PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI of Iran (left) joins hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a photo on Wednesday of Russian President Vladimir Putin clasping hands with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“No need for empty words or gimmicks, including glowing orbs, when you’re busy actually working for peace and against terror.”
The “glowing orb” reference was to a photo taken in May, when US President Donald Trump went to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh and posed with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. Zarif’s mocking tone underpins a confidence in Tehran that their vision for the Middle East is taking shape while the US and its allies bumble along.
The two photos are symbolic.
In one, Trump postures as his wife, Melania, looks on and the Saudi and Egyptian leaders stare into the distance. The orb glows like something strange from Lord of the Rings. When the photo first appeared, it led to numerous mocking articles online, although that might have had more to do with criticism of Trump than with the oddly placed orb.
The photo with Putin flanked by Rouhani and Erdogan is also symbolic. Two of the three authoritarian leaders, Putin and Erdogan, came to power more than a decade ago, with the vision of remaking their countries. Both have been phenomenally successful.
Rouhani, the supposed “moderate,” has also been a successful president, signing the Iran deal with the Americans and presiding over his country’s deepening involvement in Iraq and Syria. The Sochi photo projects confidence; the Riyadh photo provoked snickering.
The trilateral meeting in Sochi was a historic first for the leaders. It focused primarily on Syria, where forces from Russia, Iran and Turkey are all present. The meeting focused almost entirely on Syria, with only scant reference made to Iraq by Turkey and Iran. Russia and Iran back Syria’s President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has traditionally backed the rebels.
However, after six years of bloody conflict, there is a sense that the three countries might now be seeing more eye-to-eye than they did in the past. Turkey and Iran have been brought closer together by opposition to the referendum in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq and by the Qatar crisis. These countries don’t share the same vision for the region, but both Iran and Turkey seem to see Putin as a leader they can count on.
Trump’s policy in the Middle East is more uncertain. His speech in Saudi Arabia in May empowered the Saudi crackdown on Qatar, in which Saudi allies cut relations with the emirate.
But Saudi Arabia was going it alone in early November by bringing Lebanon’s Saad Hariri to Riyadh to resign.
The US doesn’t back Riyadh’s Qatar policy or its Lebanon policy. Egypt wants reconciliation with both Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries that have been threatened by Iran, thought Trump would radically alter US policy.
Instead, almost a year into his presidency, little has formally changed. That is why Zarif mocked “empty words.”
So far it seems that the typical Iranian playbook, combined with Russia’s consistent policy, has outplayed the Americans and their allies. US policy at the moment seems to have three heads on it: the White House, the Defense Department and the State Department. Until it can combine those three heads into one, it won’t make headway against Iran.