By Hamad Al Thunayyan
Rai Insights Contributor
Washington D.C.: On August 16th, 2016, Russian bombers took off from the Shahed Nojeh Airbase in Iran, flew over Iraq, and attacked targets in Syria. Remarkably, it was the first time the Islamic Republic of Iran allows foreign troops access to a military base. Hence, this event should not pass unnoticed.
According to The Critical Threats Project, the Russian military use of the Iranian base was initiated eight months ago. As now Russian bombers fly from Iran, their mission time is cut by half. Their decision reflects the recent challenges faced by the Assad camp on the battlegrounds.
Assad’s ally and Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, urged ISIS and other militant groups to “wake up” and lay down their arms. Also a Russian helicopter was shot down in Idlib for the first time, resulting in the death of five Russian soldiers. And about three weeks ago, the opposition forces were able to break the 1-month long siege of Aleppo after a fierce battle with Assad supporters. Thus, it is no surprise that Aleppo was the main target for the Russian bombers launching airstrikes from the Iranian base for the first time. Ask an Aleppo’s boy, Omran Danqesh. He hardly survived it.
What happened is that Iran did not just allow a foreign power to use its territory to attack another country in the region. What is more, they gave this concession to a former colonial power (The Soviet Union or the “lesser Satan” as Former Supreme Leader Khamenei refers to it), who once partitioned their country together with Great Britain. It goes against the Iranian-Russian historical animosity. Many Iranians still remember that the Soviet Union supported Iraq in their eight years’ war against Iran. It also possibly conflicts with the Article 146 of the Iranian Constitution, which forbids “the establishment of any kind of foreign military base in Iran, even for peaceful purposes.” Moreover, it happened under the watch of a Supreme leader who clearly expressed his dismay of the U.S. military presence in the region. In fact, this is the same Islamic Republic of Iran that have been asking the Arab Gulf states to remove foreign military bases. It is ironic, isn’t it?
Nonetheless, I concur with Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who argued that this event marks a new era in the growing strategic cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. It also shows the Russian-Iranian commitment to preserving their interests in Syria. The credit for this partnership primarily goes to Ali Velayati, a former foreign minister and a trusted confidant of the Supreme Leader, for cementing this joint cooperation. However, it also signals the decline of U.S. influence in the region.
The cornerstone of every Middle East policy, adopted by any U.S. President from Eisenhower to Bush 43, was to block any Russian presence near Iran and the Arab Gulf countries. Eisenhower and Truman pledged support to any country needing help to resist the Soviet (A.k.a. Russian) aggression. The Carter’s doctrine, which states that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force” was actually formulated as a response to the Russian military involvement in Afghanistan in 1979. Put shortly, the American national security doctrine was built against any potential Russian military access to the Gulf.
However, Obama’s State Department spokesman said that this latest event was “unfortunate, but not surprising.” This issue is likely to be on John Kerry’s top agenda during his meeting with Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, next week in Geneva. I doubt this meeting would result in any different outcome, taking into account that the Russians now even have the Chinese on their side in Syria.
At the moment, the fact is that Putin’s bombers are getting closer to the Arabian Peninsula. The timing of Russia’s acknowledgment of their military presence in Iran should not be surprising. It comes one month before the upcoming OPEC meeting, and several months after the failed plan that was endorsed by the Kremlin to coordinate an oil-price freeze with the former in Doha meeting. Novak, Russian Energy Minister, deemed Riyadh’s demands in this meeting to be “unreasonable.” Russia, who badly needs higher oil prices, blamed Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf States. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia overtook Russia as the main oil supplier to China two months ago. Riyadh and Moscow have been having diverging views on energy and counterterrorism-related matters over the past several years, indeed. Thus, evidently, Putin is giving the Saudi Kingdom a payback.
To conclude, the Russian Air Force operation might be “Syria-specific” for now, but there are no guarantees that their bombers will not head elsewhere in the region, from Iran.
Hamad Althunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland- College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC. He wrote several articles on Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. role in the region.