Why Putin went to Tehran?

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Third week of July suddenly brought a lot of happenings to the political spectrum of the Middle East, which had been pushed back to rather dullness for quite some time – in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. US President Joe Biden’s much-touted Middle East tour was immediately followed by Russian President Vladmir Putin’s visit to the region. One thing was common in both trips: both tried to blatantly patronise two opposing blocs and create a deep wedge in the region.

Countering US influence

Three prime objectives of President Biden’s four-day trip were clear: One, give assurance to the region about the reversal of his earlier “disengagement” policy, two, find solutions to preempt the disruption of the global food supply chain and renewable energy issues by inaugurating a new club, the I2U2, with India, Israel and the UAE, and three, create a solid bloc in the region against, China, Russia and Iran. Close on the heels of Biden’s visit, Vladimir Putin also rushed to the region and held trilateral meetings with the Iranian Leadership and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Though the ostensible objective of the trilateral rendezvous was to broach the Syrian conflict, but the fact is that Vladimir Putin had multiple objectives in mind when he landed at the Tehran airport. The most immediate one was to dampen the impact of the Biden’s visit to the region and send a strong message to the US and its allies that Moscow is not yet isolated despite all their efforts and is flexing its muscles for aggressive diplomacy in the coming days. The timing of Putin’s visit loudly proclaimed that he had launched a fontal diplomatic attack on Washington’s attempt to marginalise Russia on the matter of Ukraine.

There is little doubt that President Bident deliberately tried to pay more attention to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the most influential countries in the region and which are considered to be traditional rivals of Iran, to construct primarily an anti-Iran alliance – and also anti-China and anti-Russia bloc.

Moscow’s Middle East Policy

Factually speaking, Russia had never been very active in the Middle East in the Cold War era. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow was more focused on its immediate neighborhood in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia than the Middle East. The Arab Spring in the early 2010s provided an opportunity to Russia to make inroads in the region as a trustworthy player when most of its monarchs and dictators started feeling insecure due to Washington’s indifference in protecting their regimes.

The Syrian war in 2015 was the second booster for Moscow to entrench its foot marks on the regional power structure. Since then, the Russians have been able to consolidate their relations and partnerships with many of the regional States – including those perceived to be the US “satellites” States – through multilateral and bilateral cooperation on wide-ranging subjects such as trade, security, energy and culture. Iran and Russia, which now share a common link between the two in the form of severe sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies, have suddenly become very close to each other despite their simmering rivalry on the oil pricing in the parallel market – where Russia is offering more discounted prices for oil to China and India. Vladimir Putin is a shrewd statesman, and he is quite adept in diplomatically exploiting and manipulating the weaknesses of other countries and lure them into the Russian camp.   

Iran grows closer to Russia

The protests in Sri Lanka have certainly affected the thinking pattern of hardline Iranian leadership, which has also recently faced similar massive protests against the unabated inflation and skyrocketing cost of living. The Iranian Government desperately need the uninterrupted supply of wheat from Russia, perhaps the most secure wheat supplier in the world right now, to ward off the possibility of any public unrest. Against the backdrop of looming food crisis across the globe due to the Ukraine war, Iran needs wheat more than any other commodity at this time to keep the Iranian public from resorting to the streets.

With its surplus wheat, Russia is tactfully using this card to win the support of Iran on the question of the Ukraine war as well as keep the oil pricing in the black market under its control. One of the key reasons behind the recent protests in Iran was the shortages of flour and almost an unofficial “bread rationing” in the country due to the wheat crisis. The Iranian Government does not want any such stimulus for further protests. Putin, in his visit to Tehran, has vowed to generously reciprocate Iran’s wholehearted support to Moscow on the question of the Ukraine invasion.

At the same time, Moscow is close ally of Iran on the matter of the Syrian war, another major hotspot where Russia sees a lot of opportunity to expand its influence in the Middle East. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Putin in Tehran, “In the case of Ukraine, had you not taken the initiative, the other side would have taken the initiative and caused the war. NATO would know no bounds if the way was open to it. And if it wasn’t stopped in Ukraine, it would start the same war sometime later using Crimea as a pretext.” This is much more than what Putin would have expected from his hosts in Tehran. Although Putin’s visit was for the Tehran Summit, which was within the framework of the 2017 Astana Process among Turkey, Russia, and Iran, to work toward a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis, Putin utilised this event to achieve many points of his diplomatic agenda.     

Apart from selling its weapon-capable drones to Russia, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is seriously trying to be part of the Russian camp so as to preempt any kind of veto in the UN in case the nuclear deal is buried by the Biden administration and new and more strict sanctions are imposed on Iran. That’s why Putin received very favourable response from Ebrahim Raisi on his idea to bolster regional opposition to any US-proposed defence alliance between Gulf States and Israel, an idea that the White House sees as a necessary bulwark if Iran was to go ahead with its nuclear program.

Russia is also a part of the nuclear talks that are deadlocked in Vienna due to the Biden administration’s refusal to lift the sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards. The US argues that the nuclear deal has nothing to do with the sanctions which are imposed due to the “Revolutionary Guards’ unacceptable” activities outside the Iranian borders. But in his effort to vow Turkey and Iran so as to weaken the American influence in the region, Putin showed extra generosity by announcing that Gazprom would invest USD 40 billion in the Iranian energy sector to compensate for the losses incurred by Iran oil exports due to price competition with Russia.

Turkey  grain deal

However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not as much lucky in this trilateral gathering. Though Erdogan was successful in convincing Putin to agree on the grain deal with Ukraine which is indubitably his great diplomatic achievement in mitigating the existing impact of the food crisis. But Erdogan was not lucky enough to find any favour from the hardline Iranian leader Khamenei on the question of Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish separatists in northern Syria.

Although there was general agreement on wide range of issues, however, some tension between and Erdogan and Khamenei were palpable when Iranian leader expressed his concern over Turkey’s proposed operation in northern Syria. Apparently taking advantage of Putin’s involvement in Ukraine, Erdogan has been talking about a new military offensive in northern Syria to push back US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from Turkey’s borders.

The proposed military operation is part of Turkey’s long-term strategy to create a safe zone along its border with Syria that would facilitate the voluntary return of Syrian refugees. Erdogan is serious about this move, which is crucial for his popularity and approval rating so as to have a relatively easy run in the next year’s difficult elections. But Khamenei was quite reluctant to allow any such move from Turkey and, instead, suggested Erdogan to find a solution through talks.

This is the point where Putin, for his own reasons too, also desisted from taking side with Erdogan. Iran and Russia are in the same camp of countries that are facing the stringent sanctions. Both countries are under intense economic penalties and their current “affection” is part of their effort to work and learn together to undermine the effectiveness of sanctions. Indeed, Putin is learning very fast from Iran’s decades-long tactics of obliquely busting sanction by manoeuvring the oil market through discounted trades. So far, Putin has been fairly successful in muffling the game plan of US President Biden.

DR. IMRAN KHALID