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Iran, Turkey and Russia Seek a New Triangle for the Region | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian Chief of Staff Muhamad Hussein Baqeri. (AFP)

A high-level Turkish military-diplomatic delegation is expected to visit Tehran soon to “put final touches” to a strategic accord between Ankara and Tehran to help stabilize the Middle East, Iran’s Chief of Staff General Muhamad Hussein Baqeri revealed on Monday.

Speaking at the end of a visit to the Iran Border Force headquarters, Baqeri said the Turkish team, to be headed by Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, will be a follow-up to Baqeri’s “historic” visit to Ankara last week.

Almost at the same time, a spokesman for the Turkish military announced that Russia’s Army Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov would soon lead a high-level delegation to Ankara to discuss tripartite cooperation with Iran, among other things.

Tehran sources said Baqeri may later visit Moscow to prepare the ground for a more formal level of military-security cooperation by the three nations.

Details of the preliminary accord reached between Iran and Turkey during Baqeri’s Ankara visit have not been revealed, ostensibly at the demand of the Turkish side which may want to first inform its NATO allies.

Nevertheless, based on statements made by Baqeri on Monday, the Ankara accords cover three domains.

The first concerns the security of the sensitive triangle that forms the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran in a plateau were ethnic Kurds form a majority of the population.

At different times and on different levels all three nations have had to face the challenge of the Kurdish quest for identity, autonomy and, in some cases, even secession.

With brief periods of ceasefire, Turkey has been engaged in a war of attrition against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) for almost three decades, a war that has claimed some 40,000 lives.

Iraq is currently facing the challenge of an independence referendum that the Kurdish autonomous government in Irbil wants to organize next month. For its part, Iran has experienced a rise in armed attacks by Kurdish groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan on Iranian security forces along the border.

Concern about Kurdish “hostile action” has risen in Iran as a result of a recent decision by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, to publicly commit itself to fighting for regime change in Tehran. Hitherto, only smaller Kurdish groups such as Komalah, a Marxist outfit and PJAK, the Iranian branch of PKK, had pursued a policy of warmed struggle against the Islamic Republic.

Turkey is trying to apply three plans to deal with its Kurdish problem.

The first is the building of a 65-kilometer long wall along its borders in the Kurdish triangle with Iran and Iraq. Tehran strongly supports this because it also makes it more difficult for Iranians fleeing into exile to reach Turkey.

The second plan is to carve out a glacis inside Syrian and Iraqi territories to deprive the PKK from a fallback position in those countries. That plan, tacitly backed by the Iraqi autonomous Kurdish authorities and the remnants of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, is opposed by the Syrian Kurds backed by the United States.

The third Turkish plan is to promote a regional alliance that could eventually include Iran, Russia and Iraq. The idea is that such an alliance, though limited in scope, would leave little space for the US-led Western powers and their regional Arab allies to regain the influence they had enjoyed in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire over a century ago.

That, in turn, would give Turkey a big voice in the Levant as a springboard for a greater projection of power across the Middle East.

It is not clear whether Ankara is seeking a formal alliance with Tehran or would only work for a more dynamic application of the existing accords.

Under the Shah of Iran and Turkey enjoyed close military relations that included joint staff conversations at a strategic level. Those relations were severed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who accused Turkey of acting as “a lackey of the Americans.” It now seems that the current “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to revive at least part of those relations in a new context.

At a meeting in Ankara in 2014, Iran and Turkey reached a border security cooperation accord signed by the governors of Chaldaran and Maku in Iran and of Agri and Igdir provinces in Turkey. The accord envisaged three joint security meetings each year, plus a mechanism for exchange of information on the movements of terrorist groups and smuggling networks.

What the accord did not permit, reportedly to Turkey’s chagrin, was the right of hot pursuit of armed terrorists, something that Turkey had obtained from Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Judging by the composition of the high-level team that accompanied Baqeri to Ankara, it is possible that the issue was part of the broader discussions. Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Oceania Affairs Ebrahim Rahimpour, chief of IRGC’s Ground Forces Mohammad Khakpour, Deputy Chief of Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Gholam Reza Mehrabi, Deputy Minister of Defense for Education and Research of the Armed Forces Mohammed Hassan Bagheri, and several other high-ranking officials accompany Baqeri in the visit to Turkey.

The second domain covered during the Baqeri visit concerns the future of Syria which Tehran believes must be determined by Iran, Turkey and Russia to the exclusion of the US and its Arab allies.

According to Tehran sources the issue is still causing “some friction” with Turkey because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still insists that Assad must at some point be scripted out of the equation to allow the “new Syria” to emerge.

A sign that Tehran may be flexible regarding Assad’s future came on Monday when general Qassem Soleimani, the man in charge of running Iranian policy in Syria and Iraq, said in a speech in Tehran that Iran’s interventions linked to “our own interests, and not any support for any particular person.”

Don’t be surprised if Iran presents the new informal alliance as Russia and Turkey joining “The Resistance Front” led from Tehran.

Baqeri’s historic visit evoked a third plank of what Tehran hopes would be a credible plan to stabilize the Levant and exclude the US and its allies. That plank consists of “regional economic cooperation” to give the Iran-Turkey-Russia alliance some tangible moorings.

Last week, the Iranian Ghadir Investment Holding, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) signed a $7 billion deal with the Russian state-owned Zarubezhneft and the Turkish holding Unit International, controlled by people close to Erdogan, to develop new oil and gas fields in Iran for export to global markets.

Iran and Turkey are also engaged in talks to double transit by Turkey through Iran and aimed at markets in the GCC area, notably Qatar and the UAE.

Turkey which has the biggest construction firms in the region also hopes to secure the lion’s share in future contracts to rebuild Syria and Iraq with the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia conglomerate in tow. Turkish construction firms have sustained heavy losses, especially in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, as a result of the Arab Spring and regard the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq as a second life.

Preliminary talks have also taken place between Russia and Turkey to develop supply lines for the Caspian basin energy exports through Turkish ports.

Is an Iran-Turkey-Russia triangle really taking shape? Judging by noises made in Tehran, Ankara and Moscow the answer must be yes. However, the trio remains strange bedfellows with contradictory positions and conflicting interests. In other words, between the cup and the lip there may be many a slip.