Iran’s Involvement in the Ukraine War: Compromising Declared Principles

Politicians and commentators are warning about the consequences of an emerging “Ukraine fatigue” in the second year of the Russian invasion of the country. The vehemence with which Ukrainian cities are being pounded and the intensity of airstrikes on its power plants have hardly subsided, and the war of attrition is continuing to exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis. In addition, Russia’s military campaign has bred new political alignments and bisected the world into two camps: countries that are prepared to openly denounce its military expedition on the doorstep of NATO nations, and countries that support or otherwise condone this instigation of conflict.

Iran, a nation that has in the past experienced the bitter taste of war at the hands of a powerful neighbor, has thrust itself into the Ukraine saga by assuming the mantle of Russia’s diplomatic and military enabler. Not only does this estrange Iran from the Ukrainians but it is also a clear betrayal of the principles that allegedly underpin the country’s ideological identity, including anti-imperialism, noninterference, and respect for the sovereignty of nations.

Shortly after the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, Iran was one of the few nations that officially sided with Russia. On the eve of what would soon turn into a human tragedy, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi put in a phone call to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which many saw as an assurance of Iran’s readiness to offer support. At that point, the contours of the putative support were nebulous; but the Islamic Republic’s role has turned out to be essential to the Kremlin’s war effort.

The ruling elite in Tehran perceive their resolution to rubber-stamp Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a prudent step with long-term strategic payoffs. But by endorsing the war, Iran’s government has voided the principles that it has long sought to instill in its constituents and has negated the values that it insists are integral to the genealogy of the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, a Russia-Iran alliance may not bring the strategic dividends for which Iran is hoping.

Lessons from History

For years, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have defended their foreign policy portfolio by arguing that if Iran’s actions and policies have antagonized the West, it is because countering “imperialism” and “global arrogance” constitutes the essence of the Islamic Republic’s worldview. In response to criticism claiming that the nation has become internationally isolated, authorities contend that such is the price to be paid for the nation’s “independence.” However, the decision to support Russia as it pummels Ukrainian towns and villages and knocks out the country’s energy grid with a barrage of rockets and missiles means that the Iranian government has settled on bankrolling an imperial agenda like those that Iran’s leaders once claimed to oppose.

The decision to support Russia means that Tehran has settled on bankrolling an imperial agenda like those that Iran’s leaders once claimed to oppose.

When the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 seeking to neutralize the nascent Islamic Revolution, an assembly of countries including Iran’s Arab neighbors, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and several European nations teamed up to support Iraq, believing that doing so was necessary to prevent the new Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exporting his anti-western, Shia nationalist ideology. By some estimates, eight years of fighting claimed more than a million lives. And it also led to economic devastation for Iran that took decades to be reversed.

During the first five years of the war, human settlements in Iran sustained damages estimated at $13 billion, and the total damages over the course of the conflict may have reached $18 billion. Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against civilians on at least 10 occasions killed nearly 5,000 Iranians and inflicted lifelong injuries on 100,000 others. Iranians are therefore familiar with the scourge of war and how it upends and unravels lives. For a nation that has endured invasion during various junctures in its history, one would think it would be much easier to sympathize with the victims of hawkishness by Russian leaders who are questing for dominance and territory. Any survey of Iranian society would likely find that the majority of the population is opposed to the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, both because history has taught them that wars are destructive and because standing up for the oppressed is a longstanding Iranian tradition.

But the government does not sing the same song as most of its citizens. At least at this moment, it is pretending that its track record of espousing nonintervention and opposition to imperialism is irrelevant to its posture on the Ukraine war. A multitude of reports have shown that Tehran has been furnishing Moscow with military aid since the beginning of the latter’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and elucidated how these provisions have caused ordinary Ukrainians to suffer.

Iran’s Russian Comradeship

Hundreds of Iranian drones have reportedly been used by Russia against civilian and military targets in Ukraine. Three types of Iranian drones, namely the Shahed-131, Shahed-136, and Mohajer-6 have been used in the war, and as of January 2023, Ukrainian officials estimated that around 660 Shahed drones had been unleashed by Russia.

In addition, over the past six months, cargo ships traveling the Caspian Sea have reportedly transported more than 300,000 artillery shells and a million rounds of ammunition from Iran to Russia, which many experts believe will prolong the war and have a counterproductive impact on Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russian attacks. Signs abound that Tehran-Moscow military cooperation is deepening, and that the Islamic Republic, although falling short of casting itself as a belligerent in the battle, is empowering Russia to ensure that its arsenal of deadly arms does not dwindle.

Signs abound that Tehran-Moscow military cooperation is deepening and that the Iran is helping ensure that Russia’s arsenal does not dwindle.

The drones that Russia has procured from Iran have left a trail of destruction in Ukraine’s residential areas and civilian infrastructure. Some of the Shahed-131 drones have even been redesigned to contain explosives to inflict maximum damage. Last October, Ukraine’s state electricity transmission operator reported that 40 percent of its regular electricity output was cut at one point due to drone attacks.

For the authorities in Tehran, there are enough motives to midwife a blooming alliance with Moscow, despite international condemnation of their role. They recognize that as long as they insist on their nuclear grandstanding, the United States, the European Union, and even their once loyal partners in Asia will not be holding out an olive branch anytime soon. And Iran’s potential normalization with the world also depends on its commitment to stepping back from its harmful regional escapades and embracing the role of a responsible player.

The government’s behavior thus simply points to the continuation of the status quo: no compromise on the nuclear dossier and no readiness for a diplomatic about-face in the region, even though some observers see its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia as an indicator of Tehran having reformed. Of the handful of countries that continue to be happy to work with the Islamic Republic under these circumstances, Russia is perhaps the most powerful. So, while the rest of the world is determined to perpetuate Tehran’s isolation, Iran’s leaders figure they might as well solidify ties with Moscow.

Despite the historical precedent working against the consummation of an Iran-Russia partnership, including Moscow voting in lockstep with the United States in favor of seven UN Security Council resolutions to place draconian sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear activities, officials in Tehran are upbeat about their new petition to the Kremlin. It appears that they have made their minds up that periodic ententes with the West will not be sustainable and that they should forge strategic partnerships with friends they can trust.

Birds of a Feather

At a time when almost no country is willing to contribute to Russia’s combat operations, the top leadership in Iran has reached a consensus to provide the increasingly isolated Kremlin with military assistance. In doing so, the establishment in Tehran is eyeing a broader and more indivisible coalition with Moscow, one that it hopes Vladimir Putin will not negate.

Supplying drones and ammunition to Moscow at this critical juncture, when President Putin is doggedly pursuing the revival of Russian imperialism by seeking to annex a country that he emphasizes should be part of Russia, demonstrates the Iranian government’s true intentions and future ambitions. Right now, Iran deems it best to be on Russia’s good side so that it can depend on it for potential economic, military, and diplomatic lifelines in any hypothetical future confrontations with a league of western powers, headed by the United States.

Russia’s veto power as a permanent UN Security Council member is of substantive value to Iran, since its behavior will undoubtedly be debated in the chamber again in the future.

As simple as that might sound, Russia’s veto power as a permanent UN Security Council member is of substantive value to Iran, since its behavior will undoubtedly be debated in the chamber again in the future. Insofar as the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear file is open to resolution by world powers, it needs a diplomatic savior, and buoying up Russia as it scrambles for battleground successes in Ukraine could be a shortcut to securing that kind of rapport while the rest of the world remains skeptical of Iran’s nuclear pursuits. The same may very well be said of China’s role at the United Nations.

The economic imperative should also be factored in. Iran and Russia both represent heavily-sanctioned economies, and they thus understand each other very well. As both regimes’ access to dollar revenues plummets, and as both are banished from the international financial and banking sector, they can, as they are already doing, come up with new means of bypassing the SWIFT system and eliminating the dollar from their transactions.

Russia’s exclusion from the world economy started at the time of its invasion of Ukraine, which is a recent development. A great many international companies have reportedly curtailed their operations in Russia or have completely withdrawn from the country, and the EU has banned the import of Russian oil products. Iran, meanwhile, has long been excluded from global markets and detached from the western financial system, and for the past four decades western businesses have had almost no presence in Iran. The Islamic Republic will want to capitalize on this newfound common ground with Russia and redeem its economy. Also, media reports have revealed that the Iranian government has been sharing its experiences of circumventing US and European sanctions with Russia as of late.

In 2022, overall trade between Russia and Iran stood at $4.9 billion, which is not remarkable given the alleged elevation of their relationship to a strategic partnership. But if the two countries take concrete steps to reach an annual trade value of $40 billion, as Russia has reportedly said it expects to happen, then their economic interdependence would be almost irreversible. Odds are heavily stacked against the possibility that Iran will revisit its foreign policy and engage in a process of global integration. In Russia, Iran is finding a partner that is now sharing the same insularity with which it has long been forced to deal.

 The Islamic Republic is looking to court Russia in order to modernize its military.

Military cooperation is also an area that Iran hopes to develop if it wins Russia’s gratitude. Crumbling under decades of a stringent arms embargo, Iran’s military is lagging behind its regional rivals, and its underfunded air force has struggled to survive. Shunned by western arms manufacturers, the Islamic Republic is looking to court Russia in order to modernize its military and give a facelift to its depleting fleet of fighter jets and military aircraft. The upcoming delivery later this year of 24 Su-35 aircraft, one of Russia’s most coveted combat planes, has been in the cards for some time now. And the two countries are also discussing a deal for Iran’s acquisition of advanced Russian Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters.

Iran may proffer a slew of justifications to bail Russia out in Ukraine. But aside from the fact that its actions are shortsighted from a national interest perspective, they do not absolve the Islamic Republic of being implicated in the agonies of the Ukrainian people. On a number of occasions, Ukraine has come close to severing diplomatic relations with Iran. Ukrainian officials consider Iran to be partly responsible for the country’s suffering, and public perceptions of Iran have soured, despite the fact that Ukraine once maintained cordial relations with Iran.

With the military and diplomatic support it has lent to Russia, including by abstaining on UN resolutions condemning the invasion and calling for a Russian withdrawal and reparations for Ukraine, Iran has gotten mired in the morass created by its powerful northern neighbor. It has also lost the battle for the moral high ground, which it had long waged against countries that perceptible defied international law and attacked weaker nations, such as the United States when it invaded Iraq in 2003.

But it is still not too late for the Iranian leadership to disown this unholy alliance and stand up for the sanctity of human life that is under attack in Ukraine. It only requires wisdom in statecraft and the courage to admit its miscalculation and to communicate to Russia that it is no longer going to associate itself with this carnage. Doing so would help build a pathway for a swifter conclusion to a war that the Islamic Republic is certainly helping to extend.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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