“Our relations with Russia have assumed a strategic nature,” says Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary-General of Iran’s High Council of National Security. “In the context of the fight against common enemies, all our bases are available to Russia.”
The historic statement last Tuesday came in response to a storm of protest in Iran, including within the establishment, raised by the announcement in Moscow that Russian heavy bombers were using the Iranian Air Base Nozheh, near Hamadan southwest of Tehran, for attacks on targets in Syria.
“Iranian leaders were clearly embarrassed by the announcement in Moscow”, says Nasser Zamani, an analyst of Iranian affairs. “They know that Iranians are extremely sensitive to their territory hosting any foreign power, something that has not happened until now.”
However, it was not easy to organize a cover up when Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to show his government is now returning to the Middle East as the major foreign power with influence.
Horus after the Moscow announcement, the issue was raised in the Islamic Majlis by a couple of members. One of them, Muhamad Reza Falaht-Pisheh, argued that the Russian military presence in Iran violated both the letter and the spirit of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution. In fact Article 146 expressly forbids the use of Iranian territory by any foreign military “even for peaceful purposes” such as relief for victims of natural disasters.
Trying to reduce tension, the Majlis Speaker Ali Ardeshir Larijani argued that Iran had not “granted” Russia base but was allowing the Russian Air Force to use Iranian facilities. To hammer in the point another Majlis member Borujerdi, head of the National Security Committee, claimed that Russia “was given certain facilities” with the approval of the High Council of National Security (HCNS).
However, Article 176 of the Constitution which sets up the position and responsibilities of the HCNS makes it clear that it does not have the power to make such concessions to foreign powers. It can study possibilities of cooperation and make recommendations which are not applicable unless approved by the Council of Ministers, the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) and the “Supreme Guide”. In this case none of those steps had been taken.
For over 200 years Ira’s refusal to allow foreign military on its soil has had major impacts on its foreign and domestic policies. In 1856-57, Iran ceded the province of Herat, now part of Afghanistan, after being defeated by a British expeditionary force. However, in the Treaty of Paris that ended the crisis, Iran refused British demands for a military base in the Bushehr Peninsula.
In 1911 the Russians invaded the northern Iranian province of Gilan, seeking a military base to control all coasts of the Caspian Sea. Again Iran, although weak and confused as a result of a Civil War between the Constitutionalists and the Absolutists backed by Moscow, refused to yield.
In 1921 the British sent an expeditionary force from Iraq through Iran to Transcaucasia top back newly-emergent republics in Georgia and Armenia against the new Bolshevik regime in Moscow. Iran, itself frightened of Bolshevik regime, allowed the British the right of passage but refused to let them set up base.
In the 1930s, Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, developed close ties with Nazi Germany against Iran’s traditional enemies: Russia and England. But even then he refused to allow Hitler to build a base to monitor, and when the time came, disrupt British shipping in the Gulf to India.
In the 1950s Iran joined the Baghdad Pact with Turkey, monarchic Iraq and Great Britain. Initially, the US had also been expected to join as part of the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s “Northern Tier” strategy to throw a ring around the Soviet Union. However, the Americans refused to become full members for two reasons, both related to Iran. The Iranians would not allow the US to build a base in their territory. Nor would they agree that Iranian troops be put under foreign command in the context of the Baghdad Pact. (The pact collapsed in 1958 when General Abdul-Karim Assam seized power in Iraq. It was later renamed the Central Treaty Organization minus Iraq.)
During his brief premiership, Dr. Muhamad Mussadeq, the man appointed by the Shah to carry out oil nationalization after its approval by the Majlis, the Soviets did all they could to obtain a military presence in Iran at a time when the Iranian mood was violently anti-British. Mussadeq formulated his foreign policy as “Negative Balance (“Al-Mowazanat Al-Manfiah) with the slogan “Neither East nor West.”
In the 1960s Iran emerged as one of the United States’ closest allies and remained so until 1979 when the mullahs seized power. Nevertheless, even then Iranians did not allow the Americans to build bases in Iran
Seizing power in 1979 with support from Mussadeqists, Stalinists and a variety of leftist groups, Khomeini’s adopted Mussadeq’s “Neither East nor West” slogan. His successor as “Supreme Guide”, Ali Khamenei, dropped that slogan earlier this year, replacing it with a new one: “Looking East”.
The slogan has an echo of the Cold War when West and East blocs divided the world. However, today, with the fall of the USSR, Russia is not to the east of Iran, it is to the north. This does not indicate Khamenei’s poor knowledge of geography; it is a sign that he feels the old Cold War has returned in a new paradigm, and that he must take sides.
“The Looking East strategy is a sort of guarantee,” says Ali-Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister and current adviser to Khamenei. “We know that the old world order has been shattered and no one, even the wisest of men, knows what is going to happen tomorrow. In times of uncertainty it is prudent to have powerful ally.”
Velayati’s attempt at casting Russia in the role of a strategic ally may be premature, however. And some Iranian observers regard the current honeymoon as tactical. “Iran and Russia are working closely because both don’t want their side to be defeated in Syria,” says Tehran University professor Sadeq Ziba-Kalam. “Also, both Tehran and Moscow are anti-American and hope to seize the opportunity provided by Obama’s retreat to fill the gap in the Middle East. Russians using Iranian bases is a tactical move with limited objectives.
Others don’t share that view.“The Russian bombers taking off from bases in Iran may be tactical, but their effect is strategic,” says Vali Nasr, a former adviser to US President Obama and a long-time advocate in the US of the “moderate” Rafsanjani faction in Tehran.
For 36 years, Khomeinist mobs burned the United States’ flag in public amid shouts of “Death to America!” These days, however, it is the Russian flag that is burned by protestors chanting “Down with Russia!” These small demonstrations may prove to have little impact. But they indicate the presence within the Iranian political culture of a strong streak of Russophobia.
Russophobia has a long history in Iran. It started with the wars that the tsars launched against a weakened Persia from the late 18th century to 1830, annexing large tracts of Iranian territory in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the Caucasus, through four decades of intermittent wars, Iran lost Daghestan, Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, Ajaria, Aran ( Now Azerbaijan) and Armenia to Russia. In Central Asia, the Russians annexed such centers of Persian culture as Bokhara, Samarkand and Merv.
In 1829, a mob attacked the Russian Embassy in Tehran, killing most of its employees including the Minister Plenipotentiary, Alexander Griboidev whose head was chopped off and displayed on a pie in the center of Tehran. . (Griboidev was a poet and playwright, too!)
Peter the Great and Catherine the Great dreamed of annexing the whole of Iran so that Russia could reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
By mid-19th century, Moscow had turned the Caspian Sea, for centuries an Iranian lake, into a Russian pond in which Iran was denied even a commercial navy. Russia maintained a monopoly on the lucrative caviar trade until Iran nationalized the industry in 1951.
In 1909, Russia signed a pact with Great Britain, another enemy of Iran at the time, to divide it into two spheres of influence. Iran’s newly created constitutional government resisted that plot and reasserted what was left of the nation’s independence. Two years later, the Russians landed troops on the Iranian side of the Caspian, in support of feudal chiefs and mullahs who tried, and failed, to destroy the new constitutional government.
The Russians invaded again during the First World War and returned home only after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1919, a contingent of Bolshevik “military instructors” arrived in Gilan, on the Iranian side of the Caspian, to set-up a secessionist “Republic of the Jungle” as part of Komintern’s strategy under Grigori Zinoviev for “setting the East ablaze.” When that attempt failed in 1922, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty with Tehran under which Russia received the right to land troops in Iran when and if it felt threatened by the presence of foreign forces.
By 1940, Russia had lost its overt influence in Iran while the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, had acquired a clandestine presence by creating the Tudeh (Masses) Party in Tehran, and the Democratic Sect, a secessionist outfit, in the province of Azerbaijan.
A year later, Russian troops were back, this time in alliance with Britain, with the aim of using Iran as “a bridge of victory” for supplying the Red Army against Nazi invaders in Europe. (US forces joined the duo a bit later).
At the end of the war, Stalin refused to withdraw his troops from the Iranian provinces of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan with the intention of turning them first into independent entities and then annexing them to the USSR. However, Iran, backed by the US that at the time had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, using the threat of a regional war that an exhausted USSR could not contemplate, forced Stalin to recall his armies
By the 1960s, the Soviet Union had become a marginal player in Iran. It tried to pressure Iran to distance itself from the West by supporting radical Arab regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq that waged a propaganda war against the Shah’s regime.
Playing the Russian card formed a major part of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy in what he sees as his Jihad to create “a world without America.” Dreaming of an anti-American axis that includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, the Sudan and Venezuela, Ahmadinejad has gone out of his way to woo Moscow:
— In 2005 Ahmadinejad declared that Iran recognized the abrogated treaties with Russia as valid. This was seen as a diplomatic warning to the United States not to take military action against the Islamic Republic because such a move could lead to Russian military intervention.
— In 2007, he withdrew Iranian support for Kosovo’s independence, despite the fact that 98 per cent of the newly created republic’s inhabitants are Muslims. Iran joined Russia in rejecting Kosovo’s demand to become a member of the United Nations.
— Ahmadinejad abandoned Iran’s policy of protecting refugees by handing over to Russia scores of Chechen, Ingush and Daghestani fighters, all Muslims, who had fled from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The previous Iranian government under President Muhammad Khatami had allowed refugees who did not wish to remain in Iran to travel to other Muslim countries or the West. According to Chechen sources, more than 100 fighters handed over to Russia by Iran were executed in 2006 and 2007.
— Ahmadinejad has backed Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This complemented his policy of working with Russia and Armenia in Transcaucasia to limit US influence.
— Ahmadinejad joined Russia in opposing US plans to build anti-missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic.
— In 2012 Iran applied for the membership of the so-called Shanghai Group, a regional alliance created by Moscow with China and the Central Asian republics.
—The coming to power of a pro-American group, known as “New York Boys”, under President Hasan Rouhani was initially seen as a coup for the Americans. Now, however, it is clear the official government of the Islamic Republic has little influence in shaping major aspects of foreign policy. That power lies with Khamenei.
— Reversing a previous policy of diversification, the Islamic Republic has decided to grant most of the contracts for building 22 new nuclear power stations to Russia. However, some observers believe the Russians may be leading Iran up the garden path.
— Ghulam-Reza Bagherzadeh, the long-serving head of Iran’s nuclear program shares that view. “The Russians are playing the Iranian card to secure concessions from the US and do not intend to let us have a credible nuclear industry,” he asserts.
Iran has also signed the biggest arms contract in the history of Russo-Iranian trade for the purchase of S300 antiaircraft missile systems. Moscow started installing the system in Iran last spring.
Pressured by Khamenei to reduce the number of Iranians studying in Western, Indian and Chinese universities, the number of Iranians training in Russia has increased fourfold. Russia is training hundreds of Iranian security personnel and providing materiel used against demonstrators.
Some analysts claim the pro-Russian policy reflects the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Muhammad Muhsin Sazgara, a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who has defected to the US, claims that Khamenei established ties with the KGB, the Soviet secret service, years before the Khomeinist revolution. At the time the idea was that the Soviet Union, being the only power standing up to the United States, would help Khomeinists destroy Iran’s pro-West regime.
According to that theory, Khamenei even spent a year, presumably 1974-5, attending “special courses” in Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University that was set up to train Third World revolutionaries. This, however, is hard to substantiate because at the time Khamenei was an unknown figure in faraway Khorasan while the Soviet Union had good relations with the Shah.
According to the analysis offered by Velayati, Khamenei believes that Russia, though much weakened, could help the Islamic Republic destroy American influence in the Middle East. Russian support for the Khomeinist regime may be less solid than Sazgara and others claim. Nevertheless, the perception in Iran is that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime is the principal foreign supporter of the theocracy in Tehran. Burning the Russian flag is one way for Iranians to send a message to Moscow.
It is too early to gauge the exact extent of Iran’s pro-Russia turn. Shamkhani’s statements imply that Russia is now also able to use Iran’s naval bases in the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to project power in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond.
With the fall of the USSR, the Russian navy has lost its global reach. In the Far East it is frozen out of action for months for climatic reasons. In the Mediterranean it has lost mooring rights in the former Yugoslavia and has been reduced to a small presence in the Syrian port of Tarsus. The Russian Navy enjoyed facilities in the Iraqi port of Um-Qasar, but that was lost after the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Russia also lost its naval and aerial facilities on the South Yemeni island of Socotra which, when we visited it in 2008, offered nothing but ruins of abandoned bases.
Base facilities in Iranian waters could enable Russia to rebuild a genuine blue-water navy worthy of a power with global pretentions. Russia would be able not only to further weaken America’s dwindling influence in the region but could also forestall the emergence of China as a rival power in the Euro-Asian landmass. This may be why Russia is joining Iran and India in developing the massive Chahbahar trade and security “hub” on the Iranian side of the Gulf of Oman. The “hub” would link Central Asia to the outside world and counter the “hub” that China is building in Pakistani Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea next door to Chahbahar.
In exchange, the Iranian regime hopes to break out of its regional isolation, install client governments in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut and terrorize America’s abandoned allies such as Egypt and Turkey into submission.
However, the Russo-Iranian alliance suffers from a fundamental weakness: neither side trusts the other and neither could forget a history written in conflict, war, violence and blood.