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  • Writer's pictureMaxim Savinykh

The Astana Summit - An Anti-Western Axis in the Making?



The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met within the framework of the Astana format in Tehran on July 19. This arrangement was formed in 2017 in the capital of Kazakhstan to contribute to the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Subsequently, the leaders of the above countries met in Ankara, Tehran and Sochi. The fourth summit was supposed to be held in 2020. However, due to the Covid-19 and presidential elections in Iran, it was postponed several times.

Compared to the others, the meeting of 2022 took place against a completely different background. That is, the conflict in Ukraine, which has the most direct effects on the Greater Middle East. We are facing a growing food crisis, which in fact is already taking place. Across the region, the prices of flour-based foods have risen by several hundred percent[1]. Evidently, such a dramatic state of affairs was not solely caused by the Ukrainian crisis. Factors such as the energy prices, supply chain failures and climate change are no less important. However, the blocking of the port of Odessa and some other cities of the country significantly aggravates the situation. Under such circumstances, Ankara, trying to play the role of mediator between Moscow and Kiev, intended to discuss the food problem with Russia bilaterally. Another effect of the new setting is the attempts of the Kremlin to diversify its political and economic contacts with other countries. With the disbandment of ties between Russa and Europe, Moscow expects Tehran to be one of its alternatives. Taking into account those new dynamics, the question about the effectiveness of negotiation within regional multilateral formats arises.

Since February 24 the used language in media and official statements often hints at the emergence of a new, cold war like, east-west perception of geopolitical confrontation. Looking at the Astana summit, where the participants discussed topics far beyond the Syrian perspective, this suspicion hardens since all the participants are in confrontation with the US and the EU countries. In the case of Moscow, the conflict with Washington and Brussel is extremely acute. Due to such circumstances, there is a question if it’s possible to perceive the meeting between Iranian, Russian and Turkish leaders as an anti-western coalition. However, by examining the issued statements and the evolutions of the bilateral policies between each of the states, we see that motivation remains limited to state rather than a broader regional interest.


Syria - A Mere Diplomatic Sideshow?


Syria cannot be completely bypassed from the agenda of the summit. Shortly after the meeting of Iranian, Russian and Turkish leaders, CIA director William Burns gave an interview to NBC News where he commented this event. He expressed skepticism about the real prospects of achieving a consensus between Ankara, Tehran and Moscow[2]. An expert on the Middle East, research fellow at the Center of the Islamic world studies and PhD candidate at HSE Mir-Ali Askerov in talk with the author of this article also says that “initially it was difficult to believe that three countries will be able to develop a unified agenda on Syria. Russia and Iran support Assad’s regime, Turkey – opposes him”.

This time, the main issue was a possible Turkish military operation in Northwest Syria, to which Iran and Russia object. Apparently, Moscow and Tehran tried to deter Ankara from renewed activities in Syria. However, it’s remains unlikely that they have succeeded in stopping Turkey's intentions[3]. Just the next day after the summit, Iranian foreign minister expressed concern on Turkey's likely plans for a military operation in Syria[4].

Overall, it's hard to assess the effective results of the summit on Syria. The written summary of the agreements was general without any specificity as well. Thus, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorists, but did not agree on who to consider as such[5].

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that this time all sides condemned the Israeli military involvement in the Syrian conflict. This point deserves attention because Moscow was in close contact with Tell Aviv for practically the entire period of its presence in Syria. Mainly, this was manifested in the fact that the Israeli army coordinated with the Russian side its bombardment of Iranian armed forces in Damascus-controlled territory. It continued, at least, until March of this year, when the positions of Russia and Israel have begun to diverge over the Ukrainian crisis. It’s not known if the sides keep interacting nowadays. The change of Israeli government and the prospect of the closure of the Jewish Agency (Sohnut) in Russia have aggravated relations between the countries. At the time of this writing, an Israeli delegation flew to Moscow to discuss the issue. According to media coverage, the Kremlin perceives the dispute as a purely legal issue while Israel perceives it as a politically produced problem.

For now, it’s hardly possible to asses if Israeli-Russian cooperation is lastingly damaged. If left unresolved, there is a high probability that the cooperation between Moscow and Tel Aviv in the format mentioned above may come to end. This could not only lead to the strengthening of Iran in Syria, but also in the Middle East as a whole. As commonly known, Tehran is using Syrian territory to build up its military and political capabilities in Lebanon and Palestine. A further weakening of bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Tel Aviv would thus further strengthen Iran’s comparative edge in the Levant.

Especially so, since the interaction between Russia and Israel in Syria will depend solely on Moscow's relations with Tell Aviv, not with Ankara or Tehran. Thus, the fact that the summit’s participants were able to agree on a statement condemning Israeli actions speaks not to the consolidation of the Astana format, but only to the problems in Russian-Israeli relations. Since relationships with Israel are still defined by state interest solely, it appears that the condemnation of Israel was only possible due to the fact that, at that moment, every state in question had strained relations with Israel.


Grain Deal - The main (and perhaps only) achievement of the summit


As mentioned above, one of the most pressing issues for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the current food crisis. Agreements with Moscow and Kiev to unblock Ukrainian ports can, if not completely solve, then at least reduce the problem. UN general secretary Antonio Guterres, Senegal’s president Macky Soul (concurrently chairperson of the African Union) and Recep Erdogan met with Vladimir Putin for this purpose[6]. Other countries, including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia also raised the topic of future food crisis in talks with Moscow.

The talks about the resolution of this matter were underway for the past few months. Apparently, Erdogan contributed the most to the solution of this problem, since the final stages of the negotiations materialized in bilateral talks with Putin in Tehran. It is worth noting that the US supported Turkish efforts. William Burns expressed the US’ support as follows: “If they [Turkey] broker to reopen Odessa port and allow for grain exports out of Ukraine, which would help significantly in dealing with growing problems of food insecurity […] It’s a commendable effort, and we should all support on the Turkish side”[7].

A direct consequence of the talks between Erdogan and Putin was the signing of an agreement on the unblocking of Ukrainian ports on June 22 in Istanbul. This was brokered by the UN Secretary General and the Turkish president. Russia and Ukraine signed the deal with the above-mentioned actors, but not with each other. The official aspect of this agreement is that Russia unblocks the Ukrainian ports. The unofficial aspect is the easing of the sanctions’ regime on Russian agricultural products. “This was not a formal part of the agreement, but was agreed on parallel with the US and the EU”[8].

As a consequence, world market wheat prices have already decreased by, at least, 3%[9]. Such an event is undoubtedly a positive result for the MENA region. The implications of the food crisis for already struggling Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia (the largest consumers of Ukrainian grain) will not be as severe. And for the region as such, a decrease in the price of agricultural products provides much needed financial relief.

Thus, although the final agreement was signed in Istanbul, the Astana summit in Tehran was a key point preceding its conclusion. Accordingly, the signing of the deal can be seen as the main achievement of the summit in the Iranian capital. However, as Alexandra Prokopenko writes, “Grain Deal” can be broken at any moment[10], and only the future will show if the parties commit to it. At the same time, in the current context, the signing of the agreement alone can already be called as a success.


Is Iran a real alternative for Russia?


After the 24th of February, attempts of Moscow to extend its economic cooperation with non-European countries have accelerated. In Moscow’s view, one of the most promising partners seems to be Iran. If earlier cooperation with the Islamic Republic was largely limited by the fear of secondary sanctions, now some Russian companies are starting to expand into Iranian markets due to the western sanctions bestowed upon them or indirect loss of access to the EU market.

Under these circumstances, there is increasing discussions in Russian media, the private sector and semi-governmental organizations about future cooperation with Iran. In the current political climate, business trips to Iran do not sound unimaginable anymore.

Expectations were also fueled by the fact that in recent years there has been an increase in trade between the two countries. The trade volume for 2021 increased by 81.7% compared to the previous year and amounted to a total of 4 billion dollars. In the first half of 2022, trade figures increased by 40%[11].

In this context, pundits and experts anticipated breakthroughs in bilateral economic relations during Putin's visit to Iran. However, the only significant event is the signing of a memorandum of understanding by Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), agreeing that Russian energy company will help its Iranian counterparts in developing gas extraction in Kish and North Pars. This agreement doesn’t guarantee real cooperation. In 2017, the two companies mentioned above also signed a memorandum of understanding about the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia through Iran and Pakistan to India. This event was widely discussed both in the Russian and Iranian press. The parties had high hopes for the project, as India is one of the most promising gas markets. However, the Russian side later abandoned the project. The official reason was the high costs, yet a number of political reasons, such as Washington's pressure on New Delhi and deteriorating relations between Pakistan and India seemed conducive for the decision.

Thus, the question if history repeats itself again hinges on the geopolitical and diplomatic climate. Currently, Iran is doing its best to conclude a new nuclear deal. In this case, there is a question if European countries are interested in entering Iranian energy market. At least, after the implementation of JCPOA in 2016, it was difficult for Russian gas and oil companies to compete with their European counterparts in Iran. Moreover, if there is no new nuclear agreement in the end, the position of China towards Russian presence in North Pars remains ambiguous, as Beijing has been highly interested in the region for a long time. The future of economic cooperation between Russia and Iran is further riddled by their somewhat incompatible primary trade commodities. Israeli journalist and expert on the Middle East Alexandra Appelberg writes, “two countries with the same import and export needs, they can’t solve each other's most urgent problems. Moreover, they will inevitably begin to compete”[12]. Indeed, since February 24 Moscow and Tehran have already started competing more intensely for the Chinese oil market.[13]

There is, however, at least one economic sector likely to experience sustained increases in economic cooperation: agriculture. In recent years, Iran's demand for agricultural products has continued to grow. Due to worsening environmental conditions (drought and water shortages), Iran is finding it increasingly difficult to meet its own agricultural needs. Russia, in turn, is one of the key suppliers of this category of goods to the Islamic Republic. As a matter of fact, 80% of Russian export to Iran is related to the agricultural sector[14] and continuously growing. Moreover, Putin stressed that Russia and Iran will increase their cooperation in the South Caucasus. In particular, he stressed that the construction of a railway route between Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan (North-South corridor) is scheduled to be completed soon. Since the railroad currently operates only partly along the trade route between Iran and Russia, cargo is loaded from trains to trucks and then back to trains. The completion of the railway connection between the two countries, will thus make trade more efficient.

Due to now global economic and security related conditions, we have seen a shift in related policies and an intensification of regional ties. However, as opposed to wider regional interests, they seem to remain defined by state concerns solely.


Anti-western axis?


The Astana summit in Tehran took place shortly after Biden's visit to the Middle East, giving media and experts the opportunity to compare these two events[15]. As Mir-Ali Askerov says, “Probably, for Russia, this can be seen as a reciprocal step [in response to the visit of the US president]”. Usually, foreign trips of heads of state are planned way in advance. Thus, Biden's trip to the Middle East was announced about a month beforehand. By contrast, the gathering of the summit in Tehran was announced only a few days before it began. This suggests that the trilateral meeting between the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey was a reaction to the American president's visit to the Middle East. One way or another, it gave rise to the thesis of the summit’s anti-western nature[16]. The participation of Turkey in this event, which in recent years has had difficult relations with the US, strengthens this assumption. Indeed, during the press-conference after the summit, the most pertinent commonality between Erdogan, Putin and Raisi was their criticism of American involvement in Syria.

Despite that, it is too early to talk about a strong alliance between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. Turkey traditionally maneuvers on the contradictions between Russia and Western countries. For instance, despite the dialogue with Moscow on various issues, Ankara does not allow Russian warships into the Black Sea. Furthermore, Turkey made an enormous contribution in support of the Ukrainian army, supplying it with their infamous Bayraktar drones. One cannot fail to mention that the interests of Turkey and Russia differ not only in Syria, but also in Libya and the South Caucasus.

The Russian-Iranian track looks a little different. As William Burns says “Both sides are going to look for ways in which they can help one another evade sanctions. Both sides, I think, are looking to demonstrate that they have options[17]”. In this context, perhaps, one of the most unusual news on the eve of the Astana summit is the possible sale of Iranian drones to Russia[18]. But this perspective seems ambiguous and was even publicly denied later on. For Iran seeking to conclude a new nuclear deal, any military assistance to Moscow could complicate Tehran's negotiation process with Western countries. However, nor can we completely dismiss this possibility.

Mir-Ali Askerov refers to the experience of Iranian interaction with Hezbollah and Houthi movement. Tehran does not supply them with drones in their entirety, but it does provide their components. Theoretically, such a scheme could also be implemented by the Islamic Republic in the Russian direction.

No matter how the cooperation on the drone issue materializes in the end, the emergence of a Russian-Iranian alliance remains highly unlikely. Although the countries are largely united by their poor relations with the Western world, they have many problems on a bilateral level. The division of borders in the Caspian Sea is but one example. In addition, if Russian relations with the EU and the U.S. continue to deteriorate consistently, it is possible that Iran could strike a new nuclear deal, and thus ease tensions with Washington and Brussels. In other words, As William Burns says “Russians and Iranians need each other right now. Both heavily sanctioned countries, both looking to break out of political isolation as well, but if they need each other, they don’t really trust each other in the sense that they’re energy rivals and historical competitors”[19]. To put it simply, cooperation doesn’t mean alliance.


Conclusion


Despite facing certain common challenges as a result of the new geopolitical situation that emerged after February 24, regional cooperation between the participants of the Astana summit seems to be limited to a minimum. The grain deal, which brings enormous relieve to numerous countries of the MENA region and other countries affected by grain shortages, may be viewed as the main achievement of the summit. It is worth noting, however, that the final details still had to be negotiated outside of the trilateral meeting. Furthermore, all other economic and security related developments that emerged with the aforementioned actors have to be seen as the result of fluctuating and temporarily limited state interests. The newly developed policies and ties remain extremely vague and without tangible commitment.

Otherwise, the summit confirmed the old axiom. Iran, Russia and Turkey, despite the many problems in their relations with each other, can find a space for cooperation. However, it didn’t help the actors to solve their deeply rooted historic problems. Here we can once again mention the divergence of the parties' positions on Syria, Turkey's support for Ukraine, and the competition between Russia and Iran on the world energy market. Henceforth, it is safe to say that the cooperation between these actors has limitations and the emergence of a strong anti-western axis seems unlikely. Unresolved problems in their bilateral relations will simply not allow this to materialize.


Maxim Savinykh is an independent analyst writing for Ishtar MENA Analytics from St.Petersburg. He is currently finishing his master's in Comparative Politics of Eurasia at the Higher School for Economics in St. Petersburg. His most recent research focuses on Iran's nuclear aspirations.



1 For more information read: World Bank official: Lebanon, Yemen, Syria most food-insecure in region (2022): https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/06/world-bank-official-lebanon-yemen-syria-most-food-insecure-region#ixzz7ZlV1y0ew

2 For the interview watch: LIVE: Andrea Mitchell Interviews CIA Director William Burns | NBC News (2022): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6M4W-OB6Ak&t=455s

3 For more information read: Will Turkey attack Syria Kurds without nod from Russia and Iran? (2022) https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/07/will-turkey-attack-syria-kurds-without-nod-russia-and-iran#ixzz7ZzvSyInX

4 For more information read: Iran rises concern over Turkey's possible attack on Syria (2022): https://en.mehrnews.com/news/189290/Iran-rises-concern-over-Turkey-s-possible-attack-on-Syria

5 For more information read: Statement for media following Astana format talks, Tehran, July 19, 2022: https://www.rusemb.org.uk/article/765

6 For more information read: African Union chief, Senegal's Macky Sall, to hold talks with Putin in Moscow (2022): https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20220602-african-union-head-senegal-s-macky-sall-to-speak-to-putin-in-russia-on-friday

7 For the interview watch: LIVE: Andrea Mitchell Interviews CIA Director William Burns (2022): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6M4W-OB6Ak&t=455s

8 For more information read: What’s in the Ukraine Grain Deal for Russia? (2022): https://carnegieendowment.org/eurasiainsight/87576

10 For more information read: What’s in the Ukraine Grain Deal for Russia? (2022): https://carnegieendowment.org/eurasiainsight/87576

11 For more information read: Telegram channel of Trade Representation of the Russian Federation in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Russian language source): https://t.me/rustradeira n

12 For more information read: Telegram channel “Minarety, avtomaty” (Minarets, assault rifles) (Russian language source): https://t.me/minarety

13 For more information read: Iran Slashes Cost of Its Oil to Compete With Russia in China (2022): https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-07-03/iran-slashes-the-cost-of-its-oil-to-compete-with-russia-in-china

14 For more information read: Russia Still Has Willing Partners in the Middle East (2022): https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/20/putin-meeting-iran-turkey-russia-middle-east-syria-ukraine/

15 For more information read: Opinion: Russia-Iran-Turkey talks strong on symbolism, short on substance (2022): https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-russia-iran-turkey-talks-strong-on-symbolism-short-on-substance/a-62536299

16 For more information read: Torgpred RF zayavil, chto tovarooborot s Iranom v 2021 godu stal rekordnym (Russian trade representative said that trade turnover with Iran in 2021 was a record) (Russian language source) (2022): https://tass.ru/ekonomika/13557351

17 Ibid (interview with Burns)

18 Ibid

18 Ibid

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