Iran has granted Russia full use of facilities at a major air-base near Hamadan, west of Tehran, Iranian authorities confirmed Tuesday. The confirmation came only hours after Russia announced that its heavy bombers had taken off from the Iranian base to attack positions of Arab and Kurdish Syrian opposition groups in Idlib, Aleppo and Deir Az-Zour.
The event marks a major development in strategic terms as it extends Russia’s military presence beyond Syria to Iran. It also marks a dramatic change in policies that Iran had pursued towards Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
In 1920, the Bolshevik leader Lenin offered Iran a deal: The new Russian Communist regime would forget Iran’s massive debt to the Tsarist Empire in exchange for Tehran not allowing the enemies of the new Russian regime to use Iranian territory for military action against the Soviet Union. Two years of negotiations led to the 1922 treaty which in its final draft gave Russia the right to intervene in Iran in self-defense.
Successive Iranian governments, however, always maintained reservations about the treaty, especially the two articles that allowed Russia to seek a military presence in Iran. In 1936 Reza Shah, trying to play Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, denounced the treaty without formally abrogating it.
In the summer of 1941 Stalin used the treaty as a pretext for invading Iran, along with Russia’s British allies, violating Iran’s neutrality in the Second World War.
Moscow and London wanted to sue the Trans-Iranian railway that linked the Gulf to the Caspian Sea for shipping food and weapons to the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany. The allied occupation of Iran, which from 1942 also included the Americans, lasted almost five years during which Iran sought a new treaty with the Soviets.
That led to the 1942 treaty which maintained most of the advantages that Russia had gained in 1922 but gave Iran greater leeway in building military alliances of its own. Stalin’s strong support for Crown Prince Muhammad Reza to become Shah while the British leader Sir Winston Churchill remained lukewarm at best, made it easier for Iranian to put the issue of the treaty on the backburner.
The issue was revived in Tehran in the 1970s when the Shah, his morale boosted by rising oil revenues and a booming economy, discussed its abrogation with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. By 1978 the two neighbors were discussing a new framework for their relations while Iran officially declared it was no longer bound by treaty articles that gave Russia the right to seek a military presence in Iran.
In 1979, as the mullahs seized power in Tehran, efforts to secure a new treaty with Russia were abandoned, partly because the new ruler Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini believed he needed Moscow’s support to consolidate his regime. Nevertheless, even then the issue of the two “dirty treaties” came up from time to time. Ibrahim Yazdi, an American pharmacist of Iranian origin who briefly acted as Khomeini’s Foreign Minister raised the profile of the issue in a number of declarations. His hope was that cancelling the treaty would be a launching pad for restoring ties with the United States.
Sadegh Qutbzadeh, the adventurer who also biefly acted as Khomeini’s Foreign Minister before being executed by the ayatollah, went even further and declared the unilateral abrogation of two of the key articles of the two treaties.
Yesterday, the Islamic Republic seemed to have closed that entire chapter by allowing Russia to build a military base in the heart of Iran. The air-base near Hamadan was built in the 1960s and massively expanded in the 1970s with technical assistance from the United Sates which supplied almost 100 per cent of Iran’s air force. It was named Shahrokhi Base after one of the aces of the Imperial Iranian Air Force.
In 1982 the mullahs r-named the base Nozheh after an air force cadet who had been “martyred” during clashes to bring Khomeini to power. The Shahrokhi-Nozheh base is the second largest of its kind in Iran after the Vahdati Air Base near Dezful close to the Iraqi frontier. It was meant to be used for bombing the then Soviet Union, in case of a major war against Iran’s northern neighbor.
Shahrokhi-Nozheh will allow the Russian Air Force to cut flying time for bombing raids in Syria by half and bring down the cost of the war for the Kremlin. It will also avoid possible “misunderstanding” with Turkey, still a NATO member, of the kind that led to a Russian bombers being shot down by the Turks.
Yesterday, Iranian authorities tried to hush the whole issue to avoid humiliation. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the High Council of National Security, tried to explain away the humiliation by claiming that “Russia has joined the Resistance Front” under Iranian leadership.
The “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei justifies the move with reference to his “Looking East” strategy that was unveiled last spring. Others, however, see the humiliating move as a sign that Tehran is badly bleeding in Syria and hopes that Russia could save it from even bigger disasters.
Yesterday, Khomeini’s “Ideal Islamic State” was transformed into an aircraft carrier for Vladimir Putin.