Controversy and confusion dog Russian use of Iranian airbase
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.