Russia’s new military alliance with Iran is all about keeping Assad in power and America on its back foot. But marriages of convenience usually don’t last.
On Aug. 16, Russian bombers took off from Shahid Nojeh air base near the Iranian city of Hamadan reportedly to bomb Islamic State targets in Syria. The fact that the Russian air force had based planes inside Iran was not only a surprise to American diplomats — it was news to many Iranian officials as well. While State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Russian action may have violated a U.N. Security Council resolution, 20 Iranian legislators demanded a closed session of parliament to discuss why Iran had allowed foreign forces to base themselves in the country for the first time since World War II.
Against the backdrop of outrage in Tehran, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan accused Moscow of “ungentlemanly” behavior in publicizing Russia’s use of the base, denied reports citing Russian officials that Moscow and Tehran had signed an agreement for Russia to use the base, and announced that Iran would no longer allow Russian bombers to fly from the airstrip. In an apparent attempt to save face, Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the Russian planes had “successfully” completed their mission and returned to Russia.
This may have seemed a brief hiccup in an otherwise solid alliance between Russia and Iran. But it’s worth remembering that it’s the romance, not the strife, that is the aberration. Never in the countries’ hundreds of years of dealing with each other have they cooperated so closely. It’s America’s misfortune that Moscow and Tehran have just recently discovered that there is vast overlap in their interests in the Middle East — not least, in opposing U.S. interests there.
Convergence of interests
Russia and Iran have traditionally been suspicious of each other. Although there has been occasional cooperation, relations have usually vacillated between direct rivalry and veiled competition. At times, the two countries have descended into armed conflict: They fought two wars in the 19th century, and Russian forces occupied lands the Iranian shah considered his own in what is now Turkmenistan. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet forces sponsored separatist movements, first in the northern Iranian province of Gilan on the Caspian Sea and, in the wake of World War II, in both Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. The 1946 Azerbaijan crisis — the first real crisis of the Cold War — was sparked by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s refusal to withdraw the Red Army from Iran in 1946, where it had been stationed during World War II in order to help secure a supply route.
The seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the Iranian revolution might have symbolized revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s animosity toward the United States, but his distrust of the Soviet Union was just as deep. “Neither East nor West but Islamic republic” became a defining slogan of Iranian revolutionaries.
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