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Ex-FBI director warns that 'triple threat' alliance could pose a threat to democracy
05:51 - Source: CNN

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

One image distributed by Iranian media on Tuesday of Russia and Iran’s leaders meeting stood out. Russian President Vladimir Putin is shown clasping palms with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the two rulers – both heads of oil-rich countries grappling with grueling Western sanctions – boast about their tight partnership.

Russia and Iran say they are now closer than ever as the West clamps down on both states. But some observers say the two countries’ highly publicized friendship has both a tumultuous past and a difficult future ahead.

In his first trip outside the former Soviet Union since the Ukraine war, Putin on Tuesday landed in the Iranian capital Tehran, where he met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, as well as the country’s highest-ranking ruler, Khamenei.

Putin’s visit was part of a trilateral meeting with Raisi and NATO leader Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has so far refused to join in on Russian sanctions and offered to play a mediating role between Moscow and Kyiv.

But some analysts are skeptical of the true strength of Russia and Iran’s declared friendship, with some saying the meeting was mostly about the optics, signaling potential cooperation as opposed to the more modest support both countries currently give one another.

In the past, Russia had always “overpromised and underdelivered,” said Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at Crisis Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and has even “stabbed [Iran] in the back repeatedly and sold it to the highest bidder.”

But options for Iran and Russia are limited, he added, and so they cannot afford to alienate one another.

The timing of the meeting is also pertinent, coming just days after US President Joe Biden ended a Middle East tour that many hoped would yield more oil and forge a stronger regional alliance against Iran, yet ended in Biden going home largely empty-handed.

The Islamic Republic has accused the US of rallying the region against it, planting instability and spreading “Iranophobia.”

The meeting is, from Tehran’s point of view, “a signal of strength in response to the American attempt to show itself as in charge of the region,” Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday, who added that Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia “was perhaps seen as a sign of weakness” and is “representative of a relative decline of the United States.”

Russia is in a similarly isolated position after becoming the world’s most heavily sanctioned country in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. Iran comes in second, according to Castellum.Ai, which tracks sanctions.

The two oil-rich states were keen to show their tight alliance in Tuesday’s meeting, with Iran showing strong support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

In a bilateral meeting with Raisi, Putin said he was “very pleased to be on the hospitable Iranian soil” and that the two countries “can boast about record figures in terms of trade growth.”

The talks also brought forth a $40 billion agreement between Iran’s national oil company and Russia’s state-run gas company Gazprom, according to a statement from Shana, the news agency for Iran’s oil ministry. The memorandum of understanding is meant to develop Iranian gas fields and build new pipelines for export.

However, Iran’s heavily restricted economy and Russia’s past ventures in the Persian Gulf state are driving skepticism about whether the deal will indeed materialize.

The Gazprom deal is an example of the complexities facing close Russian-Iranian cooperation, says Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and CEO of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation think tank in London.

“It is part of a pageantry of state visits,” he said. “It does not obligate Russia to invest and Russia is not going to invest in Iran’s energy sector while Iran’s energy sector is under stricter sanctions than Russia’s energy sector.”

Investment in Iran’s energy sector would “trigger enforcement action from the US that would jeopardize Russia’s continued energy exports to Europe and to other countries,” Batmanghelidj added.

Unlike Russia, Iran is under secondary US sanctions that place firms or individuals that deal with Iran at risk of being penalized.

Gazprom had previously signed a gas deal with Iran’s National Oil Company in 2016, when Iran was not yet under secondary sanctions, but which “didn’t lead anywhere” due to several barriers constricting Iran’s economy, said Batmanghelidj.

Russia has in the past hindered Iranian policy when it stood as an obstacle to key interests.

The two countries have also recently fallen into a tense energy competition as they scramble to find buyers for their sanctioned oil. As the West began barring Russian oil, Moscow has been biting into Tehran’s last remaining lifeline for its energy exports –, China – , leading to an oil price war where Russia still maintains the upper hand.

And in March, Russia rose as a temporary hurdle in nuclear talks with Iran, asking for guarantees that protect its own national interests as Western sanctions fell down on Moscow.

“The track record is full of so many negative experiences, where Iran felt that Russia has undercut Iran,” said Batmanghelidj, adding that in many situations Russia acted as “ruthless and self-serving country” in its dealings with Iran.

“It takes a long time for two countries to build genuine trust,” he said.

While there is relatively little Russia can expect Iran to do to help help it emerge from its heavily sanctioned economy, the US has warned that Tehran is planning to help Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Earlier this July, the White House said that Iran is expected to supply Russia with “hundreds” of drones – including weapons-capable drones — for use in the war in Ukraine and that Iran is preparing to begin training Russian forces on how to operate them as soon as this month.

Iran has denied selling drones to Russia, but on Tuesday, Iranian media reported that Iran is ready to export military equipment and weapons to friendly nations, quoting an Iranian army general.

Iran’s experience in evading sanctions may also be of use to Russia, said Vaez, showing Moscow the tricks – and limitations – of living with a restricted economy.

“I think it is completely natural that both sides are thinking about creating a club of sanctioned states,” he added, “But I think there are also limits to how far they can go.”

The digest

Australian teenager dies while detained in Syrian prison

An Australian teenager who was forced as a child to live under the Islamic State (ISIS), has died in detention in a northeastern Syrian prison, Human Rights Watch says, citing family members. The rights group said Monday that 17-year-old Yusuf Zahab’s family had previously asked the Australian government to bring him home, but to no avail.

  • Background: There are believed to be 41,000 foreigners held in camps and prisons in northeast Syria, many being children living in poor conditions. Diseases like tuberculosis and deaths from serious wounds are reportedly not uncommon. It is unclear what Zahab died of, but his story is not unique – like many in detention, he was forced to live under ISIS when brought from his native country at a young age against his will. His family were then captured by US-backed Syrian forces a few years later.
  • Why it matters: The Syrian Defense Forces currently have between 69 and 80 Australian nationals detained, mostly women and children, according to HRW, but Australia’s government only repatriated eight citizens in 2019. They are not alone in their hesitancy to bring home citizens, as many nations cite security concerns.

Saudi Arabia’s economy expected to grow an average of nearly 4% a year until 2026

The credit rating agency Moody’s has given Saudi Arabia a top score and says it expects the Gulf powerhouse to grow 3.9% yearly from 2022 to 2026, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The country’s robust balance sheet, relatively modest debt levels and large oil reserves were factors considered in Moody’s stable outlook.

  • Background: Some of the world’s biggest hydrocarbon producers, the Gulf nations are seeing billions of dollars added to their coffers aided by a Ukraine war-driven rally in oil prices. They are expected to register their first budget surpluses after an eight-year oil slump that was compounded by a pandemic-linked downturn.
  • Why it matters: Despite the recent oil-linked boon to the Saudi economy, its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues his mission to diversify its sources of revenue for a post-oil future. After an oil price crash induced by the pandemic slowed down his Vision 2030 plan two years ago, it seems the Gulf nation’s economy is back on track and possibly stronger than ever.

Human rights groups demand action on decaying oil tanker off Yemen

Several humanitarian and human rights groups are again calling for a government-led salvage operation of a supertanker moored off Yemen’s coast to prevent an environmental catastrophe. The groups, which include Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said in a statement Monday that the enormous FSO Safer oil storage tanker sitting in the Red Sea could explode or rupture at any moment.

  • Background: The FSO Safer tanker – which contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, or more than four times the amount spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez 2 – has been “deserted” off Yemen’s coast since 2015 and continues to deteriorate. The United Nations have been trying to inspect the vessel for years, but cannot due to insufficient funding.
  • Why it matters: Fisheries are responsible for providing subsistence for 1.7 million people in the country, which is in its seventh year of conflict and is on brink of famine. Nearly all of those fisheries are under threat if there is a major oil spill, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

What to watch

France is on the lookout for alternative energy sources as Europe prepares for the worst amid gas disruptions from Russia, and just days ago signed an energy deal with the United Arab Emirates during a state visit by UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to Paris.

French foreign minister Bruno Le Maire tells CNN’s Becky Anderson that France “must be prepared” for the possibility that Putin cuts off gas for all of Europe.

Around the region

Produce vegetates on CropOne's multi-tier growing racks in Dubai.

The Gulf has never been known for its lush vegetation or bountiful soil. The desert heat, which can reach 120°F in the summer months, makes it almost impossible to grow traditional produce on a large scale.

However innovative modern technology has changed the future of farming, as indoor vertical farms spring up across the world, from Los Angeles to Kyoto.

The United Arab Emirates is also experimenting with new ways to produce food locally, most recently in opening one of the world’s largest indoor vertical farms in Dubai.

Crop One, a Boston-based food technology company, and Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC), a subsidiary of the Emirates Group, best known for its airline, have teamed up to build a 330,000 square foot facility – that’s nearly six football pitches in size.

It aims to produce more than 900,000kg of crops annually, which won’t require washing or contain artificial pesticides and other chemicals. The farm will use 95% less water than traditionally grown greens, according to Crop One.

One of the other advantages of vertical farming is the removal of seasonal constraints and weather changes, allowing a year-long harvest. Dubai’s newest vertical farm is no different, promising to produce fresh food 365 days a year.

Critics of vertical farming say the technique uses too much energy and is more expensive than traditional farming.

But rising temperatures and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are making farming conditions increasingly challenging and disrupting food distribution. Countries such as the UAE, which are heavily dependent on food imports, can also be vulnerable to external shocks like Russia’s war on Ukraine; hence the adoption of technologies like vertical farms and smart greenhouses to increase local food production – even in the desert.

By Eoin McSweeney

Photo of the day

Palestinian children shower to cool off on a hot summer day in Gaza City on July 20.