Russia and Iran may have had a public tussle over the stationing of military aircraft, but the long-term outlook for cooperation between the two powers in the Syrian conflict remains largely unchanged.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan shake hands during their meeting in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry / AP
The Russian air force’s withdrawal from Iran’s Shahid Nojeh air base this week will have confirmed for some the uneasiness of the two countries’ relationship, which they allege is an alliance of convenience built on their shared objectives in Syria.
With Russia’s deployment there announced only a week earlier, its aircraft were seemingly dismissed while Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan criticized Russia for exhibiting an “ungentlemanly” and “show-off” attitude in publicizing its use of the base.
Despite such a public scolding, this event actually says less about Russia and Iran’s relationship, which is stronger than it appears, than about divisions within Iran itself. Most likely, it will have little effect on their relations, which will continue on the mutually beneficial basis of quiet cooperation.
Russia has been suspected of using the Shahid Nojeh base since at least November 2015 to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), when a Russian Su-34 strike fighter and Il-76 transport aircraft were spotted by satellite imagery while parked there. Its value to Russia is that this base, located in Iran’s northwestern Hamadan province, can accommodate the Tu-22M3 strategic bomber, which is too large for Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria near Latakia, and would otherwise have to fly directly from Russia.
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Stationing these aircraft in Iran is therefore more efficient, as it cuts their flight time by approximately 60 percent, and it also increases their operational tempo and brings more weapons to bear as the Tu-22M3 can carry more than twice the ordnance than either the Su-24 or Su-34. Iran benefits from this efficiency because in Syria, Russia acts as the decisive air force that neither Iran nor Syria yet possesses.
This became a problem only when it was revealed to the Iranian public: a U.S. probe into whether Russia was violating UN Security Council resolution 2231 by providing or transferring military aircraft to Iran led Russia to confirm the aircraft were its own, which in turn sparked controversy in the Iranian parliament. An Iranian lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, specifically complained that the stationing of Russian aircraft on Iranian territory violated Article 146 of Iran’s constitution, which prohibits the existence of any kind of foreign military base in Iran.
This revelation was sure to cause a stir in vehemently anti-colonial Iran, but also poses problems for those Iranians who favor more cordial and profitable relations with the West than those of recent decades. As previously noted, fighting wars together is typically something that allies do, but such blatant association with Russia – which has been no friend of the West recently – is neither good for the Iranians’ image or their objectives.
An expert on Iran, Saam Borhani, tweeted that this revelation “misjudged” public opinion including that of parliamentarians, many of whom are “up in arms.” But it seems that those in charge of military cooperation were quite aware of its controversy, hence the secrecy surrounding it until now, and the choice of the Shahid Nojeh base, which has no civilian functions and is located well away from significant population centers.
Indeed, when parliamentarians first voiced their objections, Dehghan snapped that what was going on in Shahid Nojeh was “none of their business,” before later issuing an apology.
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Inevitably, Russia’s aircraft were ordered to return home in an “attempt to save face” by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which claimed they had successfully completed their operation. The idea of a single completed operation seems unlikely, given that only days before, the Ministry was listing attacks across the entire country’s breadth, in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Idlib – fronts that are as active now as they were then.
Despite this inconsistency, Dehghan was happy to endorse this account, calling Russia’s deployment a “specific, authorized mission” that is “over for now.” This in itself raises the question of how soon Russia might be back and, indeed, whether it has withdrawn at all – something experts in satellite imagery will be keeping a close eye on.
In any case, this incident has served to remind both parties of the sensitivities implicit in their relationship. It will not, however, affect the continued cooperation they depend on in Syria or their relationship as a whole.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.