Russia stood by Iran in showdown with US

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches Black Sea navy exercise from Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser, Jan. 9, 2020.

The US President Donald Trump first said there were ‘no casualties’ in the Iranian missile attack on the Ain al-Asad military airbase in Iraq on January 8. “We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump had said. 

Then a number 11 was mentioned a week later, but Trump minimised the injuries, calling them ‘headaches’. Last Friday, a fortnight after the attack, the number sharply climbed. The Pentagon spokesman told reporters that 34 US military members received concussions or other traumatic brain injuries in the missile strikes. 

The true human toll of the Iranian strike is still being assessed. But what Iran achieved through the January 8 attacks may never quite be in the public domain. 

The big question is whether Iran acted with Russian backing. Beyond a string of Russian statements empathising with Iran, all we have are tell-tale signs.  

To be sure, satellite imagery suggests very precise hits of targets in the Ain al-Asad base. In an interview with Spiegel magazine last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated Iran’s objectives: 

“There was no intention of causing any casualties with the missile attack… The damage we have done to the US is extensive, because with all its military might, it could not prevent the missiles from hitting its base. It shows how vulnerable the US is.” 

The Iranians did succeed in displaying their formidable missile capability and its capacity to inflict lethal damage on US military establishments. But how could such high-precision hits be achieved except with missiles equipped with satellite guidance and target-tracking capabilities?

Importantly, Iran doesn’t have an independent orbital groups of satellites. There are four global navigation satellite systems operational today —  the US GPS/NAVSTAR, European GNSS, Russian GLONASS and Chinese BeiDou. The US and European systems are out of bounds for Iran. 

But there is no embargo on Iran accessing the Russian or Chinese systems and it probably used one of them. But Tehran neither confirms nor denies. 

Iran acknowledges it fired two Russian TOR-M1 anti-aircraft missiles but, interestingly, stops short of blaming them for the crash of the Boeing 737-800, flown by Ukraine International Airways. By the way, TOR-M1 is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and each vehicle can operate independently. Did Iran’s Russian-made TOR-M1 have access to GLONASS? 

Indeed, on January 7, on the eve of the Iranian missile strike, President Vladimir Putin paid an unscheduled visit to Syria to meet up with President Bashar al-Assad.

Again, on January 9, the day after the Iranian missile strike, Putin watched a big naval exercise involving multiple missile launches in the Black Sea. The Navy Times reported, “The Russian naval maneuvers come amid heightened US-Iran tensions after the US strike last week that killed Iran’s most powerful military commander.” 

Advanced Russian weapon systems were on display in the maneuvers. MiG-31 interceptor jets launched Kinzhal hypersonic missiles at practice land targets while Navy ships performed several launches of Kalibr cruise missiles and other weapons. More than 30 warships and 39 aircraft, including several Tu-95 strategic bombers, took part in the exercise. 

Curiously, again on January 9, in the northern Arabian Sea off Iran’s coastline, there was a rare encounter between the US destroyer USS Farragut and the Russian intelligence gathering ship RFS Ivan Hurs, which was apparently shadowing the operations of a US aircraft carrier battle group in the area.

The above events taken together signalled that Russia was closely monitoring the situation around Iran and was in full readiness to meet any emergent military conflagration in the region. No doubt, the message was addressed to Washington.  

It is entirely conceivable that Russia has intelligence-sharing arrangements with Iran. In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a veteran diplomat, might just have lifted the veil a little bit when he disclosed on January 17 that Iran’s accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner occurred at a time when Tehran was spooked by reports of advanced US stealth fighters in the area. 

“There were at least six F-35 fighters in the air in the Iranian border area. This information has yet to be verified, but I’d like to underline the edginess that always accompanies such situations,” Lavrov said. Alas, Lavrov’s disclosure left a cold trail. But it most certainly hinted that Russia is reconnoitring the skies above Iran. 

All this may amount to nothing much, or everything — depending on how one looks at it. Russia will not militarily intervene in a US-Iranian conflict. Indeed, such a conflict is unlikely. What Russia can do is to make the probability of a conflict even less likely by aiding Iran to defend itself, by providing it with electronic warfare tools and other high-end arms that would raise the military costs to the US, as had happened on January 8. 

How far Russia’s ‘positive neutrality’, which distinctly favoured Iran in the most recent period, irritated Washington no one can tell. But there have been four instances in the past 8 days alone of US forces blocking Russian convoys in northeastern Syria — one forcing back a vehicle driven by a Russian major-general. Poking the bear? In Russian-American relations, nothing is really coincidental. 

The debate over the alchemy of Russian-Iranian relations is a never-ending one. But no matter the two countries’ specific interests or national objectives and ideologies, a destruction of Iran or the emergence of a US-friendly regime in Tehran would be profoundly consequential to Russian regional strategies, given the co-relation of forces internationally. 

Lavrov gave an indication of Russian priorities when he said in Delhi on January 17 while addressing an international audience (including Zarif) that Moscow backs Tehran’s bid to join Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member and is hopeful it will happen.