AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Hot on the heels of Joe Biden’s humiliating Middle East tour, a different international gathering took place in the region this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in one of his first foreign visits since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, flew to Tehran for a summit with Iranian leaders. Also present was Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who met privately with the Russian President – despite Turkey’s status as a NATO member. If Biden’s visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia were an illustration of how much the Biden administration has sacrificed America’s standing with its traditional allies, the Tehran conference was further demonstration of how little Biden and his team got for their betrayals with the audience they were trying to court, the Iranians.
Far from expressing interest in a new relationship with the United States, Tehran has hewed closer to Russia since Biden took office. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration bragged to the press that this would allow the United States to divide Russia and Iran by painting Russia’s actions and demands (namely, that ending sanctions on Russia were a prerequisite to Russian participation in a renewed “Nuclear Deal”) as holding Iran’s interests hostage to Russia’s.
This effort to woo Tehran was to no avail. Iran’s leadership pocketed their concessions from Washington, as they always have, and then fell in behind Russia, threatening to mobilize against Azerbaijan when it threatened Russia’s ally Armenia in the early months of the war, and most recently offering to transfer to Russia Iranian drones which had been used in Yemen. While a few lone voices in Iran did condemn the Russian invasion, including former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has reinvented himself as an opposition leader, they were sidelined.
Iran’s invitation to Putin this week represents the regime’s determination to show that the region can and will function without the United States. Iran wanted to make clear that its goals were not to reenter the U.S.-centric international system as the Biden administration had hoped, but to destroy it. In a joint announcement before the visit, the two states pledged to drop the use of the U.S. Dollar in all future transactions between the two states. Also inked was a $40 billion agreement with Gazprom, the Russian state gas company, for energy cooperation, which seems to designed to tell Biden’s team they need to “up their bid.”
As for the presence of NATO member Turkey in Iran, the visit is an extraordinary sign of the degree to which American prestige has already declined under the Biden administration. Turkey and Iran are adversaries. They support opposite sides in Syria, and in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and while relations have been difficult on occasion under Erdogan, Turkey recognizes Israel while Iran makes the destruction of the Jewish state one of the core principles of its foreign policy. All of these issues combined to make the meeting between Erdogan and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the day before Putin arrived, rather tense, as they clashed on all of these issues.
Which raises the question: why did Erdogan go to Iran at all? The answer, most likely, is that he felt he had to. If Erdogan believed he could rely on the United States to deter Iran and support Turkey’s interests in Syria and the Caucuses, there would be no need to consider Iran’s wishes, much less subject himself to what press reports paint as an unpleasant two hours. Yet because Erdogan likely does not believe he can rely on Biden, having watched how Biden abandoned Saudi Arabia, ignored Israel, and perhaps most importantly, tried to isolate Hungary, Poland, and Brazil, the Turkish leader, who faces his own contentious reelection next year, presumably concluded that Biden might abandon him at any time. This would suggest that Turkey should avoid committing to a confrontation with Iran that the Biden administration itself was not committed to.
If Turkey has doubts about the commitment of the Biden administration to oppose Iran’s ambitions, the same reservations about the U.S. and E.U. willingness to sustain NATO are likely motivating Erdogan to keep options open with the Russian President. While Turkey supplied some of Ukraine’s most effective drones and closed the Straits of Gallipoli to warships, including Russian ones from Syria, Turkey has to have kept one eye on how unwilling many in Europe and the United States were to do anything that would risk an open conflict with Russia. If Turkey, under prompting from Washington and Kyiv, used force to block Russia’s access to the Mediterranean, and Russia responded by attacking Turkey, would America respond with arms, or an actual willingness to use its own forces to defend Turkey under the NATO umbrella, even at the risk of nuclear war?
The matter has been brought to a head by a recent controversy over Russian efforts to ship “stolen” Ukrainian grain through Turkish waters. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading food producers, and recently a Russian ship arrived in Turkey carrying grain from occupied regions of Ukraine collected by Russian collaborationist authorities. At the request of the Ukrainian government Turkey seized the ship, but has now come under pressure both from Russia, and from countries in Africa and the Middle East facing unrest over rising food prices, to reach some agreement on allowing such shipments to pass to market.
Turkey has sought, in vain, not encouragement from Washington, but concrete promises of support. Absent such promises, Turkey tried to gain Ukrainian consent to some sort of deal with Putin whereby the two governments would share the proceeds, hosting calls with both Putin and Zelenskyy last weekend. With no movement, it seems likely that Erdogan in his meeting with Putin in Tehran will agree to unilaterally impose some sort of agreement on Zelenskyy in which the ships will pass and Ukraine can either take a portion of the proceeds or not.
In summary, the settlement of the fate of the Black Sea, Syria, and the Caucuses will be taking place without the United States. And not only was Biden forced to beg the Saudis, ineffectually, to provide him with oil last week, but his prestige is so low that this week, Iran—which his advisers had dreamed of wooing away from Russia—is hosting Putin, while the leader of the most powerful military in NATO after the United States feels the need to join them.
There could be no more vivid evidence of how the Biden administration—and by extension, America—is perceived in the Middle East than that.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.