THE relationship between Iran and Russia can be characterized by Mary Poppins’ famous line “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
Historically and ideologically, the two nations do not have anything in common besides the isolation imposed upon them by the West.
For Iranians, accepting a relationship with Russia is difficult as public opinion does not view the European state favorably. The relationship would not be needed so desperately if Iran was not so keen to keep Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power.
After the Iranian nuclear deal was reached in 2015, there was hope that the Islamic Republic could improve its relationship with the West. However, this hope has all but faded. Thus far, the Iranian public has not seen any tangible changes in the economy or local politics.
The conflict in Syria and Iran’s involvement in the crisis is still a major issue for Western countries who wish to cement business ties with Iran. Iran’s limited choices Cold relations with Arab neighbors to the south and tense relations with Turkey to the West, as well as troubled eastern borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, mean that Iran’s choices are limited. And so, Russia stepped in.
Iranians are better off working with Americans, but what can they do when all their pebbles are aimed at closed windows? Russia reportedly mediated between Iran and Turkey but in a classic case of nothing comes for free, Russia soon started using an Iranian airbase to launch sorties in to Syria.
Constitutionally, Iran cannot allow any foreign country to use its military bases in times of peace or war.
However, exceptions are made dependent on the circumstances and the internal and external threats to national security.
In such cases, permission has to be given by parliament, with the approval of the national security council. When the news broke that Russian fighter jets had been using an Iranian military airbase to attack ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, eyebrows were raised. The news was not supposed to be publicized, perhaps due to Iran’s desire to encourage Western investment.
Splitting attention Keeping one eye on the West and the nuclear agreement and one eye on Russia’s actions in Syria, Iran is splitting its focus and facing complications therein.
For their part, Iran’s Arab neighbors are angered by its support for Russian actions in Syria, especially the bombing of civilians.
This disappointment seems to have been reflected in a live TV interview by Iran’s Defense Minister, aired on Aug. 21. Commander Hossein Dehghan criticized Russia’s very public use of the Hamedan airbase in Iran, labelling Russia’s bluster as “inconsiderate.”
“Naturally, the Russians are keen to show that they are a superpower and an influential country and that they are active in security issues in the region and the world,” he said.
Less than 24 hours after the defense minister’s interview, Russians announced that they had suspended all operations from Iran’s airbase in Hamadan. It must be noted, however, that the US State Department announced on Aug. 23 that they were not sure if the operation had indeed been suspended.
Whatever was behind the Russian suspension, it is clear that Iran and Russia need each other. Iranians are better off working with Americans, but what can they do when all their pebbles are aimed at closed windows?
The Russians have come in handy and it is probable that animosity toward the West will continue to be the foundation of the Islamic Republic. Russia is the bitter medicine that Iranians must swallow, with or without sugar.
[Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth – A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard]