End of Russia-Iran Air Base Arrangement Highlights Differing Interests

But on Monday there was arguably a positive sign for people like Krauthammer, who are concerned about what appears to be a growing series of challenges from an Iran-Russia alliance that may also include Iraq, Syria, China, and others. Although these sorts of critics had emphasized that the Obama administration did nothing to push back against the threat that was put on display by the new Russian air strikes, the arrangement between Russia and Iran apparently deteriorated anyway, entirely on its own.

The end of the Iran-based bombing raids was detailed by the Washington Post on Monday. It explained that Iranian officials had expressed distaste for Russian efforts to publicize the arrangement. Moscow had issued a press release on the topic shortly after launching its first bombing raid from Iran. The Russian narrative had expressed confidence that there was country in the Middle East that is “friendlier and better from the security angle” than Iran.

This is in keeping with an assessment of the air base arrangement which was published in the National Interest on Sunday. In it, George Mason University Professor Mark N. Katz explained that for Russia, the effort to carry out military activities directly from Iran was not so much an element of strategy as it was an effort to project a symbol of unprecedented cooperation. And as various reports had indicated last week, the cooperation was apparently unprecedented, as the Islamic Republic has never allowed another country’s military forces inside its territory.

On the other hand, the end of the arrangement on Monday seemed to suggest that Iran was the passive party, having given assent to Russia’s use of its air bases, but only in response to a Russian request. The National Interest article suggests that this gesture was important to Russia in large part because it would encourage the US and its allies to persist in a soft policy toward Russia, on the assumption that Moscow would be able to intercede with Tehran over the future of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and other areas of joint foreign policy.

But accepting this Russian narrative would have meant that Iran ceded power to its partner, and this does not seem to be something that the Islamic Republic is willing to do. In fact, the Washington Post specifically reported that Iranian officials were concerned with being perceived as a Russian client. Consequently, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan accused the Russians of “showing off” and maintaining an “inconsiderate attitude.” The subsequent cancellation of the shared air base arrangement may have served to send the message that Iran is still fully in control of its own foreign policy and willing to engage Syrian rebels on its own, even though various earlier reports have suggested that Iranian forces are stretched to the breaking point.

It may or may not be coincidental that at the same time Iran was striving to look strong in the face of Russian influence, it was also publicly unveiling new domestic weapons, in the latest of a long series of attempted shows of force. Agence France-Presse detailed the premier of the Bavar-373 missile defense system, which is reportedly Iran’s first domestically produced, long range missile system.

Interesting, work on the Bavar-373 was initiated in response to the 2010 postponement of a deal between Iran and Russia for the purchase of the latter’s S-300 missile defense system. The resumption of that deal was announced prior to the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. But actual delivery of the missiles is still ongoing, apparently having been delayed because of Russian nervousness about the potential reactions from other countries, including Israel.

The domestic alternative may afford Iran some leverage over Russia by implying that the Islamic Republic is not dependent on the completion of the deal and is capable of finding domestic alternatives to other would-be Russian-sourced arms purchases. However, the truth of that implied claim is in dispute, since the specifications of the Bavar system have not been independently verified and Iran is known for exaggerating its own military capabilities.

Exaggeration notwithstanding, with the missile unveiling taking place so close on the heels of a slight contraction in Iranian-Russian relations, one might suppose that the two countries have demonstrated contrasting perspectives on their tenuous alliance. Both stand to benefit from mutual challenges to Western interests, but each wants to seem like they are in control and thus in a position to personally dictate terms to the US and Europe.

In this way, Iran’s military relationship with Russia is somewhat reminiscent of its economic relationship with many of the countries who formerly participated in nuclear-related sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Since the conclusion of negotiations with the P5+1, Iranian authorities have been simultaneously eager to economically re-engage with the world and nervous about relinquishing the nation’s self-image as a powerful bulwark against Western influence in the region.

An article published in the Japan Times on Sunday pointed out that Iran is still struggling to attract foreign investment, due in part to “relations between Iran and its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, lingering sanctions from the United States and the slow reform of Iran’s financial sector.” The Iranians have not seriously addressed these or other concerns, but numerous officials have attempted to pressure the Obama administration to help Iran achieve a greater economic recovery, lest the recent nuclear agreement be cancelled in the same way that Iran cancelled its much more recent air base arrangement with Russia.