The late former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani once said that Westerners could fairly compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, it seems Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to be held up for comparison with Vladimir Putin, singing the praises of the both the Russian autocrat and his invasion of Ukraine. In so doing, he makes the Islamic Republic one of very few states – alongside the also dictatorial regimes in Beijing and Pyongyang – to back the military assault on a smaller, sovereign nation.
On the cover of its latest issue, the newspaper Vatan-e Emrouz carries a picture of Rafsanjani together with the heading: “If only you were here and could see it”. It refers, bitterly, to another statement Rafsanjani once made: “Tomorrow’s world is one of discourse, not of missiles.”
The apparent policy of support for Russia now is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. As an integral part of its ideology, the regime is supposed to support “resistance” movements, not aggressors. In line with this, Tehran condemned the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Of course, many Afghans are Muslims and, at time, the Islamic Republic was busy suppressing the communist Tudeh Party. But the new Iranian government then continued to support Afghan resistance forces for the next decade, even after becoming entangled in a protracted, costly and destructive war with Iraq. Tall tales and propaganda were circulated widely – such as the yarn about Revolutionary Guards Minister Mohsen Rafighdoost allegedly slapping the Soviet ambassador in the face.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s critical statements about the Soviet Union gained widespread currency at the time. But later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he and others grew scared that the Islamic Republic might meet the same fate. As such, after the Ahmadinejad presidency came to an end, Khamenei’s new “Look East” policy saw the Islamic Republic draw closer to Russia and China – so much so that critics now say Iran has lost itself in the process.
In this effort, members of the Raisi administration have lost any pretense of restraint. This week they and state media lined up to publicly support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in identical terms to Russian state media, beginning with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who tweeted that the “Ukraine crisis” was “rooted in NATO's provocations”. The official narrative was so tightly bound to that of the Kremlin that even conservative ex-MP Ali Motahari tweeted: “The IRIB is reporting the news like a Russian colony.” Like many other foreign policy issues, the invasion of Ukraine has also now turned into an opportunity for opposing political factions in Iran to taunt each other.
Hardliners Paint Picture of a Deserted Ukraine
In its February 27 issue, the hardline newspaper Kayhan wrote: “Ukraine jumped into a well by trusting the Americans’ rotten rope”. The publication, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Ali Khamenei, added that Ukraine and Afghanistan had been “abandoned and left alone in crisis”.
The claims were published while the EU, UK, US and allies were imposing unprecedented sanctions on the Kremlin and Russian entities, while providing military hardware to Ukraine. Even Germany reversed its initial policy and sent arms to Ukraine through a third country.
The previous day, on February 26, Kayhan had triumphantly declared: “Ukraine has not lasted even 24 hours” and warned that “the US once again did not back its allies, and pro-Western elements must learn their lesson.”
Hossein Shariatmadari, who runs Kayhan as the Leader’s appointee, did not stop with this clear fallacy: he personally grabbed the opportunity to attack the reformists and those Iranians who favor relations with the West. “Can one find among this rabble of pro-Westerners...individuals who are unaware of the tragic consequences of trusting the US?” he wrote in an editorial. “Such individuals, if they are not asleep, must be counted among the flunkeys who hold an Iranian identity card but an American identity.”
Antisemitism and Conspiracy Theories
Other public figures and media outlets recalled that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and a former comedian. Kianoush Jahanpour, the former head of communications at the Health Ministry, called Zelenskyy an “Israeli clown” and tweeted: “You must never, ever joke with an election.” In response, some social media users reminded Jahanpour of the tidal wave of recriminations he had faced in 2020 on calling China’s Covid-19 recorded fatalities “a bitter joke”: an incident that saw him forced to apologize, then step down from post in July 2020.
He was far from the only one to target Zelenskyy, though. “If the comedian president of Ukraine knew the rudiments of politics,” thundered Abdollah Ganji, former managing editor of the IRGC-aligned newspaper Javan, “he would have understood that the war began when he visited NATO’s headquarters last year and asked to join that organization.”
Others raised the spectre of the Flight 752 disaster. “To whom should we now pay reparations for the Ukrainian plane?” jested Mostafa Vosough-Kia, the cultural editor of Mehr News Agency.
Conspiracy theories have also circulated. Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an associate of former President Ahmadinejad, claimed that in a meeting with teachers on January 27, Ahmadinejad had predicted the attack on Ukraine “with certainty” and warned that the US and Russia had already “made a deal” regarding Iran and Ukraine.
“Nest of Spies” Chant Aimed at Russian Embassy
Some Iranian newspapers, however, were more circumspect in their commentary. In the issue featuring Rafsanjani’s quote, a journalist for Vatan-e Emrooz wrote: “Operations to conquer Ukraine will have inescapable consequences, even if it does not lead to the occupation and annexation of the territory by the Russian Federation; even if Moscow just changes the political system in Kyiv and withdraws its forces.”
The reformist paper Etemad compared resistance in Kyiv to the resistance of Stalingrad against Hitler’s army. “For Russia, counting on a quick victory against the Ukrainian army and the fall of the government in Kyiv, it is intolerable that the Ukrainian army, ordinary people and a president who preferred to stay rather than flee are still resisting, blocking with all their might the invading forces from entering major cities.”
Not all Iranian citizens feel the same way as Khamenei and state-aligned media either. Last week security forces were stationed outside the Russian Embassy in Tehran to prevent any protests. Because of this, Iranian citizens showed up outside the Ukrainian Embassy to protest instead. The chants heard included “The Russian embassy is a nest of spies!” – an echo of the slogan shouted by crowds at the US Embassy after the Islamic Revolution.