Like many of you, I followed the news last month about the Russian Air Force’s use of the Iranian Hamadan Air Base. First reported on Aug. 15, it has been copiously covered by Russian TV and the Sputnik International websites and other international news agencies.
The history of Hamadan Air Base provides a somber irony for Americans associated with Iran and the Middle East.
Following World War II, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower approved a massive development program for Iran. Its military component included efforts to contain the Soviet intrigues in Northwest Iran. To this end, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established the Tehran Engineer District, which would go on to build military installations designed to block penetration of Soviets to Iran and Iraq oil fields and contiguous warm water ports.
After the Soviets surprised the U.S. with testing of its atomic bomb in August 1949, part of the U.S. response was to build a series of air bases from which to launch B-47s, our first jet bombers capable of carrying atomic weapons. On the southern flank, bases were in Morocco, Libya, Iran and Pakistan. Hamadan was multipurpose. It was a base for Iranian Air Force units, but it could also act as a recovery base for Northern African-based B-47s, whose combat range precluded their ability to reach Soviet targets and return to home base. Thus, Hamadan has three-mile runways, north to south; the strong prevailing winds are west to east.
In 1965, I was an Army engineer captain assigned to the U.S. Military Mission to Iran. Fresh out of Persian language studies at Monterey, California, one of my jobs was to accept civic action schools being built from funds accrued from sales by Iran of food aid provided by the U.S. These schools were being built in border areas, concentrating on nomadic groups such as the Kurds, Balouch, Turkoman, Azeris and Afghans, under the theory that educated nomads tend toward sedentary living with reduced security concerns. One was built in Marivan, a Kurdish village hard up against the Iraqi border. In October 1965, I flew from Tehran, in a de Havilland Otter, to meet with contractors and Tehran Engineer District staff, to turn over the Marivan school for transfer to the government to Iran.
Our pilot, an army engineer involved with topographic mapping of Iran, stopped at Manadan to refuel. With a strong west-to-east wind, and given the Otter’s expansive wing area, he decided he could not use the north-south runways. With the agreement of the Iranian base commander, he had the Otter pulled into a hangar and took off into the wind, using the parking area to gain takeoff. We landed in a harvested wheat field in Marivan. With his villagers, the village chief celebrated this new gift - an elementary school for the children, a first in the region.
Some 50 years later, the roles are reversed. News reports last month indicated Russia was granted use of Hamadan and was using its best aircraft to take the fight to both ISIS and Syrian opponents of President Assad.
Not so fast. Iranian leadership was apparently offended by the powerful Russian public relations efforts over its air force’s use of Hamadan. On Aug. 22, the Iranian foreign minister’s spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, spun the story this way: “Russia made a request to use Iran’s territory to battle against the terrorists in Syria. ... They got our temporary permission for that. ... The deployment is temporarily finished. ... Russia has no airbase in Iran.” (Tehran Times, Aug 24).
Russian-Iranian history is replete with confrontations. From the late 19th century to 1945, Russia had control over much of the northern half of Iran, with the British managing the southern half. Xenophobia is pervasive in Iran. After the glorious history of enlightened leaders such as Cyrus and Darius, Persia decayed too often into a corrupt and fragmented governance. Outsiders are still often viewed with distrust, no matter how much benefit Iran might gain. In the case of Hamadan, Iranian leadership was offended by Russia’s exuberant reporting of its TU-22M3 strategic bombers and Sukhoi SU-34s - a sales pitch by Russia, impinging on Iran’s sovereignty.
By the way, the village of Marivan has grown substantially. Reports about Iran’s nuclear program show it to have important activities in applied nuclear research. I last viewed the Marivan area from the Iraqi side of the border, in 1994. I was escorting U.S. visitors to Penjwen, a Kurdish Iraqi village that is called “the Iraqi Verdun” because of its almost total destruction, a strategic site won and lost many times during that horrific war, 1980-88.
Peter P. Strzok lives in Pinehurst. He was a longtime member of the Army Corps of Engineers. Since 1980, he has worked at village levels in over 13 countries in West Africa.
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