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Russia, Turkey and Iran stick together, for now
08 January 2018

2017 saw an unprecedented level of co-operation between Russia, Turkey and Iran in their dealings with regional challenges and outside pressures, but the relationship is more tactical than strategic, and there are plenty of issues ahead that will put it to the test, writes Dennis Sammut in this commentary for commonspace.eu

Last week's half hearted American attempt to get the UN Security Council to take measures against Iran. following unrest in the country triggered by economic grievances, exposed the current poor state of US diplomacy. Most Security Council members felt that the call was not timely, and that events in Iran, serious and unpleasant as they are, do not constitute a threat to world peace and security, which is what the Security Council is supposed to be all about. The diplomatic gaff was hardly noticed since it came just after new year when most people were still on holiday, and was overshadowed by stories of the ongoing shenanigans in Washington.

There was however another aspect of the story, that may have wider significance. This was the speed and strength with which Russia and Turkey rallied to support Iran in the face of US criticism. This was not an isolated occurrence but the latest expression in a new tactical relationship that sees the three countries working closely together to deal with regional challenges, and especially to resist pressures coming mainly from the United States, and to a lesser extent from Europe. Given the past problems between the three Eurasian powers, and the traditionally competitive nature in their dealings with their neighbourhood, what we have seen over the last year was an unprecedented level of co-operation and willingness to work together. If the response to the US attempt to sanction Iran at the Security Council last week is a taste of things to come, then this trend will continue and increase in 2018.

There are at least five regional "theatres" where the three countries are somehow involved, or at least have a finger in the pie. In all five there could have been the potential of disputes between two of the three, if not all. Instead all three have been careful not to step on each other's toes.

Syria is the most visible and dramatic case. All three have boots on the ground, but whilst Russia and Iran support the Assad government, Turkey is very much opposed. The shooting down of a Russian plane by the Turkish Airforce in 2015 brought the two countries into a headlong standoff. But that now seems like a very long time ago. Relations have long since been patched, and for the moment the survival of the Assad regime appears to Ankara to be a much less dangerous preposition than the establishment of a Kurdish entity in Syria.

The Kurdish issue is also a vital element in the new triangular relationship. Turkey and Iran (and Iran's friends in Baghdad) moved decisively to thwart the move by the Iraqi Kurdish region to declare unilateral independence in 2017. Ensuring that Moscow also supported this position was a major objective of Ankara and Tehran in the last months. The Russians have long had warm relations with Kurdish politicians, but President Putin made sure that nothing that Moscow said or did on this issue would upset Turkey and Iran.

2017 also saw a new crisis emerging in the Gulf in the form a rift between Qatar and three GCC countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. Here too Shia Iran and Sunni Turkey found themselves on the same side, supporting Qatar and helping break the blockade that its neighbours tried to impose. For Russia the dispute was a sweet opening. Russia had been seeking for decades an opportunity to have more influence in the Gulf, and could easily have been tempted to exploit the discomfort of the US, Britain and other western countries in having to choose between Qatar and its opponents by taking a decisive stand. Instead Russia played a low-key response, and an approach that looks quite similar to that of Turkey.

Similarly, on Yemen, where a civil war has been ongoing for several years with massive humanitarian consequences, the position of the three countries overlaps on many points.

In return, Russia is getting a much more sympathetic hearing for its stances in the former Soviet space than would have been expected. The three Eurasian powers are not keen on an increased involvement of the US and the EU in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Black Sea. For the moment they seem to have put aside their own differences on the region to concentrate on that. Even in Ukraine where Russian policies towards Crimea and its Tatar population would have been expected to trigger a stiff Turkish response, Turkey has been overall complacent. In the South Caucasus, Turkish leaders do raise the Karabakh conflict in dealings with their Russian counterparts, but it is obvious that this issue is not, for the moment, a priority for Turkey.

This convergence of interests is more complicated than may at first appear. Some commentators simply dismiss it as reflecting a similarity in the way the three countries are run by strong men with very little space for dissent, but frankly this is an oversimplification. These are three different countries with different political dynamics and different, even competing foreign policy agendas. Economically the three countries have much to gain from co-operation, but there are also plenty of areas where they find themselves in competition.

What has brought them together is a sense of pragmatism.  In many respects the fact that the three countries are working together to deal with regional issues is a positive thing.

But that is not the end of the story. There is in this trilateral relationship an underlying hegemonic theme: a desire to keep outsiders out of the region, which is well and good if not for the fact that that means minimising the opportunities for neighbouring smaller countries to define their own foreign policy orientation. That must not be allowed to happen.

Presently there does not appear to be an American foreign policy strategy about much, and certainly not on how to deal with many of the issues in wider Eurasia. One hopes that at this point the European Union would rise to the occasion, muster enough unity and political will, and start being more assertive in a part of the world that constitutes its neighbourhood, even if for the moment this looks more like wishful thinking.

It could very well be that the same pragmatism that has brought Russia, Turkey and Iran together in the last year will pull them apart, sooner rather than later. The competing agendas are too important, and too interlinked with domestic policies, to be shelved indefinitely. The relationship between Russia, Turkey and Iran is neither a political marriage, nor a strategic alliance, but more a tactical approach in support of wider ends.

Others, and the European Union in particular, need to maintain a nuanced, differentiated approach towards all three, whilst reminding everyone that Europe is part of the Eurasian and Middle East stories too.

Coda

Jerusalem divides Europe

2017 ended on a bad note for European diplomacy. The vote at the UN General Assembly on 21 December exposed a rift in EU policy towards the Middle East. The United Nations General Assembly voted by a huge majority to declare a unilateral US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital "null and void". At an emergency session of the General Assembly, 128 countries voted in favour of a resolution rejecting US President Donald Trump's controversial decision announced on December 6. They included most EU member states, but not all. 9 countries voted against and 35 abstained. 21 countries did not attend the vote. Among the countries abstaining were six European Union countries: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Romania. Among those absent from the vote were two EU Associate Members, Georgia and Ukraine.  

In case somebody missed the point, last Wednesday the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, hosted a reception "for the 64 countries that did not support the Jerusalem vote".  According to the Jerusalem Post, President Trump greeted the guests in a pre-recorded video, saying the votes by their countries were "noted and greatly appreciated". Ms Haley tweeted "It's easy for friends to be with you in the good times, but it's the friends who are with you during the challenging times that will never be forgotten. Thank you to the 64." "It's easy for friends to be with you in the good times, but it's the friends who are with you during the challenging times that will never be forgotten. Thank you to the 64."

It is highly unusual for EU countries not to vote in the same way on such an important matter, and the vote was a slap in the face for the EU High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy Federica Morgherini, who had worked hard to keep EU consensus. The vote was a reminder of the fragility of the European project, and that a common European foreign and security policy is not yet a done deal.

Source: The weekly Monday Commentary on contemporary issues in Europe and Eurasia is prepared for commonspace.eu by Dennis Sammut (dennis@links-dar.org).

Photo: President Rohani of Iran, President Putin of Russia and President Erdogan of Turkey leave a press vbriefing after a recent meeting (archive picture).

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