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Why Did Russia Stop its Use of Iran’s Air Base to Bomb Syria?

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Mounting opposition from Iranian nationalists and historic suspicion between Iran and Russia contributed to ending the short-lived Russian use of an air base in western Iran. The decision to end the mission also expressed Moscow’s understanding of the Arabs’ position, that by totally siding with Iran in the Syrian crisis, Russia not only ends any prospect of playing a constructive role in solving Syria, it also gains the Arabs’ open hostility on all levels. 

It is believed, in some Arab capitals, that Moscow was dismayed when some Iranian parliamentarians expressed opposition to Russian military presence on the air base. The Russians had used the base at the Iranian’s request in the first place; moreover, Moscow had already made its point loud and clear by basing some of its Tupolove-22M3s and Su-34s in Iran, even if for a short period.

Russia’s use of the base in Shahid Nojeh in western Iran came under criticism in the West, the Middle East, and even Iran. Iran’s Defense Minister criticized Russia hours prior to Moscow’s suspension of raids from the base. He said Moscow’s statement announcing its use of the air base for strikes on ISIL was “kind of show-off and ungentlemanly.”

The Arab message related to Russia’s move into the Iranian base was also expressed during the talks of Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Riyadh, twenty-four hours before Moscow’s decision to suspend its aerial operations from Shahid Nojeh. On August 21, Bogdanov paid an unscheduled quick visit to Saudi Arabia where he met the Saudi King and his son, the Defense Minister, upon an urgent demand from Riyadh. Bogdanov was able to see Riyadh’s anger at the Russian move in Iran first hand. Saudi Arabia made it clear to Bogdanov that the new Russia-Iran measure – flying planes from Iran to bomb Syria – will end any prospects for a future Russian role in solving Syria or coordinating with the major players in the Middle East on any level, including energy, Arab-Iranian reconciliation and any other field relevant to Russia’s aspiration to have a presence in the region.

Moscow found it convenient to express annoyance at protests in Tehran against its presence on the base despite the fact that this presence was at Iranian invitation. The controversy in Tehran reflected the rift between the relatively flexible approaches of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the hardliner’s camp, which bases its outlook on a mix of religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism.

In response to the public criticism of Tehran’s Minister of Defense for his government’s permission to Russia to use the base, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters in Tehran that the strikes were “carried out with mutual understanding and with Iran’s permission.”

However, Russia’s abrupt decision is not likely to have a far reaching impact on the growing alliance and cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. It is simply a message from Moscow to the Iranians stating the limits of Russia’s patience and abilities.

The ties between the two countries reflect a deeper geostrategic marriage of convenience. Recent developments seem to be merely an attempt by Moscow to draw the line and cap expectations through expressing the limit of its patience with opposition to its presence in Iran from Tehran’s fighting political camps. It also reflects the differences in the final objective of both countries, Russia and Iran, in Syria. Bombing the Syrian opposition is a tactical step that the two may agree upon. But what is to follow such tactics is seen differently in Iran and Russia and this difference is consequently reflected in their approach to all the tactical steps.

There are different takes on the Russian-Iranian alliance and its limits and impact. A view that appears from time to time explains this alliance by economic factors. But this view does not appear sufficient, to say the least, and is not convincing in explaining the growing ties between the two countries by direct economic interests. If it were the willingness to coordinate oil production policies through forming a Moscow-led group of producers, as claimed by some analysts, it should be sufficient to remember that even in Moscow this assessment does not seem to fly. The governor of Russia’s Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina said last April: “Whatever the oil prices are, even $100 per barrel again, we won’t be able to grow by more than 1.5 percent to 2 percent without structural reforms and a better investment climate.”

While developing trade ties may be more convincing, this factor is not sufficient to explain Russia’s choreography in the Middle East in general, and with Iran in particular. True that with the lifting of sanctions, trade turnover between Moscow and Tehran has grown 70.9 percent in year-on-year terms, according to Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan. Yet, in pure economic terms, Moscow could have gained much more if it dropped Iran and Syria and accepted Arab Gulf offers. The explanation that oil and trade are the direct reasons for Russia’s policy on Iran has to first answer the following question: Since the Arab Gulf states offered Moscow a better deal on both tracks, why would President Putin insist on building his bridges with Tehran and doing what is possible to support Bashar al-Assad at the expense of his ties with the Arabs?

Even an explanation that focuses solely on Syria and keeping al-Assad in power is not sufficient to grasp the limits of Moscow’s willingness to invest, in a moment of domestic need, in order to bolster an ally who cannot stand on his own feet for more than a week.

Things are happening in a way that deserves to be examined more thoroughly, based on a clear understanding of Moscow’s state of mind and perceptions of its own interests and methods to achieve them in this period of time.

Just a few days ago, the world was watching Putin shaking Erdoğan’s hand in Moscow. The visit was followed by another important development: Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Ankara on Erdoğan’s return from Moscow. Then we got the news of Russian bombers using the Shahid Nojeh air base in Western Iran to bomb the Syrian opposition, including groups trained and armed by the US, before Moscow stopped its air mission from Iranian territories. Then came recent statements about the Syrian crisis which may point to a new approach to dealing with the civil war there.

On August 18 – that is after Russia started to use the Shahid Nojeh base – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that achieving a lasting resolution to the crisis in Syria without Russia and Iran would be “impossible,” adding that Ankara would cooperate with both countries on the issue. But there was no word about the cooperation of the two countries, Iran and Russia, to bomb the groups previously supported by Turkey in Syria.

Here, we have to recognize first that there are many differences between achieving a particular objective and having an overall posture in a specific region, including differences between Ankara and Riyadh. In other words, a country which is perceived to be capable of doing anything it wishes (Russia), can trigger all kinds of reactions, but is always perceived as capable of reaching its goals more easily than others, even if it does not really have the muscle to achieve everything it wants to.

Hard power and soft power are not two separate categories. Soft power has a genuine dimension in how a country is perceived. The role of perceptions is extremely important in building an image capable of supporting the exercise of soft power. Yet, the tricky part is that in certain circumstances, like what we see in the case of Russia in the Middle East now, overusing hard power can bring a chain of events that will eventually culminate in self-inflicted defeat and hence using no power whatsoever. In other words, Russia is walking a fine line which combines the limits of its actual abilities and its understandable attempts to keep all channels open, all the while inching towards a better strategic position and a deep appreciation of the complexity of the factors in play.

Let us just imagine the consequences of any step that leads to an irreversible Arab reaction against Moscow’s policies. A call for Jihad to all Sunnis everywhere can cause far-reaching security damage to Russia, either in the Caucasus, domestically, or in the Middle East.

Furthermore, let us not forget that when the US invaded Iraq, and before it got entangled there, Tehran sent a secret letter to the White House offering to give up its nuclear program. Preparation for the invasion, and potentially its first stages (which were militarily successful), allegedly led to shelving, or at least scaling down, the military component of Iran’s program at that time.

The conceptual relationship between the impacts of hard power on soft power is easy to grasp. It is based on showing determination without necessarily having to put actual capabilities to a risky test. Putin is playing this card masterfully, and with as little investment as he can, to draw an image of himself as the head of a power that can get things done.

By doing this, he turns the Kremlin into a power to reckon with in the minds of its adversaries – that is in their perceptions. The overt message is that others should avoid provoking him, and for those on the sidelines they should now consider packing for Moscow. As for friends, they should keep standing as a lively reminder of what Moscow can do for them, if they only go to the Kremlin to offer their sacrifices.

Putin is not only enhancing Russia’s soft power in the Middle East through a relatively limited use of hard power. He is also moving fast to widen his choices in a region where no one other global power has the guts to play hard, or the stamina to play soft.

Just prior to the decision of Iran to invite Russian bombers to Shahid Nojeh, the Russians intensified their talks with the Obama administration to reach a ceasefire exactly where the Kremlin was planning to bomb: Aleppo. A few days before announcing the Russia-Iran deal on the air base, Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying the US and Russia were in “a very active phase” of talks about the surge of fighting in Aleppo, “to start fighting together to bring peace.” Just after this statement, Shoigu moved his heavy bombers to Iran in order to intensify his military campaign, not peace. Washington responded to Russia-Iran deal by saying that it is “unfortunate”, and as a step “to push us [the US and Russia] away from a nationwide ceasefire and the UN-sponsored political process in Geneva that includes Russia.”

And here again, we find the distinctive Putin signature. It is, in Moscow’s critics’ views, how to deceive in order to kill many birds with the same small stone. In its friends’ views, however, it is how Putin is using the right dose of power to put himself on the center of the circle with all roads opened. He believes that Washington, or at least Washington in its current state, will not close the road to the Kremlin if he pushes things to a certain point.

Obviously, the differences between Russia and Iran are substantial, as substantial as the differences between Turkey and Russia. But the argument that these differences may be an obstacle to creating tactical alliances between Russia and any other country is not valid. The US and Saudi Arabia have substantial differences on all levels. Yet this has not stopped the two countries from working together for decades.

Finally, it may be important to pose the issue as follows:  Is a Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance possible in the Middle East? The answer, in a few words, and in our view, is: No, an alliance, as such, is not on the cards. Coordination and a search from the three countries for common ground related to regional crises is what is being shaped right now.