It’s hard to find a lighter side to the civil war in Syria, but damned if Russia and Iran haven’t given it their best shot over the past couple of weeks. Last week, the Russian government announced that it was flying bombers out of an air base in Hamadan, Iran, against targets in Syria. This might seem like a relatively minor deal, akin to the US flying missions out of Turkey’s Incirlik base (which itself is not all that minor a deal, to be honest, but it isn’t the kind of thing that makes for a big public outcry–or, at least, it wasn’t before the failed coup attempt in Turkey), but actually it was a pretty major event from the standpoint of Iranian public policy. Iran’s constitution forbids, pretty explicitly, the establishment of any foreign military bases on Iranian soil, and while you could say that the Russians were simply using an Iranian base, that’s splitting hairs. It’s still allowing a foreign military presence within Iran’s borders, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution’s very clear prohibition, which is in place to preserve Iranian independence from any potentially encroaching foreign powers. Iran presumably decided to bend the rules either because circumstances in Syria dictated putting Russian bombers closer to the action or because Tehran wanted to do something nice for Moscow to strengthen their alliance.
Well, it took all of about a week after the Russians announced that they were using the Hamadan base before the Iranians yanked it out from under them. Why? Did Assad finally win the war? Well, no. According to Iran, it’s because Russia went and blabbed about the deal publicly:
But Iran’s minister of defense, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, accused Russia of having publicized the deal excessively, calling the Kremlin’s behavior a “betrayal of trust” and “ungentlemanly.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, told reporters in Tehran that the permission had been temporary and “it is finished, for now.”
Russia’s story was slightly different, and this is where it really started to get funny:
In response to the annulment, the Russian military issued a statement saying its planes had already completed their missions.
“The Russian military aircraft involved in launching airstrikes from the Iranian Hamadan base against terrorist sites in Syria successfully accomplished the tasks they had set out to complete,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. “All aircraft involved in this operation are now on Russian territory.”
I mean, come on guys. As propaganda goes, “you can’t fire me…I quit!” doesn’t even meet minimum basic competency standards. Do better.
The Iranian explanation actually holds some water here. Letting an outside power establish a base or use an existing base on your territory is a dicey thing that risks making it look like you’re the junior partner in your relationship, and that’s the kind of thing the Iranian government (and Iranian public) can really get chapped about. To make matters worse, as GMU Professor Mark Katz points out, while Iran and Russia are allies these days, these are two countries that have a really bad history with one another: Continue reading