BEIRUT, Lebanon – Just weeks ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dropped his objections to allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO – a move that angered Russian President Vladimir V Putin.
He is now traveling to Iran for talks with none other than Mr Putin himself, and President Ebrahim Raisi is also present.
The trip underscores Mr Erdogan’s complicated and often seemingly contradictory statesmanship. As a NATO member, Turkey is reportedly allied with pro-European Ukraine. And a leading Turkish drone manufacturer proudly sells drones used by Ukrainian forces to blow up Russian tanks.
Still, in recent years, Mr Erdogan has grown closer to Mr Putin and has kept ties with the Russian leader open, acting as an intermediary between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and pushing for talks aimed at allowing grain from Ukraine to pass through leave Russia’s blockade to alleviate global food shortages.
During his tenure at the helm of the Turkish state, Mr Erdogan has used a complex web of ties with multiple countries to turn Turkey into an actor, serving as a mediator between nations in conflict or pitting enemies against one another for his own benefit.
While other NATO members view Turkey as a sometimes problematic member of the alliance, Turkey’s membership gives it added leverage when dealing with countries like Russia and Iran. Conversely, Mr Erdogan is using his multiple foreign relations as a bargaining chip against NATO, said Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
“It’s part balancing, maneuvering, double-crossing,” Mr Akkoyunlu said. “You can influence it positively or negatively, but that is the hallmark of Erdogan’s foreign policy.”
Despite disagreements between Turkey and Russia over Ukraine, the countries in Iran have other issues to discuss.
All countries are militarily active in the war in Syria, for example, albeit on different sides. Both Russia and Iran came to the aid of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supported the rebels who were trying to evict him and now controls much of the territory inside Syria along Turkey’s border and wants to take more.
Erdogan has been talking for months about launching a new military incursion into northeastern Syria to track down Kurdish militiamen whom Turkey considers terrorists. But Russia also has troops in the area, so the operation is unlikely to go ahead unless Turkey can work it out with Russia.
Turkey also has ties with Iran, although as a NATO member Turkey is part of the US-led Western alliance, which Iran opposes. As the United States searches for partners to deter Iran in the Middle East, Mr Erdogan has not hesitated to accept the country’s hospitality.
Mr. Putin is only the latest visitor from Moscow to Iran. Russia is seeking hundreds of armed and unarmed surveillance drones from Iran to use in the war in Ukraine, and a Russian delegation visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in the past five weeks to examine drones that can be armed at home, according to White .
Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Turkey’s situation meant it had to “maintain a balance as a country in the region.”
“It is natural and right that Turkey maintains close ties with Russia and Iran to protect national interests while fulfilling the obligations of NATO membership,” he said, noting that some Western countries found these contacts troubling .
“As our Western allies, particularly the US, have some concerns about whether Turkey shares collective interests, these bilateral contacts might raise eyebrows,” he said.