The Tehran Summit: Expected and Unlikely Outcomes


US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel sent a strong message to Iran which continues to enrich uranium far in excess of the permissible limit set by the paralyzed 2015 nuclear deal. For Tehran, there may not be any good options but the bad ones are good enough to stay afloat. Hence, the Tehran Summit 2022. Russian President Vladmir Putin was happy to leave Moscow for  the second time since his botched invasion of Ukraine in February, while Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was eager to partake in the summit to  find ways to stem the Kurdish safe havens in northern Syria ahead of the general election in 2023.  Iran and Russia are bound by sanctions besides their convergence of interests on most geopolitical matters.

The  Tehran Summit held on July 19, failed to come up  with a clear-cut agreement on Syria, whose foreign minister  was also in Tehran at the time. Neither was it expected that the trio would hammer out their differences on the most contentious issue vis-à-vis Turkey. The summit’s declaration to stop  terrorism was not reassuring to anyone.

The bilateral meetings on the sidelines between Putin and  Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as between the Russian and Turkish leaders were noteworthy. A handful of countries have  backed Russia’s attack on Ukraine, with Iran remaining the most vocal supporter of Moscow’s aggression.  In Tehran, Putin’s stratagem to contain NATO received a generous endorsement from Iran’s most powerful personality.  Khamenei told his Russian guest, “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.” The remarks  reflect Iran’s evolving doctrine amid a vortex of geopolitical events and realignments. Iran is set to  benefit from its strategic partnership with Russia more now, ranging from securing vital wheat supplies  to exporting  military hardware.  Moscow gets to team up more vigorously with Tehran to circumvent  the sanctions.  Besides, both are adamant to deny any change in the status quo in Damascus. The talks on Turkey’s demand to fight the Kurdish insurgents refuged in northern Syria were  fruitless. Ankara finds itself in a quagmire on the PKK/YPG front, given the denial of effective support in northern Syria from its NATO allies as well as from the Kremlin and Tehran. Turkey’s military continues to conduct occasional drone attacks on  PKK/YPG hideouts. Though the Turkish military’s large-scale clearing operation in Syria’s Kurdish-dominated region  has been deferred, it is only for the sake of finding  the right time.

Though the world saw visuals of the Russian president nervously waiting for his Turkish counterpart, Putin and Erdogan’s rendezvous on the grain export issue was a success, unlike the other items on the agenda.  Within days, the grain deal brokered by Turkey and the UN  was signed by Ukraine and Russia separately. On August 3, the first flotilla of cargo vessels ferrying Ukraine’s wheat was cleared from Istanbul after inspections to proceed to their eventual destinations, Lebanon being the first recipient. The stress on global food security is not only lessening  but also a small window of opportunity for future engagement with the Kremlin has opened  as well. Turkey can capitalize on its position with Russia as well as with NATO while  helping Ukraine.

Russia is not only buying Iranian drones but has reportedly sought Turkey’s proven Bayraktar TB2, which had not only humiliated Russia/Soviet-origin military equipment in Armenia but continues to be a potent weapon in Ukraine. Being a NATO member, Turkey cannot sell the medium-range drone or any other weapons to Russia. On the Syria front, Moscow did not show flexibility to  Turkish demands, for it requires an optimal status quo while fighting a tiresome war in Ukraine.

To sum  up, the summit opened no new vistas for Tehran except to amplify its increasing investment in ties with an equally isolated Moscow. Iran’s absolute endorsement of the Ukraine invasion has further dented its narrative of speaking for the oppressed. It refused to stand by Turkey against Kurdish militants in Syria and  supports the favorable status quo. Iran signaled  that the nuclear deal is dead and it is pursuing other options instead of waiting for the sanctions to be lifted sooner or later.

The summit exposed Russia’s lack of friends and loss of prestige. Unlike his past foreign tours, the Tehran sojourn did not have much for Putin to take home except  Iran’s support for his war. This warmth  with the Iranian supreme leader  will not go unnoticed in the Gulf, and the long-delayed increase in oil output might be happening sooner rather than later.

Ankara  achieved more clarity ahead of its impending military operation in Syria. It chose  to delay the campaign in favor of the wheat deal’s success and establish itself as a bridge-builder between NATO and Russia. Turkey’s relations with Iran suffer from too many  irritants to be repaired by progress on another track.  The two remain diametrically opposed on most issues, nonetheless.

Editorial Team