Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution saw the rejection of both the U.S. as well as the Soviet Union. They were then locked in the Cold War. This phrase hangs above the doors to Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown just how far Tehran has tilted towards Moscow in recent years, as the collapse of its nuclear agreement with world powers stoked decades old, hard-line animosity at America. Paramilitary Revolutionary Guard members of Iran train on Russian aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline president, visited Russian President Vladimir Putin during one of his first overseas trips.
There are deeper fault lines in Iran’s domestic politics as well. There is widespread sympathy among ordinary Iranians for Ukraine, which staged a prodemocracy revolution similar to the Green Revolution that shaken Iran over a decade ago, but was forced to be defeated.
Iran’s historical animosity with Russia has led to a greater feeling among others that supporting Moscow is a betrayal of the Islamic Republic’s frequently-stated message that it opposes the major powers.
“We must help the oppressed peoples of Ukraine just as we support Palestinians and Yemenis because they are being targeted by power,” Zohreh Ahmadi (a mother of two) said. She lives in Tehran’s Sarcheshmeh neighbourhood. “A bullying power is killing Ukrainian children and women.”
Iran’s state-controlled television station, Press TV, describes itself as “the voiceless” and uses English-language services. This is very similar to Russian talking points. To describe the early days of war, it used Moscow’s euphemistic “special operation” term. The headlines on the Press TV website that refer to the killing of civilians in Bucha, Russia have falsely described it as a fake attack or provocation.
The aftermath of the Guard shooting down a Ukrainian airliner in 2020, which resulted in the deaths of 176 people, is likely to be a part of Iran’s anger towards Ukraine. Tehran denied that the plane was downed for many days before claiming that troops made a mistake when Iran fired missiles at U.S. forces fighting in Iraq to retaliate for the death of a top general.
As time passed, the criticism levelled by Ukraine towards Iran became more direct. This is something Kazem Sedighi (Taran’s Friday prayer leader), mentioned in a March sermon, after Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Sedighi stated that Ukraine “misbehaved against us in the case of an airplane and misused it to support the U.S.”
He also participated in “whataboutism”, a common practice in Russian and Iranian state media. This separate topic was used to accuse hypocrisy, while deflecting the main issue.
Sedighi stated that wars in Syria and Yemen claim innocent lives, but that there is a lot of propaganda about Ukraine, which is racism.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Al Khamenei has the final say in all matters of state and said that his nation opposes “war and destruction” and blamed America for the conflict. He also shared a long-held suspicion with Putin that the U.S. fuels what he called the “color coups”, which backs democracy.
Khamenei considers it the Green Movement protests which followed Iran’s 2009 disputed presidential election and directly challenged his theocracy. To put down the protests, Iran’s security forces used violence and mass arrests. Unrest over economic issues has returned in recent years.
Putin believes that Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan protest movement later in its history are what dislodged Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-leaning politician.
Others from Iran’s Shiite Theocracy raised concerns about Tehran’s stance on war.
Mohsen Aminzadeh was a former deputy foreign Minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and was later detained after the disputed 2009 elections. In a recent interview, he called Iran’s current situation “very bad”.
Aminzadeh, a journalist for Ayandeh Negar, recently stated that it was “possibly the worst, most passive stance Iran’s diplomacy has taken since 1979”.
Recenty, 17 Iranians were open to speaking to an Associated Press journalist. Others declined. Twelve of them supported Ukraine, three supported Iran’s official position, and two supported Russia.
Sajjad, 26, a 26-year old computer programmer, said that he supports Ukraine. He spoke under the condition that he only be identified by his first name to avoid reprisals. “Russians are murdering innocent people for no reason. We should not be silent.
Mehrdad, a former Iranian captain, described Russia’s reasons for war as “ridiculous” and compared them to the ones used by Saddam Hussein in his eight-year-long war against Iran. Saddam cited support for Iran’s Arab minority in the oil-rich southwest as an excuse for his invasion.
Mehrdad, 75, said that “It is stealing Saddam’s reasons for attacking Iran; potential threats by revolutionary Iran or supporting an ethnic group.” “This excuse allows any country to attack other countries, even Russia.”
Ali Nemati, a 64 year-old retired teacher, said that Putin was “very brave” in challenging NATO. This is also a new concern for Iran’s hardline government under Raisi. But Iran has been quietly living next to Turkey since 1952, when it joined NATO.
Nemati stated that Iran should support Russia because it is the only one fighting against imperialism.
Russia’s imperial history included multiple wars against Persia. The latter eventually ceded territory and was defeated. Russia invaded Iran in World War II alongside Britain to secure oil and trade routes during their war against Germany. Russia refused to leave after the war and sparked the first crisis global for the newly created United Nations.
This memory hasn’t lost its power. Russia’s brief use by Iran of an airbase during the war in Syria in which both supported embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also sparked widespread anger.
Iran might now feel more like a chip in a larger game than a player at the geopolitical tables. The sudden Russian demand for sanctions-relief promises shattered negotiations in Vienna regarding Iran’s broken nuclear deal. While Russia’s request seems to have waned, it now appears that the Guard sanctions by the United States are still the final hurdle.
The Russian strategy has been noticed by the Iranians.
In a March editorial, Jomhouri Eslami, a conservative newspaper, stated that Putin’s strategic error in sending troops to Ukraine meant that Russia cannot take the deal as hostage.
Abbas Najafi, a taxi driver, suggested Iran avoid it altogether.
It is not our war. He said that it was not their problem. “We are now under U.S. sanctions and we shouldn’t look for more headaches.”