by Mark N. Katz
In a highly dramatic development, Russian bombers have begun using an Iranian base for bombing missions over Syria. Why Moscow would want to do this is clear: flight time to Syria is much shorter from northwestern Iran than from southern Russia. This allows Russian bombers to carry less fuel and more bombs, which holds out the prospect for more effective (as well as just more) Russian bombing missions against Syrian opposition targets. Furthermore, Moscow gave short notice to Washington that Russian bombers would be flying from Iran over Iraq and Syria, thereby warning American aircraft in the vicinity to stay out of their way. This is one more way Putin might see himself as “putting Obama in his place” and enhancing Russia’s reputation as a great power.
Less clear, though, is why Tehran is now willing to allow Russian bombers to fly combat missions from an Iranian base. Article 146 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution explicitly states, “The establishment of any kind of foreign military base in Iran, even for peaceful purposes, is forbidden.” Tehran would undoubtedly respond that it has not allowed Russia to establish a base of its own but merely permitted it to make use of an Iranian one. However, given longstanding Iranian resentment about past Russian annexations of Iranian territory, numerous interventions in Iran, and active support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, allowing Russian forces even to make use of an Iranian base will hardly be popular with the Iranian public. So why do it?
One obvious reason is that Tehran, like Moscow, is dismayed at the strength of the Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo resisting the efforts of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime to crush them. Both Tehran and Moscow, then, see Russian bombers flying from Iran as part of a stepped-up effort to defeat Assad’s opponents. Whether Russian bombers flying shorter distances and carrying more bombs will make the difference in suppressing the Syrian opposition, of course, is highly uncertain, but Moscow and Tehran may jointly agree that it is worth trying.
There may, however, be another reason why Tehran is willing to allow Russian bombers to fly from an Iranian base. The Iranian decision comes at a time when the leaders of several countries with which Tehran is at odds to varying degrees are actively courting Vladimir Putin.
Prickly toward the West, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has practically been fawning over Putin to improve Russian-Turkish ties, which deteriorated sharply after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane. The two leaders have been talking on a range of issues, including Syria.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relations with President Barack Obama have grown strained, the Israeli leader’s relations with Putin are reportedly quite good. An August 15 Al Monitor story stated that “telephone calls between Netanyahu and Putin are now a matter of routine.”
As LobeLog has discussed, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is seeking to modify Russian policy on Syria by offering greatly increased trade and investment.
And Secretary of State John Kerry has been working with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Syrian conflict resolution efforts.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., of course, all want to see Assad gone from Syria. Israel supports neither him nor the Iranian presence there. Moscow’s discussions with the leaders of countries hostile toward Iran, the Assad regime, or both, must not have done much to boost confidence in Tehran about whether Russia is a reliable ally.
Tehran’s allowing Russian bombers to fly missions to Syria from a base in Iran, then, may be intended as a message to all of Iran’s opponents regarding Syria or other issues attempting to court Russia. What Tehran seems to be saying is: Moscow may talk to all of you about Syria, but it is working with us there. Further, to the extent that this increased Russian-Iranian military cooperation causes American, Turkish, Israeli, and Saudi leaders all to doubt the value of their talking to Putin and Lavrov about Syria, Tehran can only be pleased.
Although Moscow may see its use of an Iranian base for its bombing missions as something that expands its options, Tehran may instead see this move as a way to limit Russian cooperation with Iran’s adversaries.