Remember how Hillary Clinton’s reset button gift to Sergei Lavrov was supposed to pull Russia into an alliance that would isolate Iran? Good times, good times. Reuters reports that Russia has begun launching air attacks in Syria from an Iranian air base, the first time that such attacks have come from anywhere other than Russia or Syria itself:
Russia used Iran on Tuesday for the first time as a base from which to launch air strikes against Syrian militants, widening its air campaign in Syria and deepening its involvement in the Middle East.
In a move underscoring Moscow’s increasingly close ties with Tehran, long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Iran’s Hamadan air base to strike a range of targets in Syria.
It was the first time Russia has used the territory of another nation, apart from Syria itself, to launch such strikes since the Kremlin launched a bombing campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year.
The Iranian deployment will boost Russia’s image as a central player in the Middle East and allow the Russian air force to cut flight times and increase bombing payloads.
Yeah, so much for that reset. No one thinks, by the way, that Russia’s doing this to support the anti-ISIS coalition. Both Russia and Iran might have some collateral interest in that project, but only as far as it protects the Bashar Assad regime. That is their primary interest, and both are combining to pursue it as actively and directly as they can.
This has much greater strategic implications than the survival of the Assad regime, however. For centuries, the West has employed a policy to deny Russia easy access to major shipping lanes in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean by denying them access to a warm-water port. That is the reason that both Great Britain and later the US deemed Iran and Afghanistan strategically critical. Russian entry into these shipping lanes could create dangerous confrontations and will certainly require more vigorous oversight.
Our friend J. E. Dyer explains the Great Game scenarios, and the disaster that might unfold:
This is what our vice president would call a big effing deal. Until this week in 2016, there has never been a time when Russia could conceivably project military power through Iran, into the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Now Russia can conceivably do that. The door has been opened.
Let’s take just a moment to put that in perspective. All of the jockeying by Iran in Iraq and Syria over the last few years has followed the old routes of previous conquests and confrontations: clashes with the early Islamic expansion, with the Crusaders, with Tamerlane from Central Asia, with the Ottoman Empire. Go back further, and the armies of ancient Persia were dominant in the lands of modern Iraq and Syria for decades at a time.
But Russia being able to wield military power across Iran and project it into the “Great Crossroads” of chokepoints running from the eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean? That has never happened before.
Indeed, it has for centuries been the policy of Europe, and then the United States, to discourage such access by Russia. The Truman Doctrine – the first major statement of geopolicy by the U.S. after World War II and the formation of the UN – was focused precisely on deterring Stalin’s attempts to push through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, for just such a geostrategic purpose.
Now, we may be seeing the Great Game Over:
Obama has never shown any sign of upholding that (or any other conventional) policy principle. Now, within the space of just a few years, the old alliance and enforcement arrangements that bolstered the policy and made it credible have crumbled. The retreat of American power under Obama has made it possible for Russia to achieve something she has sought since the reign of Peter the Great, but could never manage.
This strategy was also one of the good reasons to bring Turkey into NATO, although not necessarily the EU. It kept Russia from bringing Turkey into its orbit, although its alliance with Syria and the military bases there may make that a moot point for the Mediterranean anyway. But a look at the map J. E. provides shows why Iran holds such a critical strategic position:
Iran has always been the prize in the Great Game, and now it looks like the centuries-long effort has finally paid off. Russia doesn’t have naval bases in Iran … at least, not yet. But there seems to be little appetite in the West to prevent that from happening, thanks to a lack of leadership and strategic thinking in the US.