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Iran’s Indispensable Role for Russia in the Ukraine War

February 24 will mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine—a major escalation in hostilities between the Kremlin and its western neighbor as well as NATO. While Iran’s initial official statement adopted a neutral position toward the war, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later echoed President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric and blamed the West for the invasion and Tehran shifted into alignment with Moscow as the war progressed. In the months since, Iran has pursued involvement in the conflict to a far greater degree than any of its neighbors. Despite denials from Iranian officials, Tehran has provided Russia with hundreds of “suicide drones” and sent trainers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula to instruct Russian soldiers in drone warfare.

Hardline Rhetoric Wins Out

Against all evidence, Tehran has denied sending drones or trainers to Russia, and it has refused to recognize the validity of the Kremlin’s dubious “referendum” that annexed four oblasts in eastern Ukraine. However, Iran is one of the few countries whose official talking points on the Ukraine conflict are nearly identical to those of Russia. The Iranian government advances a narrative about both countries joining each other in an existential struggle against an ever-expanding NATO and the West at large. When Putin visited Tehran in July 2022 and signed a $40 billion memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop energy projects in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassured his Russian counterpart that if he had not launched the war in Ukraine, the “dangerous creature,” i.e. NATO, would have eventually done so. Khamenei went on to claim that the military alliance “would know no bounds if the way was open to it, and if it was not stopped in Ukraine, it would start the same war using Crimea as an excuse.”

There is no denying that the past year of conflict in Ukraine has given a significant boost to the bilateral relationship between Russia and Iran. The geopolitical ramifications of this alignment have gravely concerned officials in the United States and the European Union. Western statesmen see the strengthening of the Russo-Iranian partnership as a significant danger to global security. Last summer, Vedant Patel, a deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, addressed “Iran’s dangerous proliferation of weapons to Russia” and called the deepening Moscow-Tehran relationship a “profound threat” that governments around the world “should pay very close attention to.”

Ultimately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing wave of Western sanctions against Moscow have served to make Iran’s assistance far more important to Russia, giving Tehran greater leverage when dealing with the Kremlin. Enabling Russia’s aggression has come at the cost of Iran’s relationships with European governments, which have drastically deteriorated since Tehran became involved in the war on Moscow’s side. Indeed, this development has also served to all but eliminate any hope for reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is crucial to remember that the Islamic Republic is not a monolithic entity, and that the relative strength of competing factions within the country can determine its foreign policy outlook. Within the Iranian system, hardliners have spent decades opposing diplomacy with the West. Many of these opposed the original JCPOA. Throughout Iran’s modern history, these elements have called for Tehran to essentially abandon any hope for warmer relations with the West, while advocating that Iran invest heavily in long-term partnerships with Russia, China, and other non-Western powers. By contrast, moderates in Iran, such as former President Hassan Rouhani, acknowledged the value of cooperation with Moscow, Beijing, and other Eastern nations, but also advocated for seriously engaging the West. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the subsequent failure of all parties to revive the 2015 accord have contributed to the hardliners gaining an upper hand in the Islamic Republic regime, accelerating Tehran’s ”Look East” foreign policy orientation, which has coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and produced the policies we see today.

Convergent Interests Breed Cooperation

In the present, Russia and Iran are geopolitically oriented in many of the same ways, sharing negative attitudes toward the West. Both Moscow and Tehran are the subject of extensive Western sanctions, and both seek to create a new international order in which Washington plays a significantly diminished role. Russian and Iranian officials share the view that the goal of creating a less West-centric world is possible through stronger bilateral cooperation.

The close coordination between Moscow and Tehran exhibited today is a relatively new phenomenon, as both nations were fiercely opposed to each other throughout the Cold War era. The Shah’s regime was anti-Communist to its core and played a critical role in U.S. efforts to counter Soviet influence in the Gulf and the wider Islamic world. As much as anti-Americanism was a pillar of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Khomeini regime was no friend of the Soviet Union. Saddam Hussein received support from Moscow amid the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) while Tehran opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89).

Russo-Iranian ties warmed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and a series of international developments throughout the subsequent three decades served to strengthen them further. Russia and Iran shared a desire to combat hardline Sunni terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, which had a history of terrorizing both Russians and Shi’a Muslims. Both countries were also disturbed by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the late 1990s; Iran prepared for war against the group after it killed several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin threatened to bomb Afghanistan in May 2000 because of the Taliban’s alleged support for the Chechen insurrection.

Russia and Iran found common cause in defending their nation-states’ territorial integrity in the face of ethnic separatist groups in Russia’s Caucasian regions and Iran’s Arab, Azeri, Baloch, and Kurdish areas. Moscow and Tehran also sought to counter Washington’s clout in the Middle East and Central Asia. Then, beginning in 2011, the two countries deepened their collaboration through their mutual commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. With the intensification of Moscow’s direct military involvement in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, Russian power in the air and Iranian paramilitary forces on the ground worked closely to defeat Assad’s enemies, securing his control over southern and central Syria. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the two nations’ collaboration has deepened. The conflict has created new international dynamics, which have served to elevate their relationship to new heights.

Ten to fifteen years ago, Moscow and Tehran remained suspicious of one another, worried that the other party might ‘sell out’ to Washington and leave the other isolated. Today, one year into the war in Ukraine, such a move no longer seems possible. Although Tehran and Moscow still lack trust in certain areas, both powers see themselves as locked into a long-term struggle against the United States.

The Toll of Russian-Iranian Military Coordination

Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have not proven to be a decisive factor on the battlefield. But these drones have contributed to destruction and devastation in Kyiv, Odesa, and other Ukrainian cities. Indeed, the Russians have used Iran’s Shahed-131, Shahed-136, and Mohajer-6 drones to destroy rail lines, power grids, water pipelines, and other civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine. In addition to their kinetic capabilities, these weapons have had a psychological effect on Ukrainians, both military personnel and civilians.

At the time of Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin apparently did not plan to wage large-scale combat operations in the country over a long period of time. Due to an underestimation of Ukrainian strength and resolve, Moscow also appeared to downplay or outright ignore the true cost of the conflict for Russia’s military. Within this context, Anton Mardasov, a scholar at both the Middle East Institute and the Russian International Affairs Council, said that “the use of Iranian drones made it possible to replace the use of so many cruise missiles, which previously in peacetime would have taken several years to produce.” Although Mardasov observed that Russian drone operators had gained proficiency in the use of the Iran-supplied drones and had begun to use them against mobile targets, he noted that at the outset they had predominantly been used against stationary targets, allowing Russia to stockpile missiles that it would have otherwise expended against those targets. “Thus, the supply of Iranian kamikaze drones is indeed an important factor for the Russian military system, which found itself in an extremely vulnerable position due to the initially wrong scenario of the invasion of Ukraine,” he concluded.

How the Ukraine War Benefits Iran

The war in Ukraine and the growing hostilities between the West and Russia have served to advance many of Iran’s national interests. Faced with American “maximum pressure” sanctions since May 2018, Tehran has had no choice but to turn to Russia and China for closer cooperation. This dynamic has caused some concern among Iranian officials about their country’s growing dependence on Moscow and Beijing. The past year of warfare in Ukraine and Iran’s role in it have served to assuage those concerns in Tehran.

In fact, Russia’s major setbacks in Ukraine have forced the Kremlin to grow more dependent on the external support provided by Iran. As one of very few countries worldwide to provide Russia with weapons during the war, Iran has established itself as one of Moscow’s most important partners on the international stage. “Iran sees a strategic benefit in a protracted conflict between Russia and NATO in Ukraine that would rebalance the power dynamics between Tehran and Moscow with the latter becoming more reliant on the former,” Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director for the International Crisis Group, told Gulf International Forum. He added that the Ukraine war had benefited Tehran by “keeping NATO focused on Russia rather than Iran,” giving the Islamic Republic breathing room to pursue sanctions evasion, a confrontational foreign policy, and other activities that the West would have otherwise devoted additional resources toward containing.

In exchange for Iranian military support amid the Ukraine War, Tehran has benefited from Russian help in several ways. According to U.S. intelligence officials, Tehran is seeking nuclear assistance from Moscow, which could help the Iranians advance their nuclear program more rapidly and cut down the time necessary for assembling a usable nuclear weapon. Tehran has also accepted payment for its military aid in other forms. In August 2022, Moscow reportedly gave Iran $140 million in cash, along with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles illegally obtained from Western countries. It is thought that these stolen weapons were sent to Iran to provide unique opportunities for the government to study and reverse-engineer their designs.

The collaboration is growing beyond Moscow. Tehran announced that China was among 90 countries “queuing up” to purchase Iranian drones. An Iranian official boasted in early February that Beijing had expressed interest in buying 15,000 Iranian drones—an arms deal that would dramatically expand China’s drone capabilities and provide Iran with a windfall of cash with which to pursue its other aims.

Additionally, as officials in Tehran have confirmed, Iran will receive Russian-sourced conventional weapons later in 2023 as part of Moscow’s way of rewarding Tehran for its staunch support in Ukraine. These are, of course, weapons that no Western country would sell the Islamic Republic—and weapons that Russia itself had refused to sell prior to February 24, 2022. According to a statement made by a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee on January 15, Tehran will acquire two dozen Russian Su-35 jets, along with missile systems, air defense systems, and helicopters. The fighter jets, to be housed in Isfahan, will be the first fighter aircraft that Iran has purchased since the 1990s, marking a significant upgrade to the Islamic Republic’s air force.

Russo-Iranian technical cooperation will also take place in space. On August 9, 2022, the Islamic Republic used a Russian Soyuz rocket to launch a Khayyam satellite from a Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, enhancing Iran’s capabilities in terms of “border surveillance of agriculture, monitoring land use changes such as unauthorized construction, deforestation and environmental hazards and scouting for mineral deposits, among others.” Cooperation in the space domain can strengthen Tehran’s means to conduct satellite-source espionage—a significant concern for Israel, the U.S., and other Western countries.

Beyond Moscow and Tehran’s bilateral dealings, Iran’s role in the Ukraine War has helped the Islamic Republic in its quest to establish itself as a recognized drone power. The fact that Russia is growing increasingly dependent on Iran-produced drones helps the Islamic Republic present itself as an alternative supplier of UAVs, while likely attracting potential new customers to its drone industry—particularly “rogue states” sanctioned by the West that remain unable to purchase such drones from the U.S. or European countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.

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