Iran taps into Turkish-Russian reset

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 14, 2016 7:15 AM (UTC+8)
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 For Iran, strong ties with its neighbors Russia and Turkey is significant now when a Saudi-Israeli regional axis to contain it is in the making and there is uncertainty about the implementation of the nuclear deal under a new American president. The emerging prospect of such a Turkish-Iranian-Russian axis is pressuring the Obama administration to mend fences with Ankara. No wonder, Vice-President Joe Biden is going to undertake a high-stakes mission to Turkey on August 24.

The US President Barack Obama has decided to ‘upgrade’ the mission Washington proposes to mount to Ankara on August 24 from the diplomatic to the political level. It only underscores that the far-reaching significance of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement is sinking in.

Zarif-Erdogan meet
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif (L) being received by Turkish President Recep Erdogan in Ankara on Aug 12

Vice-President Joe Biden will now undertake the high-stakes mission to Turkey, the first visit by an American dignitary after the failed Turkish coup of July 15.

The Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit to St. Petersburg on August 9 and the unscheduled one-day trip to Ankara by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 12 have phenomenally transformed Middle East’s power dynamic.

While the full potential of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement will take time to emerge in geopolitical terms on various levels, the proverbial tip of the iceberg suggests that the ABC of the conflict in Syria is already changing.

However, far more fateful in the near future for the US strategies will be the emerging prospect of a Turkish-Iranian-Russian axis impacting the Middle East’s realignments.

Prior to the journey to Ankara on Friday, Zarif held a wide-ranging conversation on phone with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov regarding regional developments, “including providing external support to achieve a settlement in Syria,” according to the Russian foreign ministry readout.

Zarif was received by Recep Erdogan and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. The statements by Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Davlut Cavusoglu at a joint press conference in Ankara suggest that Tehran’s vociferous support for Erdogan in putting down the attempted coup has qualitatively elevated the overall relationship between the two countries.

Cavusoglu heaped praise on Iran’s support for Erdogan. He said in very revealing remarks, “During the coup night, I did not sleep until morning nor did my friend Javad Zarif. He was the foreign minister I talked to most, calling me five times during the night.”

According to reports, Tehran may have shared valuable intelligence with the Turkish authorities regarding an imminent military coup on July 15. This factor alone seems destined to work wonders for the Turkish-Iranian ties so long as Erdogan remains in power. Cavusoglu said “The security and stability of Iran is Turkey’s security and stability, and we believe this is the case with Iran, too.”

He went on to say that Turkey and Iran have a common understanding in respect of the territorial integrity of Syria. This must be taken as a clear reference to the shared interest of Ankara and Tehran to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

In separate remarks to the Voice of America, Ayse Sozen Usluer, Erdogan’s chief international adviser, played down differences over Syria: “We don’t have serious problems between Iran and Turkey. We have various cooperative areas in the region. We only have different foreign policy approaches in the region. That’s why from time to time we stand on different sides. But these are not serious problems (that) will affect Turkish Iranian relations in the region.”

However, the most important ‘happening’ during Zarif’s visit must be that he may have gingerly treaded on the fault lines that have appeared lately in Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners – US and its regional allies in particular.

In the presence of Cavusoglu at the press conference, Zarif openly called for Iran-Turkey-Russia cooperation “to work together to bring peace and prosperity to the region.”

Of course, the strong relationships with two major powers in Iran’s immediate neighborhood – Russia and Turkey – will make all the difference to Tehran at the present critical juncture when a Saudi-Israeli regional axis (with tacit US backing) to ‘contain’ Iran is in the making, and there is also much uncertainty in the air as regards the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal under a new American president.

While commenting on the Russian-Turkish reset and Zarif’s talks in Ankara, The Tehran Times newspaper, which reflects official thinking, took note of the new power dynamic:

“As Ankara moves toward Iran and Russia, there is hope that a new strategic triangle is in the making, and in due time it may begin to cause considerable influence not only on Syria, but on the entire Middle East region. Together, Iran and Turkey as powerful and central forces in the Middle East can shift a great force behind the events and work for shared good. Although it is still a fledgling, the new friendship can create spectacular scenes of achievement that can alter the makeup of the Middle East and hopefully result in actual improvement of security situation in the restive area”.

Interestingly, a commentary in the Fars news agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, lost no time to speculate that Iran too might be included in the newly established Russian-Turkish mechanism on Syria.

It said, “Russia and Turkey have already made decision to “establish a joint military, intelligence and diplomacy mechanism. The two sides say “if necessary” they will also involve Iran. This way, they can “keep closer contact” with Tehran and have special delegations with representatives from Iranian armed forces, diplomacy and intelligence services that will regularly meet and discuss the developments and their respective positions in Syria in order to reach compromise and solutions that would be acceptable for all sides”.

Indeed, any Russian-Turkish-Iranian convergence constitutes a geopolitical setback to the US’ regional allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. From the Saudi perspective, if Turkey rolls back its intervention in Syria, the war is lost for all practical purposes – although, in practical terms, it is still in a position to use the Jordanian route to supply the rebel groups.

The outcome of the Russian-Turkish commission on Syria, which began its working in Moscow on Thursday, will be keenly awaited. The Izvestiya newspaper reported on Friday that in response to the persistent Russian request on the ‘closing’ of the Turkish-Syrian border, Ankara may be taking the necessary measures.

This becomes for the Russians a litmus test of Ankara’s interest in reconciliation.

A prominent lawmaker and influential politician Igor Morozov told the newspaper, “Turkish negotiators, both diplomatic and military…seem to be willing to overcome contentious issues.”

To be sure, Turkey’s reset with Russia and Iran will put pressure on the Obama administration to mend fences with Ankara. Joe Biden will be intensely conscious of Moscow and Tehran’s prying eyes on his mission to Turkey.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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