How Russian ran Air Base “Crisis” Is Used to Block US Drone Flights over Iran’s Nuclear Sites
Two long analytical essays were published in Tehran and Moscow synchronously on Aug. 30 in an attempt to put a good face on their apparent “misunderstanding” over the Nojeh air base.
This incident – whereby Tehran granted Moscow an air base and then snatched it back – took some hard explaining.
This is how it unfolded: In mid-August, the Russian Air force was granted permission to use the Nojeh air base near the western Iranian town of Hamadan for bombing missions over Syria. Moscow was jubilant, certain it had won a strategic asset comparable to the Hmeimim air base in Latakia granted by Syria.
For almost two months, Iran made no objections to Russian teams of engineers busily building and adapting Nojeh to accommodate the huge Russian bombers and fighters.
But then, the regime in Tehran, dismayed by the popular outcry over a foreign power gaining a base on Islamic Republican soil, was on the spot. Hence the awkward statement from Tehran about Moscow being allowed limited use of the air base as needed, but no permanent presence.
That was the version fed to the media.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian and intelligence sources disclose here for the first time what really happened.
The Russians at no time halted their bombing sorties from Nojeh; nor have their engineers stopped building longer runways and living quarters for the Russian air crews and elite troops due to take up their duties there.
But both needed cover stories to iron out the awkwardness for their respective public: Iranians had to be convinced that the Russians were not given an air base in their country, while the Russians needed to hear that Moscow had saved face from the humiliation of being booted out of Iran.
Two news media were enlisted to this convoluted task.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) news agency Mehr ran a long essay Tuesday under the title, “Nojeh airbase: climax of Iran-Russia defense cooperation,” accusing the US (who else?) of spreading the rumor (sic) that Iran had granted the Russian air force an air base in order to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.
The article’s centerpiece was a quote from Iran’s Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan: “Iran would provide a second airbase to Russia if the situation demands,” he said, stressing that this action does not undermine the Islamic Republic’s constitution, because, “No Russian plane and/or fleet has been deployed in the airbase and they use it for fueling and taking off for Syria.”
This article was phrased to emphasize that the ties between the two countries were so close that Tehran would even grant Russia the use of a second air base in addition to Nojeh – so long as it was used only for the refueling and takeoff of its warplanes.
Moscow’s contribution to this web of misinformation was an article published the same day on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website Russia Direct. Under the caption: “Russia and Iran, ready to give their relationship another try,” the Kremlin was offered a piece of sage advice: “In order to boost its position as a significant player in the Middle East, Moscow should pay more attention to the concerns of regional actors such as Iran.”
The meaning here was that Moscow is not only willing to take responsibility for the “misunderstanding”’ over the air base, but promises to indulge Iran’s aspiration for a future role as a major player in Middle East affairs.
Indeed, according to DEBKA Weekly military and intelligence sources, the two powers have moved forward from the air base “misunderstanding” to tighten their military ties on other issues as well.
Iran is the main beneficiary: Moscow decided to hand over all the batteries of the advanced S-300 air defense missiles that were imported for the defense of the Russian facilities at Nojeh.
This week, they were deployed at the Fordo underground uranium enrichment facility, as Iranian state TV triumphantly aired footage of the S-300 missile’s deployment at “a nuclear site in central Iran.”
“Our main priority is to protect Iran's nuclear facilities under any circumstances," Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) air defense force told state TV.
There was an added benefit for Tehran. It was revealed Monday, Aug. 29, by the semi-official Fars agency’s claim that the Khatam ol-Anbia air defense base had warded off a US spy drone when it approached the country's border from Afghanistan.
“Iran’s army air defense detected and warned off an American drone in the eastern airspace of the country. It was coming from Afghanistan. The drone left the area," the Iranian military said.
Clearly, the Russian S-300 missiles had already been pressed into service, as soon as they were handed over, to block Iran’s skies against US drone flights over its nuclear facilities.