From West to East: Is Russia creating a new alliance in the Middle East?

This article was originally published in Russian by

‘Argumenty i Fakty’

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From West to East. What does the dialogue between Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan mean?

According to experts, Moscow is creating a new unit of allies in the Middle East

On Monday, the first trilateral summit between the presidents of Russia (Vladimir Putin), Iran (Hassan Rouhani) and Azerbaijan (Ilham Aliyev) took place in Baku.

The heads of state discussed current international issues, including the war in Syria, the fight against terrorism and possible prospects for multilateral cooperation in various fields. According to experts, this meeting is another strategic move in Russia’s current policy that may turn into its long-term strategy: a reorientation from West to East. This trend can be noticed as well in the meeting that took place between Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday (August 9th, 2016) in St. Petersburg.


Help for Erdogan

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Baku started with a meeting with the Azerbaijani President, who initiated the trilateral summit, which he proposed himself in February this year during a telephone conversation with the Russian president.

According to Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov, it is”the first trilateral meeting at the level of national leaders” and the need for that kind of format is “quite obvious”. According to him, the three countries “are facing similar challenges” in economy, security and counter terrorism efforts.

On the eve of the visit, during an interview with the Azerbaijani state news agency “AzerTaj” Putin declared that, together with Iran, they are working on large-scale joint projects in the oil and gas industry, the aerospace industry and the power industry. Russia is willing to provide Iran with two government loans of 2.2 billion euros, to finance the construction of a thermal power plant near the city of Bandar Abbas and the electrification of the railway Garmsar-Inche-Burun in the north-east of the country. In addition, Russia will continue helping Iran in the implementation of its nuclear program.

“Your visit to Tehran was very effective for the future development of our relations. We will never forget the positive role played by Russia in achieving the nuclear agreement, as well as your role in the implementation of this agreement. I am very pleased that in the first months of the year we have seen the growth of trade turnover and trade relations”, noted Rouhani. He also stressed that: “today there is a good chance for the presidents of Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan to have a consultancy for the first time.”

According to him, this meeting could play an important role in strengthening the tripartite relationship between the countries, as well as strengthening the stability and security in the region.

Earlier, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpur had said that, the national leaders will discuss possible assistance to the President of Turkey Recep Erdogan, who is trying to stabilize the situation in his country after a failed coup d’etat.

“We, together with Mr. Putin, would like to help Mr. Erdogan to create good conditions (in the country) and solve the problems, so that he can make the right decision. It applies to regional issues of Iraq and Syria. I think that Mr. Rouhfani and Mr. Putin are ready to provide assistance to Mr. Erdogan, to support him. The government (not other countries and other powers) should determine the people. The help that could be provided by Putin and Rouhani, cannot be provided neither by Arabs nor Western states. Our region is in need of good relations between Russia, Iran and Turkey”, said the senior Iranian diplomat.

Following the summit, the heads of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran adopted a declaration which is aimed at the further strengthening of cooperation between the three countries and maintaining a high level of confidence in the regional and international issues. Also, the declaration stresses the need to promote and develop trade and economic cooperation. However, the main questions were behind the scenes.


Why is it so important?

Experts note, that historically Iran and Turkey play a major role in building political stability in the Middle East. It is clearly shown by the Syrian war, where the countries are still taking polar positions. Iranian officials have expressed support for the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whereas Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and with the participation of the United States was actively financing the opposition and demanded the resignation of Assad. It became one of the reasons for the deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey, when its officers shot down a Russian plane. However, the situation in the Russian-Turkish relations changed after the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the plane incident and after Russia expressed its support to Turkey during the failed coup.

The first meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was held on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Experts say that one of its main goals was reaching more regional agreement on the issue of Syria and Turkey – Iran cooperation in this matter.

First Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma Leonid Kalashnikov described the dialogue as a Russian victory in the Middle East.

“It is not a change of vector but a victory in whose direction Russia has been moving for a very long time. We have built a very good relationship with Iran. It was especially evident in Syria because, traditionally, it has been supported by Iran. At the same time, we had had good relations with Turkey until the incident with the Russian plane.

And the relationship between Turkey and Iran was very cold.  Now relations with Turkey are renewed. We can sit together at the same table, trying to clarify our position on Syria. If Turkey, Iran and Russia will agree on Syria, then later it will be very hard to interfere into this relationship”, said Leonid Kalashnikov to AiF.ru.

According to him, the West is very wary of this dialogue and will strongly try to interfere: ”Vladimir Putin succeeded in playing a pivotal rule in the reformation of the Middle East peace process. That is because Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have always had Turkey behind their backs, will either have to join this process, or to oppose it. However, trying to oppose all these countries will be very difficult” , said the deputy.

He thinks that Russia had separate allied relations with Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.  If now these allies will be able to sit at the same table and make friends with each other,”an entire Union in the East” may take form.

“Earlier, we tried to talk with the West. Now we are building an independent policy in the East. We tried to do that in the West but they did not like it”, said Kalashnikov.

Director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Central Asia, Semyon Bagdasarov is more skeptical towards the rapprochement of these countries.

“This policy of rapprochement of Russia and the Middle East has been the announced due to the sanctions against us. But Russia does not have unambiguous relations with all the countries, so we cannot take it as a very successful project. We had a complicated situation in our relationship with Turkey and I do not think that everything will be resolved tomorrow, after the meeting of the presidents, and it will all go in a different way. At least not because of the Syrian issue, where we stand on the opposite sides. A few days ago our helicopter Mi-8 was shot down and it is believed that it was hit by a Turkish structure. It is just that for now, we will remain silent about it”, said the expert, who believes that relations between Turkey and Russia remained at the same level even after the apology of Erdogan.

Talking about Iran, Russia contributed to the lifting of sanctions but the overall situation is also not that simple.

“The Iranians want to get investments and new technologies from abroad. If they get it, then everything will be fine, if not, they, with pleasure, will get these technologies in other countries, including the Western one. So I would not say that for us everything in the East is wonderful, all of the ongoing things do not mean that we will be welcomed there with open arms. We still have to get closer to the West and in the first place, with such large countries such as Germany “, said Bagdasarov.

Political scientist Sergey Markov believes that Russian policy on the East may be strategic, but it is still too early to talk about it.

“We still cannot talk about a complete reorientation. The European Union still remains a priority for us because it is the largest market, as well as a supplier of new technologies. Together with the United States it is one of the centers of producing world technologies. If we want to develop, we need access to these technologies. Furthermore, the EU remains a sort of model of civilization, which we will never give up. Therefore, talking about global reorientation is impossible. Another thing is that a set of tactical steps can turn into a tendency which eventually can develop into a strategy”, says the expert.

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