If the recent dispatch of Russian bombers from Iranian territory represents a new general arrangement, it stands to significantly reduce the time involved in getting Russian aircraft to their targets, while also avoiding logistical difficulties involved in resupplying and operating directly out of an airbase inside war-torn Syria. And this improvement in Russia’s regional capability comes at an apparently crucial time, since it has been reported that bombing is intensifying around Aleppo, where loyalist forces are struggling to capture a major Islamic State stronghold.
The coincidence of these two developments is possibly indicative of a growing need for Russian assistance as Syrian and Iranian forces fall short of desired outcomes. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is either directly participating or assisting local forces in at least three conflict areas at the present moment. It is fighting the Islamic State, the Al Nusra Front, and other, more moderate Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, it continues to support the rebellion against Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, an ally of the West. At the same time, the IRGC has been implicated in the terrorist plots that were recently disrupted in Kuwait and Bahrain.
Opponents of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran have asserted that Iran has stretched its forces to the breaking point in lieu of withdrawing its influence from any of these areas. Coupled with signs of an escalating crackdown at home, this may suggest that Iran’s material commitments are at risk of outpacing its economic recovery following the nuclear agreement with six world powers including the US and Russia.
Suleimani’s appeal to Iran last year may be interpreted as further evidence that Iran needs Russian support in order to keep up with these commitments. And now, the newfound opening of Iranian military bases to Russian forces gives the same impression, especially considering that it is virtually unheard of for the notoriously insular Islamic Republic. Reuters notes that this is reportedly the first time Iran has allowed any foreign military to operate out of its territory since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
But although this apparent change in policy may be indicative of the difficulties that Iran is facing in maintaining its interventionist foreign policy, Reuters acknowledges that it is also a sign of the steadily expanding cooperative relationship between the two countries. And this is a source of anxiety for policymakers and analysts who are concerned about the possible development of an eastern bloc led by Russia, China, and Iran, which would be at odds with Western interests.
Those anxieties are in some respects amplified by the similar problems that these countries have with human rights. Russia has been increasingly ostracized within the world community as a result of its plainly aggressive incursion into Ukraine, as well as its treatment of some domestic groups, particularly homosexuals. In Iran also, homosexuals are subject to the death penalty and as mentioned above, Iranian crackdowns on domestic dissent have evidently intensified in recent years. This has included noticeable persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and dual nationals.
The NCRI and other critics of the Iranian regime have also taken the Islamic Republic to task for its disregard of human rights in the midst of its defense of the Assad regime. Assad himself reportedly used chemical weapons in the past and continues to use barrel bombs against civilian populations. Meanwhile, Iran’s Shiite proxies in both Syria and Iraq have been accused of violent reprisals against Sunni civilian communities, with human rights abuses often rivaling those of the Islamic State.
The Washington Post indicated on Tuesday that Russia has only contributed to this record via the tactics used in its air support. The newspaper’s coverage of the expansion in Iranian-Russian collaboration included reports stating that Russia is still striking civilian populations with incendiary weapons that are banned under international law.