Russia evicted from Hamadan airbase in Iran
Last week it was reported that Russian Tu-22M3 strategical bombers and Su-34 fighter bombers struck ISIL targets in Syria from Hamadan airbase in Western Iran.1 It appeared that Russia and Iran had reached some agreement to allow Russian heavy bombers such as the Tu-22M3 to operate out of Hamadan. It was also agreed upon to allow Russian Kalibr cruise missiles to transit Iranian airspace on route to targets in Syria. Furthermore DEBKAfile reported Russia was also transporting the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems to Hamadan, an indication that their forces were going to be there for a while.2
This turn of events had profound implications for the Middle East. In the preceding months it appeared that Russia was being to distance itself from Iran, Hezbollah and even Assad. There were indications that Russia was increasing its cooperation with Israel and even the US. But all that changed rather quickly. The turning point appeared to be the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey following the latter’s apology for downing a Russian Su-24 bomber back in November. With Russia becoming closer to Turkey, they seemingly began to strengthen their ties with their traditional ally Iran, as evinced by their agreed upon use of Hamadan airbase.
All of this makes perfect sense. When Russia was on the outs with Turkey, their northern flank in Syria was unsecure. Rebel supplies and manpower could easily enter Syria from Turkey which helped to sustain the rebel forces against the onslaught of Assad’s forces backed by Russia. Furthermore there was always the possibility that Turkey could continue in their erratic behavior and maybe even invade parts of northern Syria. For these reasons Russia had to align itself with the Kurds, probably to the chagrin of Iran, and even cooperate with Israel, who themselves had strained relations with Turkey.
With the Russia-Turkey rapprochement, Russia’s northern flank in Syria is more secured. They now may be able to negotiate with Turkey to impose stricter controls on the Syrian-Turkish border and may even make use of the Incirlik airbase. As well following the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey, it appears Erdoğan has had a falling out with Europe and the US, thus endangering Turkey’s relationship with the West. In contrast Turkey has been pleased with Russia’s response to the attempted coup. All of this bodes well for Russia and their operations in Syria.
Russia’s use of the Hamadan airbase indicates strengthening ties between them and Iran, and that Russia’s eastern alliance, which is intended to oppose and counter the West, is as strong as ever. Well that is what appeared to be going on a few days ago, but things have drastically changed. Today it has been reported and confirmed that Russian planes have left Hamadan and are back home in Russia.3 If we are to believe the official Russian and Iranian line, Russia’s use of the airbase was for a specific and limited mission, which has now been accomplished and as such Russian bombers can return home.
However, this seems unlikely. Why would Su-34 fighters bombers operate out of Iran for a specific mission when they can, as they have been, operate out of Syrian bases, which are closer to the targets in question? Similarly with the Tu-22M3, what is the point of operating them for a single mission out of Iran? Just for a one time saving of fuel or a one time increase in security? Something else must be going on.
According to Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan Russia’s publication of their use of Hamadan was unwarranted “show-off” behavior and was “ungentlemanly” to boot.4 When Russia’s announcement was first made, Iranian MP Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh argued that Russia’s military presence within Iran was unconstitutional.5 Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani countered, “Under Article 146 of the Constitution, the establishment of any foreign military base inside the country is forbidden, and it is worth mentioning that Iran has not given such a base to any country.” He also stated that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has not put any military bases at the disposal of Russia or other countries.” However, Larijani’s statements were clearly false as there was photographic evidence of Russia’s presence at Hamadan.
So it appears that popular and parliamentary aversion to having a foreign power operate on Iranian soil may have led to Russia’s abrupt exit from Hamadan. However, according to DEBKAfile, it ultimately was Ayatollah Khamenei himself that was against the agreement.6 It appears that Russia had negotiated the use of Hamadan through President Hassan Rouhani and assumed that the latter would be able to obtain Khamenei’s acquiescence. This apparently was not the case and Khamenei was particularly angered by Russia’s deployment of the S-300 and S-400 missile systems to Hamadan, who interpreted it as Russia “acting to commandeer the airspace over the base deep inside Iran.” Regardless of the reasons of the Russia pullout, it is clear that there are some divisions manifesting within the Russian Iranian alliance.
One interesting aspect of these ever changing developments in the Middle East is that seemingly valid analysis and conclusions based on today’s situation may become invalidated by tomorrow’s developments. Just as it seemed like Russia’s cooperation with Iran was at all time highs, we now see that is not the case. As such, when attempting to understand the ongoings in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world for that matter, it is best not to come to hasty snap conclusions. Instead it is best to patient and see how specific developments play out. Only in this manner do we have any chance of understanding what is currently occurring in world and what is likely to happen in the future.