Iran Allows Syria-Bound Russian Planes to Use Airspace, Report Says

A still image taken from a video footage and released by Russia's Defence Ministry on January 24 shows Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 long-range bombers dropping off bombs on what Defence Ministry said were ISIS targets in Deir al-Zor province, Syria. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via Reuters

Iran has again allowed Russian planes to use its airspace during recent operations in Syria, a senior Iranian security official was quoted as saying on Saturday.

In August, Russian aircraft for the first time used an Iranian air base to conduct strikes in Syria. The Russian military said its fighters had completed their tasks, but left open the possibility of using the Hamadan base again if circumstances warranted.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said then that Russia had stopped using the base for strikes in Syria, bringing an abrupt halt to the deployment that was criticized both by the United States and some Iranian lawmakers.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's National Security Council, on Saturday told the semi-official news agency Fars: "Their (Russians') use of Iran's air space has continued because we have a fully strategic cooperation with Russia."

"In the recent cases, Russian fighter planes have only used Iran's airspace and have not had refueling operations," Shamkhani added.

The agency said Shamkhani was commenting on media reports that Russia's Tupolev-22M long-range bombers had used Iranian airspace and a base in the country on their missions in Syria, where both Tehran and Moscow back President Bashar al-Assad's government.

It was not immediately clear if the recent missions were linked to Russian air strikes on Thursday that accidentally killed three Turkish soldiers during an operation against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria, according to the Turkish military.

The reports about Iran's cooperation with Russia came on the same day that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraq won't take part in any regional or international conflicts.

The comment came after a telephone call between Abadi and U.S. President Donald Trump during which tensions with Iran were mentioned. The call was the first between the two leaders.

A political commentator close to Abadi, Ihsan al-Shammari, said Abadi's comment addressed the U.S.-Iranian tensions.

Iran has close ties with the Shi'ite political elite ruling Iraq while Washington is providing critical military support to Iraqi forces battling ISIS.

"Iraq is very keen to preserve its national interests...and does not wish to be part of any regional or international conflict which would lead to disasters for the region and for Iraq," Abadi said, according to state TV.

Trump said on Friday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "better be careful" after the latter was quoted as saying that anyone who speaks to Iranians with threats would ''regret it.''

The White House on Friday said Trump and Abadi "spoke to the threat Iran presents across the entire region," in their first phone call since the inauguration of the U.S. president.

Abadi's office on Friday also gave a readout of the phone call that took place overnight Thursday, without specifically mentioning Iran.

Both readouts stressed the importance of their continued cooperation against ISIS, as the militants are being pushed back in Iraq and losing control over Mosul, the last major city stronghold under their control in the country.

The United States has more than 5,000 troops deployed in Iraq and is providing air and ground support in the battle of Mosul.

Iran has also played a major role in the fight against ISIS by arming and training Iraqi Shi'ite groups collectively known as Popular Mobilization.

"The Iraqi prime minister Dr Abadi is stressing once again the policy of neutrality and to steer clear from conflicts,'' political commentator Shammari told state TV.

The Iraqi readout said Abadi asked Trump to lift the ban on people from his country traveling to the United States.

U.S. courts suspended the restrictions announced end January on entries from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Trump has said he will keep trying to reinstate them.

Abadi resisted calls from influential pro-Iranian Shi'ite politicians to retaliate against the ban, at a meeting held on Jan. 29, citing Iraq's need for U.S. military support.

Washington last week ratcheted up pressure on Iran, putting sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities days after the White House put Tehran "on notice" over a ballistic missile test.

Iran's dominant influence in Iraqi politics was eroded after Islamic State routed the Iraqi army commanded then by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Tehran, in 2014.

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