will know that if it is forced to attack Iranian targets in Syria without Russian acquiescence, that its Air Force will have more restrictions on its operational profile.

In the military sphere, although Iranian drones will no longer be available to attack Israel, or for that matter Saudi Arabia or the UAE, it is deeply concerning that hundreds of Iranian drones will be supplied to Russia for use in Ukraine and the payment Tehran will receive for them is also less good news for its adversaries.

Against the background of the supply of Iranian drones to Russia, there is a growing likelihood of the sale of advanced Russian weapons systems to Iran, which could undermine the balance of power and stability in the region. If in the past Moscow hesitated to sell weapons such as the S-400 air defense system to the Iranian regime, now it may push for it. On the Iranian side, the sale of weapons to Russia is expected to free up resources and budgets which will enable reciprocal procurement from Russia.

In the nuclear realm, Russia is opposed to Iranian military nuclear capability, but will likely now support more strongly Tehran’s negotiating positions on the nuclear agreement and its efforts to extract additional concessions from the US.

In conclusion, Putin's visit to Tehran is a counter, at least in terms of perception, to Biden's Middle East visit. But as with Biden's visit, the results of the tripartite summit in Tehran will be tested by the ability to turn the declarations and ceremonies into moves on the ground that will bring strategic results.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin is the former Head of the Israeli Defense Intelligence, former Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and senior security and foreign policy expert. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yadlin is a senior advisor to ELNET and chair of ELNET’s Forum of Strategic Dialogue.

July 22, 2022 10:26

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