by Shireen Hunter
The Iranian public and international observers received with surprise the news that Iran had allowed Russian planes to use an airbase in its Hamedan province for bombing expeditions in Syria. The Islamic government’s emphasis on independence, the Iranian constitution’s ban on granting basing rights to any foreign country, and the Islamist opposition’s use of the presence of American military personnel and advisers as weapon against the Shah during the monarchy all made the granting of permission to Russia highly unusual. Of course, allowing the use of the airbase does not amount to the granting of basing rights, but it still is a significant departure form Iran’s past positions.
For Russia, however, this was a great breakthrough in its strategy to bring Iran under its influence, a strategy that goes back at least two hundred years. The Russian military had been in Iran before but never with the permission of the Iranian government. Rather, Russian military presence had always been the consequence of war as was its occupation of part of Iranian territory in Azerbaijan during World War Two and its immediate aftermath.
So, why has the Iranian government allowed Russian military planes to use its territory at this juncture?
First, pro-Soviet and later pro-Russian elements have always vied for power within the Islamic regime’s leadership, notwithstanding its slogan of neither east nor west. The Supreme leader himself has a more benign view of Russia than of the United States. These pro-Russian tendencies within the Islamic regime have been due to the widespread influence of leftist ideas among some Islamists as well as the fact that some leftists decided to join the system after the success of the revolution. Most of the infighting within the regime since the coming to power of the Islamist government has been the product of this original left-right split within the revolutionary force.
Second and more important, at least since the late 1980s, the West and especially the United States have been unwilling to support those elements within the system that have wanted better relations with the West, which has allowed Russia space to increase its presence in Iran. That Russia has not enhanced its presence even more has not been because of Iran’s unwillingness but rather because of Russian hesitation to embrace Iran. For example, throughout the 1990s, which coincided with the Yeltsin years, Russia essentially had a negative approach toward Iran. Later, it used Iran as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West. The question now is whether Russia is still using Iran as a bargaining chip with the West and, as some observers have suggested, with conservative Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, as a way to intensify its role as an arbiter of the Middle East’s politics, economics, especially regarding oil, and conflicts.
The answer probably lies somewhere between these extreme poles. In the last few years, with growing tensions in Russian-Western relations and Russia’s increased anxieties about being excluded from certain regions, notably the Middle East, Moscow has gained a greater appreciation of Tehran’s potential value as an ally. Beyond the Middle East, Russia now sees Iran as a potentially valuable partner in the Caucasus region and in its broader efforts to revitalize dormant plans such as the North-South transport corridor. The summit meeting between the presidents of Iran, Russia, and Azerbaijan in Baku on August 8, 2016 reflects this new Russian approach to Iran. Of course, should the circumstances demand, Russia would sacrifice Iran for other interests. Nevertheless, a greater degree of convergence of interests, partly as a result of geography and partly because of the now obvious limits of Russo-Western cooperation, is emerging between the two countries.
For Iran, the disappointing results of the nuclear deal in terms of opening up of channels of trade and investment, or at least the return of Iran’s own money, have played a key role in the country’s greater receptivity to Russian demands. Iran is in dire need of money to revitalize its economy and is looking to all possible sources. Of course, Russia’s own economic and financial problems do not make it an ideal source of help. Nevertheless, cooperation might ease both of their burdens.
Even more important than economic concerns are Iran’s security anxieties. The nuclear deal has not led to a toning down of attacks against Iran. On the contrary, attacks in Congress against the deal are continuing, and both presidential candidates project Iran as a big threat to America. Regional states, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, are waiting for President Obama to leave office in the hopes that the next president will revive the military option against Iran. Despite their bravado, Iran’s leaders, including the Revolutionary Guards, treat these threats seriously. They might believe that the US will think twice before attacking Iran if it felt that it might lead to Russia’s involvement. Meanwhile, Iran’s regional rivals have increased their sabotage activities in Iran using—at least according to Iranian sources—Islamic State elements. The recent suspicious fires in Iran’s petrochemical industry have raised fears of sabotage, including cyberattacks on its sensitive industrial facilities.
The combined effects of these developments have undermined President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. For some time now, Zarif’s time has been spent traveling to Asia, Africa, and later this month to Latin America and not dealing with top priority foreign policy matters. At the same time, Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s adviser on foreign policy and a former minister of foreign affairs during the Rafsanjani presidency, has been going to Moscow. It appears that the decision to allow the use of Iranian territory for Russian air sorties in Syria was reached during Velayati’s trip. In short, those within the Iranian leadership who wanted better relations with the West have once more been let down by it.
Whether the latest episode in Russian-Iranian rapprochement will lead to a more long-lasting and strategic alliance between the two countries is hard to predict. Because of their geography, Iran and Russia do not have the option of total estrangement or active hostility. But Iran’s decision to fully embrace Russia would also depend on the West’s treatment of the country. If its overtures to the West are constantly rebuffed and it gets no compensation for good behavior, Iran will have no choice but to find other means of providing for its security and economy. Russia may not be the answer. But at this juncture, Iran does not seem to have many other choices. But the West’s cavalier treatment of Iran, to Russia’s benefit, could prove very costly in strategic terms.