'NATO provocations': Why Iran is standing by Russia in Ukraine

'NATO provocations': Why Iran stands by Russia in Ukraine
7 min read
15 March, 2022
Analysis: While the world condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran remains one of the few countries to stand by Moscow. Tehran’s position is based on solidarity against NATO and wider geopolitical calculations.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been called Europe's worst security crisis since 1945. The invasion was met with strong reactions and condemnations from countries across the continent and the world, as was reflected in the Security Council and the UN General Assembly when the majority of the international community condemned Russia’s actions.

There are only a few countries that support the Russian invasion. Iran is one of them. Iran's position on the invasion is explained by political pragmatism and narrative.

Iran has tacitly supported the Russian invasion, but did not endorse it during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, nor does it consider the occupation of Ukraine in accordance with the principles of international law and the territorial integrity of the countries. Rather, Iran simply sees the invasion as a means to advance its own interests.

"In a phone call with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the day of the attack, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi implicitly supported his actions, citing 'NATO's eastward expansion as a serious threat to the stability and security of independent states'"

An ideology of anti-Westernism 

Iran's position on the Russian invasion can be understood within the context of its wider geopolitical concerns. In a phone call with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the day of the attack, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi implicitly supported his actions, citing “NATO's eastward expansion as a serious threat to the stability and security of independent states.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called the Ukraine crisis the result of "NATO provocative actions" and, at the same time, called for a ceasefire and stressed the need for a political and democratic solution. Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei has requested the end of the war, but asserted that it is rooted in the policies  of the United States and Western powers, saying that Ukraine is a "victim of those policies."

There are two main factors in confirming Russia's invasion of Ukraine for Iran. The first is the "anti-Western" discourse that has been adopted since the 1979 revolution. With a regular set of revisionist ideologies, it considers any dominant Western order as an enemy, and in this view, the narratives of capitalism and liberalism are seen as domination and the spread of imperialism.

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Therefore, in this narrative, Russian military operations are not considered as aggression or expansionist action but a reaction to Western expansionism that has challenged Iran and Russia as Western rivals for decades. In this regard, Tehran sees Russia's decades-long anti-Western policies as its refuge and supporter, bringing it closer to its revolutionary goals.

Opposition to "NATO expansion to the east" is the second element. Iran sees NATO as a tool of the West not only for military expansion but also for cultural, economic, and social domination of the world, especially in Eastern societies. The term "cultural NATO", coined by Khamenei in November 2006, has received a great deal of attention from Iranian think tanks and the media. It reflects the fear of NATO expanding eastward and extending it to other socio-cultural contexts.

That is why Iran’s willingness to extend solidarity to Russia hasn’t entailed recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic. Iran respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and agrees only with Moscow's right to push back on the expansion of NATO and respond to security threats near Russia's borders.

For this reason, Iran did not confirm the events in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Iran is also concerned that supporting a full-scale invasion could result in problems within its own borders with separatist movements involving the Kurdish, Baloch, and Ahvaz Arab minorities.

Strategic ties

Apart from the narratives and ideologies of the revolution, the Ukraine crisis will have profound political and geopolitical implications for Iran that require a proper response from Tehran. Given that in recent decades, and especially in the presidency of the hardline President Raisi, the foreign policy of "looking east" has been chosen in which Russia has a key role, so too is Iran's response inherently valuable.

As the Ukraine crisis pushes up gas prices, Germany's suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and concerns about gas shortages in Europe have prompted Westerners to consider alternative sources of gas supply. Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, and Iran are each good candidates to replace European reliance on Russian gas.

Iran has the second-largest gas reserves after Russia, and a nuclear deal could increase Iran's chances of exporting gas. However, decades of US sanctions have delayed the development of the gas industry infrastructure.

“Its major gas competitor in the region, Qatar, with which Iran shares the world's largest developed natural gas field, is steadily expanding its exports and even reaching the limits of its capacities,” Stefan Lukas, director of studies at the Berlin Senate Administration and guest lecturer at the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Hamburg, told The New Arab.

"Concerns about gas shortages in Europe have prompted Westerners to consider alternative sources of gas supply. Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, and Iran are each good candidates to replace European reliance on Russian gas"

Sanctions are the most important factor for Iran in the use and export of gas resources. Western companies are reluctant to participate in and invest in Iranian industries for fear of US sanctions, and transfers of money impossible. “The removal of the U.S. trade embargo on Iran should also make it more attractive for Western companies such as Total or BP to cooperate with Iranian partners,” Lukas said.

“However, all of this will only help if Iran is also able to maintain its often still outdated pipeline and distribution network in the long term. With new gas terminals in Jask in Hormozgan Province, for example, Tehran has created new transit capacities, but other parts of the network are already significantly outdated,” he added.

Another impact of the Ukraine crisis is the impact it is having on the nuclear talks between Iran and Western powers.

“The Ukraine crisis will cause Iran to harden its position in the nuclear talks. It is a buzzword these days that Ukraine met its fate due to its decision to give up nuclear arsenals,” Asif Shuja, an Iran Expert and Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore told The New Arab.

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“Under this atmosphere, Iran may insist on retaining its right to enrich uranium at a much higher level than the earlier limit of 3.76 percent allowed by the JCPOA.”

The Ukraine crisis may put the JCPOA in Russia's hands as a trump card. On March 6, Russia asked the US to provide a written guarantee that sanctions against it would not affect any future Tehran-Moscow cooperation. Some saw the official announcement as a kind of hostage-taking of JCPOA by Russia, with Iran's dependence on it giving Moscow significant influence on the nuclear talks.

“It is in the West's interest to pull Iran out of Russia's sphere of influence as quickly as possible and to show Tehran alternatives. It’s to Iran's advantage,” said Lukas. “While Russia, as a former ally of Iran, now wants to sabotage the negotiations, Tehran continues to have a vested interest in getting rid of the West's sanctions. Iranian public opinion has also come to realise that the government in Tehran is too much subject to the influence of Beijing and Moscow,” he added.

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, it will affect Iran's regional policies, but its full effect on Iran may become more apparent only after the end of the war. The crisis can be a mixture of hope and concern for Iran: hope for a new non-Western order, and fear of punishing Iran if Russia fails to get out of Ukraine. Only time will tell.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami