Russia has stopped using an Iranian air base for launching airstrikes on Syria for the time being, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday, just hours after the Iranian defense minister criticized Moscow for having "kind of show-off and ungentlemanly" attitude by publicizing their actions.
Moscow, which had used the Shahid Nojeh Air Base to refuel its bombers striking Syria at least three times last week, confirmed that all Russian warplanes that were based in Iran have returned to Russia. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. could not conclude definitely whether that was the case.
A statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that as long as Iran agreed, Russia could use the Iranian air base again, "depending on the situation" in Syria.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters in Tehran that the Russian airstrikes on militants in Syria were "temporary, based on a Russian request."
"It is finished, for now," Ghasemi said, without elaborating.
Last week, Russia announced it used the airfield, located some 31 miles north of the Iranian city of Hamedan. Iranian officials only confirmed Russia's presence a day later.
Earlier Monday, state TV quoted Iran's defense minister as saying that Russia "will use the base for a very short and fixed span." The comments by Gen. Hossein Dehghan came after he chastised parliament this weekend for asking questions about Russia using the base.
Responding to a question about why Iran didn't initially announce Russia's presence at the airfield, Dehghan appeared prickly on the state TV broadcast.
"Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly (attitude) in this field," he said.
Dehghan's remarks also suggest Russia and Iran initially agreed to keep Moscow's use of the air base quiet. Its announcement likely worried Iran's Sunni-ruled Mideast neighbors, which host American military personnel.
The Interfax news agency on Monday also quoted Russia's ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, as confirming that all of Moscow's warplanes have been withdrawn from Iran. Dzhagaryan said, however, that he does "not see any reason" why the Russians can't use the Iranian base again.
For Iran, allowing Russia to launch strikes from inside the country is likely to prove unpopular. Many still remember how Russia, alongside Britain, invaded and occupied Iran during World War II to secure oil fields and Allied supply lines. But while Britain withdrew, Russia refused to leave, sparking the first international rebuke by the nascent United Nations Security Council in 1946.
Analysts have suggested Russia potentially leveraged Iran into allowing it to use the airfield over either economic or military interests, such as Tehran wanting to purchase Sukhoi-30 fighter jets or its deployment of Russian S-300 air defense missile systems. Russia initially held off on supplying the missile system to Tehran amid negotiations over Iran's contested nuclear program.
Over the weekend, photographs of President Hassan Rouhani were published in Iranian state media near a Bavar-373 missile defense system. That system is designed to be the local equivalent of the S-300 -- perhaps an Iranian signal back to Moscow that it's capable of defending itself without the Russian missile system.
In his comments, Dehghan said the Bavar-373 can hit targets at the height of 16.7 miles -- the same height the S-300 can reach.
"When we make Bavar-373 operational, we will not need to purchase another high-altitude and long-range air defense system," he said.
Dehghan added that Iran still sees the Sukhoi-30 as "an appropriate fighting aircraft," though he acknowledged the U.S. could seek to block any fighter jet deal. The U.N. resolution enshrining last year's nuclear deal with Iran prohibits the supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved in advance by the Security Council.
"The issue of purchasing the fighters has been raised and we have not heard any negative answer," he said. "We are negotiating to learn how we can do this with the restriction that can be raised for the Russians."
Meanwhile, fighting continued Monday in Syria. In the northern Syrian city of Hasakeh, clashes again erupted between Kurdish fighters and pro-government militias, according to the Kurdish Hawar News Agency. The government and the Kurdish movement have shared control of the city since the early years of the Syrian civil war.
Syrian government planes bombed Kurdish positions in Hasakeh last week as the struggle for predominance in the city escalated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.