Russia’s use of Iranian territory to launch air strikes in Syria this week has sparked cautious debate in Iran, where open discussions of sensitive foreign policy issues are rare and perceived affronts to national sovereignty could weigh heavily on a regime founded on promises to kick out foreign meddlers.
Iranian officials have said that the unprecedented move, which deepens both Russian and Iranian involvement in the five-year-old Syrian conflict, is part of a “strategic cooperation” with Moscow aimed at fighting “terrorism.”
The partnership has raised concerns in Washington, whose relations with Moscow have soured to Cold War levels and which last year signed a landmark agreement along with Russia and other world powers to ease sanctions on Tehran in exchange for nuclear concessions.
A senior Iranian lawmaker said the decision to allow Russian bombers to fly out of Shahid Nojeh air base near Hamadan was made following a directive by the country’s Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by President Hassan Rohani and includes the heads of the judiciary, the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and other powerful institutions. Council spokesman Hossein Naghavi Hosseini said on August 16 -- the first of two days so far on which strikes were launched from near Hamadan -- that Tehran and Moscow have had “very good cooperation” against terrorists in Syria that is increasing in scope.
Russia and Iran are staunch allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom they have helped stay in power since a bloody civil war broke out in 2011.
U.K.-based analyst Saeed Barzin says Tehran’s strategic military cooperation with Russia is significant, particularly as the United States is being accused by Iranian officials of dragging its feet in implementing the nuclear deal, whose terms were agreed in July 2015.
“Losing hope that the U.S. is willing to become a partner, the [Iranian] military establishment, to say the least, is now more keen to work with the Russians," Barzin says, adding in connection with an increasingly bitter regional rivalry between Shi'a-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia: "Strategic cooperation with the Russians should also give Saudis the jitters, particularly now that they have openly declared a policy of confrontation with Iran."
"Independence" was one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolution that led to Iranian religious and political leaders' creation of an Islamic republic that has prided itself on being, in its organizers' words, "neither pro-Western nor pro-Eastern.”
Iranian officials have publicly dismissed questions over the legality of the Russians' use of the military facility and concerns about compromising sovereignty, saying the move does not violate the constitution, which explicitly prohibits allowing foreign countries to establish military bases inside the country. They insist that Iran is not handing over its Shahid Nojeh air base to Russia.
But Alex Vatanka, a senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, tells RFE/RL the cooperation with Russia is likely to present a significant challenge for Iranian officials to explain.
“This notion that Iran as an Islamic republic works with Christian Russia and operates hand in hand [with Russia] in another Muslim country, in Syria, it just raises a host of difficult questions that surely will be difficult for days and weeks to come for the Iranian regime to justify,” Vatanka said.
Iranian officials have increasingly painted the conflict in Syria as the front line of a battle to defend Islam, including in order to recruit volunteers to travel to join thousands of other Iranians in the fighting there.
The influential speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, reacted strongly to concerns raised by a fellow conservative lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpishe, who questioned the cooperation with Russia while describing Moscow's foreign policy as “very different” and “turbulent and volatile at times.”
“Based on Article 146 of the constitution, establishing any foreign military base in the country is banned, and we haven’t given a military base to anyone,” Larijani was quoted by Iranian media as saying.
“The fact that we cooperate with Russia as our ally on regional issues, such as Syria, does not mean that we have provided Russia with a military base,” Larijani added.
Reformist lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi said on August 18 that 20 of his colleagues had written a letter to Larijani asking him for a closed session with relevant authorities to discuss the decision to allow Russia use the Iranian air base.
Sadeghi told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that the meeting was likely to take place over the weekend.
A commentary in the reformist Shargh daily noted after the first reports that Russian bombers were using Iranian territory that “Iranians are highly sensitive about the preservation of their national sovereignty and their constitution.”
Another pro-reform media outlet, Etemad, warned that "Iran should bear in mind that Russia has acted against Iran's expectations and requests when [Moscow's] interests have dictated it."
The popular Asr-Iran website appeared to criticize a perceived lack of transparency over the decision, saying it would have been better if Iran’s Defense Ministry or the military had issued an official statement announcing the increased military cooperation.
Analyst Vatanka says that while allowing Russia to use its military base might represent a joint effort by to strengthen Assad militarily, the partnership could also be an attempt by Tehran to send a signal to Washington.
“'We’ve concluded a nuclear deal with the West, but we’re still not seeing the benefits, the fruits of the sanctions relief,'" Vatanka speculates about Iran's possible thought process, putting himself figuratively in Tehran's shoes. "'We still feel the United States is not doing its part. What do we do to get the United States attention? Perhaps by playing the Russia card, we can do that.'"