Moscow and Tehran appear to be united in their position on Syria, even if Russian military airstrikes may no longer be possible from bases within Iran.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, third left, and Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, third right, at a meeting in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Seventy-five years have passed since August 1941, when the Russian military stepped onto Iranian soil for the last time during the World War II, until the present day, when the Russian air force briefly used the Nojeh air base in Hamadan to conduct airstrikes in Syria. But how the parties perceive these two events turned out to be completely different. Iranians looked at the first one event as an “occupation,” but the recent presence of Russian military aircraft in Shahid Nojeh was viewed as a form of “strategic cooperation."

On Aug. 16, news first broke that Russian jets had appeared at the Iranian military air base in the province of Hamadan. The next day, this issue was discussed in the Iranian parliament where parliamentarian Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh objected to the establishment of the Russian military presence in Iran. And within a week, the Russian jets were gone, but not before launching strikes in neighboring Syria.

The rationale for not having Russian military jets in Iran is simple: it is against the Iranian constitution, which stipulates that no foreign military base can be stationed on Iranian soil. Speaker Ali Larijani responded by saying that no military base was given over to Russia’s disposal. Indeed, as Iranian officials confirmed later, the presence of Russian airplanes was limited and temporary, thus it was not inconsistent with the constitution.

What really rankled Iran, however, was Russia’s willingness to broadcast to the world its use of the Iranian base. This ill-considered move on Russia’s part was completely unexpected for Iran. On live TV, Iranian Defense Minister and General Hossein Dehghan described the actions of Russians as “a show-off and disloyalty to one’s partner.”

Obviously, the Iranians were not prepared to make this agreement public, so at the beginning, they even preferred to deny that such a statement had been made. However, several days after the news broke in the media, on Aug. 22, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi stated that the use of the base had been already terminated and, along with other officials, repeated that the use of the base was only on a temporary basis.

This seemingly small event is in fact of historical significance: since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it is the first time that Iran has allowed the presence of a foreign military force on its territory and use of its air base to conduct operations in another country. No doubt, it speaks for the depth of cooperation between Iran and Russia, at least with regards to the Syrian crisis. Tehran allowed Moscow something that used to be a taboo due to Iranian sensitivity to the issue of foreign presence or influence.

There were several strategic advantages of this move, including significantly shorter flying time to targets on Syrian territory. This allowed the Russians to increase the operational load and have better control over the operation. But not less important is that the move served as a sign of some deeper understanding and agreement on Syria that was reached between the two countries.

Tehran’s 'Axis of Resistance'

When it comes to foreign policy, a variety of factors must be taken into account in the agenda of the Russian-Iranian cooperation. Such strengthening of military ties between Moscow and Tehran, even amidst problematic relationship in other fields, means that some important agreements on Syria have been reached.

With the beginning of the Syrian crisis, mutual visits of military officials of both countries increased. For example, there was the visit of Iranian Defense Minister Dehghan to Moscow in April of this year and the subsequent visit by Russian Defense minister Sergei Shoigu in June to participate in a trilateral meeting along with his Syrian counterpart in Tehran.

In fact, Iran gave Russia access to the Nojeh military base and its air space to allow Russian jets to attack the positions of Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). All this indicates that Tehran and Moscow are seeking to intensify their cooperation on the Syrian problem, because they have common goals in the country and, more broadly, the Middle East region: defeating extremist and radical groups in Syria as well as deterring the expansion of Western influence, even though they seem to interpret "influence" in their own way.  

However, Iran pursues its own goals at different levels in its cooperation with Russia on Syria. Its short-term objective is to prevent increasing instability within the country and to keep safe its Western boarders. The ISIS occupation of Iraqi territories and the terrorist group’s close approach to the Iranian border brought Iran’s military forces into permanent combat alert status.

Among the long-term goals of Iran is the expansion of its regional influence and maintenance of the regional balance of forces with local powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The longstanding feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not a secret to anyone, but Iran shies away from engaging in an open face-off and competing with Riyadh in other countries, where it exerts its influence through various forms of leverage (Iraq, Syria and Yemen). It means maintaining and strengthening the so-called “Axis of Resistance.”

Russia’s great powers game

The goals of Moscow in its cooperation with Tehran on Syria can be also classified as short-term and long-term. Among the short-term goals for Russia is to change the balance of forces on the battlefield for enhanced negotiating leverage. With the Ukrainian crisis persisting, opening and maintaining another front where the same stakeholders (the U.S. in particular) are actively represented, would possibly open better opportunities for Moscow to negotiate with Washington over Ukraine.

Two long-term goals can be identified for Russia as well. From a geopolitical perspective, being able to reach the Black Sea after Crimea's annexation and securing a stronghold in the surrounding waters has less value without free access to the Mediterranean. The Russian naval base in Tartus, together with its Black Sea outpost, gives it a geopolitical advantage of having a strong presence both in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. However, without having Syrian President Bashar Assad at the helm of his country, Russia is hardly likely to achieve these goals.

The second long-term goal can be named as pursuing the strategy of becoming a great power once again. The Syrian military campaign is the first military operation by Russia outside of its “near abroad” (e.g. Ukraine and Georgia) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Extending the radius of political and military engagement without substantial political gain is worthless.

Thus, it looks like in this case, Russia intends to regain the status of a great power by showing that it has potential for redrawing conflicts in the far abroad. Cooperation with Iran as a regional player and the backbone of the “Axis of Resistance” here plays an increasingly important role.

After the news about the use of the Iranian military base became public and the Iranians had time to consider their reaction, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, referred to the relationship between Iran and Russia as a "strategic" one, and emphasized the cooperation of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran in fighting the "terrorist" groups that they consider to consist of all those fighting against Assad’s government.

It appears that cooperation between Iran and Russia on Syria is going to continue, with Russia having more space to maneuver in negotiating with the groups on the ground. Iran will also continue its own limited military operations in Syria under the pretext of cooperating with Iraqi and Syrian forces to maintain its influence and secure interests.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran are apparently going to have to discuss at their next meeting any discrepancy in their understanding of how their cooperation should be presented to the world.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.