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Iran Is Now at War With Ukraine

Tehran has taken its fight against the West to Europe.

By , the deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and , a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Iranian soldiers stand next to Iranian Shahab-3 and Kheibar missiles during a rally marking Jerusalem day in Tehran, on April 29.
Iranian soldiers stand next to Iranian Shahab-3 and Kheibar missiles during a rally marking Jerusalem day in Tehran, on April 29.
Iranian soldiers stand next to Iranian Shahab-3 and Kheibar missiles during a rally marking Jerusalem day in Tehran, on April 29. -/AFP via Getty Images

For the first time, Iran is involved in a major war on the European continent. Iranian military advisors, most likely members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are on the ground in occupied Ukraine—and possibly Belarus—to help Russia rain down deadly Iranian kamikaze drones on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. According to an Israeli news report citing a Ukrainian official, 10 Iranians have already been killed in a Ukrainian attack on Russian positions. Tehran is now preparing to up the ante by providing Russia not only with potentially thousands of additional drones but also, for the first time, with two types of Iranian-made ballistic missiles to supplement Russia’s own dwindling stocks.

Tehran’s military support is already making its deadly mark on the war, but the geopolitical consequences extend much further. By escalating its support for Russia’s imperial attempt to subjugate Ukraine, Iran hopes to advance its own imperial project in the Middle East. Tehran will likely seek to leverage the deepening Russo-Iranian partnership into arms deals from Moscow while using lessons learned from the Ukrainian battlefield to perfect Iranian drone and missile capabilities. At the same time, the regime in Iran likely hopes that fueling the crisis in Ukraine will further distract the West from confronting Iran’s pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East. With any luck, however, Tehran’s foray into European power politics could help nudge Washington and its Western allies toward a more robust policy to counter Iran.

To redress battlefield weaknesses hampering its eight-month war against Ukraine, Russia has found a willing supporter. Tehran, which has poured considerable resources and effort into its drone and missile programs since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, has reportedly supplied Moscow with hundreds of drones of various types. They include the Shahed-136, a so-called loitering munition that Moscow has rebranded as the Geran-2, designed to careen into its target kamikaze-style. In addition to helping Russian forces take out stationary targets near the front lines, the munition has enabled Russia to conduct numerous strikes in cities across Ukraine in recent weeks while conserving its dwindling missile stock.

For the first time, Iran is involved in a major war on the European continent. Iranian military advisors, most likely members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are on the ground in occupied Ukraine—and possibly Belarus—to help Russia rain down deadly Iranian kamikaze drones on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. According to an Israeli news report citing a Ukrainian official, 10 Iranians have already been killed in a Ukrainian attack on Russian positions. Tehran is now preparing to up the ante by providing Russia not only with potentially thousands of additional drones but also, for the first time, with two types of Iranian-made ballistic missiles to supplement Russia’s own dwindling stocks.

Tehran’s military support is already making its deadly mark on the war, but the geopolitical consequences extend much further. By escalating its support for Russia’s imperial attempt to subjugate Ukraine, Iran hopes to advance its own imperial project in the Middle East. Tehran will likely seek to leverage the deepening Russo-Iranian partnership into arms deals from Moscow while using lessons learned from the Ukrainian battlefield to perfect Iranian drone and missile capabilities. At the same time, the regime in Iran likely hopes that fueling the crisis in Ukraine will further distract the West from confronting Iran’s pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East. With any luck, however, Tehran’s foray into European power politics could help nudge Washington and its Western allies toward a more robust policy to counter Iran.

To redress battlefield weaknesses hampering its eight-month war against Ukraine, Russia has found a willing supporter. Tehran, which has poured considerable resources and effort into its drone and missile programs since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, has reportedly supplied Moscow with hundreds of drones of various types. They include the Shahed-136, a so-called loitering munition that Moscow has rebranded as the Geran-2, designed to careen into its target kamikaze-style. In addition to helping Russian forces take out stationary targets near the front lines, the munition has enabled Russia to conduct numerous strikes in cities across Ukraine in recent weeks while conserving its dwindling missile stock.

The Shahed-136 has helped Russia damage around 40 percent of Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure, affecting half the country’s nonnuclear power generation capacity, a Ukrainian lawmaker said this week. Massive blackouts and energy rationing have ensued. With winter approaching, Moscow likely hopes this campaign of terror will erode Ukraine’s will to fight.

Both Iranian and U.S.-allied officials now say Tehran will soon provide Moscow not only with more Shahed-136s and other drones but also Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar short-range ballistic missiles—another escalation of Iranian support for Russia’s war. These single-stage, solid-propellant, road-mobile ballistic missiles are among the most precise in Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, which is the largest in the Middle East. The Fateh-110 is older and has a reported range of 250 to 300 kilometers (or roughly 150 to 190 miles), whereas the Zulfiqar was unveiled in 2016 as an upgrade of the Fateh-110 with a reported 700-kilometer (435-mile) range.

For the first time, Iran is involved in a major war on the European continent.

Iran has employed variants of these missiles in numerous military operations over the past half decade, including in strikes on U.S. positions in Iraq in January 2020 that caused more than 100 traumatic brain injuries among U.S. service members. Although Iran has proliferated variants of these weapons to its proxies in the Middle East, the regime has never before brought them to Eastern Europe. Like the Shahed-136 drone, these missiles will help Moscow conserve its remaining Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and other missiles, which Russia has used increasingly sparingly as the war drags on.

That Tehran and Moscow would cooperate this closely in Ukraine caught many observers—including some leading Russian experts on Iran—by surprise. Despite their recent alignment, Iran and Russia have a long history of enmity and mistrust going back to the tsarist era, including a series of Russo-Persian wars and frequent Russian meddling in Persian politics. During the Cold War, their relations were tense when Iran was led by the U.S.-allied shah and still worse after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iran’s new regime dubbed the Soviet Union a “Satan” alongside the United States and backed the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets, just as Moscow aided Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. Relations later improved, with Russia providing assistance to Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructure and missile programs in the 1990s. But Moscow also earned Iranian mistrust when it waffled on major arms deals and assented to multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran over its growing nuclear program.

Russo-Iranian relations have gained steam, however, since Vladimir Putin’s 2012 return to the Russian presidency—and particularly since his 2015 military intervention in Syria to save their common ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Although suspicion and competition remain, both sides increasingly see their interests as intertwined, driven by shared opposition to the West. A formal alliance isn’t forthcoming, but that won’t stop Russia and Iran—along with China—from deepening their entente.

Since its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has doubled down on its partnership with Tehran, including their joint efforts to counter Western sanctions. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, has instructed his underlings to develop stronger relations with Russia and China. With the Kremlin’s support, Iran was granted full membership in the Chinese- and Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year. Tehran is also seeking membership in the so-called BRICS group and is currently negotiating a permanent free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Viewed in this context, a deal to supply Russia with drones, missiles, and military advisors makes strategic sense for Iran and can demonstrate the latter’s value to one of its two senior partners in the anti-Western entente. The deal also raises the question of what Iran may receive in return. Advanced Russian fighter aircraft or the S-400 air defense system, which Moscow has previously declined to sell to Tehran, could now be offered. (Assistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program will probably remain a bridge too far for Russia, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s warning to the contrary.)

Meanwhile, Iran will gain an extensive testing ground for its latest drone and missile platforms, including against Western-made air defense systems and other weaponry. Tehran is sure to apply lessons learned from the Ukrainian theater to future weapons development and tactics back in the Middle East.

But for Iran’s rulers, supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine is also an expansion of their own offensive against the West. For decades, Iran has sought to extend its influence and weaken its rivals by supplying weaponry—including some of the same drones and missiles it has provided Russia—to Middle Eastern militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Now, Tehran is, in effect, applying the same arms proliferation strategy to Europe.

By fueling the crisis in Ukraine, Iran likely hopes to lead the United States to continue diverting its attention from the Middle East. Under three successive presidents, Washington has signaled it would prefer to largely divest from the region to shift military resources elsewhere and focus attention on problems at home. Now that Putin’s war in Ukraine is absorbing Western attention and resources, Tehran sees an opportunity to feed this trend.

By fueling the crisis in Ukraine, Iran likely hopes to lead the United States to continue diverting its attention from the Middle East.

Instead, Washington should make clear that Iran’s support for Russia’s war will only invite stronger U.S. resolve in the Middle East. Particularly as protests continue to rage across Iran, now would be a good time for the Biden administration to revise its Iran policy to focus on rolling back Iranian influence in the region. U.S. condemnations and sanctions are welcome but will achieve little if not part of a larger strategy.

Ironically, Tehran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine could prompt the West to pay more, not less, attention to the Middle East, especially if Europe now embraces a tougher line toward Iran. Britain and the European Union followed in Washington’s footsteps last week and levied targeted sanctions against elements of Iran’s drone program, building on similar recent trans-Atlantic sanctions against Tehran’s morality police. As the Iranian threat to Europe grows closer, Washington should not miss this opportunity to better align trans-Atlantic policies on Iran.

The United States should also enlist more support against Moscow from Israel and the Persian Gulf states by pointing to Russia’s deepening ties with Iran. To be sure, Tehran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine doesn’t immediately change the Israeli or Arab Gulf calculus on Russia. Jerusalem, for example, remains unwilling to grant Kyiv’s requests for air defense systems, and the Emiratis don’t appear keen to crack down on Russian money flocking to their country to avoid Western sanctions. But U.S. allies in the region could change their tune if Russia starts selling advanced weapons to Iran (which is partly why Moscow has previously refrained from doing so).

At the same time, the United States should work to ensure that its Israeli and Arab allies, who have for years lived on the front lines of the Iranian drone and missile threat, have the military capabilities and support they need to counter Iran’s aggression. Washington should also redouble its efforts to encourage and facilitate Arab-Israeli security cooperation. In addition to helping counter Iran, strong U.S. support for its Middle Eastern allies may, in turn, make them more open to U.S. requests regarding Russia.

Finally, Iran’s actions in Ukraine also give the Biden administration and its European partners yet another reason to abandon their quest to resurrect its 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran. In addition to failing to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, a deal would enable further Russo-Iranian cooperation on civilian nuclear projects and sanctions evasion while offering Tehran the funds it needs to procure advanced conventional weaponry from Russia and elsewhere.

John Hardie is the deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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