Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a watershed event in contemporary international politics to the extent that it has divided all international developments into prior and post the Ukrainian war. From the onset of the war itself, many analysts have been debating that the war would sooner or later bring about changes in the current liberal international order. The long-lasting history of animosity between the U.S. and Iran, and Washington’s relentless effort to ostracize Tehran has led Iranian policymakers to view the war as a window of opportunity to a world where Iran would be recognized as a regional power and its geopolitical merits would be valued by U.S. rivals, namely China and Russia.
With Russia, Against U.S. Hegemony
Iranian policymakers interpret Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a sign of Moscow’s action-oriented foreign policy and its resistance against U.S. hegemony and expansion of NATO. In his Iranian New Year’s speech, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The war in Ukraine was launched by the U.S. to expand NATO to the east, and now, while the people of Ukraine are trapped and suffering from different problems, the U.S. and its arms industry is profiting the most from the war, and because of this, it is hindering the necessary initiatives to end the war.” As such, the Ukrainian war has provided considerable political common ground – of standing up against U.S. hegemony – between Moscow and Tehran.
After Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran has prioritized strengthening bilateral relations with non-western powers in its foreign policy agenda. Accordingly, Iran signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with China in March 2021, and also seeks to renew and expand the scope of its 20-year agreement with Russia, which was signed during Khatami’s presidency. The war in Ukraine serves as an incentive that motivates Russia to strengthen its strategic ties with Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdolhiyan met with his Russian counterpart on his last visit to Moscow and announced that the review of the long-term comprehensive cooperation agreement between Russia and Iran has been finalized and the Iranian side would complete editing in less than a month. Strategic cooperation between Iran and Russia would guarantee Russia’s diplomatic and political support of Iran in cases like the nuclear deal or Iran’s defined interests in Syria. In other words, Iran is using the current situation as a balancing factor to gain leverage in its bilateral relations with Moscow.
In addition, the Ukrainian war has made Russia revise its priorities in the domain of economic connections and supply corridors. Moscow views the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) – a 7,200-km network of railroads, highways, and maritime routes that connects Russia and India through Iran – as an escape route to circumvent sanctions. In his State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin stated Russia would particularly focus on the INSTC. Regardless of the extensive financial benefits, the launch of the INSTC can significantly improve Iran’s position in the global transit network and reduce Iran’s vulnerability to sanctions. This can be interpreted as part of a set of policies Iran is pursuing to neutralize U.S. unilateral sanctions.
To China, For An Alternative Order
The 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between China and Iran was the pinnacle of Iran’s Look to the East Policy, which is now the main theme in its foreign policy – it could be said that ‘Looking Eastward’ is Iran’s current grand strategy. Iranian policymakers believe that the Ukrainian war – as a symbol of challenging U.S. hegemony and NATO – paves the way for China to play a more active role in the international arena. Many feel that Xi Jinping represents a modern China that wants to alter the international order, introduce new norms, and play a politically active role rather than merely adjusting itself to the status quo. Accordingly, China has recently released a 12-point peace plan proposing a framework for a political settlement between Russia and Ukraine. In addition, the war has brought Russia and China – two non-Western powers Iran has strategic bilateral relations with – closer to each other.
Although talking about the axis of Iran, Russia, and China seems exaggerated at this point, the war in Ukraine has definitely brought the three countries a step closer to developing trilateral cooperation. In March 2023, the three countries held a joint military exercise in the waters of the Sea of Oman. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, during his meeting with lawmakers, called the rapprochement of Iran, China, and Russia a cause of concern for America: “I wouldn’t call it a true full alliance in the real meaning of that word, but we are seeing them moving closer together, and that’s troublesome.”
In the fifth decade of its political system, and after years of negotiations over the nuclear program, Iran has come to the conclusion that its interests and the regional defined role will not be recognized in the current international order. The signs of change in the liberal international order have given Iran a fresh occasion to think and hope that it would be able to pursue its interests in the alternative order and gain significant opportunities in the transition phase. In the eyes of Iranian politicians, the war in Ukraine is one of the signs of transition and Russia and China are the powers of the alternative order.