The Czar, the Sultan – and the Shah

Will a Russian, Turkish, Iranian strategic triangle emerge or is it all just short-term tactical?

Men dressed up in Ottoman era garb pound on a drum (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men dressed up in Ottoman era garb pound on a drum
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Less than a year ago, coverage of Russia’s relations with Turkey was focused on the crisis between the two countries that followed the shooting down of a Russian jet fighter that had strayed briefly into Turkish airspace. Foreign Policy and The Economist ran stories with almost identical headlines playing on the theme of “the Czar vs the Sultan”; fast forward 10 months and the headlines following Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s kiss and make-up with Vladimir Putin trumpet the Czar and the Sultan. And now, a new strategic triangle is ostensibly taking shape amid the ever shifting sands of the Middle East: Iran and Turkey are making overtures leading to talk of an alliance that in addition to the Czar and the Sultan, includes Iran, or for want of a better moniker, the Shah.
Turkey has been the main backer of the Syrian Sunni rebels while Iran and Russia have been the main backers of the Bashar Assad regime. Their interests are fundamentally different, so what is driving them together and can they really find common ground or are we just talking about makeshift short-term tactical alliances.
First to Turkey and its motives to “work hand-in-hand with Iran and Russia to resolve regional issues and to strengthen our efforts to return peace and stability to the region,” as Erdogan told Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani after a telephone conversation between the two in late July.
Ankara’s relations with the West have soured as the regime has become increasingly authoritarian and especially in the wake of the crackdown that followed the failed July 15 coup attempt. On that point, Turkey was extremely pleased with the Iranian response to the coup which Tehran condemned swiftly and without condemnation of the ensuing purge.
Even before the failed coup however Turkey was conducting a realignment of its foreign policy to one that was more pragmatic and less ideological – as evidenced by its apology to Russia over the fighter jet incident and its normalization of ties with Israel – with Kurdish gains in Syria and the fear of another massive influx of refugees into Turkey pushing Erdogan to seek an equilibrium in the war-torn country.
Iran, which has been bleeding in Syria, for its part is enthusiastic about the warming of ties between Russia and Turkey which Tehran sees as creating the opportunity to distance Ankara from Saudi Arabia and its anti-Iranian axis. Regime mouthpiece The Tehran Times expressed this in an August 12 op-ed that followed foreign minister Mohammed Zarif’s visit to Ankara: “As Ankara moves toward Iran and Russia, there is hope that a new strategic triangle is in the making, and in due time it may begin to cause considerable influence not only on Syria, but on the entire Middle East region,” wrote the Times.
Russia for its part is trying to exploit the current situation in the region in its favor and to use the opportunity to deepen the rift between Ankara and the West on the one hand and to weaken support for the opposition in Syria on the other.
So are we in fact seeing the emergence of a strategic triangle or are we seeing short-term tactical moves by all the players? I spoke to several experts to try and understand the latest geopolitical twist in the tale. All cautioned against seeing the latest moves as evidence of a new regional entente.
Hebrew University’s Eldad Pardo described Turkey and Iran as two countries that see themselves as former and future empires and that with Russia seeing itself as a superpower it is a case of all three engaging in tactical maneuvers and thinking they can outsmart the others.
Institute for National Security Studies researchers Gallia Lindenstrauss said it was too early to talk of an alliance.
The question is, she says, will Turkey genuinely change its policy and at least accept Bashar Assad being in power for an interim period, and will we see indications on the ground of a substantial change in its policy? Chatham House Russia expert Nikolay Kozhanov also suggested caution in talking of a strategic triangle, saying the visions for the region in each of the three capitals ruled out long-term strategic cooperation between the three and agreed that all three sides are trying to outplay one another.
Former Pentagon analyst Harold Rhode, who has extensive knowledge of both the Turkish and Iranian arenas, said while those two countries have inimical interests, on some issues there can be a temporary tactical alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey, all of whom have problems with Islamic State.
As for the Russian-Turkish axis, Rhode said it should be understood as an alliance of convenience that will go up and down, but in the end they too are on opposite sides.
“Most important is what is happening in Syria, and I don’t think there can be a real deal there,” says Rhode.
But, paraphrasing the Russian proverb, he adds, “It’s hard enough to predict the past and you are asking me to predict the future.”