What Iran’s growing Russia ties mean for the war in Ukraine
Iran this week summoned Ukraine’s envoy in Tehran after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser commented on the attack on a military factory in Isfahan. According to Nournews, which is associated with Iran’s National Security Council, the move occurred after Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: “Explosive night in Iran — drone & missile production, oil refineries. (Ukraine) did warn you.” According to The Wall Street Journal, however, it was Israel that was behind the attack. Whatever the real intent of the tweet and who carried out the attack, the role of Iran in the Ukraine war has become increasingly visible.
Iran recognized Ukraine’s independence on Dec. 25, 1991, and official diplomatic relations were established on Jan. 22, 1992. Prior to the Ukraine conflict, relations were strong, but Iran had also developed strong security and military relations with Russia, particularly through their alignment in Syria. Iran abstained from publicly supporting or opposing the Crimean annexation in 2014.
Evidence of Iran’s attempt to maintain relations can be seen in the aftermath of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 disaster. In 2020, the Iranian military accidentally shot down the civilian passenger flight and both sides agreed to a comprehensive investigation; clearly, at that stage, relations with Kyiv were valued by Tehran.
At the beginning of the Ukraine war, Iran’s position was notably cautious. The Islamic Republic did not recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Also, in last March’s emergency session of the UN General Assembly, Iran abstained from voting on a resolution deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine and urging the immediate withdrawal of its troops. Tehran sought to maintain official neutrality. Nonetheless, signs of support — or at least empathy — for Russia’s position were revealed by Iran’s leadership, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said: “If Russia hadn’t sent troops into Ukraine, it would have faced an attack from NATO later.”
Directly or indirectly, it seems plausible that Iran will enter the Ukraine war, especially considering the existing military alliances in Syria
Dr. Diana Galeeva
However, as the dynamics of the Ukraine war developed, alongside Russia’s more pressing need to overcome Western sanctions, the situation “made Iran and Russia allies in economic isolation,” as Alam Saleh and Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas put it in a report for the Atlantic Council in August.
At the end of 2022, in a comprehensive review of the rising interdependency between Iran and Russia, Abdolrasool Divsallar, for TRENDS Research and Advisory, identified several new drivers of their collaboration. Beyond Moscow’s urgency due to Western sanctions, another factor has been “standing back-to-back for regime security,” as both countries “faced unprecedented domestic instabilities” in 2022 — in Russia’s case with antiwar protests and, for Iran, the anti-regime protests led by women after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
Divsallar’s report also correctly argues that the US factor has become less of a concern, while historical mistrust has shifted to strategic sympathy. Above all, Russia and Iran have repositioned themselves from competitor energy states to mutual participants in energy diplomacy efforts. All these factors have contributed to Iran inching closer to the Kremlin. Directly or indirectly, it seems plausible that Iran will enter the Ukraine war, especially considering the existing military alliances in Syria.
In August, news broke of Moscow’s possible purchase of Iranian drones and, in September, Ukrainian sources announced that they had shot down an Iranian-made Shahed 136 drone, used by the Russians in the northeastern region of Kharkiv. The same month, Kyiv stripped the accreditation of the Iranian ambassador to Ukraine, based on Iran’s supplying of weapons to Russia.
Dramatizing these dynamics between Iran and Ukraine, John Hardie and Behnam Ben Taleblu argued in an October article for Foreign Policy magazine, titled “Iran is now at war with Ukraine,” that: “For the first time, Iran is involved in a major war on the European continent. Iranian military advisers, most likely members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are on the ground in occupied Ukraine … to help Russia rain down deadly Iranian kamikaze drones on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure.”
Iran’s “Look to the East” policy has been manifested in the Islamic Republic’s decision to shift toward Eastern powers and culture. The self-positioning of Ukraine as defending Western values seems to set the identity and course of both countries in opposite directions. Further, Tehran has, in some ways, benefited from Russia’s sanctions, since it now has a partner that is willing to deal with it to mitigate the economic impact of sanctions. For example, in December, the countries agreed to develop a new trade route from the eastern edge of Europe to the Indian Ocean. Such economic and diplomatic interests turn Iran’s strategic national objectives against those of Ukraine.
Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency is characterized by a focus on securing Iran’s national interests. Further possible provocations or military incidents might not lead to a cutting of diplomatic ties with Kyiv, but more and more security and military collaboration with Russia will make it less likely that Ukraine will be willing to continue communications. This is an indicator of the growing complexity of the war and its possible escalation. Further, Iran’s always contentious position in the region is set to accumulate further complexities. Its strategic and military objectives locally may be shaped by events in Ukraine, along with its involvement in Syria and other regional crisis points. This may influence how it views and responds to developments over the coming months and perhaps years.
- Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). She is the author of two books: “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2023). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).