Iran Naval Chief’s Admission of a “Classified” Pact with Russia


Russia and Iran are reported to have signed a military pact recently, according to which the Kremlin is permitted to deploy military assets at the ports of Chabahar and Bushehr. Though there has been no official statement from Moscow, the spokesperson of Iran’s Foreign Ministry has denied such reports.
So far, the leaks suggest that Russia’s latest fighter jets will be stationed at the airbase. As for Chabahar, reports say that Moscow will set up a nuclear submarine base. Moscow will be deploying medium to long-range nuclear missiles. The pact for the bases is said to be valid for half a century. The military assets will be guarded by special forces including the S-400 or the latest available missile defense system. If confirmed, Russia appears to be applying the Syria template of strategic deployment and expansion in Iran for a similar timeframe of five decades.
The leaks refer to what the Chief of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi termed a “classified” agreement signed with Moscow during the last week of July about expanding cooperation. Speaking at an event in Kish Island, Khanzadi stated that joint military drills with Russia would be held in the Persian Gulf during 2019. The wargames were originally planned for the first half of 2020.
Khanzadi said, “Some articles of this agreement are classified but overall; it is aimed at expanding military cooperation between the two countries.” Not only did Khanzadi term the pact as “the first of its kind between the two sides” but also described it as a “turning point” in military ties between the two countries.
Responding to specific questions, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi in a statement carrying multiple interpretations tried to deny any deal regarding Russian military bases at Chabahar and Bushehr. “Iran respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Within the framework of bilateral cooperation such as military maneuvering, it is natural to use each other’s facilities.” He mentioned Article 9 of Iran’s constitution, which declares “No individual, group, or authority, has the right to infringe in the slightest way upon the political, cultural, economic, and military independence or the territorial integrity of Iran under the pretext of exercising freedom.”
Given the range of complex security threats, Iran is in a quandary. Russia emerges as its front-line ally with overlapping interests. Being a junior partner, Tehran often has to bear the cost with a straight face. In April 2016, Tehran annulled permission for Russian fighter jets to use its Hamadan Air Base for bombing runs on rebel-held Syrian cities. However, it eventually changed its decision due to the backlash by hardline Shiite clerics and politicians. Article 9 of the Iranian constitution used by Iran’s Foreign Ministry to deny Russian deployment at the two coastal cities was not an obstruction when Russian fighters were granted permission to use the Hamadan Air Base.
Earlier, Iran’s government had caved into Russian pressure on the issue of the Caspian Sea demarcation and compromised its long-held position. Though its compromise did not relate to Iran’s territorial integrity, it was indeed a litmus test to see whether Tehran would stand firm or capitulate. The issues of the Caspian Sea demarcation and Russia’s air force using Hamadan Air Base were twin exceptions made for Moscow.
The pro-Russia lobby in Iran has quite powerful backers, savvy to realpolitik. The otherwise hardline cleric and parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, is one of the most pro-Russian figures in the establishment. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself is an ardent admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Khamenei’s fondness for Putin increased even more after America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). With the support of the supreme leader, the parliamentary speaker, and the IRGC, a constitutional amendment for any long-term Russian military deployment won’t prove a bridge too far.
Across the Gulf, expansion in coalition forces aiming to protect maritime security in the region and the threat of a direct military attack has seemingly pushed Iran to seek shelter under Russia’s security umbrella. Moscow sees a perfect opportunity to place itself in the heart of the Gulf as well as in the warm waters of the north Arabian Sea. Prudence suggests that the Kremlin will neither confirm nor deny questions pertaining to the defense agreement with Tehran. Though tensions with the United States have spiked considerably after Washington withdrew from the INF treaty, Putin will cautiously move into the Gulf due to Moscow developing ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By setting up a submarine base in Chabahar, Russia will be able to project power across the Indian Ocean in Asia.
In the midst of the aforementioned developments, Russia’s posturing to act as a potential intermediary amongst Gulf rivals might be a casualty. However, its potential role may be salvaged as amidst the surge in recent tensions, some Gulf states advocate military restraint. As much as Russia’s presence at Bushehr and Chabahar deters an American-led attack, it will also raise the prospect of Moscow’s role as a mediator for those Gulf nations which wish to avert a war, namely the UAE. Besides, Moscow may well restrain Tehran from its belligerent acts to preserve its own interests in the Gulf as well as in the Arabian Sea.
Nonetheless, Russia’s core interest won’t be to mediate between the arch-rivals but to project its power and to perpetuate it. Iran remains a key actor for Russia’s expansion in the Middle East as well as in the Indian Ocean. Though geographically connected through the Caspian Sea, Moscow seeks to integrate Tehran into its ever-evolving geo-economic and geo-strategic architecture i.e. via free trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union and de facto membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The ‘secret’ pact sets the basis for Putin realizing Peter the Great’s dream of reaching the Arabian Sea’s warm waters and the Indian Ocean. Much still depends on Iran’s perception of Russia’s designs vis-a-vis its exclusive interests. For now, it is a strategic necessity for the establishment.
The Gulf states can thwart the stratagem using their economic clout as well as diplomatic influence over Moscow. Or else, they must be prepared to cope with a crowded and ever more complex strategic environment in the Gulf. The Kremlin’s interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Syria explicate that Russia won’t be leaving anytime soon.

Editorial Team