Shifting sands in air base drama between Tehran and Moscow

Iranian media has reported that Russian use of the Hamedan air base (also known as the Nojeh air base) in Western Iran has been halted. According to Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi, “the presence of Russia in Iran was temporary.”

“Russia has neither bases in Iran nor is it deployed [there],” Qassemi said. “It was … with the agreement of both sides and it took place with Iran’s authorization and Russia’s request and it has ended for the time being.”

Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan claimed that “there was a kind of showing-off and thoughtless [attitude] behind the announcement of Russia’s use of the Nojeh air base to attack terrorists in Syria.”

The Associated Press also carried news of Russia’s reported cessation of the use of the Hamedan air base and drew historical parallels to Iranian antagonism over allied-occupation of Iran during WWII.

Iran’s defense minister elaborated on Russia’s use of the air base in a press conference this morning. In an attempt to explain the reported termination, he noted that the Russians had “not come to stay, but” instead they were engaged “for a short and defined period of time according to the operations carried out on the ground and in Syria.”

Describing the entire experience, Dehqan said “naturally, the Russians want to demonstrate that they are a superpower and an influential country.” Dehqan also made sure to debunk reports about Russian involvement in Iran as a violation of UNSCR 2231 – the resolution which enshrines the Iranian nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA). To that effect, he noted that “this issue has no relation to that Resolution and no arms sales have taken place.”

This sudden pause and somewhat public rebuke of what until recently appeared to be rapidly warming ties between Tehran and Moscow is surprising. Speaking to the Iranian press on Saturday, defense minister Hossein Dehqan previously appeared to one-up the statement of a senior Iranian parliamentarian who stated that Russian warplanes would only stage in Hamedan air base to refuel (as reported in The Long War Journal here). Dehqan’s comments instead had left options open for enhanced cooperation with Russia, alluding to the possibility that other air bases could potentially be opened up to Iran’s northern neighbor. Specifically, Dehqan said: “It is clear that they (Russian planes) do not come to Iran for recreation, they come to … refuel or be armed. However, at present we have no plan for the Russians to use other bases, but if the situation calls for it we will review it.” Earlier, Dehqan had gone so far as to indicate that Russia could use the Hamedan air base “until whenever is necessary.”

This reported reversal comes at a time when Russo-Iranian defense cooperation was increasingly made public. Iran’s defense minister himself played a largely public role in facilitating greater security ties between Iran and the Russian Federation. Dehqan met with his Russian and Syrian counterparts in Tehran as late as this June, and travelled to Russia for meetings in February 2016. In the aftermath of those meetings, Iranian outlets carried a quote from Dehqan attesting to his belief that “a very bright horizon” would emerge “from the strategic cooperation between the two countries.” Dehqan also believes that “the very close cooperation of Iran and Russia will cause the return of stability and security” to the region.

As such, comments by Qassemi during his press conference on Monday about ending the Russian use of the Hamedan air base may well be a ploy to divert media attention away from the increased cooperation between Moscow and Tehran required to help save President Assad of Syria and his embattled regime.

In his weekend press conference, Dehqan had also pushed back against parliamentarians who cited legal concerns over Russian use of the air base in Western Iran. Dehqan retorted that “this issue has nothing to do with the parliament. This was the decision of the system in order to combat DAESH [the Persian/Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] and terrorists in Syria.” He further exclaimed that “if someone out of ignorance had such a take-away that we put [an] Iranian military base at the disposal of the Russians and this action was against the constitution, they are wrong.”

Dehqan’s comments Saturday were soon followed by what appeared to be an attempt to soften his statement to the press. Dehqan’s legal and parliamentary affairs deputy Reza Talai-Nik told the press hours after the minister spoke on Saturday that “the intended purpose” of his remarks were to note that “such operational support does not need a directive from parliament and that it is coordinated and executed by the responsible authorities within the parameters of the law and regulations.”

Dehqan’s attempt to excise the Iranian legislature from discussions over Russian use of the air base should be seen in light of the suspicion some parliamentarians displayed toward Russia’s intentions, as well as the constitutionality of the move. They also indicate an early attempt to downplay the importance of Russian usage of an Iranian air base for a sensitive Iranian domestic audience, as well as international audiences concerned with Russian airpower in the Syrian theater. In sum, such suspicions over intentions, constitutionality, as well as increasing publicity are likely to have played a facilitating role in effort to end Russian use of the air base, should Qassemi’s comments prove correct.

For their part, the Russian response appears minimal, but optimistic. Moscow’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Jagaryan stated that “Moscow is hopeful that Tehran is able to strengthen engagement in the process of resolving Syria, but all Russian military personnel have presently left the Hamedan air base.” Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian outlet close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) further reported that “according to Jagaryan, Russia’s Aerospace forces may, if necessary, and based on the decision of the leaders of Russia and Iran, resume their operations at the Hamedan air base.”

On Sunday, at a ceremony featuring President Rouhani, Dehqan showcased Iran’s new Bavar 373- surface-to-air missile (SAM) defense system. The Iranian SAM is a domestically produced variant of the Russian S-300, a platform which until recently figured negatively in the Russo-Iranian relationship. Previously, Iran had lodged a formal complaint against Russia regarding the sale and much-delayed transfer of the S-300 to Tehran. Now, Dehqan not only heralded that the rest of the S-300 was slated to be shipped to Iran “in a month,” but reportedly went so far as to proclaim that the Russians had put the S-400 on the table, but Tehran refused the offer. Given the recent developments over the Hamedan air base, no matter what direction cooperation between Moscow and Tehran takes, it will likely continue to provide the West with surprises, be it over airbases, SAMs, or the Syrian theater.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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