Iran-Russia Relations in the Aftermath of the Ukraine Crisis: Business as Usual

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow in January to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, he hoped to open a new chapter in Iran-Russia relations. After signing an agreement on “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with China and then attaining full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Raisi and his conservative foreign policy team also sought to enhance relations with Moscow to the level of a strategic partnership. As such, no one would expect that just over a month later, Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine might put its relationship with Iran to the test.

Tehran, often known as Moscow’s “ally,” did not join the wave of international condemnation of the invasion, but it did not support the Russian move either. At the same time, Iranian public opinion, historically obsessed with Russia’s “imperialist and expansionist ambitions,” showed overwhelming sympathy for Ukraine. The risks of Russia’s military adventure in Ukraine for Iran’s interests became more apparent when Russia raised new demands in the nuclear deal talks, probably in a bid to gain concessions from the West. For now, the Islamic Republic seems to have succeeded in persuading Russia to resume cooperation in Vienna after virtually pushing the talks to the verge of collapse. In any case, recent developments showed that, regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine war or the Vienna talks, Tehran is unwilling to reconsider its close ties with Moscow. Although those developments are likely to further erode the social and public opinion bedrock of Iran-Russia relations, a fundamental change in the bilateral relationship seems unlikely, at least not any time soon.

Understanding Iran’s Position toward the Ukraine Crisis

The Islamic Republic has enough reasons not to condemn Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Over the past decade, Tehran-Moscow relations have expanded on both bilateral and multilateral levels. According to official reports, the trade volume between Iran and Russia in 2021 set a “historical record” and reached about $ 4 billion, an 89.4% increase compared to the previous year. The Iranian side has stated that it intends to increase the figure to $ 20 billion. In this vein, in 2019, Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) implemented an interim agreement to establish a free trade zone. The agreement was seen as a step toward Iran’s full membership in the union. Since the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), Tehran has shown greater interest in developing relations with Russia and China in the context of its so-called “Look to the East” policy. At the regional level, close cooperation between Iran and Russia in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria has contributed to closer ties between the two – despite their growing competition over influence in the Arab country. All these factors, especially Tehran’s growing reliance on Moscow and Beijing for international support, prevented Iran from condemning the Russian invasion. Instead, Iranian leaders saw an opportunity to back some of Russia’s claims and blame the West, specifically the United States and NATO, for the Ukraine Crisis. In doing so, they could kill two birds with one stone: keep their Russian friends satisfied and, at the same time, remind the “pro-Western” factions inside Iran that the West is unreliable, as it abandons its friends –Ukraine – when they are in dire need of help.  

That said, Iran also has good reasons not to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The mixed ethnic composition of Iran’s border provinces to the west and east has always raised concerns that hostile states may manipulate ethnic and sectarian gaps to undermine Iran’s territorial integrity. When the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1979, one of his main justifications was to “liberate” the Arab lands in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Therefore, supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states is a fundamental principle of Iran’s foreign policy. These considerations led Iran to abstain from voting on a UN General Assembly resolution deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine and refraining from supporting Russia.