Iran in Ukraine: The Costs of Supporting Putin’s War
Iran’s decision to openly aid Russia during its invasion of Ukraine has strengthened its relationship with the Kremlin and led to material gain, but it has also led to further diplomatic strain and added to the government’s legitimacy crisis at home.
For all the ways in which Iran has benefitted from its support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, there are also costs that the Islamic Republic has had to pay. The greatest of these is the deterioration of ties with the European Union and its individual member states. One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Iranian-Russian partnership has grown stronger and the possibility of any nuclear agreement with the West has slimmed. While Iran might stand to gain financially and in other ways from selling its weapons systems to Russia, in the process it has alienated Europe and driven many European states to halt negotiations with Tehran, all but ensuring that Western sanctions will remain in place.
The views of policymakers in Brussels and capitals across Europe have shifted dramatically against Iran, due in large part to the Islamic Republic’s support for Putin’s war against Ukraine. While many European governments supported a renewal of the JCPOA prior to 2022, Iran’s overt assistance to Russia during its war of aggression against Ukraine has led most of the nuclear deal’s erstwhile supporters to lose their appetite for the accord’s revival. “The Iranians certainly seem to have underestimated the backlash their military assistance to Russia will prompt in Europe,” explained Ali Vaez, Project Director for the International Crisis Group, in an interview with Gulf International Forum.
Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University, concurred with Vaez’s assessment in a separate interview, claiming that Tehran had “paid a huge price…in Europe” for its defense of the Kremlin. “Coupled with the brutal repression of protests since the killing of Mahsa Amini, Iranian support for Russia has alienated European governments and populations and increased calls for Europe to sanction the IRGC and recall ambassadors from Tehran,” she said. “Europeans are also increasingly hostile to a revival of the JCPOA, which is seen—inaccurately in my view—as ‘rewarding’ Tehran.”
Trita Parsi, the Executive Vice President for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, had a similar assessment. “Iran’s support for Russia has had a profound impact on Europe’s view of Iran,” he said. “In the past, at most, Europe viewed Iran as a potential threat if it gained nuclear weapons. It was more concerned about war with Iran than Iran getting nuclear weapons, as it knew that Iran was still far away from such a capability. But by supporting Russia, which some in Europe view as an existential threat, Iran has become a real threat in the eyes of many EU capitals. As a result, the political will to renew the JCPOA is very limited as long as Iran continues to support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Experts contend that the Iranian regime’s support for Russia has exacerbated the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy crisis at home. Marked by protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine held in the first weeks of the war, as well as public opinion polls that highlight poor public support for Moscow’s position, Russia’s image in Iran has suffered since February 24, 2022. Even prior to the invasion, many Iranians regarded Russia as an imperial power that had antagonized Iran throughout its modern history.
“This growing cooperation between Russia and Iran is not popular in Iran and will hurt the Iranian regime, especially if Russia is perceived to be losing the war in Ukraine,” Slavin told Gulf International Forum. “Given its history of seeing chunks of territory seized by tsarist Russia, Iran cannot be entirely comfortable watching Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
Iranians need not look back to the tsarist era for examples of Russian hostility. During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the two sides engaged in a “War of the Cities,” in which Saddam Hussein’s army deliberately fired hundreds of Soviet-supplied Scud missiles at densely populated urban areas in Iran, causing thousands of civilian casualties and creating long-lasting trauma. The obvious parallels with the Ukraine war—with Iran-produced drones destroying Ukrainian lives and infrastructure—have not escaped Iranian audiences today. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the CEO of the London-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation think tank, wrote: “For several years during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi warplanes and ballistic missiles brought terror to Iranian cities, killing hundreds in bombardments. What an absolutely shameful turn of history that Iranian munitions are being used to target civilians in Kyiv.”
As Vaez explained, “Support for the aggressor has undermined the Islamic Republic’s moral standing in the eyes of some of its core constituents, who made enormous sacrifices to preserve the country’s territorial integrity in the face of Saddam’s war of aggression against Iran merely four decades ago.” Slavin added that, when considered alongside Iran’s economic troubles and the ongoing nationwide protests surrounding the death of Mahsa Amini, its sudden alignment with the Kremlin “further erodes what is left of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy.”
Partnership or Alliance?
One of the important questions to ask is whether the Ukrainian conflict has elevated the Russo-Iranian relationship from a partnership to an “alliance” in the true sense of the term. Four months after the Russian invasion, Vaez argued that bilateral relations had evolved from a “partnership of choice” to an “alliance out of necessity.” However, some experts do not believe that Moscow and Tehran have yet established an “alliance,” describing it instead as a growing entente or an informal strategic partnership.
Pointing to widespread distrust of Moscow throughout Iranian society, Slavin told Gulf International Forum that “allies may be too strong a word” when describing the Moscow-Tehran relationship at this stage. Anton Mardasov, a scholar at both the Middle East Institute and the Russian International Affairs Council also cautioned against describing the bilateral relationship as an alliance: “For example, Russia’s military relations with China have also strengthened markedly in recent years … but no one has the heart to call this mechanism an alliance. It is simply interaction against a backdrop of common challenges and opponents, which could be quickly curtailed if other prospects emerge.”
Regardless of whether the Russian-Iranian relationship more resembles a partnership or an alliance, ties between Moscow and Tehran are set to strengthen, especially if the Ukraine War continues through 2023. As part of a $1 billion deal between Russia and Iran, the two countries are set to establish a joint drone production line at a factory in Yelabuga, in the Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia. This facility could ultimately produce more than 6,000 Iran-designed UAVs for Russia to use in Ukraine over the coming years. With Russian design input and less fettered access to materials, these drones will likely be more powerful and deadly than those that Tehran has already provided Moscow. Moreover, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, the Iranians have agreed to send Russia powerful Iranian Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles, although Russia has provided no confirmation that it has acquired such missiles from Tehran.
The stringent Western sanctions imposed on Russia and Iran have only given greater reason for the two states to bolster bilateral relations. The Russian and Iranian governments have already found ways to circumvent international sanctions, including further linking their banking systems. In January 2023, Iran’s deputy central bank governor, Mohsen Karami, claimed that the two countries’ financial institutions had connected messaging networks—forming a rudimentary alternative to the SWIFT network, from which both countries remain excluded. According to Karami, 100 banks in 13 other unspecified countries have also joined this network.
Russia’s commercial relationship with Iran has also deepened since the start of the war. Since February 24, the number of flights between Russia and Iran has drastically increased, while bilateral trade also stands to grow significantly. In spite of these developments, Iran is far from one of Russia’s top trading partners, and with the Iranian economy facing so many crises of its own, the extent to which Russia can gain economically from deeper ties to Iran is limited.
There are also many sanctions mitigation or evasion strategies that Moscow may learn from Tehran. Given the Islamic Republic’s modern history, its experiences as a target of Western sanctions enable it to provide its partner with creative strategies and tactics for softening the impact of sanctions against Russia. It is likely that there will be many meetings between Russian and Iranian officials throughout 2023 focusing on bilateral and multilateral ways to counter the impact of sanctions targeting both countries.
Ultimately, as the Ukraine War rages on into its second year, there is little reason to believe that Russian-Iranian cooperation will wane. Although there are limits to what either Moscow or Tehran can gain from their bilateral partnership, both sides view the relationship as a promising development in a period when both Russia and Iran are on increasingly hostile terms with the West and driven by a shared desire to restructure the world’s geopolitical order in line with their own interests.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.