Russian Jets Are Using Iranian Air Space to Bomb Syria — Again
But for now, Moscow’s crews are just passing through
by PAUL IDDON
In August 2016, Russian Tu-22M Backfire long-range bombers briefly flew from Iran’s Nojeh air base in that country’s eastern Hamadan Province to bomb various Syrian armed groups. Then, on several occasions in February 2017, the large jets attacked targets in Syria, but from Russian territory.
During these latest missions, Moscow’s fliers had authorization from Tehran to pass through Iranian airspace — again. But, this time around, Iranian officials seem especially content for the Russians to pass through and keep going.
“In recent cases, Russian fighter planes have only used Iran’s airspace and have not had refueling operations,” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s National Security Council, told the semi-official Fars News Agency on Feb. 11, 2017. “Their use of Iran’s air space has continued because we have fully strategic cooperation with Russia.”
Shamkhani was reportedly responding to reports that the recent Tu-22 strikes in Syria went through Iranian airspace. He was clearly indicating the Russians had not resumed operations from Nojeh.
Before Shamkhani’s comments, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said the Iranians had offered Russia space at Nojeh for a second time, but only if Moscow needed to reposition the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Still, he stressed that it was “not on the agenda.”
After numerous accidents and other issues, Kuznetsov ended her problematic deployment in early January 2017, following the Russian-backed defeat of opposition forces in eastern Aleppo early in the preceding month. At that time, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan told RT that Russia only needed to ask if it wanted to use the facilities in Hamadan again.
There would have been good reasons for the Kremlin to resume flying missions in Syria directly from Iran. In 2016, Russia had greatly improved its ability to strike the targets in Syria with the contingent at Nojeh.
Before and after, the Russian bombers were unable to operate from existing sites on Syrian soil, being too big to make use of that country’s Hmeimim air base. Instead, Moscow’s crews had to fly all the way from southern Russia, Mozdok in particular.
Without access to Turkish airspace, this arrangement added hundreds of miles to the flights, which entailed passing over the Caucasus before taking a route through Iranian and Iraqi skies. This flight from Mozdok to Hamadan was approximately 900 miles long.
With the aircraft at Nojeh, the large bombers could loiter over the Syrian battlefield longer or carry less fuel and more munitions to rain down on enemy targets. The Iranian base is less than 700 miles from the city of Aleppo, with only Iraq in between.
During the early phases of its air operation against Islamic State over Syria, the U.S. military employed B-1 Lancer bombers for much the same reason. With Turkish authorities barring strikes across the border from Incirlik air base, the U.S. Air Force had to operate from bases further away in the Persian Gulf.
But despite the public offers and existing cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in Syria, the Backfires aren’t likely to deploy back to Iran any time soon. Iranian officials quickly became irked the last time Russian crews flew missions out of their country.
Iran felt Russia had been too eager to advertise the use of Iranian territory as a launchpad for missions over Syria, Dehghan explained in August 2016. “There has been a kind of showing-off and inconsiderate attitude behind the announcement of this news.”
The Iranian Constitution — over a century old by 2016 — explicitly forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on Iranian soil, “even for peaceful purposes”, under Article 146. This led Iranian officials to stress the temporary ad hoc nature of the Russian deployment when the country’s parliament, known as the Majlis, questioned the arrangement.
Iranian parliamentarian Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, insisted in one open session that Russia had a “turbulent foreign policy” and its own “strategic and foreign policy considerations.” Therefore, Iran should scrutinize any Russian military presence on the country’s soil accordingly, he declared.
The politician also repeated a slogan of the Iranian Revolution that Iran is “neither East nor West.” This has been a major consideration for Tehran’s relations with Moscow since the Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had devoutly adhered to this view. Ahmadinejad was part of the student group which infamously seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
However, he did not join them. The future president felt if the organization did not occupy the Soviet embassy as well, they would become entangled in the Cold War and become more susceptible to Soviet influence. “Russia and the Marxists” were the real threat to the revolution in his view.
In the early 1960s, before going into exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini raised the issue of American military advisors in Iran in a challenge to the Shah’s rule. The status of forces agreement between the imperial Iranian government and Washington gave American servicemen and their families certain immunities, such as the right to a trial in an American court if they committed a crime in Iran.
This stank of the 19th century capitulation agreements with European powers, which gave Europeans in Iran the right to be put on trial for crimes committed in Iran at their own consular courts as opposed to Iranian ones. We don’t know what rights Russian servicemen in Iran had during their brief deployment, but it could have sparked similar resentment among officials in Tehran.
Dehghan tried to smooth over any concerns, stressing that given the two country’s shared goals in Syria, it was necessary to help the Russians out. He claimed earlier that the Kremlin could station its bombers at Nojeh “for as long as they need,” according to RT.
“Russia decided to bring in more planes and boost its speed and accuracy in operations,” he added as the issue become more tense. “Therefore, it needed to refuel in an area closer to the operation.”
“That’s why they used the Nojeh base [in Hamadan], but we have definitely not given them a military base.”
But a mere week after beginning strikes from Nojeh, the Russians stopped their flights from Iranian soil, claiming they had completed the operation. We don’t know what formal arrangements, if any, the two countries put in place to let the bombers fly through to Syria in 2017.
Given Iran’s historically-rooted aversion to having foreign military forces on its soil, officials in Moscow might well have concluded that simply using Tehran’s airspace en route to blast Syrian targets would prove less controversial than a much more visible, and therefore contentious, on-the-ground presence. Iranian officials might have felt it would shield them getting entangled in the political complexities of Russia’s operations — and there are many.
It’s not clear if the latest Russian flights through Iran had anything to do with an airstrike that killed three Turkish soldiers in Syria on Feb. 9, 2017, according to Reuters. Though there is talk of the two countries finding common ground, Turkey and Russia had already come to blows during Syria’s civil war.
The February 2017 incident followed a similar one on Nov. 24, 2016, where four Turkish died in another aerial attack. But in that case, observers speculated an Iranian-made drone might have been responsible.
It goes without saying that the situation in Syria is already complicated and that Russia and Iran may find themselves increasingly on opposing sides. And it remains to be seen whether Iranian officials, or the country’s general public, will be any happier with Russian bombers just flying overhead.