by Stephen Bryen*
The new Russian base in Iran is a strategic asset for Moscow and may be a game changer in the power balance in the Middle East.
The United States and Russia are competing for influence on a global basis. In this game the Russians are operating from a position of substantial weakness when compared to US power and influence. The Russian military, despite a rebuilding and modernization process underway, is still far short in both quality and quantity over the US military, which is a global force compared to Russia. Furthermore, the Russian economy is in bad shape, making it difficult for the Russians to build out their forces even against a relatively modest plan backed by Russia’s government. Even so, the Russians are bidding for power around their periphery and have expanded into the Middle East. Here they face a dominant United States.
Washington, though, has experienced a number of setback as al-Qaeda, ISIS and related terrorists have gained a strong foothold in the Middle East and Africa. Having spent trillions of dollars and wasted thousands of lives, support for more wars in the Middle East is waning in America. One of Washington’s latest gambits, to do a nuclear deal with Iran, has not shown any evidence of a political payback. In fact the latest Russian move, to secure an agreement with Iran for use of an air base, is shaking up the Middle East.
Noje airbase, otherwise known as Hamadan Air Base, is located in western Iran in an isolated area. The base has two runways –one is 12,915 feet long; the other is 14,300 feet. Both runways are made of thick asphalt and are well maintained, even though the air base, which is strictly military, does not support Iran’s main fighter aircraft. The Russians are now using this airbase formally to carry out air operations in Syria where it is supporting Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and Su-34 twin-seat strike fighters. That was made possible by an agreement between Moscow and Tehran. Noje is now primarily a new Russian base in the Middle East.
There are some important advantages to Russia in having the Iranian base for its bombers and strike aircraft. Without the base in Iran, either Russia has to fly from its air base at Khmeimim in Syria or from airfields back in Russia. In fact, last year the same Tupolev bombers were flying from Mozdok air base in Russia. Mozdok, located in northern Ossetia, is more than 2,000 km from likely targets in Syria; Noje is less than 900 km. In all, the time to target has been reduced by more than 60% thanks to the Iranian base.
Why didn’t the Russians fly directly from its Syrian airbase and skip intermediary stops? Khmeimim’s runway cannot handle the Tupolev which is too heavy. The Tu-22M3 has en empty weight of 119,000 lbs. Other Russian bombers such as the Tu-95MS (empty weight of 198,000 lbs) and the Tu-160 (242,505 lbs empty weight) can’t currently fly from Khmeimim. The alternative, Damascus International Airport can support these aircraft, but here they are exposed to enemy mortars and ground attack, making placement of strategic bombers there unacceptable to the Russians.
There is another reason, according to press reports from Moscow, why the Iranian base carries an important advantage. The Russians apparently believe that the US-Saudi backed rebels are being tipped off about Russian long range air operations and are disbursing ahead of any Russian strikes. It is well known, and a frequent Washington complaint, that the Russians are attacking US-sponsored rebels more than ISIS. Thus the Russian worry is not unfounded. Since an air flight from Mozdok to targets in Syria is over 2,000 km, flight time is on the order of two hours or more ( to conserve fuel the planes are not flying at top speed over friendly territory). The flight from Iran is between 30 to 45 minutes tops. If, therefore, the US is warning the rebels of impending Russian air strikes, the time to get the message to them and to actually be able to move their forces out of harms way, is far less and maybe too short for finding effective cover.
The Russians are not the first to move strategic aircraft into the Middle East. The US has deployed B-1B Lancer bombers in Qatar which have been used to bomb targets in Afghanistan and Iraq and, after sending the B-1B bombers home last April, replaced them with B-52 bombers. The US strategic bomber deployment has been at least since the first Gulf War, on and off.
Perhaps the main thing that is new is that US sole power dominance in the Persian Gulf and Middle East is coming to an end. The Russians are now in the game, with assets in Syria and Iran, and growing influence (via Iran) in Iraq. What does this buy for Russia and Putin? For the Russians strategic posture and oil are closely linked, as for the United States. What is, perhaps, bizarre is that both Russia and the United States themselves are self-sufficient in oil, meaning that their attempts to control oil are more closely related to their effort to dominate elsewhere, namely in Europe and Asia. That is why the base in Iran makes strategic sense to Russian strategists and why Washington should be concerned.
The Russians are playing a hard-nosed poker game. Looking ahead, and given the squandering of US resources and manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US should be strengthening its alliances in the Middle East with substantial strategic agreements with partners such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel that benefit US big picture interests. The seeming inability for Washington to even grasp this idea is a stunning demonstration of the failure of national security policy as well as evidence that Washington is foolishly preoccupied with secondary issues and otherwise paralyzed. You can’t engage in poker without playing the cards you have.
*Stephen Bryen was a senior Defense Department official and served as head of an international aerospace company in the United States.