Russia’s Misplayed Hand with Iran

Iran’s annoyance that Russia over-played its hand in going public about its use of an Iranian airbase shows the risk of offending potential allies, a lesson that U.S. officials also need to learn, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Well, that didn’t last long, did it? Barely a week after the announcement that Russian warplanes were using a base in Iran to launch airstrikes in Syria, Iran withdrew its permission to use the base. This development underscores how the Russian use of the base did not indicate some new “alliance”, as much commentary suggested. Iranian officials were not using that term.

As I wrote after the announcement, Russians and Iranians were still not buddies. Use of the base was instead an instance of how two countries that are at least as much adversaries as allies nonetheless can find areas of practical cooperation based on parallel interests.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 23, 2015 Tehran. (Photo from:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 23, 2015 Tehran. (Photo from:

Mark Katz provides a good summary of the many troubles in the Russian-Iranian relationship that extend from czarist times through the Soviet era to events of this year. The Iranians ended the arrangement because the Russians were bragging about it too much and giving the public impression that Russia had gotten its way with the lesser power to its south.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan criticized as “ungentlemanly” the way Russian state-run media were touting the arrangement. “There has been a kind of showing-off and inconsiderate attitude behind the announcement of this news,” said Dehghan. “Naturally, the Russians are keen to show that they are a superpower and an influential country and that they are active in security issues in the region and the world.”

Bad P.R.

So added to the lesson that the Putin government provided of how one can get useful practical cooperation from a non-ally is a further lesson in how such cooperation can be messed up by bungling the public relations in a way that offends the other side’s amour-propre.

The Iranians are at least as sensitive about such things as anyone else, with the pride that comes from being the modern successor to a great ancient empire. But the need to save face is universal. Those who do business with those who need to save face must keep such sensitivities in mind.

One must decide whether getting material cooperation is more important than bragging rights. Sometimes respecting sensitivities means structuring an agreement so that the other side can claim to be more of a winner than a loser. Sometimes it is more a matter of the public relations surrounding an agreement.

Insensitivity to such matters is easy to find. That’s not surprising, given that such insensitivity is in a sense the other side of excessive defensiveness about one’s own amour-propre. Being anxious to portray oneself as a winner sometimes gets into demeaning someone else as a loser.

The United States, or at least many Americans who debate its foreign policy, often display such insensitivity. The Iranian defense minister could have been talking about the United States rather than Russia when he spoke of people “keen to show that they are a superpower and an influential country and that they are active in security issues in the region and the world.”

Americans would be just as quick as anyone to take offense when it is America’s own amour-propre that is at stake. But because the United States really is a superpower, it is more often the offender rather than the offendee in such matters.

Obama’s Approach

Domestic politics tend to exacerbate all of these tendencies. The desire to show domestic audiences that our side got the best of a deal leads to the kind of rhetoric that makes the other side lose face. Something like that is happening with the Obama administration emphasizing how much the Iranian economy is still weakened by sanctions after completion of the agreement that restricts the Iranian nuclear program.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, announcing the signing of the Iran-nuclear agreement on July 14, 2015. (White House photo)

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, announcing the signing of the Iran-nuclear agreement on July 14, 2015. (White House photo)

One can understand the domestic U.S. political needs involved, but neither the weakening of the Iranian economy nor any crowing about it serves U.S. interests and instead only weakens Iranian inclinations to stick with the agreement.

The Iranians themselves also have shown this kind of insensitivity; remember, such insensitivity can be the other side of high sensitivity about not losing face oneself. Something like this happened with the recent episode involving restitution of funds for undelivered goods going back to the time of the shah.

The money involved always belonged to Iran, and under a well-established claims process the United States was required to return the money at some point. If the Obama administration was able to manipulate the timing of the payment in a way that increased the incentive for the Iranian regime to free people who never should have been incarcerated, that was deft diplomacy on the administration’s part. Also deft was the administration’s handling of the public relations; the transaction was not kept secret, but it was handled in a quiet and routine manner.

Nonetheless, some in Iran evidently were so concerned about appearing to have made concessions to the United States to get back money that belonged to Iran that they described the payment as “ransom”—thus providing another instance of Iranian hardliners making common cause, while even using similar vocabulary, with hardline American opponents of the U.S. administration.

One conclusion to bear in mind from all of this is that getting real cooperation that serves our interests is more important than bragging rights, or actual bragging. Another is that we should emulate Putin only when he acts wisely (seizing opportunities for cooperation with non-allies) and should not copy his regime’s mistakes (screwing things up with braggadocio).

A third conclusion is suggested by Katz, with specific reference to Iran’s withdrawal of the base access privileges: “The ongoing tension in Russian-Iranian relations that this episode highlights could provide an opportunity for American foreign policy to exploit. But for this to happen, Washington would actually have to recognize that the opportunity exists.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


11 comments for “Russia’s Misplayed Hand with Iran

  1. LJ
    August 27, 2016 at 14:45

    The Persians invented the Long Game thousands of years ago .Russia played the “Great Game” for 200 years..England? Pax Britannia is long disappeared. Gone the way of Rome, etc.. . Now the USA is the only game player that matters? Don’t think so. Russians will be speaking Russian . Chinese will be speaking Chinese. Iranians Farsi a thousand years from now. What type of Blade Runner-esque, gobble-de-gook will Americans be speaking. Some Spanglish/Tagalog /Chinese/Ebonics hybrid? I do not believe anything the Iranians or Russians say on the face of it but they both always seem to prefer a reasonably logical version of truth. Meanwhile, everyone knows the USA is disingenuous, misrepresenting true intentions , prevaricating at times and using unsustainable temporary alliances and covert activities to destabilize the region in the hopes of sustaining dominance after the fact in anarchy. Meanwhile the Oil will still flow unimpeded. Our full spectrum dominance -Empire of Chaos- Pipelinestan Fantasy. This will not happen.

  2. Meriem Kheira Peillet
    August 27, 2016 at 12:51

    Well! I do not agree with the point that Russia might have acted as the empire, in my opinion Russia, if they announced it as Mr Pillard suggests, even if it does not result as such to me, it was for transparency… Why should Russia hide it?

  3. James lake
    August 27, 2016 at 07:28

    I posted a comment but it has not shown up

  4. James lake
    August 27, 2016 at 02:08

    Mr Pullars article is based on the MSM and not the reality of what has gone on. Russia bashing is just getting tired.
    Read Press TV for the Iranian version of what went on with this non story.
    The writer really doesn’t understand Iranian politics or Russia stance in the Middle East.

    Russia never made this public, it became public and then they commented. Simple as that.
    Russia has relationships in the Region with all the countries including Turkey now, therefore crowing about bases in iran does not fit their agenda.

  5. Brad Benson
    August 26, 2016 at 21:31

    Here’s another take.


    “The Saker” says that the Iranians and the Russians have temporarily suspended the Russian use of an Iranian Air Base and that the real reason that the story was released, causing embarrassment to the Iranians, might be because of internal political conflicts between the Revolutionary Guard and the regular Iranian Military.

    • Charles Fasola
      August 27, 2016 at 21:46

      You are so correct concerning internal conflicts among factions within the Iranian military. Hardliners in the Iranian military, who believe the Russians are too quick and willing to seek cooperation with the US/NATO terrorists and those in the IRG with conflicting viewpoints.
      As Saker states, the importance of using the facility is overblow. Since the long range bombers can still reach their potential targets from existing air fields in southern Russia. Only the smaller aircraft are more negatively effected. Another point made by Saker is that due to the shear size of the long range bombers, most likely the US was well aware of their presence in Iran because US satellites are overflying and collecting intelligence on a consistant basis.

  6. Brad Benson
    August 26, 2016 at 20:31

    How ironic that, in Russia, the media is apparently not controlled by the State! Look for the cooperation to continue if they can just keep it quiet.

    How did the information get out in the first place? Is it possible that the US put the word out to Western Media and that they are responsible for this information being released to the world in a way that makes it appear as if the Russians are bragging?

  7. incontinent reader
    August 26, 2016 at 17:07

    Katz’s article was fine as to its historical summary- though for a really good summary of Iranian history, I’d look instead to something by William R. Polk; and Paul Pillar’s point about Iran’s sensitivity as to how others may or may not show respect for Iranian sovereignty is well taken, but IMHO this incident hasn’t so much indicated a fragility in the Russian-Iranian relationship as it has revealed some differences of opinion among various Iranian factions (as Zachary Taylor so aptly notes), as well as a concern by the Iranian military that Russia’s disclosure of its use of the base might have also drawn attention to the fact the base may have been used by Russia for a much longer time than reported. I am guessing that Russia felt it had to make it public, not as ‘bragging rights’, but to notify the US military of its Air Force activities with respect to its campaign in Syria, as it has stated it would do.

    At the same time, Katz failed to note that: (1) at least for some in Iran, Russia’s use of Hamadan raises a potential issue of Iranian Constitutional law- i.e. the provision barring foreign bases on Iranian soil; or, (2) notwithstanding the general’s comments, other Iranian officials have not only endorsed Russia’s use of the base, but suggested that Russian planes could return in the future.

    As for Katz’s suggestion that this is an opportunity for the U.S. to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, but if only the Administration sees it – the implication being that it is too stupid to recognize what neocon Katz believes is a great chance to stick it to the Russians- this non-professional observer thinks the suggestion is ludicrous (or should I say idiotic), given the Administration’s and Congress’ continuing hostility toward, and threats against Iran. Certainly he must know that Russia’s use of this base also provides protection for Iran against any potential attack against it by Israel or the U.S.

    Moreover, in offering his ‘wedge theory’ to the Administration, Katz may be misreading (or rather reading too much into) the Iranian general’s comments, while missing the bigger picture of the Russian-Iranian relationship, which is developing with a much longer term perspective in mind- and which includes such measures as Russia’s assistance in negotiating the JCPOA, or its sale of commercial nuclear reactors to Iran, or its expected endorsement of Iran’s application for membership in the SCO, or the opportunities now being explored by Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan (and now possibly Turkey) for collaborative development of their shared region.

    Mr. Pillar is pointing to this incident as a cautionary note to the U.S. that if it is interested in seeking a more cooperative relationship with Iran, it should not to take cheap advantage, such as with ‘bragging rights’. IMHO the U.S. doesn’t give a whit about Iranian sensitivities, nor, indeed, is in any way interested right now in a meaningful relationship with that country, given the devotion of this Administration (and most assuredly of the next one- whichever it will be) to Israeli policy- which means continued harassment of Iran.

    Sad to say, but the ‘missed opportunities’ on our part from our quixotic insistence on bringing down the regime will be much greater than any negative benefit from hurting Russia which Katz seems sure exists- though for the military contractors and the banks that finance them, it will continue to provide a windfall.

  8. Zachary Smith
    August 26, 2016 at 12:02

    I’m not sure why Mr. Pillar is writing this essay. He surely knows that there are a great many factions in Iran, and they’re not always singing from the same page of the songbook.

    I don’t know why Russia made the big deal with the public announcements, but I’ll wager that they had a darned good reason. It might be as simple as forcing the Iranians to admit they’re in Syria and on the side of Assad – the “you can’t be just a little pregnant” principle.

    More recent news is that the airbase will be available to the Russians again if it’s needed to prosecute the war in Syria.

    Iran’s top security official said Russia’s use of an Iranian airbase for refueling and rearming was a temporary agreement which the two countries may resume based on the situation in Syria.

    • jo6pac
      August 26, 2016 at 14:52

      Thanks, everything I’ve read agrees with you and not Mr. Pillar. Sad

    • Peter Loeb
      August 28, 2016 at 06:56


      With appreciation to Zachary Smith(above) I see cooperation
      between all of the anti-Israeli nations. Was this not a major
      consideration of Labanon’s Hezbollah?

      While remaining cognizant of the hates in past times
      between Iran and Russia, they need each other.
      Iran has been invited by Russia to apply for
      full membership in SCO (Shanghai Cooperative
      Organization). And Iranians must
      recognize now —and I presume did in the past—
      that the US cannot be relied upon either now
      or in the future, no matter what is on paper.

      The Palestinians have certainly many reasons to
      distrust Syria. It should not be forgotten that
      Palestine was once a part of Greater Syria,
      Furthermore, no Palestinian resistance will ever
      succeed without allies.Despite restraints by
      Israel, Hamas should seek out ways of
      reconciliation with Syria and others of its
      neighbors. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia
      is buying up Palestine with renovation projects

      Is the link provided an “official” link by the Iranian

      If the US ever removes its enormous support of
      Egypt—a major if—Egypt would be a major
      addition in the future. Don’t “hold your breath”

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

Comments are closed.