Critics pounced on President George W. Bush when he described Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” almost 15 years ago. After all, they said, there was no evidence that the three countries worked together, so how could they be an axis?
Put aside the fact that Pyongyang and Tehran have long relations, especially on issues relating to their ballistic missile programs and perhaps nuclear work, as well. Increasingly, there it appears a real axis is developing between Russia and Iran.
Last summer, I wrote a history of Russia-Iran relations for the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. While the relations are their warmest in perhaps 500 years, everyday Iranians remain deeply skeptical of their leaders’ apparent trust in the Kremlin. (A little-known fact is that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei studied in the Soviet Union as a young student in the 1960s).
That skepticism is not stopping the development of military ties. Russian and Iranian Special Forces trained and competed together this summer in Russia’s military Olympics. Then, there were reports that Russian jets used an Iranian air base to strike at Syria, the first time in modern history that Iran willingly allowed a foreign military power use of one of its bases. When word of that leaked, the Iranian leadership may have realized that it was a bridge too far for ordinary Iranians.
Now, however, both Russia and Iran have moved to Plan B. Despite President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated declarations that Russia had withdrawn its forces from Syria, the fact of the matter is that Russia kept the air base it built in Syria after its initial deployment. Now, it seems that both Russia and Iran are using that base. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (the post President Hassan Rouhani held between 1988 and 2005), announced that Iran and Russia share a military base “where Iran conducts its advisory mission to help the Syrian army and [pro-regime] resistance forces with Russia’s assistance.” He added that Iran and Russia “work together to design the military aspect of the counter-terrorism fight…”
Mohsen Rezaei, head of the Expediency Council, today declared that Iran’s goal to strengthen the Russia-Iran-Turkey alliance.
Axes do not appear overnight, and it is only through willful blindness that they surprise. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were blind, however. They never understood that Russian support for the Iran nuclear deal had far less to do with Kerry’s skill as a diplomat and more with the fulfillment of Russian grand strategy to strengthen itself and Iran relative to the United States. That both countries share an airbase in Syria—and Turkey may not be far behind—may be the true legacy of Obama’s Middle East policy and Kerry’s misplaced trust as well as the greatest challenge the United States will face as President-elect Donald Trump takes office.