How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shaping national security debates in Iran
Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine came at a time when Iran was engaged in tedious negotiations with the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) plus the United States, although ‘indirectly, to revive the nuclear deal that the Donald Trump administration withdrew. from 2018. With the future of the talks in limbo, the Ukraine war has brought debates over the future of Iran’s national security strategy back to the fore.
Since the start of the conflict, Iranian state media and political commentators inside the country have paid close attention to the war and its implications for Iran. Much of the debate largely revolves around political and ideological fault lines within the country, with the discourse shifting in favor of a stronger deterrent, with supporters pointing to the failure of the Budapest Memorandum and security guarantees to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As this article will demonstrate, proponents argue that the key to deterring foreign adversaries lies in expanding Iran’s deterrent force.
Despite their marginalization in Iranian domestic politics, reformist newspapers and pundits emphasize the importance of “unity” and “dialogue” over military hardware. For example, the Etemad newspaper, which remained supportive of the nuclear talks and the JCPOA, wrote in March, that “Russia’s war against the Ukrainian people and government has taught everyone a great lesson; that countries with larger arsenals and more powerful armies are not necessarily the winners of wars. Even if Kyiv falls, Russia has lost the war of public opinion and the conscience of the Ukrainian people. This shows that [former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s] affirmation that the superiority of nations is not determined solely by missile capabilities… was correct.
Similarly, Mohsen Tajzadeh, a reformist politician and acting interior minister under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, told me that the Russian invasion of Ukraine shaped the mindset of the pure and hard claims that if Ukraine had remained a nuclear state, Russia would not have invaded it. Tajzadeh, however, argued that this mindset turned out to be wrong for two reasons. First, while Russia has nuclear weapons, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on it. Thus, having a nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles has no impact on the lifting of sanctions. Therefore, nuclear weapons would not elevate Iran’s negotiating position. Moreover, the resistance of the Ukrainian people demonstrated that a united people has the last word.
“But the most important lesson is the internal dynamics of a country, which determines its foreign policy trajectory, and how it defines its relations vis-à-vis the great powers…we must remain a united nation despite all our differences and pursue an independent foreign policy without relying on any power bloc,” Tajzadeh said in his interview with me.
On the other side of the political spectrum, extremist media and military officials see the conflict as a reason to call for strengthening Iran’s deterrence and increasing its military capabilities. They see the world through the prism of “God only helps those who help themselves” and that only a strong Iran can force great powers like the United States to make concessions.
It should be noted that in the absence of a modern air force capable of matching the ever-expanding air fleet of its neighbors, Iran has resorted to building up a vast arsenal of ballistic missiles and increased capability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This was explained to me by Hossein Dalirian, an Iranian defense and intelligence analyst and former editor of Tasnim News Defense Desk, who said that the conflict in Ukraine demonstrates that Iran’s strategy of investing in mass production of drones was an important and strategic decision. , which still needs to be strengthened. However, alongside these developments, Iran must also work to further develop its fighter jets to boost its air capabilities earlier.
In May, the Chief of the Defense Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, visited a newly revealed UAV base dug deep into the Zagros Mountains, wielding Iran’s newest drones and cruise missiles. Furthermore, on a recent trip to Tajikistan in the same month, General Bagheri inaugurated a drone factory in the capital, Dushanbe, further demonstrating Iran’s UAV capabilities.
Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh, Commander of the Iranian Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces and pilot in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), warned in March that “the conflict in Ukraine teaches us important lessons. They [Ukraine] dismantled their nuclear deterrent and faced this crisis. In our own country, there were people who said that we were dismantling our defensive capabilities and achieving peace… In today’s world, military power and a deterrent cannot be ignored.
General Nasirzadeh was not the only Iranian official to warn of the possibility of compromising the country’s defensive capabilities. Abdolkarim Abedini, the Friday prayer imam of Qazvin, whom Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly appoints, also Noted in his March 2022 sermons that “By disarming [Ukraine]the Americans slowly pushed Ukraine into chaos and now they have left the country and [Ukrainian] nation in flames…American efforts to disarm the Iranian nation and [create] the same fate for them is useless. This nation will not give up its defense.
Likewise, media close to the hardline faction have taken a similar approach in saying that the conflict in Ukraine means that instead of engaging with the West, Iran must strengthen its defenses. In this context, Danial Memar, editor-in-chief of the Hamshahri newspaper, wrote“Why is Ukraine a defenseless country against Russia? Because, instead of considering creating a defensive shield, it relied on Westerners [help]…That is why the Ukrainian Ambassador to Iran now said what happened to Ukraine today should be a lesson for Iran not to give up its nuclear shield.
More importantly, in a rebuttal to Rafsanjani’s aforementioned argument that “tomorrow is a world of dialogue, not missiles,” Memar asserts that the theory is fundamentally flawed. “Why can’t Ukraine get out of the conflict through dialogue? Today and tomorrow belong to missile capabilities, military prowess and the security that comes with it… tomorrow belongs to the most powerful states.
Iran’s political psyche, influenced by its national memory of the Iran-Iraq War and other foreign invasions, is generally suspicious of international law. Nevertheless, changes in the international environment, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, and the subsequent hostile takeover by extremists in Tehran, have demonstrated to the Islamic Republic that engagement with the West is futile. From this point of view, only a strong Iran can be proud and capable of forcing the major powers to recognize its rightful place around the table.
Sina Azodi is a non-resident member of the Atlantic Council and a lecturer in international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @Azodiac83.
Tue 19 Jan 2021
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