The Iranian connection

Karam Said, Friday 18 Nov 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly explores the connection between Tehran and Kyiv.

The Iranian connection
Iran s President Raisi (r) meeting with Russia s Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev (photo: AFP)


Tensions have risen between Iran and Ukraine against the backdrop of allegations that Tehran has been furnishing Russia with Iranian-made drones and missiles to help Russian forces there. The US and UK have reiterated the accusations.

“Russia is turning to Iran to supply UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and, in a clear violation of UN sanctions, to North Korea to supply ammunition,” Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward said recently. US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan had raised the issue as early as July. Speaking to reporters, he said that Tehran was “preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs.” He added that the shipment would include drones that could be used to carry weapons. US and other Western intelligence sources have cited satellite imagery said to show a Russian delegation visiting an airport in central Iran, twice since June, in order to inspect Iranian military drones.

In recent weeks, as Russia has intensified its strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure, targeting power plants, hydroelectric facilities and electricity grid components, Kyiv charged that Russia was using Iranian made Shahed-136 drones. It warned Tehran of the consequences of colluding with Russia in its war against Ukraine and vowed to take strict measures to prevent Moscow from using Iranian weapons.

“Tehran should realise that the consequences of complicity in the crimes of Russian aggression against Ukraine will be much more comprehensive than the benefits of Russian support,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said in a Facebook post.

Although Iran has acknowledged that it had supplied drones to Moscow, it stressed that this was before Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine on 24 February. In a statement reported by the government affiliated Iranian news agency, IRNA, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “We provided Russia a small number of drones months before the Ukraine war,” but denied having sent more since. He reiterated his government’s stance, calling on Russia and Ukraine to cease fight and return to the negotiating table, and added, “if it is proven to us that Russia has used Iranian drones in the war against Ukraine, we will not remain indifferent.”

Rejecting the denial, Ukraine claimed that in colluding with Russia, Iran was working to perpetuate an anti-Western front and strengthen its position against the powers opposed to the Iranian nuclear programme. Certainly, Iran might have reasons to try to take advantage of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia’s preoccupation with the war there offers an opportunity for Tehran to strengthen its presence in Syria, as well as in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and to deflect Western pressures. On the other hand, the growing mutual mistrust and suspicions between Kyiv and Tehran could hamper their economic relations and set into motion the development of alliances and counter alliances that could have a potential impact on the Ukrainian crisis.

Iranian military support for Moscow could intensify and protract the conflict, and obstruct the Western-backed Ukrainian drive to defeat Russian forces. According to some military sources, Russia’s use of Iranian drones could diminish the efficacy of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that the US has supplied to Ukraine. Ukrainian forces, using the HIMARS, have succeeded in taking out targets behind Russian front lines. According to some Western reports, the Iranian drones have increased Ukrainian losses in military hardware, which has put additional strain on Kyiv’s military budget at a time when the country is suffering unprecedented economic deterioration as a result of the war.

At another level, Iran’s alleged military support for Russia is embarrassing for Ukraine as it counteracts or at least slows the advances Ukrainian forces have been making on the ground. Kyiv has charged that Iran was aggravating the existential threat it faces.

Military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has fed anti-Iranian sentiment in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have voiced their anger against Iran on social media sites, accusing Iran of violating bilateral relations with their country and calling on Kyiv to sever relations with Tehran. Observers fear that mounting tensions between the two countries will contribute to sowing unrest in the Middle East and stimulate further regional and international involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.

It follows that the more Kyiv and Tehran proceed along the path to an adversarial relationship, the more this will diminish opportunities for a settlement to the Ukrainian crisis. Yet, it appears that this is the direction in which that bilateral relation is headed. On 18 October, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he would propose to President Volodymyr Zelensky severing diplomatic relations with Iran. In remarks to the press, he added that he had urged EU foreign ministers to sanction Iran because of its military support for Russia.

Still, a complete rupture is unlikely. Under the current regional and international circumstances, Kyiv has no need to be distracted by another political battle when it must summon all its strength for the war effort and rally as much political support as possible to isolate Russia. Of course, Kyiv will continue to prevail on its Western backers to sustain as much pressure on Iran as possible, using the Iranian nuclear programme or the anti-government protests that have recently swept Iran, in order to stop Iran from supplying drones to Russia.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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