Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently went on a tour that spanned the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. He held talks with Egypt and Iran, two key actors in the Middle East, on April and 13. The venue of both those visits provided clues to Russia’s regional and global policies, as well as messages for Turkey and the United States.
Egypt as an alternative tourist destination for Russians
Lavrov’s first stop in the Middle East was Egypt. The Russian diplomat, who met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, had regional and bilateral ties on his agenda. Tourism featured amongst the issues he discussed. Needless to say, that directly concerns Turkey. Lavrov and Sisi have announced the launching of direct flights for Russian tourists to Egypt.
Egypt is the most frequented venue by Russian tourists after Turkey. According to recent data, 3 million tourists from Russia visit Egypt on an annual basis. This makes up 30 percent of the total number of tourists visiting Egypt. The date of the announcement of the heartfelt messages regarding Russian tourism in Egypt coincided with Moscow’s decision to limit direct flights to Turkey to two days a week until June 2021 due to coronavirus cases.
On paper, Russia’s decision seems understandable, as the number of daily cases in Egypt ranges between 800 and 1,000, while the number of daily cases in Turkey has hit 60,000 due to our calamitous management of the pandemic. Yet aside from the number cases, Russia’s decision was also highly political.
Turkey hosted Ukrainian President Zelensky on April 10 and Zelensky delivered messages which irked Russia. Lavrov’s visit on April 12, as well as his desire to further improve relations with Egypt with regards to tourism, could be interpreted as a message for Turkey. In addition to their close military ties, Russia and Egypt held their annual military exercises in the Black Sea in November last year.
Given Turkey’s recent efforts to get closer to Egypt, Lavrov’s visit to Egypt could be seen as another message from Russia to Turkey regarding Egypt as he discussed several issues which ranged from Libya to Syria, bilateral relations and the Palestinian issue.
While Turkey’s reconciliation with Egypt is significant, one should not forget that Egypt also harbors close ties with Russia. Hence tensions between Russia and Turkey over Ukraine would affect Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Turkey’s Libyan policy. Moreover, Egypt has been working with the Russian energy company Rosneft in the Zohr Field in the Eastern Mediterranean, and given the agreement Egypt has signed with Greece, it is clear that Russia exerts influence over Turkey-Egypt relations.
It should also be noted that Turkey’s messages of convergence with the United States regarding the Montreux Convention, Ukraine and its policy regarding the Black Sea will have an impact on Cairo. In other words, Turkey’s policies could not only disturb Russia but also impact Egypt, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tehran: Reconciliation is hard without Russia
Lavrov’s second stop was Iran, which signed a deal with China in March. Lavrov traveled to Tehran on April 13th, where he met with both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his counterpart Javad Zarif. Lavrov’s priority was the Iran Nuclear Deal.
The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 under the Trump administration undermined the agreement. As the deal is multilateral, the other parties say it is still in force. But the U.S. sanctions against Iran have led it to reconsider its nuclear commitments. In fact, in 2019, Tehran surpassed the limits set by the deal on nuclear enrichment. The Biden administration, which has been in office since January 2021, has declared that it wants to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
The talks which are expected to be held and are dubbed the “Iran Nuclear Talks,” began in Vienna last week. In addition to the parties of the deal, U.S. representatives also attended the meeting. During the Vienna talks, Iran and the US did not meet directly, but other states transmitted messages between them. As a result of the talks, US sanctions could be lifted in exchange for Iran halting nuclear enrichment. Within this framework, an agreement was reached between the two states to establish additional working groups.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to the international organizations in Vienna, said the groups had already begun working and would try to ensure the continuation of the nuclear agreement through a common formula. However, Ulyanov maintained on Twitter that “It will take some time. How long? Nobody knows. The most important thing … is that practical work towards achieving this goal has started.”
Lavrov’s visit to Iran while talks were held in Vienna was noteworthy in this respect. As one may recall, negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 were stalled before an agreement was reached in 2015. In order to return to the table, Iran had asked China and Russia to facilitate them. In fact, an agreement was reached through the facilitation of Moscow and Beijing.
At this point, the visits of first the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and then Lavrov to Iran contains the message that China and Russia will not leave Iran alone during the nuclear deal process. Moreover, if the talks are halted once again – in such long-term negotiations, it is almost a necessity - Moscow and Beijing are already reminding Washington which actors will influence the process. In a sense, Biden’s deal with Iran will also depend on the respective stances of China and Russia.
As for the bilateral talks, Iran has asked Russia for support regarding defense. Rouhani reminded Moscow that the UN Security Council Arms Embargo against Iran had ended in October 2020. He told Moscow to “take action for the defense system and military equipment.” Lavrov said that they have not set a limit on their cooperation with Iran, that he had sent half a million doses of Sputnik V vaccines to this country and that they were open to talks on oil were the highlights of the meeting.
In sum, Sergei Lavrov visited China, South Korea, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran from the last week of March until mid-April. Some of these states and Russia have historical ties inherited from the USSR. Russia strives to develop relations with some of these states with which it has restricted relations, in accordance with its regional and global priorities.
In this context, Egypt and Iran were important for the equilibriums in the Middle East. The visit to Egypt serves as a reminder of this, not only in terms of relations between Russia and Egypt, but also with the capacity of affecting a linkage that extends to Turkey, Libya, Syria, Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the meeting in Cairo shows Russia’s objection to the global balances which extend to Ankara and from there to Kiev and Washington.
One should not consider the Iran meeting as extraneous to Egypt. In those two countries, common issues were raised as well as different topics. However, the process of returning to the Iran Nuclear Deal and the strategy to be implemented there will also affect the duration of the negotiations and its success, since both China and Russia reminded the US that in fact, they should not be underestimated regarding the Iran issue and that Washington must take into account Iran when developing strategies towards those two actors.