Providing access to the Iranian airbase in Hamedan for the Russian Air Force corresponds to the situational interests of the official Tehran. It uses Russian military power to strengthen its position in the region and maintain confrontation with Riyadh, Washington and Tel Aviv. It is doubtful that this alliance could be long-lived and remain strong, due to significant differences in goals that Russia and IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) have in the region, as well as the political architecture being constructed by the leading states in the region.
Tehran has vested interest in dismantling ISIS and limiting the areas of activities of radical Sunni groups that represent a threat to the national security of Iran. In Tehran these threats are perceived as directly connected to Riyadh’s hostile policies.
In May 2016 Iranian news network Press TV announced the capture by the Iranian intelligence service of two Iranian citizens with links to ISIS, when they were travelling to Tehran. The Iranian Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, stated at that time that “Iran had dismantled more than 20 terrorist groups that had planned to detonate bombs and cause insecurity across the country during the last Iranian calendar year (ended on March 19).” A large amount of weapons and ammunition was reportedly confiscated. In the words of Alavi, “Daesh seeks to hatch plots against the Islamic Republic from its de facto capital Raqqah in Syria.”
On August 16, the security forces in Iran killed one person and arrested several other members of the Takfiri terrorist group, closely linked to ISIS, in the western part of the country, Kermanshah Province, which borders Iraq. According to the provincial Governor-General Asadollah Razani, their tasks included staging of suicide strikes against various targets across the country. Over the past months, direct confrontation between Iranian security forces and members of ISIS groups have become more frequent.
In recent years, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have become more pronounced. Tehran officials are concerned that Riyadh could engage ISIS militants to destabilize the country. Pro-governmental media refer to the statement by the former Saudi Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz about weapons supply from Riyadh to anti-Iranian militant groups in Pakistan. He also stated that weapons were being supplied through Kuwait to anti-Iranian militants active near the border of southwestern province of Khuzestan.
At this time, Iran demonstrates a lack of capacity to counteract ISIS and radical Sunni groups outside its borders, thus raising security risks for Tehran.
The analysis of the situation in Syria over the past year suggests significant losses within the units of Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in ground operations undertaken together with the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s government. There are also expressions of criticism by Tehran toward Russia due to its low support of Iranian troops, particularly during the fighting for the Khan Tuman village. Just in May of this year, 17 servicemen of IRGC were reported killed and 21 Iranians wounded. Moreover, two high-ranking officers were killed: Brigadier General Javad Dourbin, a retired officer who went to Syria in April, and Brigadier General Shafi Shafii, a commander of the external arm of Qods Force (elite unit of IRGC). Just based on the official sources, the number of Iranians killed since the beginning of the war in Syria is between 400 and 700 persons. An alternative estimate by one of the IRGC officers, cited by Amir Toumaj of Long War Journal, the number of those killed nears 1200 persons.
The Tabnak newspaper, owned by Mohsen Rezaee (former commander of IRGC and a person closely affiliated with Khamenei) has issued strong criticism of Russia, pointing to the “indifference” of Russians who did not provide air support for troops in Khan Tuman, instead preferring symphony orchestra entertainment in Palmyra. The paper also criticised “the naiveté of Russians, who believed that negotiations with opposition could guarantee continued rule of Assad”, while also condemning the failure to provide air support to Iranian special forces during their operations against al-Nusra groups in April.
Kremlin purposely allowed Iranian losses in Syria to grow, in order to make Tehran believe that success would be impossible without Russia, with sole reliance on the domestic forces, units of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces. Thus conditions were established where the continuation of Tehran’s policy of supporting the Assad regime in Syria (which, in the words of Al-Khamenei’s advisor for foreign policy, Ali Akbar Velayati, is a “red line” for Iran) would be solely dependent on the expansion of military and political cooperation with Russia.
These conditions provide Kremlin a temporary opportunity to manipulate Tehran. On the one hand, the confrontation with Saudi Arabia and dismantling of the House of Saud that would represent a dream come true for Iran require the development of a security cushion, similar to what the US military base in Bahrein is for Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, counteracting ISIS and protecting Tehran interests in Syria also require outside support of a strong player. China can’t play this role, since it’s playing a long game and doesn’t rely on the use of its forces far from its borders. At the same time, Russia, which is trying to oppose the US and demonstrate its own geopolitical power, fits this role of the “agent of force”. It is unlikely that Iran will provide Russia with access to military bases under the same conditions as Damascus. The difference of interests in the region, especially in the Caspian Sea, are likely to make Iran withhold long-term access to its territory to Russia. However, the expansion of military and technical cooperation could meet the interests of Tehran, reinforcing its positions in the region, especially in its relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US.
In the longer term, the problem for Iran may arise from the difference in how Moscow and Tehran see the future of the region. For Russia, fighting ISIS does not represent a priority. Although maintaining the Assad regime is a common goal for both countries, Iran has concerns over the threats of ISIS and Takfiri movements. Based on the comments by the head of Iranian intelligence Mahmoud Alavi, one can conclude that Tehran holds hopes for active participation of Russia in the fight against ISIS. Security issues and intensifying strikes against the Islamic State are the main reasons for allowing Russian warplanes to refuel at Hamadan Airbase. But analysis of the situation suggests that Russian Air Force is mainly focused on Syrian opposition forces and not ISIS positions. From Kremlin perspective, the existence of ISIS allows it to position the Assad regime as the only alternative to the terrorist organization and thus to strengthen its presence in the region. As soon as concerns over ISIS are no longer a part of the agenda, Moscow will lose its main argument in the dialogue with the countries of the region and the international community.
Even if the goal to keep the Assad regime in power is achieved, Russian participation to counter ISIS remains a significant consideration for Tehran in forming its further policy toward Moscow. However, it is unlikely that Kremlin will concentrate any serious efforts on fighting the group.
Russia works to expand its influence by pulling its partners into geopolitical projects, rather than by developing bi-lateral relations – in Kremlin’s view, this demonstrates its political weight in the eyes of Washington and Brussels. In the majority of cases, these proposals do not have economic substance and appear as attempts to establish political influence. The decision to provide access to the airbase in Hamadan is anticipated to be viewed in Moscow as Iran’s readiness to develop closer relations, which would lead to the initiation of discussion about joining the EAEU.
Greater cooperation between Moscow and Tehran makes a poor scenario for Ankara. It has no interest in strengthening Iran’s presence in the region and keeps its unique policy toward Lebanon and Azerbaijan.
Increased Russian involvement in the region does not meet the interests of Ankara either, because it seeks to restore Ottoman caliphate and weaken the Moscow-supported Kurdistan Workers’ Party. It is possible that Ankara could agree on taking down the Assad regime, because it appears for Turkish leadership to be a greater threat than ISIS in expanding its influence.
Therefore, current signs suggest that the apparent expansion of Russian presence in the Middle East represents a tactical use of Russian military power by regional players, Iran and Turkey.
Translated by SpringSpirit
Edited by Max Alginin
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