Iran and Russia's Uncomfortable Alliance

Their Cooperation In Syria In Context

Sergei Rudskoy, head of Russian General Staff's main operations command, speaks during a news briefing on Syria, in Moscow, August 1, 2016. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

In a surprising move in late August, Iran allowed the Russian Air Force to fly from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base in central Iran to conduct bombing operations in Syrian territories that, Tehran and Moscow claim, are controlled by terrorists. This was no trivial decision; it runs counter to a foundational principle of revolutionary Iran's foreign policy. Since 1979, Iran has safeguarded its sovereignty through the principle of "No East, No West," a popular motto engraved on the colorful tiles of the entrance to the Foreign Ministry building in Tehran. Accordingly, for 37 years, Iran has not allowed any foreign power access to its military bases. So why now? 

The decision is symbolic of the deepening political and military ties between Iran and Russia. The two countries’ collaboration in Syria is in fact the most significant military engagement Iran has had with any foreign country since 1979, and it could complicate Iran’s rapprochement with the West.

That does not mean, however, that the Russian-Iranian relationship is without tensions: heavy doses of mistrust plague both sides. For example, soon after Russia announced that Iran had allowed it access to Shahid Nojeh, a few deputies in Iran’s Majlis denounced the decision as a violation of the constitution, which forbids the establishment of foreign military bases inside Iran. Several regime officials quickly went into damage-control mode. They emphasized that the decision was constitutional because Russia was only temporarily using the base for refueling purposes, and that command of the base has remained in Iranian hands. They insisted that the Supreme National Security Council, the country’s highest authority on foreign affairs, had authorized the decision. And Iran’s defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, who had travelled to Moscow five times in the past two and a half years, declared that Iran had no intention of allowing Russian access to more bases, but added that “if Russia requested, Iran will consider the request.”

For now, the two countries are strategically cooperating, the official line goes, mainly to

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