Whilst the true state of relations between Turkey and Russia remains murky, the alignment of Russia with the other great Central Asian power – Iran – is intensifying.
News came today that heavy TU-22M3 Russian bombers together with SU-34s are operating against Jihadi targets in Syria from a base in Hamadan in Iran.
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.
The presence of Russian bombers in Hamadan in Iran signals something else. This is a powerful statement of support by Russia for Iran and for the Iranian government. Just as the presence of the now permanent Russian air base at Khmeimim renders all but impossible or at least extremely difficult US and Israeli strikes on Syria, so the presence of Russian bombers in Iran is a powerful warning against any US or Israeli plans for strikes on Iran such as might once again be considered by an incoming US administration following the US Presidential election. This is potentially important since both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whatever differences they might have on Russia, both have history as hardliners against Iran.
The deployment of Russian bombers to Iran is going hand in hand with a purposeful convergence of Russian political and economic ties. It comes shortly after Putin’s meeting in Baku with Iran’s President Rouhani and Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev, and it comes following Russia’s diplomatic support to Iran in the nuclear negotiations with the US, and news of a growing strengthening of economic ties between Russia and Iran.
Iran is on line to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation next year, has just received a substantial Russian credit, and is broaching negotiations to set up a free trade zone with the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union, which is to include Azerbaijan.
It is also surely not a coincidence that Russian Defence Minister Shoigu has just completed a somewhat mysterious visit to Azerbaijan. What the precise point of that visit was is unclear (it is unlikely to have had anything to do with the Nagorno Karabakh dispute), but it seems likely that it was in some way connected to the recent Russian military deployment to Iran.
Looking further ahead, should the Russian deployment to Iran become permanent, as the Russian deployment to Syria has now done, then it will potentially have as big a military and political strategic impact in the Gulf area as the Russian base in Syria potentially has for the eastern Mediterranean.
Whilst we are still a long way off from Russian aircraft patrols over the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz from Iranian bases, that has suddenly become at least an imaginable possibility. Whether that happens or is even on the cards is another matter.
Some words of caution are in order. Unlike Syria Iran most definitely is not dependent on Russia for its survival. On the contrary it is a great civilisation and a Great Power with a long history – far older than Russia’s – and a very active policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Relations between Iran and Russia have not always been easy and Iran is known to take a dim view of some of Russia’s diplomatic moves with regard to Syria. There are also people in Iran – and even more in the Iranian diaspora – who would prefer Iran to realign with the US.
It cannot therefore be said with certainty that this burgeoning relationship between Iran and Russia will in the end bear fruit, or that it will continue beyond the so far purely tactical alliance the two countries have forged to fight militant Jihadism in Syria. However for the moment the convergence between the two parties is becoming stronger and with the deployment – however temporary – of Russian bombers to Hamadan its profile has just taken a dramatic increase.