A flurry of Iranian statements over the last few days have all but confirmed the point made in an article I wrote for The Duran.
The Russian deployment to Shahid Nojeh base near Hamadan was first and foremost intended to be a political statement of support by Russia for Iran. This is what I said in my article which I wrote on 16th August 2016:
“This is primarily a political not a military act. TU-22M3s have the range to strike anywhere in Syria from their bases in southern Russia and have repeatedly shown their capacity to do so. There is no operational reason for them to fly to Syria from Hamadan. That Russia has chosen to fly its TU-22M3s out of Hamadan is therefore a political statement by Russia that Russia and Iran are military allies in the joint fight against Islamist terrorism in Syria.”
Compare that with what Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is reported by the semi-official Iranian Fars news agency on 24th August 2016. After confirming that it was Iran not Russia that asked for the Russian aircraft to deploy to Shahid Nojeh base, supposedly “to render logistical support for ground operations in Aleppo” Ali Shamkhani is quoted by Fars as saying
“Today, Iran has allied with Russia given its need to cooperation with powerful Russia and resistance front to confront the Takfiri plots and it is using Russia’s capabilities in air operations alongside the ground operations whose planners and military advisors are from Iran and it is a sign of might and not dependence…….
The close coordination among Iran, Russia and Syria in conducting the recent operations against the Takfiri terrorists in Syria brought into failure the US protracting strategy for imposing its will on the security equations in Syria….
Certain western and Arab countries which have the illusion of changing the regional equations, have been paralysed by the Islamic Republic’s political, defensive and security initiative in the recent operations……
The all-out relations between Iran and Russia which are based on the national interests and within the framework of strategic cooperation are not merely limited to the fight against terrorism and have more extensive aspects.”
(Bold italics added)
In other words Iran asked for the deployment of Russian aircraft to Shahid Nojeh base in order to demonstrate Iran’s alliance with Russia. Note how Shamkhani refers to Russia as Iran’s “ally” and talks of their “all-out relations” and of how “the framework of strategic cooperation are not merely limited to the fight against terrorism and have more extensive aspects”.
Since the purpose of the deployment was primarily political – to signal to the world that Iran now has Russia for an ally – we can dispense with the idea that it was Russia’s “showing off” about its use of the base that caused the deployment to called off.
Far from the Iranians being annoyed because the deployment was made public, the whole point of the deployment from the Iranian point of view would have been to make it as public as possible.
That all but proves that it was the Iranians who tipped off Al-Masdar about the deployment and who provided Al-Masdar with the pictures of the Russian aircraft at Shahid Nojeh base that Al-Masdar published.
Not surprisingly in light of all this the Iranians are now going out of their way to say that the Russians might return to Shahid Nojeh base, with Ali Larijani, the powerful Speaker of the Iranian parliament the Majlis even hinting (wrongly) that they might still be there
“The Russian fighter jets’ flights from Hamadan airbase have not stopped and we and Russia are united in fighting against terrorism and this unity benefits the regional Muslims.”
The fact that it was the Iranians who originally asked for the deployment makes it more likely (though it does not prove) that the decision to withdraw the aircraft was made by Moscow.
That this is so is further suggested by the way Levan Djagaryan, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, seems also to be going out of his way to make statements that there might be future Russian military deployments to Iran.
The fact that Fars is quoting these statements at length suggests that Djagaryan’s comments are intended to reassure the Iranians that the Russian pullout does not signal any weakening of Moscow’s support for Tehran
“Moscow sees no obstacles to the further use of Iranian infrastructure, including the air base in Hamadan, for strikes against terrorists in Syria….The Russian aerospace forces may resume operations from Iranian base Hamadan when it is expedient, and by the decision of leaders of Russia and Iran…Interaction with Tehran on Syria has positive perspective…”
As an aside, it is interesting that the diplomat Russia has sent to Tehran to act as its ambassador there is as shown by his name an Armenian. Armenia and Iran are close neighbours and have had an intense and centuries long interaction with each other. There is still a sizeable Armenian community in Iran.
An Armenian might be expected to know Iran well – and certainly far better than the vast majority of Russians (and Americans) do – and to be especially sensitive and knowledgeable about Iranian culture and Iranian concerns. He might also by mere virtue of the fact he is Armenian to some extent deflect Iranian memories of past humiliations by Russia.
There have been some suggestions over the last two days that the Russians are insufficiently sensitive to Iranian concerns and have failed to appreciate the importance of using “soft power” in Tehran. The fact Russia has chosen an Armenian to represent its interests in Tehran argues otherwise.
None of this of course explains why the pullout happened. The Iranians – as might be expected – are going out of their way to deny that it was due to any outside pressure. Fars quotes Shakhmani as having
“dismissed foreign pressures as the reason behind the Russian fighter jets’ leaving the Iranian territories”.
It is possible the Iranians underestimated the domestic reaction in Iran and asked the Russians to pull out so that they could prepare Iranian public opinion more thoroughly. Certainly Shakhmani’s comments could be interpreted in that way.
However it is also possible that the Russians acceded to an Iranian request to deploy some of their aircraft to a base in Iran as a gesture of support for Iran, but made it clear that the deployment would be a short one limited to just 3 days in order to avoid complicating Moscow’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If so then that would mean there was no row between Tehran and Moscow after all, though it would also mean that the public relations part of the pullout was badly botched. However if the deployment was intended as a signal to Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem rather than the wider public, perhaps the Russians and the Iranians don’t care about that.
One way or the other it is clear that there is no major rift between Tehran and Moscow. Whilst it will probably be some time before we know the exact truth of this affair, the key point is that Russia has deployed military aircraft to Iran with Iran’s agreement, and that both the Russians and the Iranians are going out of their way to say it may happen again.
The Iranians are going even further, with some Iranian officials like Shakhmani now calling the Russia Iran’s “ally”. No Russian official has gone that far. However despite the longstanding complexities and contradictions in their relationship, step by step that is what the Russians and the Iranians are edging towards becoming, and what one day they might indeed become.