Russian warplanes flew their first-ever bombing mission from an air base inside Iran on Tuesday, expanding the Kremlin’s geopolitical reach and revealing new steel in its ties with Tehran.
Long-range SU-34 and TU-22 bombers took off from a base at Hamadan in western Iran for a raid over Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The flight was the first foreign military operation from Iranian soil since World War II.
The mission appeared to be arranged at short notice and it caught the U.S. off-guard, but Russia alerted U.S.-led forces of the planes’ flight plan just before they departed.
“The Russians did notify the coalition,” U.S. military spokesman Col. Christopher Garver told reporters from Baghdad.
Washington seemed taken by surprise at the sharp upgrade in cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.
“I think we’re still trying to assess what exactly they’re doing,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday. “It’s unfortunate but not surprising or unexpected.”
Iran said little about the development, but on Wednesday the head of the nation’s Supreme National Security Council appeared to acknowledge the planes’ deployment.
“Cooperation between Tehran and Moscow to fight against terrorism in Syria is strategic and we exchange our capacities and possibilities in this regard,” Ali Shamkhani, the SNSC secretary, told Iran’s Fars news agency.
“The conditions have grown difficult for the terrorists due to the constructive and extensive cooperation among Iran, Russia, Syria and the resistance front and this trend will continue with new and massive operations until their full annihilation,” Shamkhani added.
In January, Moscow and Tehran signed a cooperation agreement on joint training and other counterterrorism measures.
Russia said the raid on Islamic State militants and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front destroyed five ammunition dumps and other targets in Aleppo, Deir al-Zour and Idlib in Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 19 civilians died, including three children, adding that the number was likely to rise.
In Moscow, analysts said using an Iranian an air base for bomb storage and refueling will boost the ability of Russian bombers to wage war in Syria.
“Flying from Iranian territory, Russian aviation can act more effectively against terrorists in Syria,” Ivan Konovalov of the Center for Studies of Strategic Trends told Russia’s Argumenty i Fakty newspaper.
He said planes will fly missions of only 700 km from Hamadan, compared with the 3,000-km route from southern Russia.
This means they can carry more weapons — 22 tons, compared with just 5-8 tons when making the trek from Russia, Konovalov said.
He added, locating the planes inside Iran will make it harder for missions to be second-guessed or leaked to opponents, and it may ultimately help Russia to expand its airstrikes from Syria to Iraq.
U.S. officials said the setup at the Iranian air base seemed to be established quickly and perhaps overnight, the Associated Press reported.
One official said Russia flew four bombers and a cargo plane loaded with munitions to the base just hours before the bombing raid began.
After the raid, the bombers did not return to Iran but flew back to Russia, the AP quoted a U.S. official as saying, suggesting that for now at least no Russian forces are stationed inside Iran.
Russia has been carrying out airstrikes to strengthen the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for nearly a year. While the Kremlin typically portrays the strikes as against “terrorists” — primarily the Islamic State group — the U.S. and its allies believe they are aimed at anti-Assad opposition groups in general and have caused significant damage to civilians and groups other than the stated targets.