The closest comparable experience Iranians have to what millions of besieged Ukrainians are currently dealing with is the eight-year war with Iraq, from 1980 to 1988. But many Iranians also harbor a historic fear of Russia: one largely not articulated by officials, except behind closed doors. Why has that fear been revived now, in light of a conflict taking place 2,000 miles away?
The Iranian TV series Khatoon, or Once Upon a Time in Iran, is a historical romance following the fortunes of a Gilan-based family during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941. It first aired last August and has rapidly grown in popularity since then. It depicts the arrival of military ships off the coast of the Caspian Sea, and Russian planes tearing over the provincial capital of Gilan, in what was arguably the most seismic moment of World War II for Iranian citizens.
The series’ success came as little surprise. Whether intentionally or not, it capitalized on a long-standing suspicion of Russia among Iranians, and at a time when the Kremlin’s activities vis-à-vis Iran had stirred up the bad memories once more. In April 2021, a leaked audio recording of then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had alleged collusion by Moscow and the IRGC to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal. In January 2022, President Ebrahim Raisi was generally regarded as having been humiliated on his first state trip to Moscow. And this month, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Levan Jagarian, the Russian Ambassador in Tehran, paid tribute at a memorial for Alexander Griboyedov, a diplomat who was assassinated in Tehran in 1829.
Many saw a stage-managed provocation in the act, which was publicized on social media by the Russian Embassy. Hundreds of years earlier, the Russo-Persian wars had seen Iran lose vast swathes of its former territories in the Caucasus. Then, during the Qajar dynasty and a critical period of Iranian contemporary history, Griboyedov had played a prominent role in peace talks between the two. These led to the formation of the 1827 Turkmenchay Treaty, which saw Iran cede the last of its lands in the Caucasus to Russia: a capitulation regarded by Iranians to this day as a moment of national outrage and disgrace, and which in turn cost Griboyedov his life.
The English writer and historian Laurence Kelly, author of Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran, writes that Griboyedov’s time at the embassy was characterized by oppressive and humiliating behavior, and even violence. In Tehran, Griboyedov apparently reveled in rude comportment before the royal court, refusing to kneel before the Shah or take off his shoes as was the custom. Such was his behavior, Kelly writes, that even a veteran Russian military commander warned him: “A defeated people should not be destroyed.” To which, Griboyedov reportedly replied, Iranians would be “submissive” only when confronted with power.
The sneering, subjugating path Iranians remember as having been pursued by Griboyedov in the course of his diplomatic career was also made into the subject of an Iranian TV series. Called Vazir Muktar, it aired in 1991 but unlike other not-dissimilar shows, was not rebroadcast in the new era of official “friendship” with Putin’s Russia.
Russia’s occupations and massacres in Tabriz in 2011, the Russian bombing of the shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam in Mashhad in March 1912 and the looting of its contents – and finally, the Anglo-Soviet invasion, in which Soviet forces occupied Qazvin, Isfahan and Gilan in northwestern Iran, which today also includes East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Ardabil, were never forgotten in the Iranian collective consciousness.
The 1912 bombing, which killed dozens of civilians, took place in Ayatollah Khamenei’s city of birth. The Supreme Leader has never mentioned it publicly; outwardly at least, he has strived to present the much more powerful Putin as an ally of Iran. In October 2007 during an official visit by the Russian premier to Tehran, Khamenei told him: “The image of the Russian people in our minds is a clear, good image. This is due to the resistance and measures that the Russian nation have taken at various times." In fact, Putin had come to Tehran not in a display of friendship, but to negotiate the partition of the Caspian Sea. This added to Iranians' distinct feeling that major concessions have been given to Russia.
The general, on-the-ground sense of national humiliation has worsened in recent years. Even some politicians have remarked on it, Zarif the latest among them. In his leaked interview, Zarif said Russia had been the main factor in preventing Iran from benefiting from the JCPOA, and in dragging the Islamic Republic’s forces into a ground war in Syria, keeping Bashar al-Assad in power at the expense of Iranian lives.
At one point during the Syrian conflict, Russian fighters were stationed at the Hamedan airbase and running military operations from there without Iranians’ knowledge. Cruise missiles were once fired from positions south of the Caspian Sea at positions in Syria, a move unprecedented in the region’s history since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officials in the Islamic Republic have tried to frame this military collaboration as part of the "holy defense of the shrine" – the burial place of the third Shiite Imam's sister in the Syrian capital. But they have had little success inside the country, while resentment has also been brewing over Russia's seemingly wilful mishandling of the Bushehr nuclear power plant project.
Javad Zarif also wrote in his memoirs from his mission in New York, The Sealed Secret, that agents and operatives of the Islamic Republic always considered themselves colleagues of Russia. They were afraid, he wrote, that if they did something wrong, forged pictures of them drinking alcohol might be published by Russian agents or submitted to Tehran.
The closest experience that older, living Iranians have to what millions of Ukrainians are now being subjected to would be the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. In this conflict, the Soviet Union backed Saddam Hussein.
Despite this long, periodically bloody history of Janus-faced behavior by Russia under a multitude of different leaders, Iranian officials continue to insist that bonds between the two countries are strong. Now a litany of senior politicians, including President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have publicly backed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, citing the same excuses – chiefly NATO’s “expansionism” – deployed by the Kremlin. This also flies in the face of years of Iranian foreign policy, which has always tended toward siding with the “oppressed”, not the aggressor.
This is happening precisely because officials of the Islamic Republic understand the threat Russia could pose to them, too. Some probably fully grasp the corrosive impact that recent relations with Putin’s Russia have had on Iran. But in a state of affairs in which Tehran avoids direct negotiations with the US, is under crippling international sanctions for past behavior, is actively violating UN resolutions in the Yemeni war and reliant on Russian backing on the UN Security Council as a consequence, there is no room to balance the situation. As Faezeh Hashemi recently said in a stormy address, a recording of which was shared with IranWire, “We pay ransoms to the East so that we might not be alone in the world”.
Tehran’s official non-stance on the Ukraine invasion is a direct result of Khamenei’s resultant “Look East” strategy. This, too, was arguably forced. It is not without reason that Iranians' historical fear of Russia has now been revived.