Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for talks with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts on key issues affecting the region. Iranian President Raisi and Turkish President Erdogan discussed with him the ongoing conflict in Syria and the U.N.-backed proposal to allow grain exports from Ukrainian ports (including the main one in Odessa, which has been defensively mined by the Ukrainians themselves).
The two regional powers and Turkey have a complex relationship of shared interests and contrasts. The talks mark Putin's second trip outside Russia since the start of the aggression against Ukraine that began Feb. 24 and the first direct meeting with a leader of a NATO member country. The talks also take place just days after U.S. President Biden visited Washington's key allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Israel) as well as the Palestinian territories.
Ahead of the trilateral talks, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Erdogan against further aggression on the state of Syria and the Shiite community in the region. Both Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has openly supported some anti-government groups in the country. "Maintaining Syria's territorial integrity is very important and any military attack in northern Syria will definitely harm Turkey, Syria and the whole region and will benefit the terrorists," Khamenei made clear to Erdogan.
Turkey has threatened to launch a military operation in northern Syria, particularly in regions controlled by Kurdish groups, to extend a so-called "safe zone." The operation in allegedly security motive was also supported by diplomatic action by Ankara, which, in order to have a kind of clearance to have a "free hand" against ethnic Kurds, made this a condition for Sweden and Finland's entry into NATO. It has basically exploited the tragedy of the Ukraine war to have a strategic advantage in the region. We will see in the coming months whether the Kurds will also be secondary victims of Moscow's aggression against Kiev.
Ankara has been on the opposite side from Moscow in the conflicts in Azerbaijan and Libya, and has even sold drones to Ukraine after buying, however, Russian anti-aircraft missile systems (obvious double dealing). Moreover, as a NATO member that has not imposed sanctions, Turkey is a partner that appears necessary for Russia today because, as mentioned, it has also proven to be a thorn in NATO's side in not quickly accepting enlargement.
Iran and Russia are currently "in the same boat" in the face of the economic sanctions that had already strained Iran. This is despite the fact that the two countries are also economic competitors as among the world's leading oil and gas exporters. This became even clearer after Russia focused its attention on exports to People's China following Western sanctions. Beijing has been and is likely to be a key market for Iranian energy in the future.
At the same time, Iran is also pitting itself against an increasingly cohesive regional bloc composed of the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf and Israel, whose almost only shared interest is in countering Iran's influence and agenda.
Iran is likely hoping to pressure the United States into accepting concessions to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, thanks to rising energy prices, that was challenged by Washington's unilateral withdrawal during the Trump presidency in 2018. Subsequent sanctions have crippled Iran's economy, and now Iran is hoping for corroboration of U.S. weakness after failures in Afghanistan and, for now, Ukraine.
Anyway, just before Putin's arrival, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russian state gas giant Gazprom signed an agreement worth $40 billion to develop possible cooperation.
Regarding the grain negotiation, the Turkish interest is obvious since - as early as the past few months - sources in the Turkish newspaper "Aydınlık" reported that Ukraine had blocked 21 ships in the port of Odessa. It would appear that these are 17 Turkish ships and four others sailing under the Turkish flag. All blocked in the port due to Ukraine not issuing permission to sail citing a generic "danger" and also referring to mines left at sea.
Logically blockaded Turkish ships with grain loaded ( and perhaps paid for) make Erdogan get busy, since this cargo is almost certainly destined to end up in the Turkish market and certainly not in African crisis areas. Recent history shows that the Turkish president is only looking out for his own interests and his country's shaky economy, which may sooner or later result in a deep crisis.
Russia has been willing to open a security corridor, but nothing is still being let through, and there are those who have suspected that it is advantageous for Kiev to keep these ships: they are like a human shield for Ukrainian forces defending Odessa. According to another version, Ukrainian authorities are in no hurry to release Turkish ships because of possible provocations. For example, if during a hypothetical assault on the city the Russian army destroyed Turkish property there would be a third (NATO) country involved in the conflict.
UN intervention and Kiev statements are in the direction of a solution but today, one way or another, it turns out that the exit for foreign ships from the port of Odessa is still blocked and this is causing a very serious crisis in food supplies. Be that as it may, given the Turkish interest, the deal will happen and it will still be a deal from which Turkey will benefit from the current crisis. Maybe it is still good for the rest of the world. Maybe...
Senior Fellow of the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Brigadier General (Aux.) of the Italian Army, member of the Directorate of the NATO Defense College Foundation. For years director of the Middle East Faculty within the NATO Defense College.