Historically, the West has faced an existential threat from both the Persian and Russian empires. The Persian Empire was fueled by the expansionist dreams of Darius and Xerxes, foiled only by the heroism of the Greeks, led by men like Themistocles. In the 20th century, Russian imperial aspirations under the Soviet sword, attempted to conquer and intimidate Europe and endanger the existence of American civilization.
Today, the Persians have transformed their geopolitical imperative into a Shiite crusade to dominate the Shia crescent stretching from the Persian Gulf in the south to the Mediterranean in the northwest; the Russians launch invasions against their neighbors while engaging in adventurism in the Middle East. Since 2008, Russian foreign policy has been a servant to the Putin Doctrine, which is primarily devoted to creating a wedge within NATO, reducing the western enthusiasm for an anti-ballistic missile system, engaging in coercive diplomacy utilizing energy, and using the old Soviet method of arms control and reduction agreements to achieve Russian national interests.
This doctrine aims to reassert Russian regional hegemony, combining 19th-century czarist policies as well as old Soviet grand strategy to justify a return to an imperial path. This is backed by a massive military modernization campaign, including in the upgrading of nuclear weapons, as demonstrated by Russia’s Syrian military campaign. Naturally, the next level is combining the Shiite crusade and the ambitions of the Russian bear: Russia’s use of a military base in Iran.
If these were normal times, with clear-eyed American patriots controlling American national security, this would have raised alarm bells so loud that it would overtake what passes for news in much of the media. Until Iran balked on Monday, Russian warplanes systematically flew out of Hamadan air base in western Iran and included the TU-22M3, the Backfire strategic bomber of Cold War infamy, and the SU-34 Fullback strike fighter. Not only did this reduce Russia’s aviation mission time by about 60 percent, but it allowed Russian warplanes to carry larger payloads. Another advantage for them was the ability to strike American regional assets and personnel if they so chose, and it enabled Russian intelligence a further foothold. It provided a signal to the region and the world that Russian grand strategy is transforming from the propaganda of the early Putin years (ignored by many Kremlinologists as meaningless bluster) to the reality of the Putin consolidation.
There is a cottage industry, especially among American intellectuals, to dismiss Russian power and ambition. One needs only to spend time studying Russian and Soviet military history and privation to clear away these absurdities. This is almost equal to those that don’t understand the volatile mixing of Persian grand strategy with Shia crusading theology. We must also remember that Russian military missions are indiscriminate in who they kill, often targeting civilians and those groups backed by the United States. Human Rights Watch has recently accused them of using incendiary bombs.
The Russian Black Sea fleet, combined with Russian ground forces in Syria, assisted by Russian warplanes in and out of Iran, have created an entirely new calculus in Syria. Although this is not good news for the Islamic State (ISIS), it is equally bad for American interests in the region. We may trade the murderous nature of ISIS for the vicious expansionist militarism of Iran with Russian backing.
One cannot divorce this occurrence from the Iranian nuclear deal, with Iran being the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, the most important threat to Israel, the key player in destabilizing Lebanon, and the prime mover of Hezbollah. This Machiavellian alliance is one of the most disturbing developments in international affairs in this decade. It marks the beginning of mutual imperial dreams for two potential adversaries of the United States.
• Lamont Colucci, a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, is an associate professor of politics and government at Ripon College.