In order to boost its position as a significant player in the Middle East, Moscow should pay more attention to the concerns of regional actors such as Iran.

A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber stands on the tarmac at an air base near Hamadan, Iran. Photo: AP

Twice this month, Russia’s partners in the Middle East showed their unpredictable nature. Two weeks after the meeting between Russian and Turkish leaders on Aug. 9, Ankara launched its military operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Kurds in Syria.

The scale of this offensive left Moscow confused as it came at nearly the same time as Tehran’s move to revoke permission for Russia to use its Hamadan air base. Iran’s decision to stop the deployment of Russian long-range aircraft on its territory came only a week after having granted such access.

Notwithstanding that Turkey appears to have coordinated its military actions with the key actors in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has reason to be concerned about the unpredictability of the Turkish army’s further steps. According to experts interviewed by Russia Direct, this might lead to the same misunderstanding that occurred between Moscow and Tehran with regard to the Russian air force using the Iranian base in Hamadan.

Also read: "The future of Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria"

The misunderstanding over Russian aircraft in Iran

On Aug. 16 the Kremlin stated that Tehran had granted permission for Russian long-range aircraft to use the Shahid Nojeh base near Hamadan for refueling and maintenance purposes. Russia’s Ministry of Defense pointed out that the Iranian base near Hamadan might play a crucial role in freeing the second-largest city in Syria from Islamist radicals. On the same day, Russia’s long-range bombers hit ammunition deposits, three command posts, training camps and militant positions of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, another known terrorist group.

However, there was one slight problem with this: Iran’s 1979 constitution forbids foreigners from using the territory of Iran for military purposes, even for “good” ones. Therefore, the use by Russian forces of the base in Hamadan provoked a largely negative reaction in the country.  

The conservative part of the Iranian parliament and social media users accused the authorities of violating the law and the national policy that was actually introduced 37 years ago by the authorities themselves after the revolution against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (known in the West simply as “the Shah of Iran”).

The West has also expressed its regret over such an unexpected development in Russia-Iran relations. Efforts to explain that the decision to let Russian forces use the base in Hamadan was made to secure the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not lead to anything.

Moreover, the leadership in Iran was surprised themselves with the reaction that followed after Moscow’s “indiscreet” and “idle” media coverage of its agreement with Iran.

"The Russians are interested in showing they are a superpower to guarantee their share in the political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly [attitude] in this field," said the Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Deghan in an interview on Aug. 22. Yet, he pointed out that cooperation between Moscow and Tehran will continue.

When the decision to let Russia use the base was revoked on Aug. 22, Russian newspaper Kommersant attributed it to a misunderstanding that occurred between the sides.

“The Russian military aimed to use the airbase not only as a refueling point, but also as a full-scale military site, while allocating relevant arsenals there. This was not in the interest of Tehran,” say sources in the Russian army cited by Kommersant.

The official representative of Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, only remarked that Russian aviation has achieved all its goals over the week it had access to the Hamadan base.

“Using the Iranian Shahid Nojeh base near Hamadan is convenient, but is not crucial for Russia’s actions in Syria,” Andrei Baklitsky, expert at the PIR Center for Political Research, told Russia Direct. “The base could help Russian aviation fly to Syrian territory not from Russia, but from Iran. This could substantially decrease the time and difficulty of the operation.”

“But Moscow has many more options to decrease the period of time it takes to fly to Syria,” he says. “For example, it is possible to do this by hitting targets from the Caspian. Another way to strengthen the operation in Syria is to return forces to the airbase in Hmeimim,” the expert says.

According to him, the quick rethinking of cooperation with Russia in Hamadan happened because of the adverse media coverage. “Following the first reports about the Russia-Iran agreement, information appeared that Russia plans to send its forces to Iran permanently. This was taken within the country as an unprecedented event. Even during the times of the Shah of Iran, there were only U.S. elements of radio electronic warfare, but no soldiers. Because of miscommunication, Iranian authorities faced a problem out of nowhere and, as a result, had to shut down cooperation with Russia at the base,” Baklitsky argues.

However, he doesn’t exclude that Russian aviation might not only come back to Shahid Nojeh, but also access other Iranian military bases.

Maxim Suchkov, an expert from the Russian International Affairs Council, thinks that by using the base in Iran, Moscow aimed to ease the difficulty of its operation in Syria and demonstrate its significance in the region.

“I think the two objectives aren't mutually exclusive. One has a clear operational significance, while the other is more politically and status-oriented. But that too is an important component of contemporary Russian foreign policy,” he told Russia Direct.

However, Suchkov believes that both sides are responsible for the ending of their cooperation in Hamadan.

“There's a substantial degree of truth in that neither the Russian nor Iranian leadership fully calculated the domestic pitfalls of the opposition in Iran to the Russian presence at its military airbase. The parties had to back down on their initial decision and make it look as if it all worked out as it was supposed to,” he explains.

Also read: "The Hamadan incident: Russian airstrikes from Iran, now up in the air"

Mutual interests in Syria

Thinking about the future of Moscow’s relations with not only Tehran, but Ankara as well, experts note that the relations between these countries are based primarily on mutual regional interests, not on mutual sympathies.

“One should not expect some kind of strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey after the improvement of their relations. It is also naïve to think that Iran will be involved in such a partnership over Syria. Both Ankara and Tehran see Syria as an important element of their influence in the region. For Iran, Syria presents a ‘golden element’ in the Shia crescent, a foundation of its own regime’s safety and its political influence in the region. For Turkey, Syria is a foothold for penetrating the Middle East as a regional power. Russia should pay more attention to concerns of regional actors and negotiate with them more carefully, “ according to Timur Akhmetov, an expert on Turkey at the international consulting agency Wikistrat.

Baklitsky also finds the basis for Iran-Russia cooperation in mutual interests in the region. “Russia using the military base in Iran might even play in favor of Tehran and become a factor against Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, which are using the presence of American military bases on their territories for the same purposes. By participating in regional confrontations and demonstrating its power, Russia also increases its position as a significant power in the Middle East,” he says.

Suchkov is not sure if one can talk at this stage about Iran's pivot to the West away from Russia. Iran isn't likely to take such abrupt decisions and there's plenty of internal uneasiness about close ties with the West as well. “I believe tactical cooperation between Tehran and Moscow in Syria will continue nonetheless. But the whole situation shows that Iran is a necessary yet difficult partner and Moscow has to understand Tehran's own interests and bias in the region to not find itself disillusioned at the end of the day,” the expert says.