The parting of ways between Russia and Iran over the Syrian question has always been inevitable. The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s talks with the Turkish leadership in Istanbul on Saturday may signify that Tehran has begun trimming sails for a new voyage on own steam.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on March 19

Moscow probably made a last-minute attempt to discourage Iran from moving forward with Erdogan whom it demonizes, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov phoning Zarif  on the eve of his departure for Istanbul to remind him of shared Russian-Iranian interest in finding a political solution in Syria.

But Zarif’s hugely resonant remarks to the Turkish President Recep Erdogan at their meeting in Istanbul will leave the Kremlin in no doubt that it is khuda hafiz (farewell).

Zarif told Erdogan that Iran and Turkey should join hands to resolve the ongoing crisies in the Middle East region. “Cooperation between Iran and Turkey is effective and useful in settling regional crises,” he said.

According to Iranian media, Zarif underlined the need for the highest ever cooperation between Tehran and Ankara and said the Iranian leadership attaches “great significance” to relations with Turkey.

In an indirect reference to Saudi-Iranian rift, Zarif suggested that Iran and Turkey can cooperate in presenting a successful model of proximity among religions, rather than religious division.

Erdogan’s response was noticeably warm. He said the promotion of relations between Iran and Turkey serves the interests of the two neighbors and can contribute to regional peace and stability. Erdogan echoed a long standing Iranian stance by saying that the West wants to weaken the Muslim world and Ankara and Tehran shoulder a heavy responsibility in resolving regional crises.

Interestingly, Erdogan portrayed the Daesh as a common threat and underlined the need for dialogue between Ankara and Tehran to find suitable solutions to regional problems.  He renewed his invitation to President Hassan Rouhani to visit his country. No doubt, the coast is clear for Rouhani’s participation in the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Istanbul from April 10-15.

Zarif’s meeting with Erdogan comes within the week of a high-profile visit by the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Moscow on March 16 and the exceptionally warm welcome accorded to him by President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, where he spoke of the “long-standing relationship (with Israel)… built on the basis of friendship and understanding”, and deep-rooted affinities in “culture and mentality” that impart a “special dimension” to the relationship.

According to Israeli reports, Rivlin conveyed to Putin Israel’s determination that “it will not allow Iran or the Hezbollah to entrench on the Golan”, in a veiled threat to intervene in Syria if need be and a proposal to keep the UN peacekeeping force in that region, while Putin told Rivlin that he is due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soon “to discuss the security situation in the Middle East”.

The lifting of the purdah (curtain) on Russian-Israeli strategic understanding over Syria follows recent reports that despite lifting the ban one year ago on the sale of S-300 missile to Iran, Putin has frozen the actual transfer due to Israeli pressure.

As Iran would see the ‘big picture’, on the one hand Russia is pursuing a geopolitical agenda in Syria in terms of its overall relationship with the West, on the other hand it is indifferent and is even opposed to the politics of the ‘axis of resistance’ (involving Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah), which is at the core of Tehran’s strategies in Syria.

Suffice it to say, the paramount Russian objective today is to strike a deal with the US on Syria (where the Obama administration’s chestnuts are on fire and Moscow can salvage them), which in turn could, hopefully, provide a platform for the reset of the relations between the two powers and ease the tensions between Russia and the West.

But then, Moscow is unsure which way the wind is blowing in Washington. This existential angst explains its dual-track approach in Syria and the tactical convergence with Iran that becomes necessary for the present (which in any case can only strengthen Russia’s hands at the negotiating table). Arguably, while couched as power projection, it is riveted on self-interests.

Two RAND Corporation experts Colin Clarke and William Courtney (the latter also happens to be a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia) summed up the emergent paradigm from an American perspective:

  • Russia’s draw-down in Syria comes in the wake of frustrations with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad… Kremlin runs risks siding with the Shi’ite-aligned Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah Shi’ite allies… Kremlin has pressed Assad to pursue a political settlement. He has resisted. By making known that the draw-down would begin a day after the announcement, Putin showed his displeasure.
  • Kremlin will count on the West and regional powers to bring added leverage… In seeking a negotiated peace in Syria, the West ought to be ready to accommodate Russia’s minimum strategic interests there… if Russia (in turn) presses the Assad regime to negotiate a political solution.” (Accommodate the Kremlin, US World & News Report, March 17, 2016)

Against this complex backdrop, Zarif’s visit to Istanbul on March 19 testifies to Tehran’s keenness to quicken the ‘thaw’ in the Turkish-Iranian relations following the foreign-ministry consultations in Ankara last month (which was followed up soon by Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu’s visit to Iran on March 4.)

Erdogan too is facing a big crisis in his Syrian policies. In sum, the following templates of shared interests provide a substantial platform for Turkey and Iran to work together:

  • Both regional powers apprehend that they are being marginalized at the peace talks in Geneva, which are scripted jointly by Washington and Moscow.
  • Both have core interests in preventing any autonomous Kurdish entity appearing in northern Syria (whereas, the Russian and American intentions on that remain ambivalent);
  • Both are disenchanted with Moscow’s policies in one way or another;
  • Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations are on roller-coaster, whereas, US-Iranian normalization has also failed to take off;
  • Iran can reduce Turkey’s heavy dependence on Russian energy supplies;
  • Turkish business and industry is keen to exploit new opportunities in the Iranian market to offset Russia’s economic and trade sanctions;
  • Iran hopes to draw Turkey away from Saudi embrace, while Ankara already feels uneasy regarding the scope of an alliance with Riyadh.

Neither Turkey nor Iran would harbor illusions that Russia will willingly vacate its military bases in Syria. It becomes a moot point whether Assad really feels comfortable with long-term Russian occupation. Perhaps, he has no choice in the matter.

However, the alignments could change profoundly if Tehran helped to calm Erdogan’s rage toward the Syrian regime. He and Assad got along splendidly, after all, until the Arab Spring arrived – even enjoying family kinship.

But for that to happen, Erdogan must make adjustments in his Syria policy. The deal with the European Union involving financial assistance to the tune of $6.6 billion helps Erdogan cut losses in Syria. It helps.

However, it is far more vital that Tehran extends a hand of friendship to Erdogan to encourage him to reset his compass on Syria. Zarif probably set the ball rolling in that direction.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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