Controversy and confusion dog Russian use of Iranian airbase

Sunday 28/08/2016
A February 2016 file photo shows Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Iranian Defence Minister General Hossein Dehghan during a meeting in Moscow.

London - The revelation of the pres­ence of Russian bombers at Iran’s Nojeh Airbase in Hamadan touched off a flurry of analysis on increasing Russo-Iranian military cooperation in the context of the Syrian conflict and its longer-term ramifications.
Inside Iran, news of the Rus­sians’ use of the base to attack tar­gets in Syria provoked a surprising level of controversy with lawmak­ers in the parliament claiming the development violates Article 146 of the country’s constitution.
This unexpectedly strong oppo­sition prompted Alaeddin Borou­jerdi, the head of the parliamenta­ry committee for national security and foreign policy, to rush to the defence of the Russo-Iranian coop­eration by claiming it had been ap­proved by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
A mainstay of the Iranian security establishment for decades, Borou­jerdi’s robust defence of the legal foundations of the cooperation did not fully suppress concerns about the potential unconstitutional na­ture of the development
Legal issues aside, it is important not to read too much into the de­velopment. An increase in Russo- Iranian military cooperation is to be expected as the Syrian conflict approaches the endgame. Intensi­fying defence ties notwithstand­ing, for historical, political and strategic reasons, Iran and Russia cannot forge a formal alliance.
In recent days even Iranian ana­lysts supportive of closer military ties with Russia have been at pains to underline the difficult historical context, notably powerful Iranian memories of Russian blows to ter­ritorial integrity and national pres­tige stretching back 200 years.
In modern times the former So­viet Union’s support to Iraq dur­ing the long running Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was a major barrier to normalising ties. However, in practical terms, and strong rheto­ric notwithstanding, Tehran was keen to exploit the latter stages of the Cold War by adopting a more favourable attitude towards the Soviets by way of compensating for the loss of ties to the United States.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed historical, emotional and strategic barriers to closer ties with Russia. In the Iranian psyche Russia was long conflated with the concept of empire as embodied by the tsarist regime and subsequent­ly the Soviet Union.
Therefore, the emergence of Russia as a nation-state, and cru­cially one lacking common borders with Iran, had an ameliorative ef­fect on the psychology of Iranian strategists. In practical terms, this led to steadily improving relations and even cooperation on difficult issues such as conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh and devising a legal regime for the Caspian Sea.
Two factors have significantly contributed to much stronger ties in the past decade. First, the rise of Russia as a potential world power under the strong leadership of President Vladimir Putin is at­tractive to Iran in so far as Russian power can be leveraged against US and Western influence. Second, Iran’s elevated geopolitical profile and the resulting self-confidence of Iranian decision makers and strate­gists lean towards closer ties to the Russian Federation.
Despite these developments and Iran’s and Russia’s clear interests in working together to counter West­ern influence in the region and be­yond, the historical context cannot be expunged. It is for this reason perhaps that Russian Ambassa­dor to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan is at pains to reassure Iranian public opinion that Russia is not intend­ing to establish a permanent mili­tary base in Iran.
Despite the political controversy in Tehran and the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s hasty announcement on the withdrawal of Russian bombers notwithstanding, Iran is likely to allow Russia to continue using the Nojeh Airbase.
This decision is essentially tac­tical and operational in nature and should not be conflated with broader strategic calculations. It stems from the belief inside the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the broader Iranian defence establishment that victory in the Syrian conflict is in sight.
Critical to this calculus is the bat­tle for Aleppo, where, despite re­cent rebel gains, an elaborate siege is taking shape that should subdue the remnants of resistance in the critically important city.
The fall of Aleppo would de­liver a massive psychological blow to Syrian rebels and their foreign backers. In practical terms it would improve the Syrian Army and allied militias’ positioning vis-à-vis other actors in the multifaceted Syrian conflict, notably the Kurds and the Islamic State.
To deliver mortal blows on the rebels, Syria and Iran need Russian air power. While Iran was initially lukewarm to the forceful Russian entry into the war last October, the remarkable achievements of the Russian Air Force, which have transformed the key battlefields in the Hama, Homs and Aleppo prov­inces, have not gone unnoticed in Tehran.
In the final analysis, there is growing recognition in Iranian policymaking circles that intense Russian involvement is required in the latter stages of the Syrian conflict to balance and contain the ambitions of American diplomacy in Syria.