Russia and Iran’s turning point: a strategic alliance

Russia’s use of an Iranian air base to strike targets in Syria has little operational significance, but is of strategic importance

An image released by Russia’s Defence Ministry, August 18, shows a Tupolev Tu-22 long-range bomber landing at an air base near the Iranian city of Hamadan (photo credit: REUTERS)
An image released by Russia’s Defence Ministry, August 18, shows a Tupolev Tu-22 long-range bomber landing at an air base near the Iranian city of Hamadan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE AUGUST 16 announcement by the governments of Russia and Iran that Russia had deployed fighter jets at the Iranian airbase in Hamadan (southwest of Tehran) and that sorties were executed against military targets of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Fateh a-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria is a turning point in developments in the region.
To date, the Iranians have allowed Russia to use their airspace for attacks in Syria as part of the military cooperation between the two states, which has grown tighter since September 2015. But Iran, in the post- Islamic Revolution era, has never allowed another country to station military troops on its soil, especially not Russia, given Iran’s lingering suspicions of its intentions.
The direct cause of this development seems to be operational. To date, Russia has used its planes to assist the Assad regime from its own bases in southern Russia and, since September 2015, from the Hmeimim air base near Latakia in Syria. The southern Russian bases lie some 3,000 km from Syria, while flying the planes out of Hamadan cuts the route to Syrian targets down to only 700 km. The change means that long-range Tupolev Tu-22 bombers can increase payloads from 5-8 tons when flying out of Russia up to 22 tons when flying out of Iran. Sukhoi Su-34 fighter jets meanwhile cannot reach Syria from Russia without mid-air refueling.
However, it may be that the timing of the deployment is connected to the deterioration of Bashar Assad’s position and the rebels’ achievements in the Aleppo region, which required an immediate response. It may also be that the change stems from the many losses incurred by the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian ground troops fighting in Syria, which led to Iranian complaints about insufficient Russian air force assistance in the Syrian civil war.
While Iran has since said that use of the air base was “over for now,” it is more important to view the deployment of the planes from Iran as another step in the improvement of relations between Iran and Russia over the last five years, and especially in the last year. The improvement is evidenced by the many meetings between high-ranking personnel on both sides, their cooperation in Syria to save the Assad regime, and – in the foreseeable future – a large arms deal, now under discussion, and close cooperation in the nuclear as well as economic and commercial fields. President Putin will visit Iran this November.
A closer relationship between Russia and Iran, even after the deployment of Russian planes in Hamadan, neither translates into an alliance or treaty, nor obviates opposed interests, different objectives, and disagreements and mutual suspicions, even when it comes to Syria. But the improvement does reflect shared interests, mutual needs, and common intentions to expand realms of cooperation in some key areas. In this sense, the stationing of the Russian planes on Iranian soil is of strategic importance: both Russia and Iran are using this to send a message to the United States and the West that they are the leading and most influential forces in the region, and that they are playing a central role in shaping the developing new order. For its part, the first US response to the Russian-Iranian move was low-keyed: official sources in Washington said that they have known for some time about Russia’s intention to use an Iranian air base, although they didn’t know exactly when it would happen, describing the move as “unfortunate though not surprising.”
As to Turkey’s position in the Russian-Iranian context, given its renewed closeness with Russia, challenging the United States, Turkey may be interested in becoming the third arm of a regional triangle alongside Russia and Iran. Should such a process mature, the results will challenge both the United States and Israel.
Operationally, flying the Russian planes out of Iran does not in and of itself have much effect on Israel. Either way, Russia is attacking jihadist organizations in Syria – a shared Israeli interest – and it does not much matter to Israel if the planes take off from Russia, Syria, or Iran. Planes leaving Iran to fight in Syria should also not affect the operational coordination agreed upon between Russia and Israel. More important, however, is the overall context of the growing cooperation between Russia and Iran. Iran is already pushing for a large arms deal with Russia, which is liable to change important components in Iran’s military capabilities. Although such arms supplies have been banned by UN Security Council resolutions for the next few years, Iran might try to exploit its hosting of the Russian planes to seal the deal. Furthermore, Russia’s participation in the expansion of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, also under discussion between the two states, runs counter to Israel’s interests.
Ephraim Kam served as a colonel in the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence. Zvi Magen is a former ambassador to Russia. This article was originally published on the website of The Institute for National Security Studies