Since the Islamic Republic’s formation in 1979, Iran and the United States have consistently found themselves at opposing ends of various regional, geopolitical, and governance issues. Although these differences have periodically escalated into confrontations, they have not yet spiraled into a full-blown conflict. Interestingly, their longstanding rivalry has occasionally been overshadowed by a shared interest in regional matters. Such rare moments of tacit cooperation include the post-September 11 situation in Afghanistan, the post-U.S. invasion of Iraq, and a mutual concern about threats posed by Sunni Islamist terrorist groups, including the Islamic State.
Iran Deepens its Alliance with Russia
In the context of seemingly intractable disputes with the United States, Iran has increasingly worked with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin on regional and international issues. Iran and Russia jointly helped Syrian President Bashar Al Assad defeat a large-scale armed rebellion that began in 2011. Since 2016, the two countries discuss a major Iranian purchase of advanced conventional arms, including combat aircraft, to modernize and enhance Iran’s modest and aging arsenal. The deepening ties to Moscow, combined with stalemated talks with the West to restore the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal that the Trump Administration exited in 2018, culminated in a decision by the leaders of the Islamic Republic to directly and materially support Putin’s war against Ukraine, which launched in February 2022.
The core of Iran’s cooperation with Moscow’s aggression is the supply of several hundred Shahid and Mohajer armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS, armed drones) designed and manufactured in Iran. In the months after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian commanders recognized the deficiency of their forces in fielding armed drones—particularly in comparison to Ukraine, which, at least in the several months after the invasion, used highly-capable Turkish-made Bayraktar armed drones to great effect against Russian equipment.
To close the gap in its arsenal, Moscow reached out to Tehran. As part of the sales agreement, Iran also reportedly sent trainers and advisers to Russian bases in the occupied Crimean Peninsula to help Russian forces optimize their use of the systems. Along with Iranian agreement to supply the Shahid and Mohajer systems, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made clear his support for the Russian war effort, in part by echoing Putin’s assertions that NATO expansion and U.S. support for Ukraine compelled him to attack Ukraine in order to secure Russia. Unlike Turkey, India, China, and other powers that have tilted toward Russia to protect their economic and geopolitical interests, Tehran placed itself in complete alignment with Moscow, apparently betting that Putin’s determination and large force would enable him to prevail militarily and politically.
The West Responds to Iran
Tehran’s decision to engage directly in a major European conflict, far beyond its traditional Middle Eastern sphere of influence, led to immediate and adverse repercussions. This involvement placed the United States and its NATO allies in an indirect confrontation with Tehran. Concurrently, Iran faced mounting criticism from the U.S. and Europe due to its suppression of the “Women, Life and Freedom” demonstrations that emerged in September 2022.
Additionally, attempts to restore full U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) suffered a setback. Despite nearing an agreement by August 2022, the negotiations broke down and were subsequently put on hold, with disagreements over the terms of a restored deal contributing to the stalemate. The United States and European countries, which ramped up military aid to Ukraine to meet the Russian threat, imposed significant new sanctions on Iranian entities involved in the armed drone production, as well as on international suppliers to those programs. The drone sales caused any hope Tehran had to achieve sustained and substantial relief from U.S.-led secondary sanctions to evaporate. In the fall of 2022, President Biden concluded that the talks to restore the JCPOA were “dead,” and U.S. officials told journalists that the nuclear talks were no longer an Iran policy priority.
Unsuccessful Damage Control
As Moscow’s battlefield fortunes declined in the face of Ukrainian counter-offensives in the summer and fall of 2022, Iranian leaders apparently sought to limit the damage to Iran’s reputation and geopolitical fortunes caused by the drone sales. Tehran initially sought to deny that it was supplying the drones, or any military equipment, to Moscow. That assertion quickly faltered in the face of U.S Defense Department and other official statements confirming that Iran had completed shipments of the systems to Russia. Iranian officials later sought to convince the international community that the drones were supplied to Russia well before the Ukraine invasion, thereby seeking to portray Tehran as ignorant of Moscow’s plans to use the drones against Ukrainian civilian targets. Suggesting that it was not supporting their use in Ukraine, in November Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that: “if it is proven to us that Russia has used Iranian drones in the Ukraine war, we won’t be indifferent to it.”
When Iran’s explanations failed to mollify U.S. and European officials, Iranian officials reportedly sought to restructure the drone arrangement to delegate the actual production of thousands of additional Iran-designed drones to newly-build factories on Russian territory, presumably enabling Iranian leaders to argue that they were no longer directly aiding the Russian war effort. Yet, despite the reported restructuring of the technology transfer, press reports cited Western intelligence as finding that Iran sought to ship the drones through new routes across the Caspian Sea, rather than by air, possibly to minimize the chances of detection and thereby mute Western criticism.
Iran coupled its attempts to distance itself from the Russian war effort with diplomacy, apparently seeking to assuage critics in the United States and Europe who argued that Tehran had crossed a Western red line by joining Moscow’s war effort. In March 2023, Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the latest step in a broader outreach to Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, that have advocated for pressure against Tehran. Iran also undertook indirect talks with U.S. officials on informal understandings that would avoid a crisis over Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program, produce a release of detained Americans from Iran, and free up some of Iran’s foreign exchange assets, restricted by U.S. sanctions, for use by Iran.
Still, judging from statements and legislative proposals in the U.S. Congress, European capitals, and other official bodies, it is clear that Iran’s direct association with Russia’s war crimes and brutality in Ukraine has deepened distrust of Tehran in the West. Some experts and officials have begun to openly advocate U.S., Israeli, or European military action against Iran.
While Tehran has attempted to mitigate the fallout by denying its involvement and employing diplomacy, it cannot erase the implications of its decisions. The sanctions imposed by the West in response to Iran’s drone sales, coupled with the breakdown of talks on restoring the JCPOA, have significantly diminished Iran’s hopes for economic relief. The global outcry against Iran’s association with the atrocities committed in Ukraine has further deepened the West’s mistrust of Tehran. Moreover, the recent abortive rebellion by the Wagner Group private militia against Russia’s defense establishment has questioned the wisdom of Iran’s strategic alliance with Moscow. While Iran’s leaders continue to seek ways to restore their country’s tarnished reputation and diplomatic relations, it remains unclear how they can successfully rectify the geopolitical consequences of their decisions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.