There are many commonalities and differences, to the point of contradiction, in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish political and economic positions, calculations, and priorities. Nevertheless, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara maintain an alliance or, at least, close coordination that includes conflict files, that all or some of which are involved in different arenas.
To explicate this, it is possible to go back to the modern history of the three states, and to the fall of their empires. The empires that had their center in geography continued for long periods of time with space for their expansion and contraction and for their wars and the alteration of the territorial and water borders between them.
Russia witnessed the fall of two empires that ruled and sometimes fused their surroundings, and they played a central role in international relations for centuries. From the Russian Empire, which expanded in Europe and Central Asia and extended from the maritime borders in the east to with Japan to the Polish lands in the west which collapsed during World War I, to the Soviet Union, which ruled from Moscow an empire similar to the one that its leaders had brought down before its power increased after World War II to include Europe the entire East. The fall of the Union in the early nineties was a humiliation for the Russians and bitterness for an imperialist ambition that became unable to achieve its aspirations. In that humiliation and the bitterness that followed and the difficulty of being satisfied with the nation-state borders, Putinism was formed, and its rise attempted to marry Russian nationalism, Tsarist Orthodoxy, and Stalinism, based on violent suppression of the independence rebellion (Chechnya). Direct military intervention in the periphery (Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), leading to two comprehensive wars in Syria to declare a return by force to the international arena, and a denial of the legitimacy of the existence of an entity in Ukraine under the pretext of an American and Western threat to national security.
Iran, for its part, has not adapted to its national borders since it was drawn after the fall of Qajar rule and the rise of Reza Pahlavi to power after the First World War. The imperial intransigence of the new Shah and then of his son Muhammad, with historical arguments or a connection to a Persian bond, brought down Iranian relations with Afghanistan, Iraq and Bahrain ambiguities and tensions that remained until 1979. Then the Khomeinist “exporting revolution” ideology after the overthrow of the Shah, and the erupting Iran-Iraq war that followed in the eighties, transformed the Iranian ambition into a basis for forming alliances and loyalty in the Shiite communities in nearby states. Relying on previous attempts to influence the states were minorities of the Persian League and the historical Persian influence. Iran’s political and strategic expansion was enshrined after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regimes in Iraq. Tehran took advantage of the American occupation and the chaos it created to extend its influence to the west and complete a strategic arc that passes through Baghdad and Damascus, which is ruled by its ally Assad, and then reaches Beirut, where Hezbollah is founded and supported by Iran. Through it, it was able to engage directly with the Israelis, in order to raise a political-ideological position that provides popularity, and as a response to Tel Aviv’s threat to its nuclear program. Furthermore, Tehran provided finance and arms for Palestinian forces on one hand and Yemeni forces on the other, placing it at the heart of the conflict in Palestine and on the edge of the Red Sea overlooking vital navigation that affects the global economy.
As for Turkey, despite retreating from emerging ‘national’ borders and strict neutrality imposed by Atatürk through the establishment of the republic after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite a subsequent political and cultural push towards Europe and the joining of the NATO after World War II, it remained the result of its nationalist discourse. As a result of the massacres that accompanied the fall of the Ottomans, its relations with its surroundings are tense. Of course, the matter applies to Soviet and then independent Armenia, to Greece and then Cyprus, where it intervened militarily in 1974, and it applies to Syria and Iraq, where the border problems and the depth of the Kurdish question, represent its most prominent concerns. Morevore, it relates to some regions of Central Asia where the geographical contact and historical frictions between empires, and where there are Turkish-speaking national minorities. To all of that in 2002 was added a very important element linked to the Islamic identity that Erdogan and his party had elevated. He returned Turkish priorities to an eastern and southern orientation and made Ankara invest in the remnants of the Ottoman League to build an Arab presence (in cooperation with Qatar), then it overtook that about years ago. Building an African economic presence and playing intermediary roles between countries and regional hubs to demonstrate influence beyond the borders of what was a sultanate for centuries.
Undoubtedly, the issue of warm waters, the control of straits, and sea lanes is a priority for the three parties, both in past and present, for economic and geopolitical reasons. In turn, this explains another aspect of the current alliance (and competition) between them.
The Black Sea and within it the ‘Sea of Azov’ is Russia’s only water port that can be permanently relied upon economically and militarily, as it reaches through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean ‘where Moscow’s only base is in Syria’. Obviously this is because of the impossibility of the Russians using their northern, eastern and northwestern seas due to the freezing of its waters for long months. This fact, of course, puts them in direct contact with Turkey, their partner in the maritime domain, and their obligatory waterway to the world. The latter, in turn, seeks to expand its exceptional water presence and establish areas of influence, whether in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine, in the Aegean Mediterranean Sea facing Greece, or in the Libyan West to reach the southern Mediterranean shore and energy fields.
When it comes to the Iranian case, the same water priority takes on another dimension, related to the control of the straits in addition to access to the Mediterranean. From the Strait of Hormuz, the oil artery separating the Indian Ocean from the Gulf, to Bab al-Mandab ‘the entrance to the Red Sea connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean’ to Syria, Lebanon, and their Mediterranean ports. Tehran is seeking to impose its control and presence through its armed forces or the forces of its allies ‘the Houthis, the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah’.
As a consequence, the maritime water issue, as the overlapping areas of geographical influence, and the recent past, which did not go beyond the complex and confusing present with its consequences during the transition from the empire to the nation-state, bring the Russians, Iranians and Turks together, despite the distinctions and different aspirations.
If we add to all the above, hostile discourses against Western hegemony in the capitals of the three states, an intertwining in their roles and occupations in Syria for years, their economic cooperation in the face of old American and European sanctions on Iran and the latest ones on Russia, examining the characteristics of Turkish mediation between Kyiv and Moscow, monitoring the Russian, Iranian and Turkish cooperation projects with China and India, we will see the depth of the mutual need for coordination between the heirs of the ‘Downtrodden Empires’. This common needs seem sufficient so far to curb the antagonism between Ankara on the one hand and Moscow and Tehran on the other hand in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. It also gives the impression of satisfactory to overcome the difficulties between them in the Syrian arena, where they share the Astana path despite their contradictory positions and locations. Additionally, it puts to limit the repercussions of the clash between Russia ‘through ‘Wagner’ mercenaries; and Turkey ‘through drones and field experts’ in Libya. Finally, it seems sufficient to perpetuate Russia’s request to Turkey to mediate in the Ukrainian war, despite Ankara selling Kyiv the famous ‘Bayraktar’ drones with which the Ukrainians hunt Putin’s tanks crawling on the ruins of their cities.
The bottom line is, situations are not likely to change in the near future, even if the relationship of the three states or one of them changes with the West, given that diversification of options, taking advantage of the position, role, contradictions, and blackmailing the opposing parties have become a feature of international politics today. There are no signs that this needs to be changed.