August 24, 2016

Russian Basing in Iran is about More than ISIS

Russia’s use of Iran’s Hamedan airfield may have “ended for now,” but Russo-Iranian military cooperation is far from over. Both states have indicated that Russia may use Shahid Nojeh Air Base in the future. This development is of limited significance for Russian military operations in Syria, since Russia has an airbase in Syria itself already. It may, however, be very significant for Iran’s ability to deter the U.S. and its regional adversaries. A frequent presence of Russian military equipment and personnel at Iranian military installations would add yet another layer of complexity to the calculations of any state contemplating an attack against Iran. It would further alter the regional correlation of forces and empower Iranian adventurism.

Russian presence at Iranian military installations could give Iran additional deterrence capabilities against its adversaries, including the U.S. As long as Russian aircraft are flying in Iranian airspace and Russian equipment and personnel are on the ground in Iran, military attacks on Iran risk hitting Russians and potentially provoking an escalatory response from Moscow.

The Russians have already used this approach to constrain American air operations in Syria simply by operating from Syrian airbases and flying in Syrian airspace. They have forced the U.S. to alter its operational pattern and deconflict with them while simultaneously establishing a strong deterrent defense on behalf of the regime of Bashar al Assad. It is quite likely that a Russian military presence in Iran would have a similar effect.

The deterrent value of a Russian military presence in Iran is directly proportional to its frequency and extent. The more often Russian planes and personnel are present, the less likely an adversary is to find a good window to strike. The more bases Russians operate from, the harder it would be to find routes to targets that might avoid possible confrontations with Russian aircraft.

The diplomatic spat between Moscow and Tehran that followed Russia’s announcement of the base has convinced some Western observers that Iran has revoked Russia’s ability to use its airbases. That is not so. Both sides decidedly left the door open for future Russian operations from Hamedan, signaling that the Russian military presence may well continue in the future. Iranian Defense Minister IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan stated that Iran “will give the Russians permission to use [Shahid] Nojeh Air Base whenever it is necessary.” Russian Ambassador to Iran Levan Jagaryan even hinted at the possible expansion to other Iranian facilities, stating, “Moscow sees no obstacle to the use of Iran’s infrastructure, including Shahid Nojeh Air Base, to conduct airstrikes… in the future.”

The spat resulted from Russia’s ham-handed announcement that it had agreed with Tehran to set up a base in Iran. Such an agreement would have violated the Iranian constitution, which bans the establishment of foreign military bases on Iranian soil. Even a lesser agreement allowing Russia to use Iranian facilities—which would not violate the letter of the constitution—might have required the approval of Iran’s parliament. Fear of domestic political questioning and backlash likely motivated Iranian officials’ repeated denial that there was any agreement at all. Both sides are moving to mitigate the political fallout of this argument, however. There is no reason to suppose that they will fail.

Frequent Russian military presence in Iran would be a dream come true for Iran’s historically weak deterrence capabilities against the U.S. Deterring the U.S. has long been a major strategic and ideological goal for the Islamic Republic. Iran sees itself as the leader of a regional movement, called the “Resistance Front,” which challenges the U.S.-led political-economic world order and alleged American exploitation of developing countries. Iran has long understood that it does not possess the conventional military power necessary to sufficiently deter America, and has developed much of its military strategy and doctrine in order to mitigate U.S. conventional military superiority. The regular presence of world-class Russian aircraft such as the Su-34 fighter-bomber could powerfully strengthen this deterrent capability.

The Russo-Iranian military relationship is not without its problems, of course. Russia’s untimely rush to announce its use of the Hamedan base ahead of Iran - and the subsequent Iranian frustration that followed – is emblematic of the problems facing two countries that have not historically functioned well as co-equal allies. They have not always been on the same page in Syria and in the region, and some distrust between the two sides remains. Iran’s military resents the almost decade-long delay in the delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system. Some Iranians blame Russia in part for the heavy casualties suffered by the IRGC in a battle south of Aleppo city in May. Maintaining the current partnership will be a challenge for both Moscow and Tehran. The partnership itself is likely to endure and strengthen, however. That will pose a much bigger challenge to Iran’s adversaries, including the U.S.