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An Uneasy Equilibrium: Russia-Iran-Turkey Trilateral Relations

On July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Tehran—his second official visit since the war in Ukraine broke out—to attend a trilateral meeting with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts. Amid international instability and tensions between Ankara and Tehran, the three Presidents sought to discuss economic cooperation and the situation in Syria. Although President Erdogan attended the meeting, TurkeyRussia relations were not a main topic of the talks.

A Burgeoning Partnership

In recent months, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran has deepened remarkably. Unlike most of Russia’s other partners, Iran has openly supported Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and accused the West of provoking the war. As such, Moscow now seeks engagement with Tehran as a way to circumvent international sanctions.

Russia’s behavior marks a turnaround in the country’s relations with the Islamic Republic. Before the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin made sure not to align too closely with the sanctioned and ostracized Iran. Similarly, Iran has kept Moscow at arm’s length. Russia’s attempts to build good relations with Arab countries and Israel, which have concerns about Iran’s destabilizing regional policies through its proxy forces, has necessarily soured its relations with Iran.

Nevertheless, being cut off from the Western markets, Russia now looks to partner with Iran across a range of economic, security, and energy issues. On July 20—a day after President Putin visited Tehran, coincidentally—Russian energy giant Gazprom and Iran’s national oil company signed a new $40 million cost energy cooperation agreement. According to the accord, Gazprom will help NIOC develop the Kish and North Pars gas fields in the Persian Gulf and six oil fields to increase the pressure of the South Pars gas field, located on the maritime border between Iran and Qatar.

The strategic partnership between Tehran and Moscow appears likely to gather pace, amid reports that Russia has expressed a willingness to import Iranian-made combat drones, given Russia’s inability to develop game-changer drones. By contrast, Tehran has managed to establish its own indigenous combat drone production capacity, despite international sanctions. Last month, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed declassified intelligence on an Iranian plan to transfer hundreds of combat drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia and to invite Russian drone operators to Iran for training. The Biden administration also published satellite imagery that reportedly showed a Kremlin military delegation visiting the Shahid Karimi UAV base in central Iran. Nevertheless, it is still unclear if there is already a deal for transferring Iranian drones to Russia, or how Russia will pay for the drones’ acquisition. Supposedly, the drone deal was not on the top agenda of Putin’s meetings in Tehran.

Indeed, military cooperation would add significant value to the Moscow-Tehran alignment as both states have nearly identical views on important strategic and normative issues, including the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. During the tête-à-tête meeting, Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that “if Russia had not sent troops into Ukraine, it would have faced an attack from NATO later,” echoing Putin’s own casus belli. In Syria, Russia and Iran backed the regime of  Bashar Al-Assad for many years.

The Lopsided Trilateral

On the other hand, Turkey has competed against both Russia and Iran for influence in Syria. Ankara has long waged a military campaign in northern Syria against the local Kurdish militia, the PYD/YPG, which Turkey designates as terrorist organizations. Turkey wishes to establish a 30 km “safe zone” extending from Turkey’s southern border into Syrian territory. During the Tehran meeting, President Erdogan even implored Presidents Putin and Raisi to back Turkey in its fight against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, without success.

Iran and Russia have long criticized Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria. The leaders’ recent meeting occurred shortly before Turkey announced a new military operation in the region, though Ayatollah Khamenei “recommended” that Turkey exercise restraint. In fact, Russia and Iran seemed to dismiss Turkey’s ongoing battle against the Kurds in northern Syria altogether. Mr. Putin announced that Moscow and Tehran would “strengthen their cooperation on international security and contribute significantly to the Syrian settlement.” Putin, Raisi, and Khamenei voiced their support to “revive [the] Astana peace format to reduce violence and prevent foreign incursion in Syria.” President Erdogan had obviously failed to win the support of Putin and Khamenei—perhaps because the Turkish military operation would target locations in Syria where Russian troops are currently stationed.

It remains to be seen whether Iran and Russia’s pressure against Turkey will bear fruit. Turkey’s upcoming Syrian operation has not kicked off yet, though Ankara clearly signaled that the operation would proceed unless the threat from the PYD/YPG is eliminated. Nevertheless, Turkey may continue to delay the operation, reluctant to clash with Russian troops in Syria and initiate a diplomatic standoff with Iran. However, it is obvious that Ankara has designed its most recent foray into Syria to coincide with attention-grabbing international events elsewhere—namely the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Iran nuclear negotiations. It is more likely than not that the campaign will go ahead as planned. Therefore, it is also probable that Russia and Iran will further boost their cooperation amid increasing international uncertainty to promote their interests and secure their influence throughout the Middle East, even to the detriment of Turkey.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.

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