TEHRAN, Iran — News of Russian warplanes flying missions from an air base in Iran’s western province of Hamedan first made headlines Aug 15. The Arab outlet Al-Masdar News scooped the development, publishing exclusive footage of Russian TU-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 strike fighters in the Islamic Republic. Soon afterward, Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed that it was launching attacks against ISIS targets in Syria from Iranian soil.
In Tehran, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, confirmed the operations, highlighting that they had been carried out with the council’s mandate, and said that cooperation between Iran and Russia in the fight against ISIS would “continue until they [the militants] are fully annihilated.” A few days later, however, both Russian and Iranian media outlets reported a surprising halt to the Russian operations out of Hamedan and that Russian planes were leaving Iran. There was also speculation about the consequences of these developments on Iranian-Russian relations. It remains unknown why Iran allowed the Russians to use the air base in the first place and also why the Russians left so quickly.
The Russian air force had been targeting positions in Syria from the Mozdok military base in the Caucasus. To reach targets in Syria from Mozdok, jets have to fly some 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles). Use of the Hamedan base reduces that distance to 900 kilometers (560 miles), thus benefiting Moscow economically and strategically. Russia had also been launching strikes from the Khmeimim air base, in Syria’s Latakia province, to which it was granted access in late 2015. Khmeimim, however, is not suitable for Russia’s massive TU-22M3, one of the largest bombers in the world.
Iran has always supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and considers its support to be strategic. Thus, one can assume that Tehran views its cooperation with Russia in Syria as falling within the framework of the pursuit of its own goals and interests. Moreover, Iran’s military operates under the supervision and command of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose strong personal inclination is to preserve the ideological-strategic interests of Iran in Syria.