A trilateral meeting of the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey seemed to suggest a new anti-American alliance. But there are major fissures between the countries, too.
BRUSSELS — Commenting on the visit of Vladimir V. Putin to Iran, a member of the Russian Parliament and television talking head, Yevgeny G. Popov, said that the two countries hoped to form an “axis of good,” mocking former President George W. Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”
Trolling American foreign-policy blunders and rhetoric is a popular sport in Russia, from Mr. Putin, the president, on down, but the growing affection between Russia and Iran is that of two isolated, sanctions-stricken countries whose main connection is their active opposition to the United States, its allies and its domination of the multilateral world order.
While the United States likes to wrap its alliances in grandiloquent words about shared values and democracy, Russia, Iran and China, Moscow’s other openly supportive pal and American rival, are far more transactional in their connections.
But transactional relations do not make for lasting alliances or disguise the strains within them.
“Russia is isolated on the global stage in a way it’s never been,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a former American official who is a professor at Georgetown University. “Putin is looking for recognition and acceptance wherever he can get it, and that he can get it in Tehran speaks volumes.”
Even China, which has stood by its anti-American partnership with Russia, “has carefully kept its distance from the war in Ukraine,” Mr. Kupchan said. “And even though the lion’s share of the world’s countries aren’t enforcing the sanctions regime against Russia, they get it: that Russia’s invasion was a bald act of aggression.”
Neither Russia nor China has eager allies or much soft power, said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official who is research director for the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
“No one really likes China, but everyone understands their power,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Russia is worse — they have the soft power of a drunken porcupine. But they have a lot of assets, too, including energy, and the will to use their military.”
Most of the world just wants to stay out of what it sees as a superpower conflict being fought over Ukraine, said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. If half the world’s population is staying publicly out of this war, half of that half is India and China, Mr. Heisbourg said, and the United States has been largely successful in keeping China from aiding Russia militarily in Ukraine and in not heavily pushing India, which is no friend of China’s and remains dependent on Russian arms.
With Western sanctions having a “colossal” impact on Russia, in Mr. Putin’s own words, Moscow needs places to do business, especially as the sanctions bite harder over time. Iran, isolated by even tougher American economic sanctions over its nuclear program, is happy to do business with Russia, Mr. Kupchan said.
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Russia also needs more surveillance of the battleground in Ukraine, and Washington has revealed Moscow’s interest in buying both armed drones and observation drones from Tehran.
Russia and Iran have a long and complicated history. Ties and trade improved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the first country to recognize the Islamic Republic after the country’s 1979 revolution, though Moscow went on to back Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In general, the two countries have had a mutual interest in pushing back American power in places such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Relations improved with the deterioration of Russia’s ties to the West and the steady imposition of sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2021, mutual trade hit record levels, though at a relatively modest amount of about $3.5 billion.
But there are important fissures, too. Russia does not share Iran’s enmity toward Israel and does not want Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon. Moscow has been largely helpful in negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran that former President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018, and that President Biden has been trying fitfully to resurrect.
Mr. Biden and Israeli leaders repeated their promises last week to do everything necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, including military action. And Russia has no interest in a Western military campaign against Iran, which becomes a real possibility if there is no renewed nuclear deal.
Russia and Iran are also competing to sell their sanctioned and discounted oil to China and other countries. Though the quality of the crude is different in both countries, it is difficult to imagine them forming some sort of cartel to sell sanctioned oil, Mr. Shapiro said.
And Russia has other issues with Iran, like the smuggling of illegal drugs.
On Syria, however, they are largely aligned in their longtime support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And Syria was the stated focus of the summit in Tehran, which included the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey has no interest in being part of any new axis or alliance with Russia or Iran. Instead, Ankara has very artfully managed a foreign policy that is diversified and open to all sides and that gives it considerable leverage with both Moscow and Washington.
“Turkey is skillfully walking a middle path, signaling to the Americans that it won’t just be a compliant ally and do what we want, but they’re signaling the same thing to the Russians,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Mr. Heisbourg agreed.
“The Turks continue to play both sides against the middle and they are in a very strong position to do so,” he said. “It’s a highly profitable game politically, economically and strategically — but that excludes any new alliance.”
Turkey has created a vital role for itself as the mediator between Russia and Ukraine — effectively the mediator between Washington, NATO and Russia. It has worked with all sides, including the United Nations, to try to get Ukrainian (and Russian) grain exports out through the Black Sea to the developing world.
Mr. Erdogan has bought Russian antiaircraft missiles and has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, which has irked Washington. But Turkey remains a key NATO ally of the United States, signed a tough anti-Russian communiqué at the NATO summit in Madrid, has sold Ukraine weapons and drones that are helping to kill Russians, and has removed its block on the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO, at least for now.
Turkey’s mediation may bring even more benefits, Mr. Kupchan said.
Mr. Erdogan has credibility and channels to both Moscow and Washington, as well as to Kyiv, and “if he can broker a deal to get Ukrainian grain flowing again, that might be the first step to pivot to diplomacy, a confidence-building measure that would require concessions by both Russia and Ukraine, but could be done under the rubric of humanitarian aid,” Mr. Kupchan said.
What Turkey clearly wanted from this trilateral summit, however, was narrower — a green light to conduct a new military incursion into northern Syria against the Syrian Kurds, who Mr. Erdogan says are allies with the P.K.K., or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which he and the West consider terrorists.
Attacking the Kurds is popular in Turkey, even among Mr. Erdogan’s opposition, and is part of his effort to win re-election next year, Mr. Heisbourg said. And Syria is the only issue where the policies of all three countries intersect, even though their interests are different.
Iran and Russia have been the firmest allies of Mr. Assad. But Turkey has backed armed groups fighting for his removal; has sent its troops into northern Syria; and has kept Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops from conquering Idlib Province, still mostly controlled by anti-Assad rebels.
“With so much leverage, now is a great time for Erdogan to beat up on the Kurds,” Mr. Heisbourg said.
While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned Turkey against further attacks in Syria, Mr. Erdogan was unfazed. And it’s likely that Russia does not much care, so long as the Turkish intervention is limited to the north. More likely, Mr. Heisbourg suggested, Mr. Erdogan used the meeting in Tehran to inform Russia and Iran of his plans and to try to avoid unnecessary confrontation.