The front page of the July 20 edition of the Tehran Times is a real collector’s item.
Hovering over a picture of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei sitting across from visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in a sparse, almost empty room – adorned only with an official portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a neatly displayed flag of the Islamic Republic – was the understated, subtle yet dramatic headline: “New world order.”
A new world order announced by Iran, no less.
Putin’s visit to Tehran may have achieved little (don’t be too impressed by the Gazprom-Iran $40-billion deal on energy cooperation) and is certainly not a harbinger of a “new world order.” Rather, it is evidence of Putin’s weakness, limited room for maneuver and political destituteness.
It should also be a wake-up call to those in Israel who for years have argued forcefully and with conviction that Russia is a true ally, and that in due time Putin is Israel’s natural partner in expelling Iran from Syria. They also claimed repeatedly that Russia has no interest in a nuclear Iran.
This “Putin is a dependable regional ally” concept led Israel to its bizarre, unwarranted and morally depraved policy of neutrality on Ukraine.
It is somewhat redundant here to relitigate the colossal failure of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: his deeply flawed basic assumptions on Ukraine’s will to fight; his arrogant dismissal of U.S. and NATO resolve; his delusions of withstanding sanctions; and, most glaringly, his grossly underperforming military.
The pseudo-dramatic hype created by some military analysts about “decisive” Russian advances in eastern Ukraine, some tactical successes in overrunning this or that city in the Donbas, and how a war of attrition is bound to suit Russia’s quantitative advantages, doesn’t change the trajectory of the Russian president’s strategic debacle.
Putin may have recalibrated, adjusted expectations and reset objectives given those setbacks and failures. He may be playing the long game. He is assuming the November 2022 congressional midterm elections will undermine U.S. President Joe Biden’s political standing and inhibit his proactive and resources-rich Ukraine policy. He most probably is betting on, certainly hoping for, a Biden – or any other Democratic candidate – defeat in 2024.
A Trump or a Trumpite clone, in his mind, will precipitate a course correction in U.S. foreign policy: less alliance-oriented policy, less alliance management, less NATO, less foreign commitments, less concern about Russia and Ukraine.
The front page of the Tehran Times proclaims a ‘New World Order’ featuring an image of Putin and Khamenei. Is it so?
Fiona Hill, an eminent Russia expert and former senior official at the National Security Council, told Foreign Policy last week that for Putin, “it’s not just January 6. It’s this idea that the United States is out of control.”
This was Putin’s strategy since well before, but specifically around, the 2016 U.S. presidential election: weaken the United States; create and instill constant doubts about the political system; break any trust the American people have (left) in institutions, processes, elections and, effectively, democracy itself.
Putin’s new timetable is to withstand the pressures until 2024. Whether he’s wrong or right is at best conjecture. What he wanted now is to demonstrate that he still has power and influence, and carries clout in international politics.
Here was Vladimir Putin, who five months ago thought he was going to negotiate a new European security architecture with Biden, now sitting in an empty room with Ebrahim Raisi, the president of Iran. Here was the self-declared reincarnation of Peter the Great seeking and possibly finding a new ally, Iran. Two ostracized, sanctioned and outcast countries trying to break out of isolation by assisting each other.
To add prestige to the meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined the summit, which was a sort of Biden-in-the-Middle East anti-party or rogues-night-out event.
In Tehran, Putin was courting political companionship to prove that he’s still in the game. He got it from Raisi, which came as no surprise given Iran’s relative isolation and the low probability of a new nuclear deal. (U.S. special envoy for Iran Rob Malley told CNN Wednesday that the window to revive a nuclear deal is “closing quite rapidly.”)
What was somewhat of a surprise was the statement from Erdogan. After insulting Putin by making him wait idly for a scheduled meeting, the Turkish president came up with this gem: “America has to leave east of the Euphrates now,” he said, adding that the U.S. presence “feeds the terrorist groups there.”
The entire setting, and particularly Erdogan’s remark, could pass as political comedy were it not for the fact that Russia has 6,000 nuclear warheads, Iran is progressing steadily on the nuclear “threshold state” spectrum and fosters a web of proxy terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, and Turkey is a member of NATO with a critical strategic and geopolitical location.
When all three entertain delusions of grandeur, you cannot dismiss the potential and ominous significance of the meeting.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on Tuesday.Credit: SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV – AFP
Apparently, Putin also came with a shopping list: Iranian drones. That he needs Iranian military assistance and platforms – reportedly Shahed 129 and Shahed 191 combat drones – is a compelling testament to the scale of the Russian debacle in Ukraine. The United States immediately warned of the impending sale, although it is unclear whether that carries any weight or significance.
“We would advise Iran not to do that. We think it’s a really, really bad idea,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, when asked about Iranian weapons sales to Russia.
CIA Director William Burns confirmed that drones were the issue, but scaled down the importance and implications by saying that the two sanctioned countries needed each other right now, but there’s a limit to what they can do because “they don’t really trust each other.”
Burns then made a more consequential comment about how Russia’s failed invasion may cause China to rethink any ideas it may have of invading Taiwan. That comment only highlighted the conspicuous absence of President Xi Jinping from the Tehran gathering. If this was about an alternative, counter-American world order, where was China?
The original (and real) Tehran Conference took place on November 28 – December 1, 1943, attended by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet President Joseph Stalin. Any comparison and analogy to this week’s gathering is by definition flimsy, but it is worth noting that in a conference focusing on the eventual opening of a second western front against Nazi Germany – an idea that materialized six months later in Normandy – Stalin insisted that the USSR should retain the frontiers provided by the 1939 Soviet-German nonaggression pact, aka the “Molotov-Ribbentrop” agreement.
The analogy is relevant in the context of Iran expressing heartfelt and solid support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, its declaration that Russia’s borders were threatened by the United States and the Russian foreign minister, the jovial Sergey Lavrov declaring at the same time that Russia’s territorial demands do not stop at Donetsk and Luhansk.
A durable Russian-Iranian alliance or axis is probably a short-lived necessity and as such is not insignificant for the Middle East. But in terms of how he sees Russia and himself, it was barely a consolation prize for Putin.