Three days after U.S. President Joe Biden returned to Washington from a
controversial visit to Saudi Arabia
, Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Tehran with a complex set of goals of his own. Much like Biden, who aimed to strengthen Washington’s ties in the region, Putin sought to bolster Russia’s relations in the Middle East.
The meeting in Iran showcased the awkward relationship between these two dictatorial regimes and their oil-rich nations, both of which have been subjected to Western economic sanctions. By embracing one another, Putin and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aimed to show that they are not pariahs. After all, they seemed to be saying, they have each other.
The Tuesday gathering also included a third member: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose disruptive behavior within NATO has long been controversial. The three ostensibly convened to discuss the so-called Astana peace process, which aims to end the decade-long war in Syria, where Iran, Russia and Turkey are the dominant powers.
The Turkish president, who has authoritarian leanings of his own, knew that pictures of a NATO member communing with Russia and Iran would be badly received. Perhaps this is why he produced one of the many startling images of the day
, in which he left Putin waiting alone for 50 long seconds in front of the press, a resonant slight against a Russian leader known for making others wait
Putin, for his part, came with several goals. First, he aimed to demonstrate that Russia still has friends, even though his invasion of Ukraine sparked a global wave of ostracism. Second, he hoped to leverage ties with oil-rich Iran to combat the international sanctions implemented after that invasion. Third, he wanted to boost military sales between Russia and Iran—but more on that in a moment.
Despite their outwardly friendly relations, in recent months, Iran and Russia have engaged in a mutually damaging competition
to sell oil at discounted prices to the few buyers still willing to purchase from them. Russia has so far managed to sell oil to countries like China and India at steep discounts, but the battle for customers is fierce and has the potential to unravel the Iran-Russia relationship, even if the acrimony would be kept under wraps. If the two countries can find a way to synchronize their sales—no easy task—it could ease the pain of this cut-rate marketing and safeguard their bilateral ties.
Erdogan, too, came with an agenda, but there’s little evidence that he achieved any of his goals. He was the one with the greatest interest in the Syria question, and likely hoped Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would make Russia, and perhaps Iran, more amenable to a Turkish operation against the People’s Protection Units or YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that Ankara views as an arm of the Turkish Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. But it was not to be. The plan was promptly nixed by Khamenei, who not only offered the Turkish president a chilly reception—another of the day’s stark images
—but issued a warning against such an operation
on Twitter, for all the world to see. Erdogan, nonetheless, insists the operation will go forward.
Erdogan has also reportedly been vying for a role as a mediator on the war in Ukraine
. Early in the conflict, Ankara hosted two meetings between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, and later coordinated a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap. But there’s no evidence that Erdogan made any progress toward this goal while in Tehran.
As for Putin, he seems to have achieved at least some of what he wanted, but clearly not all. The images of him fidgeting uncomfortably as he waited for Erdogan
went viral around the world, underscoring his weakened state as the leader of a country whose prestige has been badly damaged by its invasion of Ukraine and its dismal, though brutal, military performance.
By embracing one another, Putin and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aimed to show that they are not pariahs. After all, they have each other.
He did, however, obtain wholehearted support for his war from Khamenei. According to a statement from his office
, the supreme leader told Putin, “War is a violent and difficult endeavor, and the Islamic Republic is not at all happy that people are caught up in war,” before adding, “But in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have initiated the war.”
Putin’s meetings with Iran started before Biden’s Middle East tour
. In fact, this was the Russian leader’s third encounter with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi this year. After meeting with him this time, Putin declared that bilateral relations
are “developing at a good pace,” with plans to increase cooperation on multiple fronts. That optimism was echoed by Raisi, at least according to the Kremlin-controlled media.
On the oil front, as well, Russia and Iran seem to have found some common ground. The Iranian Oil Ministry’s news agency said that, on the day of the summit, the National Iranian Oil Company and Russia’s Gazprom signed a memorandum
of understanding worth $40 billion to jointly develop gas fields in Iran.
Now, we return to Putin’s third goal. Ahead of the Iran-Russia-Turkey meeting, the White House offered its own view of a potentially crucial, but off-camera piece of the summit: The Kremlin, it said, was trying to buy hundreds of Iranian drones to use in the Ukrainian war, where it had depleted much of its arsenal of precision-guided weapons.
Iran has ample experience with remotely piloted aircraft technology. It has provided drones to its allied militias, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has launched them toward Israel; to Shiite groups in Iraq, which have used them against U.S. troops
; and to Houthis in Yemen, which have deployed them in attacks against the United Arab Emirates
and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia
Last week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan gave a briefing describing surprisingly detailed intelligence on the issue. He said Russian delegations had traveled to Iran twice
, on June 8 and July 5, during which they were taken on a rare visit to the Kashan airfield to inspect the weaponry. According to U.S. intelligence, as many as 300 Iranian drones
will be sent to Russia in short order, with Russian troops starting to receive training on operating the Iranian technology as soon as this month. This week’s summit may have helped solidify the reported deal.
Putin’s trip, not unlike Biden’s, aimed for symbolism. On that count—again, not unlike Biden—he had mixed results. But the trip was also about more than that. In a time of war, behind the smiles, he arrived under pressure. Diplomacy moves slowly, but the bombing of weapons depots happens fast, and the need to replenish resources cannot wait for niceties. The simple truth is that Putin needs Iran. That is a sobering thought for a leader used to strutting on the global stage, rather than being kept waiting by ambivalent friends.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist and a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.