Growing Russia-Iran military relations: An illusion?
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Not at all! Not an illusion, at least for time being. Russo-Iran relations are steadily growing and deepening. Moscow and Teheran are changing from the pragmatic business model of “armament supplier-buyer” to military cooperation. The closer cooperation serves both to target opponents of Assad – some of them backed by the USA – while also sending a sharp message to the US as fighting over the divided city of Aleppo reaches a critical point after five years of inconclusive civil war.
Six Russian long-distance Tu-22M3 and four Su-34 frontal bombers went to the Khamadan Airport in Iran on August 16. Arrival of Russian bombers at Hamadan Airbase in Iran – historic development captured headlines around the world – has set the tone for new type military relations between Russia and Iran –both have maintained, since the breakup of US-Iran military relations, strong military tires for a long time now. Further, the long-range Russian bombers armed with full payloads took off from Hamadan Airbase to attack facilities controlled by Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Jabhat Al Nusra (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh Al Sham) in Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor and Idlib provinces. On August 16, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Secretary of Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) stated that Iran had agreed to share its military facilities and capacities with Russia.
Russian strategic bombers launched from Iran struck rebel positions in Syria last week, in a second day of attacks that multiply Russian firepower in the Middle East and underscore unprecedented military cooperation between the Islamic Republic and a foreign power.
Military experts say this move was motivated both by economic reasons and the necessity to change the course of the battle for Aleppo. During combat missions in the Deirez-Zor Province on August 17, the planes destroyed an IS command post, killing over 150 Syrians. The Kremlin says the Tu-22M3 bombers attacked targets of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other factions in Syria that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of both Moscow and Tehran.
According to the Russian Defence Ministry, it was necessary to relocate its war planes to the combat zone and increase the effectiveness of the mission flights. The Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, currently being used by the front line aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces, is not suitable for the Tu-22M3. The runway is too short and there is a lack of necessary infrastructure. Consequently, Russia and Syria asked Iran to let Russia deploy its planes at an Iranian base. Russia has increased the effectiveness of the long-distance flights at least threefold. Now each Tu-22M3 bomber carries about 20 tons of warheads and receives four-five targets for each flight.
The aim of the Russian terror operation in Syria was not only to support the Bashar al-Assad government and to fight terrorism, but also to get out of the political-diplomatic isolation in which the country found itself after the Ukrainian crisis. Iran says it brought Russia into the Syrian civil war due to its need of an air power to coordinate the ground operations, which Iran planned. Iranian parliamentarians raised concerns about the possibility of a foreign country establishing a military base in the country, which would violate the Iranian Constitution. High-ranking officials responded that the use of Hamedan air base was strictly for refueling purposes, while other officials assured the media that Russian planes would remain in Iran temporarily. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced Aug. 22 that the planes had left Iran “for the time being, after speculation that the departure of the Russian planes was due to outside pressure or internal disagreements.
Last week, a Russian transport helicopter Mi-8 was shot down in opposition rebel territory in northern Syria and all five crew and officers onboard were killed, the Kremlin said, in the deadliest single incident for the Russian military since its involvement in Syria’s civil war. The Mi-8 helicopter was shot down in Idlib province while returning to the Russian air base on Syria’s coast after delivering humanitarian goods to the city of Aleppo, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The helicopter had three crew members and two officers deployed with the Russian center at the Hemeimeem air base on the Syrian coast. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Idlib province has a strong presence of fighters both for the al-Qaida branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front and other groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Nusra Front announced last week that it was changing its name and relinquishing ties with al-Qaida in an attempt to undermine a potential US and Russian air campaign against its fighters. The group is part of a coalition of insurgent groups called Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, which has captured most of Idlib.
In July, two Russian airmen were killed in the central Homs province when their Mi-25 helicopter was shot down by what the Defense Ministry said were Islamic State fighters. A Mi-28N helicopter gunship crashed near Homs in April, killing both crew members, but the Russian military said there was no evidence it came under fire.
A Russian warplane was shot down by a Turkey along the Syrian border in November, and one of the two pilots was shot and killed from the ground after ejecting. Earlier a Syrian military official said that government forces repelled an attack by insurgents that was an attempt to break the siege imposed on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo. The development came a day after Syrian rebels launched the offensive to break up the government’s siege of eastern, rebel-held part of the city.
The Iran-Russia cooperation results from “the crisis of terrorism that has been created by some destructive countries in West Asia region and America, therefore Russia has found the right treatment for the region. Top Iranian officials often accuse the USA of creating and backing ISIS and other jihadists fighting Assad regime, claiming it is a bid to undermine their own Iran-led axis of resistance against US and Israeli influence in the region.
Indeed, the Iran-Russia cooperation looks temporary, defined by mutual recognition of the threat of ISIS, and “is not a coalition against a third-party state such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. It is true that taking the lead in battling and destroying Daesh ISIS in Syria and Iraq will have broader geopolitical consequences for rival states, but Moscow and Tehran have never wanted to exclude other actors from the Syrian scene. Their military cooperation is only aimed at accelerating the political solution and not winning the war in a zero sum manner. Therefore, Washington and its allies, if determined to defeat ISIS, should not feel concerned about possible long-term strategic consequences.
Russia-Iran relations have varied, often pragmatically but sometimes capriciously, according to broader agendas and with an eye to the US. Russia built Iran’s only nuclear power plant at Bushehr, but finished it years late and with frequent disputes over payments that at times seemed to emerge only when Russia was trying to cozy up to the USA.
In the 1990s, Iran refrained from backing Islamist Chechen rebels in their fight against Moscow in the 1990s, even as it supported similar militias elsewhere. Yet Russia repeatedly voted alongside the US to impose UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
And earlier this year – as sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program eased as part of a July 2015 accord with world powers – Russia agreed to sell Iran its S-300 anti-missile system, among many other arms sales. Iranian media reports that “substantial” parts of the S-300, which is to defend Iran’s nuclear sites, have already been delivered.
But while both sides have downplayed any greater regional ambitions, others see a larger strategy at play. “There could be more, and the possibility of spreading the Russian air campaign to Iraq,” says Felgenhauer. “The thing is not about Syria per se. Syria is important, but there is more: Russia wants to spread its influence over the entire region, have bases all over, push the Americans out and become the dominant power in the region.”
Meanwhile, Syria became an arena where, within a short span of time, Russia, with assistance from Iran and India was able to establish itself as a global power that could rapidly project its might thousands of kilometres away from its borders and at the same time, effectively strike terrorist groups who were also threatening the interests of the West.
UN estimates some 300,000 people are still trapped in the rebel section of Aleppo, with dwindling food and medical supplies. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned on Friday that basic supplies in eastern Aleppo could run out in three weeks.
Monday’s helicopter downing was the deadliest for the Russians since Moscow began carrying out airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces last September.
Strategic military cooperation
President Vladimir Putin met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran – “the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Iran’s leader, in an unprecedented characterization of any foreign leader, called Putin “a prominent figure in today’s world”. In January this year, Moscow and Tehran signed a military-cooperation deal that called for wider collaboration around the training of personnel and counter-terrorism activities.
Cooperation between Iran and Russia took a practical turn during the Syrian war. Both countries supported Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in direct opposition to the USA and western interests, as well as the interests of various regional actors. Relations between the two states continued to strengthen over time. In November 2015, in a high-profile meeting, Russian
Iranian and Russian interests coincide in two major areas. Apart from defying US hegemony, both countries seek to halt the expansion of US military bases in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region, as well as in this part of the world have given rise to a perceived threat to the security of Iran and Russia. These geopolitical sensitivities have formed a natural basis for cooperation between Iran and Russia. In the case of Iran, this has been one of the pillars of its foreign policy since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Russians, on the other hand, seek to ameliorate their wounded pride and increase their prestige as they attempt to address what they perceive as a lack of international respect and influence. In 2005, Putin said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
The emergence of a pro-West government in Ukraine in 2014 added to Russian anxieties. The Russians were concerned about a possible NATO military presence in their backyard. That exacerbated the confrontation between Russia and the West, led by the US, and sparked a chain of tit-for-tat actions and reactions. The Russians are now under economic pressure due to the sanctions imposed by the West with the US taking a leading role. In this context, Iran was identified as the best candidate for a Russian alliance in order to create a power pole to combat the pressure placed on Moscow by the West/US.
Another common strategic imperative for Iran and Russia emerged as events unfolded in Syria. The rise of terrorists is a serious threat to the security of both countries. Russia has been in a state of war with radical elements from Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics since the 1990s. The country has been targeted by several terrorist attacks and in June 2015, the Chechen terror group pledged allegiance to Daesh.
The USA and its regional allies were against the active involvement of Russia in the Syrian war because the Russians aimed at stabilizing the vulnerable fronts in favour of the unwanted Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad. The regime had suffered severe setbacks on the battlefield prior to Russia’s intervention. However, on the other hand, Russia’s military involvement was in line with US/West strategic goals of uprooting extremist groups. Russia’s assumed role as a major player in Syria guarantees its influence in mapping Syria’s post-war politics. This will also allow Russians to tackle their conflict with the West over Ukraine from a position of strength. On the Iranian side, as chaos grew in Syria, the rise of Daesh and the expansion of their significant presence in Iraq, which is within close proximity to Iran, became a formidable threat to the country’s national security.
Syria is of vital importance to Iran for other reasons beside the urgent threat posed by Daesh. Iran’s hostility towards Israel is an entrenched part of its foreign policy since the Iranian Revolution. Iranians took advantage of hostile relations between Syria and Israel for almost 30 years. By strengthening their ties with Syria, they sought to make Syria a de facto shield against a possible military confrontation with Israel.
In addition, with the logistical and economic assistance of the Iranians, Hezbollah of Lebanon emerged in the 1980s as a paramilitary organisation. The move was aimed at countering Israel’s hegemony in the region. Meanwhile, in a context of deterrence, Hezbollah could act as an Iranian proxy force that could pose a constant, potential threat to Israel’s anti-Palestine strategy. Syria shared the same vision with respect to Hezbollah, and as such, Syria became a vital corridor through which Iran could transport weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
On another front, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has added new dimensions to Syria’s geopolitical significance for the government of Iran.
Russian military bases?
For Russia’s part, its decision to use the Shahid Nojeh military airbase in western Iran underscores its calculation that bolstering its nearly year-long overt military intervention – which began dramatically with Russia airstrikes launched from a base in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia – can help tip the battlefield in Assad’s favor. It means that keeping Assad in power is very important for Iran, and for Iranian hardliners too, since they are allowing an infidel military on their sacred territory.
Since last November, Russia’s strategic bombers have had to fly from an old Soviet airbase at Mozdok in southern Russia. The 650-mile distance to Aleppo from Mozdok is not much shorter from the western Iranian base near Hamedan, as the crow flies. But Russian planes must skirt Turkey, and targets in eastern Syria – and also anywhere in Iraq, should Russia eventually choose to take on IS targets there – are significantly closer from Iran. Flying out of Iran, therefore, enables Russian jets to carry full payloads of 24 metric tons – more than the maximum for the longer run from Russia. That is of course significant, experts say, because since they are carpet bombing Syria, the more bombs you take, the more land you cover. “Right now at this pivotal point in the battle for Aleppo, it is very important that Russia has drastically increased bomb-carrying capability, to bring the bombs to the Syrian opposition.
A top Iranian official said the new arrangement was Syria-specific but also “strategic,” and a “warning to terrorist-supporting countries” – an oblique reference to the US and its allies, which want to see Mr. Assad removed from power. While Iran- and Russia-led cooperation had already made life very tough for Syrians , the new expansion “will continue until they are completely wiped out,” said Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Russian airstrikes have hit not only ISIS jihadists, US officials say, but many more since last year have struck anti-Assad forces backed openly or clandestinely by the USA and its allies. The US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has help reduce territory of the self-declared caliphate by 30 percent, according to the Pentagon.US officials would say only that they are in “close contact” with Russia as they push for a negotiated solution to a war that has ravaged Syria, claimed more than 400,000 lives, and produced nearly 5 million refugees.
Russia says it has no hidden agenda of securing a military bases in Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian withdrawal from Syria last March, and troops were filmed returning home. But that was just a gimmick as there has been little slowdown since, and Russia’s defense ministry said it “eliminated” five weapons depots in the first day of new strikes.
Top Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi noted that Russian planes were only refueling at the base, and that “generally, there is no stationing of Russian forces” in Iran. Washington called the move “unfortunate” and said it “pushes us farther away” from a nationwide cease-fire and the UN-sponsored political process in Geneva that includes Russia. Earlier this week, Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu was quoted saying the USA and Russia were in “a very active phase” of talks about the surge of fighting in Aleppo, “to start fighting together to bring peace.”
The Russian military presence is sensitive in Iran, where revolutionary ideology since 1979 opposed both US and Soviet influence during the cold war, and categorically, in rhetoric at least, rejects foreign meddling. Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament said that it was “forbidden” by the Constitution to create a foreign military base, and that Iran had not “given the base over to Russia in military terms.”
While these determinants have created a strong foundation for a strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, it could be argued that some factors may prevent the alliance from lasting through the long term. First, the Iranians distrust the Russians. They still remember the annexation of a large territory of Iran as a result of several battles with the Russians in the 19th century. The Russians also supported several United Nations sanctions against Iran during Tehran’s crisis over its nuclear program.
It can be claimed that Russia and Iran have different motives in Syria. While this assertion is true, the strategic interests of Russia and Iran converge to a high degree. Russia knows only too well that in the absence of a motivated ground force (i.e., Iran’s proxies), their military operations will have no chance of succeeding in the Syrian asymmetric war.
They also sold their friendship with Iran when the opportunity arose. In 2010, the Russians suspended the delivery of a number of S-300 missiles that Iran had already paid for. It may never be revealed what sort of deal was made between the US and Russia at the time, but the Foreign Policy article titled, ‘How the Obama Team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran’ said: The Russian decision was a dividend of the Obama government’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.” That said, it is worth noting that alliances between countries are not based on trust. Rather, they are based on the countries’ interests. For example, even though the US and Israel are close allies, they do not trust each other. Americans spy on Israelis and vice versa.
Latest developments once again raise the question as to whether the Tehran-Moscow alliance is tactical or strategic and whether the development is sustainable and long term.
The Iranian and Russian strategic intent in Syria seems much closer than the Russian and American strategic intent in Syria, an earlier agreement by the USA and Russia to seek a negotiated solution having failed. The Russian military tends to be secretive, so that was a political decision to demonstrate to the world that Russia and Iran are militarily together.
The Iranian-Russian conflict with the USA over American hegemony, which has been amplified by the diverging interests of Iran and Russia on the one hand and the US and its regional allies on the other, is not going to be resolved in the near future. In addition, the conflict between Russia and the US-led West over Ukraine has become a Gordian Knot with no solution on the horizon.
Iran’s decision to openly allow foreign troops on its soil for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – and the first Russians since World War II – is testament to its desire to achieve strategic gains and ensure that the high cost of its involvement in the Syrian war, including the loss of more than 400 Revolutionary Guard troops and a number of generals, not be in vain.
Against this backdrop, it is safe to assume that the Iranian-Russian alliance will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Perhaps just as significantly, the high-profile move allows both nations to ease their isolation, imposed by the USA and the West, while spreading their regional influence through the use of hard power.
There is a possibility of USA and Russia jointly fighting for the blood of Syrians and other Arabs in West Asia by not letting Assad to quit and encouraging him to continue posing an adamant “winner” posture.
Washington has no plan or intention of leaving energy rich West Asia and Central Asia and would continue to use its Asia pivot for some more time. Since Arab leaders, Iran, Syria as well as Moscow have shown their “soft” willingness to cooperate with Pentagon-CIA, Arabs would continue to die.
No other alternatives!