By Mostafa Shirmohammadi
The Middle East region has become the destination of high-profile diplomatic trips in recent days. Three days after U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met leaders of nine regional Arab countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have arrived in Tehran for a tripartite meeting with Iran’s President Seyyed Ebrahim Raeisi.
The summit in Tehran is the continuation of a diplomatic drive known as the “Astana Process” which started in 2016 in the capital city of Kazakhstan – now Nur-Sultan – at the initiative of Russia, Iran and Turkey, to stop the war in Syria and restore peace in the Arab country. With a war raging in Ukraine and Russia’s shift of focus away from the developments in Syria, the heads of states of the three countries have come together in Tehran to coordinate more on Syria.
One of the key agendas of the summit is expected to be Turkey’s different approach to the situation in Syria as opposed to that of Iran’s and Russia’s. However, topics seem to go beyond the Syria agenda and cover other issues including energy. Although the Middle East region is witnessing new developments, energy still appears to be a magnet for extra-regional countries. Biden, in a clear U-turn from his critical stance on Saudi policies, visited the oil-rich kingdom in order to push Riyadh to pump more crude oil into the global market to replace Russian gas and oil.
Biden tried to reassure his regional allies that he would continue to support them over their security concerns after they began to turn to Eastern powers and fortify ties with China and Russia in response to U.S. policies in the past two years, of which they were critical.
In fact, during his Middle East trip, Biden sought to get Russia’s hand off the region and at the same time tried to exert political and economic pressure on Iran to undermine its regional influence.
The economic and security goals that Biden sought during his trip are opposed to the concerns and interests of Russia and Iran. Biden is trying to jeopardize two countries’ interests in the Middle East. Therefore, it is quite natural for Tehran, Moscow and Ankara to form a united front in the face of the U.S.-Arab-Israeli alliance and cooperate more to safeguard their shared interests.
As the U.S. aims to drive away Russia from the Middle East and impose more economic sanctions on it, Iran can simultaneously serve as the gateway to Moscow’s presence in the region, linking it to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through Iranian soil and the North-South Corridor.
Although Russia and Turkey have opposing approaches to the war in Ukraine and developments in Syria, the meeting in Tehran can be an excellent opportunity for both countries to coordinate their positions and patch up some of their difference at the negotiating table.
In addition to the tripartite summit, bilateral meetings are also very important. Tehran and Moscow have moved toward fostering relations since the incumbent Iranian government took office in August last year. Raeisi and Putin have so far met twice. Although the two countries have already had good relations, they have found more commonalities and can cooperate more to meet bilateral needs.
On May 25, a high-ranking Russian delegation visited Iran during which both sides signed a memorandum of understanding that included eight areas of cooperation in trade and economy, finance and banking, transportation, logistics and customs, industry and mining, agriculture, energy and health.
During their meetings, Iranian and Russian officials also discussed ways to minimize U.S. dollar transactions, increase their annual trade to $40 billion, and set up a financial messaging service to facilitate their bilateral payments, putting aside the SWIFT global transaction network.
Iran and Russia are working to draft a 20-year strategic cooperation deal. The issue is expected to be raised when Raeisi and Putin meet in Tehran. In Erdogan’s meetings with Iranian officials, bilateral relations will surely be discussed in order to bolster political cooperation and consolidate economic relations.
Putin and Erdogan’s visit to Tehran just a few days after Biden’s trip to the Middle East indicates the important role Iran plays in the region. While the United States and Israel are trying to sideline Iran or undermine its regional role, Tehran is putting down new trump cards to flex its geopolitical, diplomatic, security and political muscles and send the message that it cannot be eliminated from regional equations.
Iran has also cemented ties with its neighbors and regional Arab countries as it has cultivated relationships with Russia, China and Turkey. Such intertwined relations have prompted several Arab nations to explicitly declare that they do not intend to stand against Iran amid Biden’s trip to the region.