The possible effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on Iran

Iran considers the NATO and US approach in Eastern Europe as an incentive to start a war, implicitly legitimizing Russia's attack on Ukraine.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on February 21 that he had approved the decision to recognize the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk republics in eastern Ukraine. Subsequently, he deployed Russian troops to these respective regions, based on the joint defense agreements he made with these entities. On the morning of February 24, after weeks of speculation, Russian forces began an invasion of Ukraine as per Putin’s orders. Although there are internal and external reasons for the invasion, Iran blames the US and Europe for the current crisis. While maintaining its official neutral position in the war between Ukraine and Russia, Iran, on the one hand, regards the approach of NATO and the US in Eastern Europe as an incentive to start a war and implicitly legitimizes Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The statements of many state officials in Iran and the news of state media organs are reported based on this rhetoric.

After the start of the war in Ukraine, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said in a statement on his Twitter account, “The roots of the crisis in Ukraine stem from NATO provocations. We do not see resorting to war as a solution. A ceasefire and focusing on a political and democratic solution are  a must.” Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said, adding that “The Islamic Republic of Iran calls on the parties to cease attacks and a ceasefire for urgent talks to find a political solution to the crisis and reiterates the need to respect international law and human rights in military conflicts.”

Like many other countries, the Russia-Ukraine war has the potential to directly affect Iran. These effects can be grouped under several headings.

Effects on the 2015 nuclear deal negotiations

In particular, the Russian-Ukraine war primarily affected the nuclear negotiations, which are currently the most important foreign policy issue for Iran, in a negative manner. While contradictory statements were heard from the representatives of Russia and the US who were present at the Vienna nuclear negotiations, it is possible to say that the course of the current negotiations has changed and that Iran has become the victim of the US-Russia conflict due to the Ukraine crisis. While the position of Russia, which previously wanted to revive the nuclear agreement, has changed, the priorities of the US- and Europe, which had to deal with the Ukraine crisis, have changed. Considering recent developments, it is a fact that the nuclear issue is not a priority for Western countries and Russia as much as it is for Iran.

Iran will make concessions to keep Tehran away from Moscow or the Beijing-Moscow axis due to the US’s confrontation with Russia in the Ukraine crisis. It hoped that it would raise energy resources and create a golden opportunity in the Vienna talks. However, the war against Ukraine destroyed Iran’s opportunity to use the West-Russia conflict to its advantage.

It is clear that Moscow has rapidly changed its calculations regarding Iran with the Ukraine crisis and is currently not willing to allow Western countries to resolve the nuclear issues with Iran. It is natural for Moscow to interrupt the process of reaching an agreement in Vienna. When the Ukraine crisis is over and all parties, especially Washington and Moscow, start negotiations again, the Vienna talks will be more complicated than before. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that the Vienna talks will end without all parties, which no longer means Iran, reaching an agreement with Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. This time, an agreement between Russia and China, the US and Europe is also necessary. Negotiations in Vienna will therefore be much more difficult, and Iran, in particular, is more likely to be bargained over and even be sacrificed.

Impact on Iran-Russia relations

Considering that European countries will try to diversify their energy portfolios after the Russia-Ukraine War, there are now three alternatives to replace the losses in the energy market due to the sanctions against Russia. First, the energy resources of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are facing many problems in reaching the European market due to their geographical distance and Russia’s military presence in Syria, are one of these alternatives. Second, Central Asia and the Caucasus are energy resources that can enter Europe through Turkey via pipeline. However, infrastructure problems in this region make it difficult to be an alternative to Russian energy resources, and Russia’s influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia prevents the project from continuing. Lastly, Iran’s gas and oil resources is the third model that could contribute to some degree of diversification in Europe’s energy portfolio, requiring Iran’s regional interaction with Turkey and Syria (and Russia in Syria). During such a time, ways to transport Iranian gas to Europe can be sought. The lifting of sanctions by the US against Iran will, of course, harm the strategic relations between Iran and Russia. In addition, while Russia has been a strategic ally of Iran on military and security issues for the past decade, economic competition may negatively affect the strategic alliance. Elsewhere, it should also be stated that Europe’s decision to not choose Iran for gas supply will create significant opportunities for Iran’s two important rivals, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Iran is also afraid of this possibility.

According to many Iranian experts,  the possibility of competition as aforementioned,  coupled with Russia’s sanctions will create more economic opportunities for Iran. Until now, Russian banks were worried about sanctions and penalties in dealing with Iran, but now the worry about sanctions will be gone. From now on, they will probably prefer to work with Iran. Therefore, the more sanctioned countries, and more importantly, the larger the sanctioned countries, the more opportunities there will be for this sanctioned bloc of states. In such a process, Russia will work more with Iran than with Venezuela.

Effect on Iran’s relations in the Caucasus

Iran and Russia share a common interest in preventing NATO enlargement. Therefore, NATO’s eastward expansion, if it crosses the Ukrainian border, will eventually reach the Caucasus, and in particular, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Georgia is now a serious candidate to join NATO after Ukraine. Azerbaijan can join NATO after Georgia, and eventually, Armenia will join NATO if it thinks Russia is weak. Therefore, in this case, Iran will face several NATO neighbors other than Turkey. One of them is Azerbaijan, which has many problems. Contrary to its official discourse, Iran’s relations with Baku are not good, and Iran is seriously concerned about the strengthening of Azerbaijan. Therefore, NATO’s enlargement and the membership of its northern neighbors in the bloc are not in Iran’s interests. Stopping this process in Ukraine by Russia is welcomed by Iran. However, Russia’s failure in the Ukraine war could accelerate the feared process.

The impact on Iran’s presence in Syria

There is no doubt that the Ukraine war and the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West, especially the United States, will make it difficult for Israel to maintain good relations with Russia. Therefore, it will be difficult for Russia to continue its airstrikes against Iran’s military presence in southern Syria with the permission of Russia. For example, Israel condemned Russia on the Ukraine issue, and Moscow immediately responded by declaring that it would not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. These are possible opportunities for Iran in the region. The move away from Russia by two important actors in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Israel, which have extensive relations with Washington, may provide Iran with more room for maneuver in Syria. However, a Turkey that has lost the Ukraine war and has resolved its problems with the United States against a weakened Russia may further increase its influence in Syria, contrary to Iran’s expectations.

In conclusion, this crisis may affect two specific issues for Iran: the nuclear negotiations and sanctions against Iran, and Iran’s foreign policy goals and plans on a larger scale and in the long term. However, the extent of these effects will vary with the outcome of the war in Ukraine, where, in the case of Russia’s failure, this seems to be more costly for Iran.

Ismail Sari

İsmail Sarı graduated from the Department of History at Istanbul University in 2001 and received his master's degree in History and International Relations from the same university in 2003-2005. Receiving the best doctoral dissertation award in 2016, Sari served as a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University between 2018 and 2019 and as a visiting professor at the Missouri State University during his studies in the United States. Sarı's research focus concerns Iranian foreign policy, the contemporary Shiite secularization process, the intellectual roots of the regime and opposition in Iran, and contemporary Iranian and US politics. Sari is currently working as a lecturer at Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University.

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