A cover photo from an Iranian daily calls events in Ukraine a “tragicomedy” in reference to Volodymyr Zelensky’s pre-presidential career as an actor/comic. Source: Shahrvand Daily
As the Ukraine crisis escalates, it would be naive to claim that the Russian military operation in a former Soviet Republic unfolded without any provocation. Even prominent US foreign policy analysts concede events were driven in great part by Kiev’s dangerous drift toward the western military bloc.
But this provocation came less from Kiev than from the US and its NATO allies, which, since 2014, have egged on Ukraine’s confrontational stances toward its Russian neighbor. Today, the world has been split in two: those who support Russia’s military intervention and those who oppose it on a myriad of grounds.
Iran’s position on what looks like a precursor to a new Cold War — wherein western powers use Ukraine as a pawn to challenge Russia’s regional dominance — is defined by political pragmatism and strategic interests.
The developments over the past few months on the Ukrainian border show how the US-led military alliance set the stage for Russia’s military action in its neighborhood, barely six months after NATO’s botched exit from Afghanistan, where millions are now teetering on the brink of death and starvation.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a 24 February statement, made it abundantly clear when he blamed the simmering crisis in Ukraine on “NATO’s provocative acts” while asserting that war was “not a solution.”
“We do not see resorting to war as a solution,” Iran’s top diplomat asserted. “Establishing a ceasefire and focusing on a political and democratic solution is a necessity.”
The remarks outlined Tehran’s stance on the recent turn of events in Ukraine — NATO must stop fanning the flames of war, and Russia and Ukraine must show restraint and not fall into the vicious trap of descending into further violence and potentially widening the conflict.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, in a separate statement, also referred to the US-led NATO’s “provocations,” while noting that the Eurasia region was on the verge of “entering a pervasive crisis.”
He said Iran calls on the warring parties to “end hostilities” through dialogue, and reiterated the “need to observe international and humanitarian law in military conflicts.”
Iranian government spokesperson, Ali Bahadori Jahromi, also issued a statement in late February, reacting to the developments in Ukraine, and echoed the same concerns of a “growing and provocative trend of NATO’s eastward expansion.”
Notably, Iran’s relations with the western military alliance — which has been overtly complicit in the US “economic terrorism” against the Islamic Republic — have been marked by hostility and bitterness for years.
On Tuesday, in agreement with Moscow’s position, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei blamed the conflict on US policies, while also calling for an end to the war. “The root cause of the Ukraine crisis is the US and the west’s policies,” he said during a televised speech.
“In my opinion, today Ukraine is also the victim of such policy. Today, the Ukraine situation is related to this US policy. The US has dragged Ukraine to this point,” he added.
Iran and Russia’s strategic alignment
At the same time, Tehran’s ties with Moscow have scaled new heights in recent years, partly due to the west’s hard-nosed policies toward the two countries, and partly due to rapidly changing geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics.
The political transition in Tehran last year – from reformists to conservatives – did not affect these changing equations. In fact, the new Iranian administration, led by former judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, has made regional eastern powers like Russia and China the focus of his foreign policy.
Raisi was one of the first world leaders on Thursday to contact Russian President Vladimir Putin, several hours after the military operation was announced. In their brief conversation, Iran’s president termed NATO’s eastward expansion “a serious threat to the security of independent countries.”
He also expressed hope that the unfolding events would “benefit countries in the region,” suggesting that Iran was not in principle opposed to Russia’s bid to put an end to foreign meddling in Ukraine — where western footprints have alarmingly increased since the February 2014 western-backed unconstitutional takeover — but it was also not in favor of war and bloodshed.
For his part, Putin told his Iranian counterpart that the current situation was “a legitimate response to decades of violations of security treaties and Western efforts to undermine Russia’s security.”
What has brought Iran and Russia closer in recent years are growing hostilities between the two countries and the west. Moscow has presented itself as an all-weather-ally for Iran, passionately advocating Iran’s causes in international forums, in particular the 2015 nuclear deal. The two countries have also found themselves on the same side, as in Syria, resisting forces backed by hostile states.
This friendship was on full display during Raisi’s maiden visit to Moscow last month. In a power-packed speech to Russia’s State Duma, he read the obituary of America’s global hegemony, and indicted NATO for “threatening the interests of independent countries.” The standing ovation from Russian lawmakers demonstrated that the two nations were on the same page.
During the visit, the Iranians and Russians agreed to finalize their long-term strategic agreement, increase their bilateral trade to $10 billion, and work together on developing new nuclear power plants in Iran. They also vowed to cooperate in regional matters, including Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.
Iran’s independent foreign policy
That, however, doesn’t imply Iran is ready to outsource its foreign policy to Moscow. Iran’s cooperation with Russia is inherently and primarily tied to its strategic interests. In his speech to the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) summit in Doha recently, President Raisi declared his country’s readiness to supply natural gas to the world, including Europe, as Iran has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
He hastened to add that sanctions imposed by “hegemonic powers” on “free nations” have been rendered ineffective, while calling for closer cooperation among gas exporting countries to nullify the impact of sanctions.
Raisi’s remarks arguably displayed an example of statesmanship and a fiercely independent foreign policy — trying to calm tensions in the global energy market while sending a clear and powerful message to arch-foes.
His oil minister, Javad Ojhi, later repeated the call, saying Iran has the “necessary capacity” to offer gas to regional countries, even Europe.
An opportunity in Vienna?
With Iran offering to be a possible substitute for Russia — at least in the short-term — to prevent the disruption in global energy markets, this gives it some hefty leverage in nuclear talks in Vienna, as they enter the final stretch.
There is already speculation about the possibility of the Ukraine crisis impacting Vienna talks. The complicit role of US-led NATO in pitting Ukraine and Russia against each other, and its failure to rein in Moscow, shows the power center moving from west to east.
Western sanctions against Moscow, also make Russia more reluctant to cooperate with the Europeans and the US over reviving the nuclear deal. This in turn also gives Iran an added advantage in Vienna.
The crisis in Ukraine will only further embolden Tehran in its nuclear ambitions and reinforce decades of distrust and skepticism of pledges by the US. “Western powers’ support of puppet regimes and governments is a mirage, it is not real,” Khamenei insisted during this week’s address.
As Amir-Abdollahian said last Saturday, Iran has made its red lines clear to western parties, and is ready to conclude a “good deal,” provided the other parties show “real (political) will.”
Sources in Vienna told The Cradle on Thursday that in the past few days, the US has been forced to deliver those goods, with only minor — but important — details left to be ironed out.
So the ball is in the west’s court: to make a deal in Vienna and peace in Kiev.