Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has affected international politics in all regions. This war has turned into the symbol of a new international era in which great power competition has revived and local wars have become more and more the arena of conflict and competition between the great powers. Although Russia was able to capture significant parts of eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces managed to shift the tides of the war by carrying out massive counteroffensives during the past weeks and took back some regions such as Kharkiv from Moscow. The recent successes of Zelensky and his army are more than anything due to the extensive military support provided to Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO.
Regardless of the fate of the war, it will undoubtedly affect the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it is trying to strengthen its ties with Russia. Iran’s attitude towards this war was clear from the very beginning. A couple of hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in a phone call with Vladimir Putin, called the expansion of NATO a serious threat to the stability and security of the region. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in his meeting with Putin in Tehran, also considered the war to be inevitable for Russia. “If you had not taken the initiative, the other side (West) would have caused a war on its own initiative,” he told Putin.
Scoping Some Scenarios
Although Iranian officials’ remarks and the ever-strengthening ‘Look to the East’ policy after Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which has now become a part of Iran’s grand strategy – show that Iran considers Moscow’s victory the most compatible scenario with its interests, there is a realization that other scenarios will also affect Iran’s interests, and without any hesitation, Tehran will try to get the best possible opportunities from them too.
According to the current developments on the battlefield, one scenario many hope to be realized – the worst scenario for Iran, taking into account Iranian officials’ implicit support of Russia – is to recapture the occupied territories by Ukraine and push Russia back. That would certainly weaken Russia’s prestige in the international arena as a resurgent power. The strategic closeness of Russia and Iran in the contemporary era relies mainly on their opposition to the U.S. and its hegemony, and Russia’s defeat discredits their common idea of U.S. hegemony’s decline. Although Russia’s setback can be considered politically unfavorable for Iran, it still means opening up economic opportunities for Tehran.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has made Moscow the target of extensive international sanctions. Sanctioned Russia is an opportunity for Iran; Tehran can share its more than a decade long experience of circumventing sanctions with Moscow. This is especially true regarding the fact that the negotiation on the revival of the JCPOA has seen considerable debate and it might not reach a conclusion in the short term. The continuation of sanctions on Iran would pave the way for Tehran to freely and willingly engage more in economic cooperation with Russia, without worrying about more sanctions being imposed on it.
In his recent meeting with Putin, President Raisi called the restrictive U.S. measures against Russia and Iran an opportunity that would strengthen their ties. “America thinks that sanctions will interrupt the work of any government and nation that it imposes sanctions on, but this is a miscalculation because in practice they have limited themselves.” On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit 2022 in Samarkand, President Putin also announced that a delegation of 80 Russian large companies will visit Iran.
Even if the scenario of Russia’s setback is realized, the Russia-Ukraine war has provided Iran with the great opportunity for the first time to expand its military cooperation with a great power beyond the purchase of weapons or holding joint military drills. According to the White House, Iran has provided Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, for use in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. While Iranian officials have never officially confirmed or denied it, the Wall Street Journal reported on September 17 that Iranian Shahed-136 drones supplied to Russia inflicted serious damages on Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv region.
Another scenario is the creation of a cycle of Russian offensives and Ukrainian counter-offensives. In this case, the conflict would turn into a long-term war of attrition, and the only way to end the war would be through successful mediation efforts by each side’s partners or allies. The realization of such a scenario, in addition to extending the opportunity to expand commercial cooperation between the two sanctioned countries, would be a great political opportunity for the current administration in Tehran. In early September, France asked for Iran’s mediation in the Russia-Ukraine war. According to Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, foreign minister of Iran, “Iran supports any diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine conflict given its excellent ties with Russia. It is ready to mediate and help with the settlement of the crisis.”
Recent Russian military collapses have convinced many Western policymakers and journalists that Ukraine could win a strategic victory and this would ultimately weaken Russia more than ever. Surrendering would impose massive political costs on Putin at home. Therefore, it is natural for him to use all the different options on the table in order to avoid losing the war. The Kremlin’s hopes of reducing European public support for the war and reducing NATO’s military support for Ukraine, mass mobilization, and ultimately the use of tactical nuclear weapons are all potential options that could prevent Russia from losing this strategic war.