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For the first time since 1979, Iran has given a foreign power the right to conduct military operations from its soil. Russia is now from an Iranian airbase. The purported goal is only limited to joint Iranian-Russian operations against anti-Assad rebels inside Syria. But while an Iranian-Russian partnership to keep President Bashar al-Assad alive has been in place as long as the Syrian war has raged, this latest upswing in military collaboration might be a prelude to a greater strategic pivot. It can have far-reaching consequences not only impacting Iranian and Russian foreign policies, but also American interests in the broader Middle East. This newfound Iranian-Russian tie-up, however, is not new, nor should its latest blossoming come as a surprise.

Posture versus reality

Immediately after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, students in Iran were instructed each morning to chant slogans in support of the new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They also had to chant “Neither West nor East but the Islamic Republic.” The Islamist regime that emerged following the toppling of the pro-American Shah was very determined to sell itself as an independent alternative that was not to do the bidding of either the Capitalist West or the Communist East.

In reality, while the United States was forced to leave Iran, Moscow and its [then Soviet] agents stayed put. In fact, in the chaotic early days after the revolution, when one political party after another was banned or violently repressed, the Tudeh [Communist] party of Iran was initially left alone until it faced a crackdown in 1983. It was widely considered as a concession to Moscow and an earliest sign of Iranian acceptance that shunning both superpowers at the same time was simply unworkable.