Iran Offers Air Base to Break up Russia’s Syria Partnership with the US

Last summer, Russian jets were surprisingly allowed to use an air base in Iran for attacks in Syria, the first time for a foreign power since World War II. Permission was abruptly withdrawn when radical Iranian lawmakers protested that it was a breach of the country’s revolutionary constitution, which prohibits foreign bases on Iranian soil. Moscow was also reproved for making the arrangement public.
The air base briefly allotted the Russians last August is located at Hamadan in northwestern Iran. Its use cut the distance flown by bombers from Russia to Syria by 1,600km.
This week, Tehran appeared to be turning back to its first decision and repeating the offer. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday, March 28 that since Russia does not have a military base (in Iran)” and, “we have good cooperation and on a case-by-case basis, when it is necessary for Russians fighting terrorism to use Iranian facilities, we will make a decision.”
Zarif was speaking in Moscow Monday, March 27, as a member of visiting President Hassan Rouhani’s delegation. The time and place of this flip-flop is significant as DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources explain:
1. Tehran is set on enhancing Iranian-Russian military cooperation in Syria, hoping to lure Moscow away from its partnership with Washington.
2. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week instructed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iranian forces in the Middle East, to sabotage the US-Russian understanding. (See DEBKA Weekly 749 of March 24: Gen. Soleimani Blows Holes in Putin’s Syria Strategy.)
The ayatollah told his confidants that Iran’s troops in Syria were not seeking a showdown with the two world powers, “We must focus on our main objective which is to preserve Bashar Assad in power to gain guaranteed access (via Iraq) to the Mediterranean.”
3. Tehran was seriously put out to discover that that Russia had allowed US Marines to deploy on the Syrian-Iraqi border when they divided up Syria into spheres of influence. This placed a formidable barrier in the path of Iranian access to Syria and its projected railroad to the Syrian Mediterranean coast.
Rouhani, when he visited the Iranian Kurdish provincial capital of Sanandaj Saturday, March 25, announced this railway was to be one of “the most important infrastructure projects” in the country. By extending the railway from Sanandaj to the Kurdistan Region Iraq, “we will connect Iran to the Mediterranean Sea through Syria,” he said, adding that Russia would support the project.
4. The Iranian government was stunned by Israel’s unexpected air raid on March 17 that destroyed an Iranian arms convoy as it drove out of the Syrian T4 air base northeast of Palmyra. They were even more upset by the Russian air defense system’s non-response to the intruding Israeli jets.
Not just upset, but dismayed. An Iranian government official said that its Russian-made air defenses “were compromised by Moscow leaving Iran and its allies defenseless against Israeli air strikes.”
An Iranian defense ministry engineers went so far as to allege that codes forcing anti-aircraft missiles to treat hostile Israel fighters as friendly were sold to Tel Aviv, effectively neutralizing Syrian and Iranian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.
Fearing that such outspoken allegations would annoy the Kremlin and prejudice relations, Iran’s decision-makers took a different course. They resolved to hit back for any further Israeli attacks in Syria, but not before reaching an understanding with Moscow on how to handle such attacks in the future
Offering Moscow the use of an air base in Iran was not just intended to promote this understanding, but to obtain a guarantee of Russian backing for an Iranian reprisal against an Israeli attack.

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