On February 24, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Islamic Republic of Iran—Russia’s close ally for the past 40 years—established their pro-Russia position in Russia’s war with Ukraine. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, released a statement attributing fault for the invasion to “NATO’s provocative actions.” This move is at odds with the reactions from most other countries (including many of Russia’s usual allies), and confirms Iran’s place in the Russia/China axis of world alliances.
Image: Hossein Amir-Abdollahian giving a speech in Beirut, Lebanon in October 2021. Source: Reuters
In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast majority of countries took a stance against Russia’s actions. While most are allies with the United States and/or members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), some are current Russian allies, such as Kazakhstan, which makes Iran’s pro-Russia stance much more notable on the world stage.
In the past, however, Russia and Iran have had tense relations. The two Russo-Persian Wars resulted in Persia’s defeat and, in 1828, Russia extended their dominance over the country with peace treaties that benefit Russia at the expense of Persia. This sphere of influence remained in place throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Russia, along with the United Kingdom, did not abide by Iran’s declaration of neutrality in either of the two World Wars due to the geographical advantage Iran was able to provide. The Trans-Iranian Railway provided one of the only routes where supplies could be sent between Great Britain and Russia. And, after World War II, there were issues regarding Russia’s refusal to leave the country after the war had ended. However, from this point forward, The Shah of Iran tried to maintain peaceful relations with Russia as a part of his agenda to be a primarily neutral country.
A map of the trans-Iranian railway, linking the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Source: SurfIran
Things changed between the two countries after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. After the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, took over in 1989, the two countries have had consistently friendly relations due to their shared anti-Western sentiment and agendas; Russian anti-Western attitude has been paramount since the Cold War, and Iranian anti-Western sentiment stems from the revolution, where a large part of resentment against the Shah came from his close relations with the United States. After the rise of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been an ally of Russia on many issues, including issues regarding Syria, the Caucasus (the sovereign states to the South of Russia that are former members of the Soviet Union), and Central Asia and Afghanistan. In 2005, Iran became an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an organization centered around the Russia/China Axis and their allies, and on September 18, 2021, Iran was made a full member of the SCO, cementing their position in this axis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting at the Kremlin in January. Source: New York Times
Iran’s pro-Russia stance since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 further emphasized their alliance with this anti-West axis, especially because many of Russia’s allies/countries in which they usually share friendly relations, took a firm stance against Russia, condemning them for their actions against Ukraine. A current list of the allies who are either condemning Russia or maintaining a position of neutrality and a call for peace and diplomacy, given by the Deutsche Welle, includes Israel, South Africa, India, and China.
The Office of the Foreign Ministry’s official position on the matter has been to call for “a peaceful resolution.” However, the message that NATO is to blame for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been Iran’s consistent message to the world. Iran does support peace between Russia and Ukraine, and while they have not outwardly and directly supported Russia’s actions as related to the actual attack on Ukraine, Iran has made clear that they place blame for the conflict on NATO/Western powers.
These statements are a shift away from the stance Iran took when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. While they did not condemn Russia and still took an anti-Western stance, the former Iranian ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei stated that “Iran is against the interference by foreign countries,” emphasizing their abstaining from the issues between the two countries. Since then, Iran has gradually increased their support for Russia and taken stronger stances supporting their actions in Ukraine. This is caused by a combination of Iran growing closer to Russia in recent years due to the “maximum pressure” campaign by former US President Donald Trump, the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Iran and Ukraine’s strained relations following the shoot down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in 2020.
Iran’s position has global implications. The Russian allies who have either maintained neutrality or taken a stance against Russia emphasize the growing closeness between Russia and Iran. China’s neutrality in the situation is especially prominent, given the increasing closeness to Russia under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Israel has also recently hosted a summit with leaders from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain; an event that was described as “unimaginable half a decade ago,” and which came about to discuss the “new global realities” after Russia had invaded Ukraine.
Currently, the only countries aligned with Russia in the war with Ukraine are Iran, Syria, and Russia’s Latin American allies: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Major Russian allies like China, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, remaining neutral or against Russia, provide an indication that Iran’s position of support for Russia signifies a growing strength in their relationship.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at a press conference in October 2021. Source: The Times of Israel
Iran’s stance in support of Russia has also reintroduced issues in the oil market. One of these issues is with the United States. Due to the new sanctions on Russian oil, the United States is looking to other nations to expand their reach in the oil market, one of these nations being Iran. Russia has recently backed away from torpedo threats surrounding the 2015 Nuclear Deal, which quite possibly could lead to its revival considering the demand for oil in the United States with the rising of gas prices. Amir-Abdollahian recently made a trip to Moscow to participate in talks with Russia about the possibility of reviving the deal and gaining Russian support on doing so.
The potential for reviving the 2015 Nuclear Deal and bringing Iranian oil back into the American market, combined with their position aligning themselves with Russia in the Ukraine war, puts Iran in an interesting position of neutrality. This neutrality was known quite well when Iran was still under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the 20th century. Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty, while having allies, remained neutral in most conflicts. Iran is back in this position, however differently this time around because instead of abstaining completely, they are involved with opposing powers. However, Iran’s close dealings with Russia on the matter of reviving the nuclear deal, especially the work of Amir-Abdollahian going to Moscow to gain Russian support for the deal, show that while Iran could potentially have economic relations with the West, their political alliances remain firmly ensconced in the Russia/China axis.
Russia and Iran have had their complications. In the last few decades, however, the alliance between Russia and Iran has proved to be beneficial for both partners. Author Clément Therme for the French Institute of International Relations comments that “Russia is an essential partner for the survival of the Islamic Republic.” It is unknown what the future of Iranian-Russian relations will be, but if the past or present is any indication, especially if Iran’s stance on the Russian-Ukraine war is taken into account, the countries will likely become even stronger allies in the years to come.