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Russia Leaves Iranian Air Base After Tehran Balks


FILE - In this frame grab from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian long range bomber Tu-22M3 flies during a strike above an undisclosed location in Syria on Aug. 14, 2015.

Barely a week after Russia said it began bombing militants in Syria from a base in Iran, Tehran said on Monday that the mission is over.

Iran’s defense minister blasted Moscow for being a “kind of show-off and ungentlemanly'' for boasting to the world of its air strike capability from Iranian territory.

The move begs the question whether the spat is merely about hurt feelings or if there is a change in strategy over how Iran and Russia will continue to support the Syrian regime in its fight against rebels. The Islamic State.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Bahram Ghasemi officially announced the news in Tehran, saying that the Russian airstrikes were finished – at least for now.

As on Sunday evening, Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic long-range bombers and Sukhoi Su-34 strike jet fighters were seen leaving the Shahid Nojeh Air Base airbase in Hamedan, Iran and heading home.

Moscow did not comment publicly on Monday on Tehran’s comments.

But the Iranian regime said Russia had been using the base for months and decided last week to make its presence public.

Going public

“This is not new and was in place for some time,” said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran,

“The only new thing is the public announcement of it by the Russians,” he said in an interview with the conservative Iranian Tasnim news agency.

Russian authorities said their airstrikes from Iran eliminated major weapons depots, training compounds and command posts for the al-Nusra Syrian rebel group and IS fighters. The Kremlin says its attacks on militants in Syria are necessary because IS is relying on thousands of fighters who come from Central Asia and pose a threat to Russian security.

But Russia’s “public announcement” last week appears to have outraged Iranian authorities since some Iranian lawmakers see the Russian use of an Iranian air base as a violation of article 146 of the Iranian constitution. The article states that Iran will not allow any foreign army to use its bases.

Mideast Iran Russia: FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2016 file photo, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan shake hands during their meeting in Moscow, Russia.
Mideast Iran Russia: FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2016 file photo, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan shake hands during their meeting in Moscow, Russia.

"Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria,” Gen. Hossein Dehghan, Iran’s defense minister, told angry members of the Iranian parliament.

Continued cooperation?

Some analysts say the row over use of the base will cool Iran-Russian military cooperation for a while. But others say Tehran and Moscow have made it clear to the West that they can unite to support the Syrian regime without the help of Washington and the West.

“Whatever the reason behind the sudden announcement that Russia is finished for now operating…the fact is the incident has already served its main purpose,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation.

Supporting the Syrian regime “is a regional strategic goal for both Tehran and Moscow and this strategy would be greater than these disaccords,” said Mohsen Milani an Iranian scholar at the University of South Florida.
Russia’s ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, said in an interview with Interfax that Tehran’s move on Monday does not mean that the Russians can't use the Iranian base again.

The Russians too may quietly continue to use the base until bases in Syria are upgraded in the fall, analysts say.
“I believe that Russian air force will continue to use Hamedan as refueling point,” said Babak Taghvaee, a military expert who monitors air strategy in the region.

Making the Russian presence less public leads some analysts to believe that the Iranian regime was merely speaking to its domestic audience with Monday’s announcement.

“This dissatisfaction, if could be called authentic, at its most serious phase is very superficial and trivial and would not harm the Iran-Russia strategic alliance,” said Hossein Alizadeh, a former Iranian diplomat who lives in Finland. “And reactions to it are only for domestic use only.”

Whether or not Russia uses the Iranian base makes little difference to the U.S.-led coalition. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told VOA that Russian usage of the base "was noteworthy but not particularly meddlesome in coalition operations.”

“The sky is very big," he said, "and we have very good situational awareness of what’s in it.”

VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.