Is Russia's use of Iranian base a strategic necessity or a political message for Washington?

It is almost unheard in recent history for Iran to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to mount attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria

Reignition of Vehemence of Russo-Iranian Alliance over Syria

The current magnitude of tangle between Russia and the West—unparalleled since the denouement of the Cold War—has evolved into Russia’s push towards bolstered ties with many Middle Eastern nations. A sequence of strategic and tactical determinants moulded the augmentation of Russia’s involvement in Syria from its role as a supplier of military hardware and political succour, to its unmediated military intrusion in the civil war and war against the ISIS. Amongst the strategic determinants, the most significant was the Russian nobility’s desire to get out of the “strategic impasse” that sustained Russian subservience to “western regulations and supremacy” that were plummeting and restraining Moscow’s utilization of sovereign power and preeminence domestically and internationally. A set of tactical determinants involve an assortment of geopolitical, military-industrial, economic and ideological drivers such as Russian conviction on the exigency of evading the disintegration of a genial regime; the safeguard of Russian national security; the significance of averting Islamic radicalism from undermining the regional peace; confronting present day regimes in the post-Soviet space and—to a certain extent-confronting the West.

Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian strife had direct ramifications on Russian relations with the Middle East. Especially, it established concrete bedrock for the blossoming of Russian collaboration with Iran. Presently, Moscow and Tehran materialized matrimony of convenience in Syria where each collaborator endeavours to consummate its own objectives through mutual efforts. However, this kind of synergy does not rule out the probability of future contretemps between the two nations.

Russian attention and regional concerns have transposed a bit dramatically since 2014. Contention with Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea evolved in a surge of western economic and political sanctions followed by Russia’s “counter sanctions”. This mutually calamitous proceeding has acutely re-moulded Russian foreign relations. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia evolved as a primarily pro-western nation. However, in recent years, Russia transpired as standard-bearer of non-western countries, seeking a strengthened strategic collaboration with China and aggrandized political and economic ties with the BRIC countries. In order to secure considerable global espousal, Russia has also reassessed its geo-political standpoint towards Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

It is arduous to find another country other than Iran whose relations with Moscow could undergo such a large number of sharp intricacies and alterations in a brief period of time. Between 1991-2012, bouts of effectual political discourse between Russia and Iran were swiftly suspended by lengthy cessations during which Moscow and Tehran reciprocated allegations of the other’s debacle to measure up to treaty pledges and to keep given promises. In Moscow’s viewpoint, this volatility of bilateral relations could be expounded by the fact that between 1991-2012, Russian national interests in Iran played a marginal role in influencing the Kremlin’s attitude towards the Islamic Republic. In most cases, the Kremlin’s statecraft in Iran was moulded by drivers of Russian foreign policy that were not always directly linked to Tehran. Among these drivers the following played the most crucial role:

1. Russia’s interest in retaining a certain level of constructive discourse with the West (especially the United States).

2. Russia’s interest in ensuring its ascendancy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) space as the zone of Russia’s national yearnings.

3. Russia’s interest in gaining stability around the borders of the CIS and Russia (which included Russia’s interests in the deterrence of nuclear proliferation).

At the same time, the behaviour of the Iranian authorities towards Russia was also periodically determined by drivers that were not always directly associated with  the bilateral relations of the two countries. In summary, between 1991-2012, the brawl between pro- and anti-Western nobilities in the Iran, Iran’s claims to supremacy in the Middle East, and alterations in the degree of confrontation between Iran and the US, each had a crucial impact on Iran’s diplomatic approach towards Russia.

Currently Russia acts as both an economic partner and a military benefactor to Iran, a country under harsh sanctions by much of the Western world. As confrontation between the United States and Iran heightens, the country is finding itself further pushed into an affinity with China and Russia. And Iran, like Russia, "perceives Turkey's regional aspirations and the potential proliferation of some form of pan-Turkic ideology with scepticism" Russia and Iran also share a joint interest in curbing the political influence of the United States in Central Asia. This joint concern has led the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to extend to Iran observer status in 2005, and offer full membership in 2006.

There was both a strategic and tactical set of factors behind Russia’s escalation of its involvement in Syria from its role as a “supplier of military hardware and political support” to Russia’s direct military intervention in the Syrian civil war and war with IS. Only a combination of these factors—against the backdrop of a critically disastrous military situation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by early 2015—can explain the first openly-conducted, unprovoked, full-scale military operation abroad for post-Soviet Russia. Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria adjusted and crystallized their mutual interests.There are some political analysts who insist that the cooperation between the two countries remains extremely fragile and predict a near-end to the Russian-Iranian collaboration. The Iranian political establishment does not have a unified opinion on the necessity to cooperate with Russia in Syria. There are even Iranian policymakers and analysts who cautiously question the rationale behind Tehran’s military involvement in Syria. For instance, in October 2015, prominent Iranian politician Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani clearly stated his critical attitude to any military attempts to solve the Syrian crisis. When commenting on the beginning of the Russian air raids in Syria, Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated that he is against the bombings of Syria regardless of whoever conducts them. Air strikes, he said, can hardly be an alternative to negotiations as a way to end to the conflict. Unexpectedly, Moscow is also criticized among the traditional supporters of Tehran’s active role in the Syrian crisis namely by Iranian radical conservatives and some IRGC members.

Yet, neither Hashemi-Rafsanjani, nor the IRGC commanders backed by radical conservatives have the last word in determining Tehran’s approaches to Syria and Russia. It is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who takes final decisions on the most sensitive political questions. During his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2015, Khamenei gave the green light for an Iranian cooperation with Russia on Syria. The Supreme Leader’s decision was largely supported by the moderate conservative majority that dominated Iranian politics at the time. Immediately after Putin’s trip to Tehran, international affairs advisor to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati (who is deeply involved in Iranian diplomacy towards Syria), formulated the official point of view on Russian-Iranian cooperation that became widely accepted within the Iranian political establishment. He argued that the Iranian authorities are determined to have “continuous and long-lasting cooperation with Russia” regarding the situation in Syria. According to Velayati, Russian efforts aimed at the settlement of the Syrian issue were completely coordinated with Iran.

Iran’s decision to establish an active cooperation with Russia on Syria was determined by a number of factors. At the geostrategic level, the beginning of Moscow’s military involvement in Syrian affairs finally gave the Iranian authorities what they had been looking for throughout the last decade: solid political ground for the development of bilateral relations. Since the 2000s, Tehran was searching for a leading world power that could act as a counterweight to US pressure on Iran. Traditionally, Russia was arguably the preferred candidate for this role. The need to develop active cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria was also determined by the situation on the Syrian battlefield itself. Iran was the first to supply the Syrian regime with arms, financial means, and “volunteers”, while Russia initially tried to limit its involvement in the crisis to providing diplomatic support to the Assad government. However by 2015, Iranian resources were substantially exhausted. Moreover, it became obvious that these resources were not enough to save Assad. By that time, Tehran was also deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and also in the Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts. Consequently, the Iranian government was compelled to juggle its limited human and material resources between its allies in these three countries. The beginning of Russian air strikes provided a serious incentive for Iran to increase (at least temporary) the numbers of its military forces and proxies in Syria in order to help the Syrian army stabilize the situation on the front lines (especially, near Aleppo) in October-November 2015.

While the motives and ultimate objectives pursued by Russia and Iran in Syria are divergent, their current priorities are the same. Both Moscow and Tehran are interested in saving the remaining government institutions of the country. This common task plays in favor of Russian-Iranian cooperation, although each country certainly has its own reasons for saving the remnants of the regime. Russo-Iranian collaboration in Syria has now become intensified with reports of Russians using Iranian airbase for their targets in Syria. On 15 August, 2016, Al-Masdar News, an outlet with close ties to the Syrian government’s security apparatus, released photos of a Russian TU-22M3 long-distance strategic bomber, which were reportedly taken at the Hamadan airfield in Iran. By the next morning, Russian state-run media was running reports that Russian strategic bombers had taken off from the Iranian base and struck targets in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Idlib provinces in Syria. A prominent Iranian lawmaker confirmed that Russia is using an Iranian air base for airstrikes in Syria, as Moscow said another wave of airstrikes launched from the Islamic Republic struck the east of the war-ravaged country.

The comments by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, are the first official acknowledgment that Russian planes are flying out of Iran's Shahid Nojeh Air Base.

Meanwhile, Russia's foreign minister rejected allegations that its use of Iranian military bases for airstrikes in Syria violates United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Russia on Tuesday first announced that it had launched the strikes from near the Iranian city of Hamedan and struck targets in three provinces in northern and eastern Syria. The Defense Ministry announced a new wave of airstrikes out of Iran, saying its jets took off earlier in the day from a base southwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran, to strike targets in the east of Syria.

It is almost unheard in recent history for Iran to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to mount attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria, where it has been carrying out an aerial campaign in support of President Bashar Assad's government for nearly a year. Iran is also a major supporter of Assad.

Boroujerdi said that Russian's fighters land at Shahid Nojeh Air Base only to refuel under the permission of the country's Supreme National Security Council.

"Generally, there is no stationing of Russian forces in the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Boroujerdi said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied allegations by U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, who the day before said Russia's operation out of Iran could violate the U.N. resolution that prohibits the supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved by the Security Council.

"In the case we're discussing there has been no supply, sale or transfer of fighter jets to Iran," Lavrov told a news conference. "The Russian Air Force uses these fighter jets with Iran's approval in order to take part in the counter-terrorism operation" in Syria.

The minister also called on the U.S. not to "nitpick about what is happening in terms of the remaining restrictions on trade and ties with Iran."

Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that the Russians activated a communications link with coalition officials just ahead of the first bomber mission on Tuesday.

“The Russians did notify the coalition,” he said, adding that they “informed us they were coming through” airspace that could potentially put them in proximity of U.S. and coalition aircraft in Iraq or Syria.

Asked how much advance notice the Russians gave the U.S., Garver said, “We did know in time” to maintain safety of flight. “It’s not a lot of time, but it’s enough” to maintain safety in the airspace over Iraq and Syria, he said.

That raises questions about whether the move was a strategic necessity or a political message from the Kremlin to Washington.

The announcement from Russia marks the first significant stationing of its troops in Iran since World War II.

I wish Syrians will be able to enjoy days of prosperity once again and may the global community become capable of meeting the overwhelming needs of Syrian people. Alas! The global community seems helpless in the face of such desperation and tragedy in Syria and has failed to attain a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt