Iran May Have Booted Russia from an Air Base for “Betraying Their Trust”

Russia’s grand marketing of aerial combat operations over Syria have rubbed their most recent hosts—the Iranians—the wrong way. Last week, Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers and IL-76 tanker-transports began appearing at Hamedan Air Base in western Iran. The aircraft began flying combat operations over Syria, and filming the action along the way for all to see. Apparently this and the other parts of the Kremlin-led media blitz regarding the new base did not sit well with the Iranians who have uncharacteristically come out saying they have revoked Russia’s invitation to use its airfields. The New York Times writes:

“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”…. “We have not given any military base to the Russians and they are not here to stay,” General Dehghan said. The two countries had “no written agreement” for use of the base, he said, adding that it was only a temporary agreement on refueling. Russia announced what it described as a deal to use the Iranian base on Aug. 16, saying it would shorten the distance flown by long-range bombers, which had been flying from southern Russia.”

Iran must have expected the Russian Ministry of Defense wouldn’t have disclosed the arrangement directly. Beyond Russian leaks, the word would have still gotten out quite quickly. The US can track the aircraft as they transit to and from the base, passing over Iraqi airspace in the process. Still, when it comes to Iranian domestic consumption of information, the arrangement could have remained officially unaddressed or even flatly denied. Instead Russia’s grandstanding about it caused quite the stir among many Iranians who see any occupying power, no matter how limited in scale, as untrustworthy and as a direct threat to Iranian sovereignty.

The fact of the matter is that the US also limits information on forward deployed forces from time to time, especially while they are operating out of sensitive locations. Often times these bases are unofficially well known but are not freely disclosed during official briefings, press releases and interviews. These locales are usually referred to as a “forward operating location in the XXXX region” or similar terminology.

Operating out of Iranian territory gave Russia’s bombers an upper hand by decreasing their flying distance to Syrian airspace massively, thus upping the potential sorties a single aircraft can fly in a certain amount of time. Yet when the Su-34s showed up there the whole operation seemed to reek of the same packaged set-piece photo ops that have become almost comical since Russian aircraft began flying sorties over Syria nearly a year ago. The Su-34s could just as easily have flown out of Russia’s airbase south of Latakia, but the optics of doing so would have had little strategic impact.

By operating out of Iran, with strategic weaponry no less, Russia sent yet another message to the world that Russia’s influence in the Middle East is growing as is its global military footprint and abilities to project power abroad. It also reminded the powers that be that Russia can and will operate from friendly territory in the region just as the US does, and not just at the request of regimes it is stepping in to save. Yet while pushing a couple of bombers and some tactical aircraft to an Iranian base for a short period of time may have large geopolitical implications, it has few tactical ones. 

Yet when it comes to the information war, Russia’s short stint at the Iranian airbase likely achieved its goals. Once again Russia gets a huge bang for its buck when it comes to producing impactful propaganda while risking relatively little. Iran seems to agree with this conclusion as well, with the Washington Post stating:

“Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan on Monday attacked publications of the Russian military press that reported the use of Iran’s air base. “There has been a kind of showing-off and inconsiderate attitude behind the announcement of this news,” he told an Iranian television channel.

“Naturally, the Russians are keen to show that they are a superpower and an influential country and that they are active in security issues in the region and the world,” Dehghan said…”

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