Nojeh airbase; climax of Iran-Russia defense cooperation
Deploying Iran’s airbase by Russia Air Force to attack terrorist positions in Syria has been proved highly controversial, however, it indicates the close ties Iran and Russia hold countering terrorism in the region.
It was on August 16 that Britain and US, in an attempt to undermine and halt the advancement of Syrian army forces in Aleppo, leaked the information that Russia would use an air base in western Iran to operate sorties against terrorists, according to anonymous sources. It was just a week after President Rouhani’s visit with Vladimir Putin where he reaffirmed that Iran and Russia cooperation would continue until full restoration of security and stability to Syria and the whole region. And it was Russia Defense Ministry who put an end to all speculations officially announcing the presence of Russian jets in Iran; “Russian long-range bombers have deployed and would take off from the air base in Hamedan and destroy terrorists' positions in Syria.”
US didn’t hesitate to call the act “unfortunate, not surprising or unexpected” the same day during a press briefing session by State Department spokesperson Mark Toner. He also confirmed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov, adding “the United States is looking into whether Russia has violated a UN Security Council resolution by deploying Tu-22M3 bombers and Su-34 strike fighters to an Iranian air base,” Toner said. It was no surprise as, reportedly, Iran had admitted to provide an airbase for Russian jets under the condition that Russian fighters hit the terrorist targets specified by Iranian field forces, among which there were positions Russia has been asked by US to ignore.
Iranian side, however, kept silent till the next day when Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani touched upon the issue as the controversies reached high on the legitimacy of the issue; “Iran is cooperating with Russia as one of its allies in regional issues, particularly in regard to Syria. This cooperation by no means entails that our military base is under their control,” Larijani told the Parliament assuring that the use of Iran’s air base by Russia is not violating article 146 of Iran’s constitution, which bans establishment of foreign military bases on its territory for any peaceful reason.
The following day, August 17, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani underlined that sharing facilities is a part of Iran-Russia’s strategic cooperation in combating terrorism predicting very difficult situation for terrorists in Syria due to “constructive and expansive cooperation among Iran, Russia, Syria and the Resistance Front.”
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Head of Iran’s Parliament National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, reacted to the disputes on legitimacy of the issue announcing that the deployment had been approved by Supreme National Security Council and is in line with Iran-Russia-Iraq-Syria quadrilateral agreement on fighting terrorism. Yet, he noted that the “temporary use” of the airbase is merely for fueling.
“Iran would provide a second airbase to Russia if situation demands,” announced Iran’s Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan, underlining once again that the act dose not undermine the constitution; “Contrary to claims, no Russian plane and or fleet has been deployed in the airbase and they use it for fueling and taking off toward Syria,” he told reporters on August 20, announcing that no deadline would be set for the activity in the airbase.
Deploying Hamedan airbase for anti-terrorist airstrikes had logistic reasons behind. According to Russian experts using the Nojeh airbase aimed at cutting flight times, increasing bomb capacity and improving response capabilities of its aircraft. It was estimated that missions launched from Iranian airbase would increase the bomb capacity of fighters by three times. On the other hand, Russia was planning to provide cover for heavy Tu-22M3s bombers deployed to Iran by bombers that take off from Hmeymim base in Syria.
And it worked. On August 16, Russian and Syrian media reported heavy losses by terrorists. Russian airstrikes destroyed five large ammunition depots with weapons, munitions and fuel, as well as militant training camps near the cities of Serakab, Al-Ghab, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor cities. In addition, Russian bombers destroyed three command and control centers near the cities of Jafra and Deir ez-Zor. A "significant number of militants" were killed in what the Russian Defense Ministry described as a "concentrated airstrike." "The Russian Armed Forces have never carried out such a major and well-coordinated operation in terms of timing, multiple fronts and targets," the media outlet reported.
Russian media also pointed out that the Tu-22M3 deployment was part of a larger change in the strategic landscape regarding the Syrian battlefield. On August 12, Syria dispatched eight Kalibr-NK cruise missiles to Syrian shores. Meanwhile, a surface action group, comprising the Tatarstan and Dagestan frigates, as well as the Grad Sviyazhsk and Velikiy Ustyug corvettes, was deployed to the Caspian Sea. These ships were carrying a total of 24 Kalibr-NK cruise missiles.
However, the main target being liberation of Aleppo, didn’t advance at the expected pace as the released footage of a 5-year-old Syrian child, Omran Dagneesh, who was reportedly rescued in Aleppo after an airstrike raised strong international reactions bringing the military operations in Aleppo to a cease, someway.
Meanwhile, an abrupt stop in using the Nojeh airbase was announced by Spokesman of Russia’s Defense Ministry on August 22, just a week after the start of deployment.
“The Russian military aircraft involved in launching airstrikes from the Iranian Hamadan base against terrorist sites in Syria successfully accomplished the tasks they had set out to complete,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. “All aircraft involved in this operation are now on Russian territory.”
“Continued use of the Hamadan air base in the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Russian Aerospace Forces will be carried out on the basis of mutual agreements to combat terrorism and depending on the unfolding situation in Syria,” he detailed.
Once again the issue attracted the attentions among media hype with the most common speculations circulating around remarks made by Iran’s defense minister the day before Russia stops operations. Dehghan accused Russia of publicizing the deal excessively, calling it a “betrayal of trust” and “ungentlemanly.”
Dehghan went further to say that “Russians are keen on showing that they are a superpower and can greatly impact security trends. They also wish to appear as an effective agent in the scene of operations in Syria so that they will be able to negotiate with the Americans and guarantee their own part in Syria’s political future.”
Iranian minister, noting that Russia’s use of Hamedan airbase was due to need for a stronger confrontation with terrorists in Syria, underlined that “under no circumstances will we ever provide Russians with a military base. They have not come here to stay.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry also officially announced the departure of Russian jets after Russian Defense Ministry statement. Bahram Ghasemi, Foreign Ministry Spokesman told reporters that the Russian airstrikes on militants in Syria were “temporary, based on a Russian request, but that is finished for now.”
US reacted immediately; “I’d have to refer you frankly to the governments of Russia and Iran to speak to what happened, we’re monitoring it closely, we continue to, it’s not clear to us other than what we’ve seen in various press and public statements whether (Russia) their use of this airbase has definitively stopped, but we’ll continue to watch it closely,” State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said.
Some analysts believed that the annulment of the permission was reflecting the deep and historical mistrust Iranian had of Russia and signaled lack of adequate cooperation. Still, the deal was a historical one for Russia, as Iran had not allowed any foreign power to have military bases or deploy any since World War II. The deal helped Russia feel again as a super power, analysts say, noting that the symbolism of the agreement was important for Moscow.
Despite all media hype, it should be noted that Iran and Russia’s alliance to fight terrorism has never been doubted neither by Iranian party nor by Russian side. Iran and Russia, though via different approaches, share major goals in region; preventing ouster of President Bashar Assad by force and fighting terrorism, as a threat for their own national security. Russia’s priority, however, seems to be confronting the US-led regime change in Syria while Iran is playing a key role as a regional power in supporting Assad and Syrian integrity.