The symmetry was hard to miss.
Just as Turkey last week pushed the US nuclear stockpile out of the southern air base of Incirlik and raised the possibility of evicting US warplanes from their strategic launch pad just 112km from Syria, so too this week did Iran deny giving Russia an air base at Nojeh near Hamedan.
Washington took the slap from Ankara; Moscow from Tehran.
Both were qualified. The US later recovered the conditional use of Incirlik, while Moscow apparently retained non-permanent takeoff and landing rights at the Nojeh base.
Did those moves show Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei singing from the same songbook?
There is no hard evidence of that as yet, but DEBKA Weekly has learned that Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish MIT secret service, has reestablished his contacts with the heads of Khamenei’s private intelligence service after a long period of cool relations.
Fidan’s steps were presented as a bid to persuade the supreme leader to receive Erdogan during his forthcoming visit to Tehran. Khamenei is playing hard to get. He says that it is right and proper for Erdogan to be satisfied with being greeted by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
But aside from pilpul on protocol, Fidan’s and Khamenei’s secret agencies are busy opening up their own back-channels.
While there may never be complete trust between the two spy agencies, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources believe they may be able to coordinate for well-defined objectives – such as, for instance, a combined effort to push the US out of its Middle East holdings, while also delimiting Russia’s expansionist drive.
Only last week, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and his chief strategist, Special Envoy to the Middle East Michael Bogdanov, were certain that a Moscow-led Russian-Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi alliance was ready to drop in the Kremlin’s lap. Indeed, Putin saw his aspiration coming true of a chain of Russian air bases stretching from Mozdok in Northern Ossetia (the Russian are already expanding the base and adding a second runway for heavy bombers), through Incirlik in Turkey, Khmeimim in Syrian Latakia, and Nojeh in Western Iran (see attached map).
Adding an Iraqi air base (still in negotiation with Baghdad) to the chain from the Caucasus, through the eastern Middle East, to the Caspian Sea – would have crowned the Kremlin’s greatest strategic achievement since Soviet Russia’s Cold War heydays in the 60's and early 70's of the last century, when Moscow was top dog in the Middle East.
But two local rulers – separately or in concert – are intent on putting a spanner in Putin’s works. Not only the ayatollah, but Erdogan too who, while aiming to hold the Americans to ransom over Incirlik – a topic subsequently covered in Vice President Joe Biden’s talks in Ankara on Aug. 24 – is in no hurry to allow the Russians to deploy in their stead.
The Turkish president is not averse to playing more than two ends against the middle against his allies.
On Aug. 20, just two weeks after sealing his entente cordiale with Putin in St. Petersburg, Erdogan called Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko to assure him that Turkey had not changed its "unwavering position regarding its support of Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity in the country's internationally recognized borders."
He added that Ankara would not recognize "Crimea's occupation" and would continue to support "the Crimean Tatars in every possible way."
Erdogan was not bothered when the “occupier,” his new friend Putin, landed the day before in the Crimea Peninsula and led a meeting there of the Russian Supreme National Security Council.
The Turkish ruler, like the ayatollah, clearly intended to show how he could clip the Russian president’s wings, if he chose, and that, even if he gave the Russian air force access to Incirlik, this did not confer on Putin a hegemonic role in the vast region in his sights from the Caucasus, through the Middle East and the Caspian Sea.
Have the two Middle East leaders ganged up to trash Putin’s vision of a Russian-Turkish-Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi bloc and promote their own double act? It is too soon to say. And if they have, they can’t be sure that the two big powers won’t come together at some point to defeat their ploy.
The symmetry was hard to miss.