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:
What this episode shows is that, even though Moscow and Tehran are both supporting the Assad regime against its opponents in Syria and top Iranian leaders were willing to allow Russia to use a base in Iran in pursuit of this common aim, a highly negative view of Russia prevails in Iran that limits the extent to which the leadership of the Islamic Republic want to be seen cooperating with it. Unlike so many Third World countries during the Cold War, where an anti-Western outlook resulted in a willingness to cooperate with Moscow, an anti-Russian outlook has long prevailed even among the most anti-American elements inside Iran. This is due to Iran’s long, negative history with Russia—which has included Tsarist Russian conquest of Iranian territory in the 19th century, Tsarist Russian intervention against Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in the first decade of the 20th century, Soviet Russia’s support for secession in northwestern Iran after both World War I and World War II, Soviet occupation of northern Iran during World War II and (unlike the British who occupied southern Iran) unwillingness to withdraw its forces afterward, and support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Post-Soviet Russia has also annoyed Iran on many occasions, such as when it agreed to sell weapons to Tehran but then postponed or cancelled these deals at America’s behest, took several years to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor (amid all manner of rancorous dispute), and supported UN Security Resolutions imposing economic sanctions on Iran when it could have vetoed them. Many other instances could be cited, including Russian president Vladimir Putin’s pursuit of improved relations with Iran’s arch-enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Once the Russians made it public that they were using the base, the onrushing wave of negative public opinion inside Iran, first about violating Iranian sovereignty and second about violating Iranian sovereignty on behalf of Russia, was more than the Iranian political establishment was prepared to take on. So they made a very public show of booting the Russians out.
Now the Russians are saying that they might use Hamadan again in the future if the situation in Syria dictates a need, while the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, is saying that the Russians are still using Hamadan, and as far as I know nobody has been able to verify one way or the other whether Russia still has planes at Hamadan or not. But the whole episode is, from the Iranian perspective, a case study in trying to strengthen ties with a country that’s still very much on the collective shit-list as far as most of your citizenry is concerned. From the Russian perspective, it’s a case study in the value of shutting the fuck up every once in a while instead of reflexively bragging about every development that you deem to be a new foreign conquest or whatever. Because if Moscow had just not said anything about using the base, this whole episode likely could have been avoided. But they were so eager to demonstrate, mostly to a domestic audience, that they are too a
big boy major Middle Eastern hegemon that they may have screwed the whole arrangement up. It makes good politics for Russian leaders to crow about how they’re playing power geopolitics at the highest levels, but at least in this case it also made for really lousy foreign policy.
There are lessons here for the US, too, as ex-CIA analyst Paul Pillar noted in an essay a few days ago. The US routinely displays the same arrogance about its global footprint that Russia did here about Hamadan, often to little or no cost because the power imbalance between the US and most other nations is so great, but it’s not hard to imagine that US foreign policy could accomplish a lot more without resorting to airstrikes if Washington were just a skosh more humble, at least publicly, about how it approaches other nations. Nobody enjoys being treated like a second-rate nation. This affair also, again as Katz noted, shows the inherent weakness in the Russia-Iran alliance–a weakness that the United States could try to exploit, if it weren’t also good politics for American politicians to be performatively Mad at both countries.