Iran, Russia, Turkey triangle: Strategic coalition or tactical alliance?

Recent developments are indicative of the birth of a new mechanism of cooperation among three countries of Iran, Russia and Turkey.

A meeting between presidents of Iran and Russia in Baku; a visit by Turkey’s president to Russia, consultations on phone between foreign ministers of Iran and Russia, a visit to Turkey by Iran’s foreign minister, a trip to Tehran by Russian president’s envoy, an imminent visit to Turkey by Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, and a possible visit to Iran by Turkey’s president are all developments, which have taken place during the past two weeks and attest to creation of a new triangle among Tehran, Moscow and Ankara.

The question, however, is of what sort is this cooperation, what is its specific purpose, and more importantly, what consequences and outcomes it will have? The following points are noteworthy in this regard:

1. The recent turnabout in Turkey’s foreign policy should be considered as the turning point for the formation of this new triangle of cooperation. Moscow and Tehran have been closely cooperating, especially with regard to regional developments, and it is Ankara, which is entering this alliance. Unlike past years, Turkey’s foreign policy has caused tensions in the country’s relations with many of its neighbors in the past five years, and has not led to any new practical achievement for Turks. In the meantime, another factor, which has apparently prompted Turkey to change its foreign policy approach are developments, which have taken place in Syria in the past year. These developments included a wide range from Syrian government’s advances in the battlefield through support of Russia and Iran to withdrawal of Syrian government’s opposition – most of whom enjoy the support of Turkish government – from many areas of the country, to infiltration of Takfiri terrorist into turkey and numerous bomb attacks in the country. The recent failed coup attempt in Turkey also served to speed up this process. On the other hand, Turkey’s effort to mend fences with Russia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Israel has been the main basis for this new move in the country’s foreign policy.

2. No exaggeration should be made about close relations among Iran, Turkey and Russia by considering them to be necessarily a strategic coalition, or as claimed by some people, an anti-American coalition. This new triangle of cooperation should be considered a tactical alliance based on specific goals while maintaining the differential points that exist among its three sides. Transfer of natural gas from Iran and Russia through Turkey is a clear field of cooperation toward which all the three countries are willing. However, the most urgent issue on the agenda of consultations among the three countries’ officials is the situation in Syria. Up to the present time, Turkey’s main priority with regard to Syria was to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, but Ankara has been changing its tone on this issue as of late. Of course, Turkish officials still talk about the need for Assad to relinquish power, but, firstly, such remarks have diminished in frequency compared to the past and secondly, their tone has turned softer. Thirdly, the issue of fighting against terrorism and containing insecurity in Syria has apparently become a more important concern for Turkish officials and this has turned into a common denominator for Turkey’s cooperation with Iran and Russia, which are strongly supporting Assad’s government in the face of the opposition. The need to fight against terrorist and extremist groups in Syria has brought the three countries closer together regardless of their position on Assad’s government. In the meantime, Turkey and Iran have another special concern, which is the issue of Kurds in Syria and the fact that the situation in the Arab country must not move in a direction that would allow Syrian Kurds to take steps for the division of the country.

3. The new step taken by Turkey to rebuild relations with Iran and Russia and launch joint cooperation in the case of Syria can be considered as a failure for Saudi Arabia and regional policies of this country. Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey, has been a pioneer in providing support for Assad’s opposition. Now that Turkey has adopted a more resilient position on this issue, Saudis find themselves in a more difficult position in the face of their main regional rival, that is, Iran. Of course, it is not clear whether this situation would also prompt Saudi Arabia to change its aggressive approach in the region or take steps in order to disrupt initiatives taken by the triangle of Iran, Russia and Turkey.

4. Cooperation among Iran, Russia and Turkey on the crisis in Syria can shift from a negative form, which is restricted to doing away with security concerns, to a positive form, which means making effort to come up with a new model for putting a political and peaceful end to the ongoing crisis in this country. This can be a big surprise and something that the entire region needs. It cannot be denied that Syria has currently turned into the most important crisis in the region and restoration of calm to the region is, in the first place, dependent on the resolution of this five-year crisis. However, once again, exaggeration should be avoided in this regard. Although closeness among Iran, Russia and Turkey for the resolution of crisis in Syria is necessary and good news, it is by no means enough. Syria is an arena for various regional and transregional parties and these three countries are just part of them. There are also other countries and groups involved in Syria and the success of any plan and measure for Syria would depend on cooperation from all these countries. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States are three more counties, which are both able to keep up the crisis in Syria, and if they wanted, to play a positive role for the transition of the country toward peace and stability. It seems that effectiveness of the triangle of Iran, Russia and Turkey with regard to Syria depends on convincing and attracting cooperation of other parties. In the meantime, Turkey can serve as a good link to bring opponents and proponents of the Syrian government together.

5. Establishment of a trilateral mechanism among Iran, Russia and Turkey can provide a model for reasonable and logical cooperation in the region. During recent years, the Middle East region has seen divergence among countries and deterioration of differences into hostility, and this situation has practically taken regional countries toward conflict. In other words, most regional trends in recent years have been of a confrontational nature. Of course, rivalry and differences are natural characteristics of international relations, but the ability to manage differences and avoid their escalation in addition to making effort to find common denominators as grounds for cooperation are major steps, which are needed to be taken by regional countries. The positive point about the triangle formed by Iran, Russia and Turkey is that these countries have stood by one another despite their differences and have made an effort to find common grounds even in areas of differences, for example, with regard to the situation in Syria. This model of politics is one of those things that our region badly needs. Success of this diplomatic mechanism can lead to emergence of new viewpoints and new models for the entire region.


This article was written by Mohammad Khajouei for Iran Review on Aug 19. Mohammad Khajouei is Senior Middle East Analyst.