Iran is a winner in Ukraine
Oct 31, 2022 | Aaron Pilkington
The war in Ukraine is helping one country achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives, but it’s neither Russia nor Ukraine.
That was starkly clear on the morning of October 17, as Iranian-made drones attacked civilian targets in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Russia used the drones to inflict damage on Ukraine’s national energy company headquarters and also killed four civilians.
Iran is among Russia’s most vocal supporters in the war. As a military analyst who specialises in Iranian national security strategy, I see this having little to do with Ukraine and everything to do with Iran’s long-term strategy vis-à-vis the United States.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine passed six months and continued eroding Russia’s manpower, military stores, economy and diplomatic connections, Russian President Vladimir Putin opted for an unlikely but necessary Iranian lifeline in Ukraine and also in Syria where, since 2015, Russian soldiers have been fighting to keep Bashar al-Assad’s Government in power.
And at a time when the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Government is facing growing citizen protests against its autocratic rule, Putin’s move has, in turn, helped Iran make progress in promoting its national interests, as defined by its leadership.
Opposing the US everywhere
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s leaders have believed the United States has been constantly scheming to topple its government. They view leaders in Washington as the greatest threat and obstacle to promoting Iranian national interests – achieving economic self-sufficiency, international legitimacy, regional security, power and influence.
The fears of Iran’s leaders are not completely irrational; the long history of the US meddling in Iranian affairs, continuous open hostility between the two countries and decades of US military build-up in close proximity to Iran greatly concern leaders in Teheran.
The US has military forces in many Middle Eastern countries, with or without invitation. To promote its national interests, Iran is working to force the US military out and reduce its influence in the region.
Iran has an even greater aim: to overthrow what it sees as the US-dominated global political order.
Iran counters US influence by maintaining partnerships with an assortment of non-state militias and governments united by their fierce anti-US hostility. Teheran nurtures a network of militant partner and proxy groups, whose own political preferences and ambitions align with Iran’s objectives, by providing weapons, training, funds – and, in some cases, direction. Among the recipients are the terror groups Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, friendly Iraqi militias and Ansar Allah in Yemen, better known as the Houthis or the Houthi rebels.
Through these militias and their political arms, Iran extends its influence and works to shape an Iran-friendly government in states like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It threatens US forces and antagonises Western-allied governments in states such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
At the national level, Iran maintains no permanent mutual defence treaties. Its closest strategic partners include Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, China and Russia. They cooperate politically, economically and militarily to create an alternative to what their leaders perceive as the US-led world political order.
That cooperation includes undermining US national interests and helping ease or circumvent Western political pressure and economic sanctions.
Teheran to the rescue
Russia’s war in Ukraine has left Moscow with only a handful of sympathetic friends.
Few political leaders understand Putin’s newfound political isolation and related animosity toward the US more than Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Iran-Russia relations are complicated.
The two countries found common cause in helping Syrian strongman, dictator and war criminal Assad defeat his country’s opposition forces, but for different national interests.
Saving Assad helps Russia reassert itself as a major power in the Middle East. For Iran, a friendly Syria is a critical link in Iran’s anti-US, anti-Israel coalition.
As Russia and Iran fought to sustain Assad, they also competed for lucrative post-war reconstruction and infrastructure contracts in Syria, and to shape the post-civil war political environment to their advantage.
But neither country was bold enough to influence the way the other operated in Syria. Consequently, sometimes Iranian-backed and Russian forces cooperated, and at other times they squabbled. Mostly they left each other alone.
Ultimately, though, Russia’s plight in Ukraine compelled Putin to solicit Iran’s help in two ways.
First, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a separate branch of the Iranian forces (different from the military, called Artesh) which is in charge of protecting the regime (not the state) against internal and external threats, provided supplementary manpower to fill the void left when Russia reallocated troops from Syria to its Ukraine campaign.
Second, Russia has used Iran’s low-cost and battle-proven drones to counter Kyiv’s Western-supported arsenal and buttress its own struggling forces and surprisingly inept warfighting capabilities.
In July, Iran hosted numerous Russian officers and conducted training on Iranian Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 drone operations. As of early August 2022, anonymous intelligence sources and Ukrainian officials indicated that Russia had obtained and used Iranian drones in Ukraine. Reports in mid-October said Iran has sent its own military personnel to Russian-occupied Crimea to help the Kremlin’s troops deploy the drones against Ukraine.
After acquiring Iranian drones in early September, by mid-October Russia had launched more than 100 Iranian Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 attack and reconnaissance drones in over a dozen attacks against a large range of targets: Ukrainian special forces, armour and artillery units, air defence and fuel storage facilities, Ukrainian military and energy infrastructure, civilian targets and a recent series of drone and missile attacks against Kyiv.
Russia is expected to soon rely on Iran further to suppliment its dwindling weapons supplies by acquiring two types of Iranian-made short-range ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine, according to US and allied security officials.
Ukraine war promotes Iran’s interests
This warming alliance may not help Russia defeat Ukraine. It will promote Iran’s national interests.
Russia’s Syria drawdown brought additional Iranian soldiers there to further prove their fighting abilities and entrench themselves in Syria. That then allows Iran to control territory threatened by anti-Assad forces and maintain an open corridor or “land bridge” by which Iran extends support to its network of anti-America and anti-Israel partners and proxies.
Russia’s acquisition of Iranian arms will significantly boost Iran’s weapons industry, whose primary clientele right now is its own militias. Iran’s recent efforts to expand drone manufacturing and exports yielded limited success in small, mostly peripheral markets of Ethiopia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Venezuela.
Moscow is the second-largest global arms exporter, and its surprising transformation to Iranian arms importer signals the seriousness of Russia’s problems. It also legitimises and expands Teheran’s weapons industry beyond arms production for the purpose of self-sufficiency. This one alliance moves Iran toward a more prominent role as a major arms exporter.
Lastly, Russia’s war in Ukraine extends a new avenue by which Iran might directly counter US-provided weapons, as well as the opportunity to undermine US and NATO influence in Eurasia. Iran’s drones could afford Moscow an effective and desperately needed response to the US weapons wreaking havoc against Russian forces in Ukraine.
Iranian weapons may force Ukraine’s Western benefactors to allocate additional billions of dollars for counter-drone or air defence systems, or aid to replace assets that Iranian weapons potentially neutralise.
The introduction of Iranian ballistic missiles to Ukraine would compound the limited tactical victories scored by Iranian drones. They will bring further unnecessary suffering and prolong and further destabilise the war in Ukraine, but I don’t believe they will tip the scales of conflict in Russia’s favour.
Their greater contribution is to Iran’s national interests: They allow Iran to directly check and undermine the US and NATO outside of Iran’s usual regional area of operations. They boost Iran’s profile among countries that also wish to challenge the United States and NATO’s political, military and economic power. And they strengthen solidarity among those countries.
As Iran’s fighters, advisers and weapons proliferate to new areas and empower US adversaries, Iran further promotes its national interests at the expense of US national interests.