Amid widespread international concern that a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could be imminent, officials of the Islamic Republic have so far remained silent on the crisis at Ukraine’s border. The only public acknowledgment of the tension so far came in the form of a telephone call by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, which was reported in state-aligned media.
The Iranian minister was quoted as having said that "on learning of Moscow's position, [the Iranian government] understands the views and concerns about foreign intervention. Russia has expressed hope that the current situation will be resolved peacefully." The remarks were placating in the extreme and in effect told readers nothing about Tehran’s position, save for the fact that it does not wish to upset the Kremlin. They reflected the wider state of Iranian foreign policy, in which Tehran is afraid to take a stand that would upset its few (perceived) allies.
Ideology vs Pragmatic Need
The Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border, now comprising more than 100,000 troops, comes in response to Ukraine’s intention to seek eventual membership of NATO. Ukraine used to be a republic of the Soviet Union and is now an independent, democratic state. By threatening its western neighbor with the full force of its military might, Putin’s Russia is trying to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.
The Islamic Republic has declared an unprecedented – if in reality lopsided – allegiance to Moscow under ageing autocrat President Vladimir Putin. The power imbalance has now put officials in Tehran in a difficult position, whereby despite an avowed ideological opposition to “imperialism” in all its forms, they can neither criticize Russian military aggression nor have the courage to come out in support of a harassed, smaller nation. Officials know that if they do, they may lose even the nominal, dismissive reception given to President Ebrahim Raisi last month, and the support of a potential Russian veto on the UN Security Council.
The Islamic Republic shares in Russia's concern about NATO's expansion to the East. But the deployment of Russian troops and military equipment to the Ukrainian border is a "threat of force" prohibited under the UN Charter. Despite funding proxy wars in the region, officials in the Islamic Republic have always publicly and proudly supported that UN proscription, to the point that they decried Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, even though the latter had backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. More recently, the Islamic Republic loudly and consistently rebuked the United States for military strikes on targets in the region. To back Russian military incursions into Ukraine now would further damage its international credibility.
If Russia invades Ukraine, however, the authorities in Iran will be forced to clarify their position. But given Tehran’s current dependence on Russian support, attempts will probably be made to avoid direct criticism of any further aggressive actions taken by Moscow. So far, unlike most responsible governments, Tehran has not even asked the 5,000 Iranian citizens currently based in Ukraine to evacuate as a precaution.
A recent exchange involving Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh highlighted the awkward position the Islamic Republic now finds itself in. Back in February 1929 the Russian then-representative in Iran, Alexander Griboyedov, was assassinated in Tehran after he signed the deeply unpopular Treaty of Turkmenchay, which saw Iran lose its last remaining Caucassian territories. On the anniversary on February 11, 2022, current Russian ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan made a very public display of paying respects to Griboyedov in the gardens of the Russian embassy, posting a series of pictures online. When asked about this, Khatibzadeh said: “Every prominent ambassador and diplomat knows that they should not take any action that would hurt public opinion of the host country. This is not in line with our excellent relationship and is being pursued through its proper channels."
Making Flight 752 Go Away?
Finally, the ongoing matter of justice and reparations for the Flight 752 disaster. In January 2020 the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian Airlines passenger plane over Tehran, killing all 176 people onboard. From the very first week after the tragedy Kiev assumed a leading role in both propelling the crash investigation forward and supporting bereaved families, and was strident in its criticism of how Iranian officials handled the aftermath.
If arbitration fails, there is a chance Ukraine could become a state party to a complaint lodged at the International Court of Justice. In the corridors of power in Tehran, some consideration is being given to the idea that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could delay the pursuit of a criminal case, thus pulling the regime out of one of its biggest international headaches in recent years – even if only temporarily.