MESOP TODAYS OPINION BY Arash Karami (AL MONITOR) – Why did Russian use of Iranian air base stir up controversy?

24 Aug 2016 – When Russia announced last week that it had launched airstrikes against Syrian opposition forces from western Iran, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), was the first Iranian official to indirectly confirm the news. Shortly thereafter, a number of other officials both confirmed the news and defended it, arguing that it was part of a strategic pact between the two countries to fight terrorism in the region.

Iranian parliamentarians raised concerns about the possibility of a foreign country establishing a military base in the country, which would violate the Iranian Constitution. High-ranking officials responded that the use of Hamedan air base was strictly for refueling purposes, while other officials assured the media that Russian planes would remain in Iran temporarily. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced Aug. 22 that the planes had left Iran “for the time being.”

The media controversy and the seemingly uncoordinated statements by Iranian officials suggest that Tehran was not ready to announce the presence of the Russian planes. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that Russia and Iran had planned to make the announcement simultaneously. When asked why instead the Russian Foreign Ministry made the announcement first, Ghasemi said, “Maybe because of the time difference of geographic regions.”

No response has received more media traction than that of Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. When asked during a television interview why the Iranians did not announce the presence of the Russian planes first, Dehghan replied, “You have to ask the Russians.” He continued, “First of all, the Russians would like to show that they are a superpower and they have an effect on the security process in the region and the world. Also, on the Syria scene, they want to show themselves to be a determinative actor, that they are able to negotiate with the Americans and secure their portion on the political future of Syria.” The television interviewer followed up the question by asking Dehghan if the Russians had the intention to “show off” by announcing it first. Rather than confirm the question, Dehghan responded that it was “a little ungentlemanly.”

When news transcripts of the interview were first published, they had made Dehghan’s comments appear more critical than the video showed. The transcripts did not include the prompting by the reporter about “showing off,” nor did they reflect how Dehghan’s “ungentlemanly” response was followed by a laugh from both the interviewer and the subject.

Dehghan also caused a stir when he responded to complaints by parliamentarians that “it was none of their business.” After parliament Speaker Ali Larijani criticized him for the comment, Dehghan wrote an open letter clarifying that he did not intend to diminish the place of parliament within the Islamic Republic. Dehghan added that he only meant that the decision regarding the Russian planes did not need to be approved by parliament.

Dehghan, of course, is right. The decision regarding the Russians planes in Iran was approved by the SNSC and its secretary, Shamkhani, has been a steady and consistent voice over the matter. After speculation that the departure of the Russian planes was due to outside pressure or internal disagreements, Shamkhani told Iranian media, “The planes were never meant to stay at this base but it was agreed that from day ‘X’ until Thursday [Aug. 18] they would be there and then leave. The planes did not leave yesterday but based on the plans of the ground operations, they left last Thursday and this was not a result of pressure from other countries.”

On the possibility of internal disagreements within the country, Shamkhani said, “Within the structure of the Islamic Republic, it has been some time that the slowness and deadlock with respect to decision-making has been resolved.” He added that Iran brought Russia into the Syrian civil war due to its need of an air power to coordinate the ground operations, which Iran had planned and is advising. Shamkhani said that this is “a sign of strength.”

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