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In Backing Russia on Ukraine, Iran Is on the Wrong Side of History

The self-proclaimed champion of anti-imperialism is now sugarcoating an imperial war.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
Pro-Ukraine protesters in Iran.
Pro-Ukraine protesters in Iran.
Ukrainian citizens and Iranians gather at the Ukrainian Embassy building in Tehran during a protest against Russia on Feb. 26. Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While the United States and its allies cobble together package after package of punitive measures on Russia to drive home that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine will have grave consequences for his country and catapult it into global isolation, and as the humanitarian crisis precipitated by the blitzkrieg is consuming resources and shifting global consciousness, the eccentricity with which Russia’s southern Caspian Sea neighbor and ally Iran has responded to the crisis has mostly remained unnoticed.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was one of the first world leaders to pick up the phone and call Putin to pledge allegiance as soon as the news of the war flashed over TV screens on Feb. 24. In the phone conversation, Raisi told Putin that “the expansion of the NATO is a serious threat to the stability and security of independent countries in different regions” and expressed his hope that “what is happening” ends up benefiting the “nations and the region,” according to a readout of the call.

The reception of the war in Iran’s state media and the reactions of Iran’s foreign ministry and other top authorities have been nothing short of a celebration of a coercive muscle-flexing by a mighty kingpin. Toeing the Kremlin line prescribed to the Russian media, Iran’s state broadcaster has refused to refer to the onslaught as a “war” or “invasion,” instead soft-pedaling it as “special military operation,” the very terminology concocted by Putin to explain away his war of choice.

While the United States and its allies cobble together package after package of punitive measures on Russia to drive home that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine will have grave consequences for his country and catapult it into global isolation, and as the humanitarian crisis precipitated by the blitzkrieg is consuming resources and shifting global consciousness, the eccentricity with which Russia’s southern Caspian Sea neighbor and ally Iran has responded to the crisis has mostly remained unnoticed.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was one of the first world leaders to pick up the phone and call Putin to pledge allegiance as soon as the news of the war flashed over TV screens on Feb. 24. In the phone conversation, Raisi told Putin that “the expansion of the NATO is a serious threat to the stability and security of independent countries in different regions” and expressed his hope that “what is happening” ends up benefiting the “nations and the region,” according to a readout of the call.

The reception of the war in Iran’s state media and the reactions of Iran’s foreign ministry and other top authorities have been nothing short of a celebration of a coercive muscle-flexing by a mighty kingpin. Toeing the Kremlin line prescribed to the Russian media, Iran’s state broadcaster has refused to refer to the onslaught as a “war” or “invasion,” instead soft-pedaling it as “special military operation,” the very terminology concocted by Putin to explain away his war of choice.

The dominant talking point is how the United States has functioned as an agent provocateur that forced Ukraine into the current maelstrom by inciting Russia. Ignoring how ruinous the war has proved to be so far, official media in Iran have unanimously pinned the blame entirely on the “NATO provocations” without bothering to critically debate Russia’s violation of international law and the vehemence of its military campaign begetting massive loss of life and an unprecedented exodus in Eastern Europe.

The rationale sustaining this narrative is both understandable and simplistic. First, Russia is an ally, so it’s cost-effective for Iran to condone its war of aggression. Putin will remember Iran as a partner that didn’t grimace at his unwarranted interventionism and buried its head in the sand while Russia razed Ukrainian cities to the ground.

In return, Tehran hopes to receive augmented economic exchanges, possible Russian vetoes of prospective United Nations Security Council decisions against Iran, and a range of other incentives the Kremlin can deploy from its playbook to support what is mutating into an Iranian vassal state. Also, Ukraine is a European country backed by the United States, so why not depict the confrontation as a battle of good vs. evil in which a comrade (Russia) is defending its interests in the face of Western imperialism and sell it to the Iranian public as yet another example of American villainy?

For years, the United States has served as a convenient whipping boy that Iran has been able to put on trial in absentia for every major paroxysm of misfortune and violence in the world and in its neighborhood.

Iranians are also constantly told that “U.S. imperialism” is about to decline soon and that the failures of the Western hegemony are mushrooming daily. Iranian officials are thus exploiting the Russian invasion of Ukraine to demonstrate how U.S. policies are backfiring and threatening global peace. Heaping opprobrium on the United States for every national security adversity or economic malady in the region and the world is not a novelty for the Iranian leadership, nor is it an extreme oddity.

But Tehran’s glaring refusal to denounce the war and expressly condemn Russia, and its decision instead to echo Russian state media propaganda in whitewashing the crimes being committed in Ukrainian cities, signal a stark departure from many of the principles the Islamic Republic of Iran has been espousing since its inception.

The Iranian government has long prided itself on being the standard-bearer of anti-imperialism and a patron of suppressed people everywhere, from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to Cuba and Venezuela. This anti-imperialism mantra is so tenacious in Tehran’s calculus and decision-making that national interest is often compromised for the sake of sustaining it.

For example, many Iranians are bewildered that their government continues to pay the hefty price of locking horns with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people despite the fact that the Palestinian public doesn’t seem too happy with this Iranian patronage, as evidenced by, among many investigations, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey that found 57 percent of Palestinians held negative views of Iran.

As such, it is remarkable that the self-proclaimed champion of anti-imperialism is now preoccupied with sugarcoating an imperial war that the U.N. says has killed hundreds of civilians in Ukraine and caused more than 2 million others to flee.

Imperialism doesn’t need to be practiced by Western powers to exist; it merely requires subjugation, imposition, and coercion, all elements of the Russian campaign. Moreover, the war is a clear breach of the U.N. Charter, which urges countries to refrain from the unilateral use of force or recourse to threat of war in solving their differences. For Iran to abandon its long-espoused anti-imperialist credentials to become a cheerleader for such a war should be unconscionable.

Yet the Iranian government clearly deems it expedient and judicious to ingratiate itself with Russia.

Iran’s bitter historical experience goes some way in helping to explain this. By virtue of the Treaty of Gulistan and Treaty of Turkmenchay, respectively signed between Qajar Iran and the Russian Empire in 1813 and 1828, Iran ceded a total of nearly 100,000 square miles of its territory to Russia and lost the possession of 17 Caucasian cities, including much of what makes up Armenia and Azerbaijan today. Iranians view these events as traumatic, mortifying episodes of the nation’s history.

Moreover, Russia today is the custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and the second-largest military, according to Global Firepower, with a whopping defense budget of nearly $42 billion in 2021. It is always better to please, rather than draw the ire of, such a bulletproof behemoth.

For Iran’s leaders, what matters is that those historical vignettes can be put under wraps in the hope of a beneficial relationship with a superpower that can reward it with security, political stability, and an economic lifeline.

At a time when almost no country in the world other than pariah states such as North Korea and Belarus would sell Iran conventional weapons to overhaul its derelict armory, more than 70 percent of Iran’s arms imports came from Russia between 1995 and 2005.

Russians have also long done a dexterous job rhetorically supporting Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes, which is hugely significant for an Iranian leadership desperate for international legitimacy.

And Russia is one of a handful of countries that routinely votes against U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions denouncing the state of human rights in Iran. Though Moscow’s vote does not achieve much in blocking the resolutions, it is a gesture that a cornered Tehran appreciates.

Yet for all of this, the Iranian government hasn’t been able to assuage domestic critics’ indignation that Russia voted in favor of six consecutive U.N. Security Council resolutions between 2006 and 2010 slapping stringent sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, a devastating blow Iran struggled to recover from for years until the nuclear deal was signed in 2015.

Domestic critics are similarly speaking out against the government’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. And it’s not just so-called Westoxified (pro-Western) Iranians challenging the official government line on Russia. Ali Motahari, a former conservative member of parliament and the son of one of the eminent ideologues of the Islamic Republic, tweeted on Feb. 24 that Iran should condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine and lamented that IRIB, the Iranian state TV and radio broadcaster, “reports the events like one of the Russian colonies.”

The Iranian government’s obsequious overtures to Russia in recent years and what many Iranians see as Moscow’s double-dealing despite Tehran’s outreach and concessions have induced a massive debate among everyday Iranians on the Ukraine tragedy, with many Iranians clearly out of sync with their government over how to view Russia’s actions.

On social media, thousands of Iranians have been posting messages in solidarity with Ukraine, decrying the Russian militarism, and in particular flooding the Twitter feed of Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, berating him for his country’s decision to wage a macabre war in Eastern Europe.

On Feb. 26, a group of Iranians gathered in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran to express support, chanting slogans against Putin. And on March 6, Hamid Farrokhnezhad, a noted Iranian actor and film director, returned the best actor award he had received from the Moscow International Film Festival in 2005, criticizing the Russian “savagery” in Ukraine.

Even among the Iranian hard-liners and religious traditionalists, a conversation has emerged on the ethics of responding to the war and whether moral principles should be really forfeited in favor of political expediency as encouraged by the government.

In Tehran’s Heyat-ul-Reza, a permanent religious gathering for rituals of mourning and celebration where radical preachers and clerics often give sermons, a recent ceremony commemorating the Prophet Mohammed’s ascension featured a large Ukrainian flag, together with a Yemeni flag, in the stage background, as a show of unity with two war-stricken nations. A big debate ensued over the unprecedented gesticulation.

It might be that by trying to kowtow to Russia, Iran has found an opportune moment to secure the exclusive patronage of the Kremlin. But by glossing over and supporting the incursion, Iran is on the path to hollowing out its ideology and stripping its founding narratives of relevance and meaning, betraying decades of moral preaching in favor of short-sighted strategic calculations.

This is not the first time the Iranian government has made such a choice, of course. Indeed, it is developing quite a track record of selling out its principles these days. In reaction to the imprisonment of more than a million Uyghur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps in China’s Xinjiang region, from which reports of grave human rights violations, torture, and sexual abuse have been trickling out regularly, Iran, the avowed benefactor of oppressed Muslims worldwide, has looked the other way. It has simply refused to raise its voice to protest the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping, lest it undermine—let alone subvert—an important strategic partnership.

And now, with its stance on the war in Ukraine, Iran is once again on the wrong side of history. Posterity will remember that in a war induced by expansionist motives, Iran endorsed the aggressor.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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