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Domestic Gains: Iran’s Stance on the Russo-Ukrainian War

Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war on 24 February Iran’s stance on the crisis has been clear, demonstrative of its established foreign policy approach. While the Iranian position was not odd, it came faster than expected. Perhaps a look into Iran’s alliances, international relations, and visions of its ideological and political regime at home and abroad may explain Tehran’s direct adoption of a specific position on the Russo-Ukrainian crisis.  

As swift as the Iranian reaction was, Iran’s making capital out of this crisis at the domestic level was also significant in an attempt to capitalize on it towards increasing the popularity of the regime.

The Response of Iran’s interior to the Outbreak of War

In a tweet posted the day Russia attacked Ukraine, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian blamed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the war, stating that “the Ukraine crisis has roots in NATO provocations”. This tweet came a few hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on 24 February, in which he announced the start of the assault on Ukraine. 

On the second day, the Secretary-General of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, held Western countries directly responsible for the escalation, noting that “the West threatens the national security of countries through various means” and that “it is the West that is directly responsible for wars and crises that break out due to efforts to resist the West’s strategy”, as he put it. On 1 March, i.e. the sixth day of the war, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in an address that Ukraine is a “victim of the US policy” and accused the United States of having “dragged Ukraine to this point”. However, he expressed Iran’s rejection of any war and called for ending it as soon as possible.

Khamenei outlined Iran’s stance on the war, stating that addressing any crisis requires recognizing its roots, and in the case of the Ukraine crisis, the policies of the United States and the West is the root of the crisis.” Further, he openly criticized the Ukrainian government, arguing that “if Ukrainian people had entered the scene, Ukraine wouldn’t have been at what it is now. People were not satisfied with the government.”

For his part, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, in which he expressed his hope that the crisis will end for the benefit of the peoples and the region. Other officials in Tehran viewed “Russia’s concerns that gave rise to the invasion understandable, as has been evidenced by what Mohammad Jamshidi, the deputy director of political affairs at the president’s office wrote in a local newspaper. However, some Iranian politicians opposed the official positions and viewed the Russian attack as being “not in the interests of Iran.”

Media outlets broadcasting from Tehran endorsed a similar position, but touched on the several dimensions of the war based on perspectives of their stakeholders. They went on attacking policies of Washington and the West, particularly in the region. For instance, the daily Kayhan of 26 February –a newspaper that is close to the Supreme Leader– pointed out that the “Ukrainian forces could not resist the Russian attack for more than 48 hours” and criticized the US response to the assault. Orientations of Iran’s media has drawn criticism from Iranian citizens on social media, particularly the Jam-e Jam newspaper, affiliated with the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT).

Broadly, the conservative media in Iran has been dominated by positions similar to those of the official government, i.e. supporting Russia in contrast to the pro-reformist media, which criticized Russia. For example, Etemad reformist newspaper warned in its 3 March issue of a possible humanitarian crisis in Ukraine if the military force is used more widely.

Figure 1: Lessons from the Ukraine War, Vatan-e-Emrooz, 2 March 

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Overall, trends of the Iranian media on the Russo-Ukrainian war can be categorized into three groups:

Group One: Comprises state media that has taken a supportive attitude towards Russia.

Group Two: Adopts non-supportive views of Russia but also criticizes Ukrainian politicians.

Group Three: Adopts a neutral position on the Ukraine crisis, without criticizing any party. This group has fewer media outlets than the other two groups.

Why Does Iran Back Russia?

In essence, the Iranian position on the Russo-Ukrainian war does not slide away from Tehran’s foreign policy orbit. Statements of the Iranian leadership were expected as has been clarified. Perhaps the Iranian position can be construed in view of several dimensions which we detail below:

1. The Strategic Dimension of the Russo-Iranian Relations

The strategic dimension covers three strategic areas of cooperation:

  1.  The Political Sphere: Politically, the Russian Federation, along with China, have been among Iran’s most important allies internationally, and this alliance receives significant support from the Supreme Leader Khamenei. The Iranian government has always benefited from the Chinese and Russian support in international organizations, perhaps the most recent of which was Moscow’s support for Iran in the nuclear negotiations that are still ongoing in Austria. In the Middle East, the Russo-Iranian alliance proved powerful in Syria in supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, before inflicting major defeats on terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Just as Tehran and Moscow share views on some issues of the Middle East, their visions also converge on other extraterritorial political issues, including the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, where the two countries agree on the risks of exacerbation of the Azerbaijani role in the region at the expense of Armenia. At large, Russia, Iran, and China share the opinion that Baku’s allies in the region are their competitors.
  2.  The Military Sphere: Militarily, Iran’s turbulent relations with the West over the past decades pushed it to turn to Moscow and Beijing for the purchase of weapons, which caused them to become Iran’s top arms exporters to Tehran, particularly Moscow.
  3.  The Economic Sphere: Russia has been one of Iran’s most prominent economic partners in recent years. The volume of trade exchange between Iran and Russia was estimated at $4 billion in 2021 and the two countries have had plans to ditch the US dollar and substitute it with local currencies (riyal and ruble). According to the statement of the head of the economic committee in the Iranian parliament, Mohammed Reza Purabrahimi in Early 2022, Russia and Iran have been working on a $20 billion trade exchange deal.  In addition to this, the two countries have been working towards a comprehensive long-term ambitious collaboration plan, which they aspire to implement through concluding a 20-year agreement that covers economic, military, and security cooperation and exchange. If this agreement becomes effective, it would mean strides forward for strategic cooperation.

2. Iran’s International Alliances and Its Relations with the West

Since the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, Kyiv governments have embarked on a closer rapprochement with Western countries after years of being loyal to Russia in the period that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Moscow has designated successive Ukrainian governments as loyal to Europe and the US. Tensions exacerbated with Vladimir Zelensky coming to power in 2019 –after notching up victory over his predecessor Petro Poroshenko– and his call for Kyiv to join the NATO and the European Union, which caused Moscow on 24 February 2022 to mount an all-out attack against Ukraine. 

Amid the Russian-Chinese-Iranian bloc formed against the United States and Europe, Ukraine was recognized as being in the camp of Western countries against the eastern camp. Perhaps this, by extension, explains Iran’s non-support for the Kyiv government and Iranian media persistent criticism of President Zelensky regarding his expectation that the Western bloc would stand militarily in the face of Russia.  

This criticism has been seen on pages of Iranian newspapers following the Russian attack, which, in some cases, amounted to parody of statements and political orientations of Zelensky, who was often described by the Iranian media as a “comedian”.

Figure 2: The Mobile Phone is Zelensky’s Most Effective Weapon, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 28 February

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On the other hand, the relationship of Zelensky’s government with the United States in particular –Iran’s opponent– has had a secondary role in defining Tehran’s position on the Russo-Ukrainian war.

3. Deterioration of Iranian-Ukrainian Relations since 2020

On 8 January 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, resulting in the death of the 176 passengers on board. Tehran announced that the accident took place by mistake as military officials mistaken the plane for a US missile. The accident came at a time of strained security, political and military atmosphere just five days after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in an air strike near Baghdad Airport International. This plane crash was the worst accident in the history of Ukraine International Airlines since its inception in 1992.

The incident triggered a wave of discontent among Ukrainian citizens, particularly victims’ families who still commemorate the air crash victims every year. Further, the accident gave rise to a major official political tension in relations between Tehran and Kiev. Ukrainian officials have long criticized Tehran for not disclosing enough information on the accident. The current Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, criticized Iran following the report it published on the accident, stating “what we saw in the published report today is nothing more than a cynical attempt to hide the true reasons for the downing of our plane.”

The political tension that followed the plane crash resulted in more rift between the governments of the two countries although Tehran-Kyiv relations were not tense earlier. Historically, on 25 December 1991, Iran had recognized the independence of Ukraine and both countries strengthened the bilateral economic relations through the inauguration of the Joint Committee for Economic and Trade Cooperation, whose first two sessions were in Tehran and Kyiv in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

4. Similar Iranian Gordian Knot in Azerbaijan

Seemingly, Iran’s reaction to the Russian attack has historical roots as well. If Russia fears the expansion of NATO’s influence west of its borders, Iran has a similar narrative in Azerbaijan. Tehran believes that it has historically lost its territories in the Caucasus represented in modern Azerbaijan.

Iran builds on treaties of Golestān (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) signed between the Persian Empire represented by the Qajars and the Russian Empire at the time. These two treaties put an end to the Russo-Persian wars that ended with the victory of Russia.

And, like Ukraine converged with the anti-Russian bloc, Israel –Iran’s opponent– converged with Azerbaijan, as was evidenced in the Azerbaijani-Armenian war on the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020. As such, Iran’s experience in Azerbaijan may have implicitly contributed to the shift in its support for Russia.

How Does Iran Employ the Russo-Ukrainian War Internally?

The Russo-Ukrainian war presented a great and timely opportunity for the Iranian regime to reinforce its doctrine and visions particularly regarding several issues that are being peddled and which the Austrian nuclear negotiations are also touching on amid Iranian refusal.

Since the first day of the Russian war on Ukraine, supporters of the Iranian government have consistently employed this war in an effort to communicate and prove their views to the public.

Below are the most salient issues that the Iranian media and those close to the regime sought to emphasize during the war:

1. Strengthening the Regime’s perspective of “Distrust of the West”

The Iranian government is trying to capitalize on the Ukraine crisis to prove its long-held perspective on the West true. This has been quite evident in state and pro-government media which shot the works employing the West’s reluctance to support Zelensky –with whom they used to have close ties– in the face of Russia to prove the regime’s perspective on rapprochement with the West valid. This criticism of the West extended to include NATO as well.

Such criticism made headlines in newspapers in the two days that followed the Russian attack, where we read the following on the front pages of Iranian governments:

  • Kayhan: “The US Once Again Abandons its Allis: For Pro-West to Heed Warnings” and “Ukraine Fell into the Well”
  • Vatan-e Emrooz: “When NATO is Your Friend”, “Iran, a Wise Player”
  • Jam-e Jam: “How Zelensky Took his Country to a Devastating War?” and “Ukraine on the Brink of Division”
  • Khorasan: “What Trust Brings” and “Supporting Zelinsky’s Drop by Drop”

All of these newspapers are affiliated with the conservative current. Reformist newspapers are, however, less critical of the West. At large, pro-government ideologues are trying to capitalize on the Ukraine war to reinforce their views of severing ties with the United States or scaling them down with some other European countries. Notably, news on the Ukraine war is rarely devoid of the word “moral” or “lesson”.

2. The Conservatives’ Criticism of the Reformist Camp

Similarly, conservatives in Iran took advantage of the US’ and West’s non-involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian war to attack the reformists for their support of establishing ties with the western countries as has been the case during the presidential term of  former President Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), as opposed to the hardliners and conservatives who do not support this trend.

Ali Khamenei spoke publicly about this in his address on 1 March and in a tweet on Twitter on the same day.

3. Promoting the Importance of Expanding Military Industries

Notwithstanding Iran’s support of Moscow, several media outlets in Tehran, whether official or otherwise, saw the war revealing of the need to strengthen the local military industries, particularly missiles and drones.

Some state media argued that if Iran had had a strong military industry, the situation would have changed. Perhaps the main headline of the 26 February Vatan-e Emrooz reinforces this trend, which reads “Yes, It’s a World of Missiles”

Figure 3: Vatan-e Emrooz, 26 February 2022

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Hamshahri-Al-Mwatana newspaper also asked in its February 26 edition, “The Age of Missiles not Words: Why Has Ukraine Become Handcuffed in the Face of the Russian Attack?”

With the visibility of the role of the Turkish Bayraktar drones in the Ukrainian war, several authors called for promoting the drones industry, particularly Iran has made great strides in this respect. Not too far from these calls came the announcement of the commander of Khatam-al Anbiya Central Headquarter in Iran Qader Rahimzadeh on 25 February 2022 in which he called on the army to prepare for potential wars, noting that today’s wars are different from those of the past.    

4. The Ukraine War and Nuclear Negotiations

While conservatives generally refrained from bringing the nuclear file to the negotiating table in Vienna, they have tried to publicize and strengthen their views in the aftermath of the Ukraine war.

5. Promoting US Withdrawal from the Region

Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei re-visited the idea of the US withdrawal from the region in his address early march, in which he pointed out that the outbreak of war in Ukraine was caused by Kyiv’s relations with the United States and the latter’s role in Ukraine. Therefore, Khamenei and the conservatives tried to step up their calls in this respect by capitalizing on the Ukraine crisis.

Will Moscow’s Stance on the Nuclear Talks Change Tehran’s Direction?

Despite Iran’s stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war, Iranians have recently started to express criticism of the Russian position on the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Russia demands that the United States’ and Europeans’ prospective nuclear agreement with Iran guarantees the continuation of its trade with Tehran, after the Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia following the outbreak of its war with Ukraine. 

These developments pose a further obstacle to reaching an agreement on the nuclear file after long months of talks that Iranians were hoping will give rise to an agreement soon. This obstacle prompted the Secretary-General of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, to state “Our interactions with P4 + 1 are also solely driven by our people’s interests. Thus, we’re assessing new elements that bear on the negotiations and will accordingly seek creative ways to expedite a solution.”  

Accordingly, Iran’s active strive for an agreement that would rescue its economy and Russia’s new requirement may give rise to significant disagreements between the two countries, probably leading to  calls from Westerners’ and Iranians’ to keep Russia out of negotiations. Perhaps this will, in parallel, lead to an adverse shift in Iran’s position on the Ukraine crisis. 

In conclusion, despite the ongoing debate in Iran on the impact of the Ukrainian war on trade relations with Russia and the concerns over the region’s involvement in a more comprehensive war, the Ukraine crisis indirectly plays into the hands of the conservatives who employ it to promote their ideologies. This would reinforce their front in the face of the reformists. Additionally, the war may push the Iranian military to engage in promoting local military industries, particularly missiles and drones. 

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