Iran’s Supreme National Security Council admitted today that Tehran is permitting Russian military aircraft to stage operations against Syrian rebels from an Iranian airbase.  Satellite photography previously confirmed Russian military aircraft on the tarmac of Iran’s Shahid Nojeh Airfield in 2015. 

However, this is the first time that Tehran is publically confirming that it is allowing advanced Russian long range bombers to use its main air base in Hamadan Province.

Previously, Russia’s aircraft ran bombing missions from Russian airbases in the Caspian Region and from Syria’s Latakia/Hmyemim (Naval/Air) complex.  While the Hmyemim Airfield was adequate for Russian fighter-bomber aircraft like the SU-24 (Fencer), the SU-34 (Fullback) and Moscow’s attack helicopters, to conduct missions inside Syria, the runway is not long enough to accommodate heavier bomber types.

There are practical reasons for this arrangement. The Kremlin, no doubt, requested access to Iranian military facilities for similar reasons that the United States sought permission from Turkey to use its base at Incirlik. The bombers are closer to their targets which are presumably terrorist formations amidst the anti-Assad rebel groups. Russian aircraft from the Iranian airfield in Hamadan to Syria cuts the distance by approximately 1000 miles. The shorter flying time saves money by requiring less jet fuel. It reduces stress and fatigue on Russian pilots as well as wear on the sophisticated systems on the most advanced of Russia’s long-range bombers. Moreover, with less fuel, there is ‘room” for heavier payloads to drop on the targets. Additionally, Hamadan’s Shahid Nojeh airfield features several hangars for aircraft repair and bunkers for pilot rest and recreation. However, the most important reason for Russian use of the airfield at Hamadan is that the runway is 15,000 feet long. This permits Russia’s TU-160 (Blackjack), TU-22 (Backfire), and older Bear (TU-95) long-range bombers to stage operations.  The Hmyemim Airfield runway is not sufficient.

There are also politically significant reasons associated with this deepening Russian-Iranian cooperation. Recent rebel gains and increased Iranian casualties are cause for concern to Iran’s high command. Tehran is irrevocably joined with the Assad regime in a decades long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Iran’s deepening military cooperation with Russia also serves as a hedge in the Iranian calculus against any unilateral Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities during an interregnum between the Obama era and the inauguration of the next U.S. President in January 2017.
Moscow probably enjoys filling a vacuum created by U.S. refusal to be drawn too deeply into Syria’s civil war. Additionally, Russia’s air force is profiting by targeting training under wartime conditions with little loss of personnel and equipment. Moreover, Russia most likely hopes to become the main arms supplier to Iran. Finally, both Russia and Iran view the possibility of a Sunni extremist regime in Syria as not in their interest.

However, there is down side, for the Iranian regime. The history of Russian-Iranian relations is not an amorous one. Russia has long had a predatory interest in Iran. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, Russia cooperated with Great Britain in dividing Iran into spheres of interest. Soviet Russia following World War II even occupied northern Iran for a brief period. Tehran’s granting the Kremlin access to its airfields contradicts Imam Khomeini’s ideological formula “Neither East Nor West.” The regime’s internal opposition might exploit this concession to a foreign power in a similar manner as did the Islamists against the late Shah.