A STILL IMAGE taken from video shows a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 long-range bomber based in Iran flying over an unknown location in Syria on Tuesday after dropping its payload..
(photo credit: RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Two weeks ago US President Barack Obama infuriated Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman by saying at a Pentagon press conference that Israeli officials are now supportive of the Iran nuclear deal.
The Israeli military and security establishment, Obama said, “acknowledges this has been a game changer.” And, he pointed out, Israel was the country most opposed to the deal.
The spectacle of Russian planes taking off from bases inside Iran on Tuesday to attack targets in Syria shows, indeed, that the deal was a game changer – but not in the way Obama had in mind.
As former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror said on Israel Radio Wednesday, beyond the technical matter of it being easier and more effective for Russia to attack Syria from Iran, there is also huge diplomatic symbolism in their choosing to do so.
This was not, as Amidror noted, a nice little deconfliction mechanism like the one Israel and Russia set up in September so that their pilots don’t accidentally shoot each other down over Syrian airspace. The deployment of Russian jets to bases in Iran is, as far as cooperation goes between states, the “full monty.”
And it is a degree of cooperation made possible in large part by the Iranian nuclear deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fierce opposition to last year’s Iranian deal was not only based on the deal’s nuclear merits and not only motivated by fear that it would eventually give Iran a path to a nuclear bomb.
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His opposition also had to do with the fear that the deal would bring Iran – which had been completely isolated internationally – back into the world’s good graces and embolden it.
He feared that the deal would strengthen Tehran both financially and diplomatically so that it could further pursue its destabilizing designs in the region.
In fact, one of Netanyahu’s main criticism of the negotiations was that Iran’s destructive behavior in the region and in the world was not even on the table at the talks.
And, indeed, when the world was sanctioning Iran, the Russians kept the regime at arm’s length. Moscow only decided to deliver the S-300 air defense missiles to Iran, a deal that had been postponed for years, after the deal was signed. From Moscow’s perspective this made perfect sense. Sanctions had been lifted, and if Iran was once again legitimate, why not go ahead and provide it with defensive arms? Using Iranian bases to fly sorties against Syria can be seen as an extension of that same logic. If Iran is no longer a pariah state, if it is legitimate to have normal relations with it, then why not take those relations as far as they can go and use Iran’s air bases to pursue what Moscow feels are its own interests? It is hard to believe Russia would have made that calculation had the nuclear deal not been signed, and had Iran remained outside the pale of international legitimacy.
Russian-Iranian military cooperation to the extent witnessed this week will have enormous significance for the Middle East. It sends a clear message to the entire region not only whose side the Russians are on, but how far they are willing to go to pursue their objectives.
As Obama said, the nuclear deal is a game changer. But this type of change is definitely not in the interests of the US, America’s traditional Sunni-Arab allies in the region, nor Israel.
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