The Associated Press has released a video of Russian warplanes on bombing runs over Syria and said that they took off from a base in Iran. If true, that’s significant because the historical baggage between Russia and Iran is huge notwithstanding their de facto anti-American alliance. (About a month ago, I published a lengthy analysis based on many Iranian and Persian-language sources of the official and unofficial Iranian views toward Iran for some folks over at Fort Leavenworth, a copy of which is here).
In short, several centuries of Russia chipping away at Iranian territory–and the Soviet Union trying to do likewise–has left the Iranian public rather cynical about Russia’s true intentions. While Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani broke the post-revolutionary ice with a trip to the Soviet Union in 1989, even he has acknowledged that Russia’s ties to Iran are motivated by mutual convenience rather than anything deeper. While some senior Iranian officials dismiss concerns about Russian intentions and the cost of working with Russia, Iranians more broadly remain deeply skeptical and downright hostile to the notion of Russian forces being stationed inside Iranian territory.
So what to make of the report that Russian bombers are now stationed in Iran if it is proven true?
- First, it suggests that Russia is further working to solidify an anti-American axis. How ridiculous Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must find Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless entreaties to cooperate in an alliance which in no way, shape, or form is an American interest. Kerry is like a junior high school nerd who’s willing to do everyone’s homework if only they let him sit at the cool kids’ table.
- While Khamenei may have a soft spot for Russia (and, indeed, probably studied in Moscow at one point in the 1960s), the Iranian government likely wouldn’t cross the line of allowing Russian forces to be stationed in Iran without getting something very, very significant in return. The question for U.S. policymakers is what that something special might be.
- Of course, Iran doesn’t border Syria—Iraq lays in between. While Iranian overflights of Iraqi airspace in order to supply the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad were once the stuff of U.S. demarches in Baghdad and critical news stories, the AP claim suggests that now Russian bombers are overflying Iraq on their way to and from targets in Syria. With U.S. forces again on the ground in Iraq and presumably supplied by U.S. aircraft, does this mean that the Obama administration and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter are coordinating Russian military overflights of Iraq from Iran?
What might the U.S. do?
- The Obama administration has been reluctant to challenge Russian moves for fear of sparking a broader confrontation. Of course, this fear is something off of which Putin feeds as he pushes ever further and harder. Still, given the deep Iranian suspicion toward Russia, as wiser White House might shine a spotlight on the Russian presence and talk openly and repeatedly about how Russian forces have returned to Iran for the first time since they were forced to depart against the backdrop of the Azerbaijan crisis seven decades ago. Diplomatic whining isn’t going to have any effect—Obama’s rhetoric ceases to have much effect beyond the confines of the White House, and Kerry’s doesn’t go even that far—but encouraging the Iranian people to voice their own views and concerns might be more powerful a check on this new axis of anti-Americanism than some officials realize.