Tehran, Iran – During its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran embraced the cry of protest ‘neither East nor West’, rejecting both the United States and the Soviet Union, then s is locked in the cold war. The phrase to this day hangs above the doors of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, however, has revealed just how much Tehran has leaned towards Moscow in recent years, as the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers has stoked decades-long anger against America. Members of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards train on Russian surface-to-air missile systems and aircraft. Hardliner Chairman Ebrahim Raisi visited Russian President Vladimir Putin on one of his first trips abroad.
The war also exposes deeper fault lines even within Iranian domestic politics. Among ordinary Iranians, there is a lot of sympathy for Ukraine, a nation that staged a pro-democracy “orange revolution” similar to the “green revolution” that rocked Iran more than a decade ago but was forcefully suppressed.
Iran’s historic enmity with Russia has combined with a broader sense among some that Moscow’s support betrays the Islamic Republic’s oft-stated message that it opposes major world powers.
“We must help the oppressed people of Ukraine like we support the people of Palestine and Yemen just because they are targeted by the powers that be,” said Zohreh Ahmadi, a mother of two in the Sarcheshmeh neighborhood of downtown Tehran. “Intimidating power is killing children and women in Ukraine.”
Iran’s state-controlled TV channel, whose English-language Press TV service describes itself as “the voice of the voiceless,” is getting closer to Russian talking points. He used the euphemistic term Moscow’s “special operation” to describe the early days of the war. Articles referring to the killings of civilians in Bucha by Russian forces include headlines that incorrectly describe the attack as a “phony attack” or “provocation” on the Press TV website.
Part of the Iranian government’s anger at Ukraine likely stems from the aftermath of the Guard’s 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airliner, which killed 176 people on board. Tehran for days denied shooting down the plane before saying troops made a mistake after Iran fired ballistic missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the killing of a top general.
Ukraine’s criticism of Iran has become more direct over time. It’s something Tehran’s Friday prayer leader, Kazem Sedighi, mentioned in a March sermon after Russia began its war against Ukraine.
“In the case of the plane, Ukraine behaved badly against us and misused it to support the United States,” Sedighi said.
He also engaged in the “whataboutism” common in Iranian and Russian state media – raising a separate topic to accuse of hypocrisy while deflecting the issue at hand.
“Wars are costing innocent lives in Yemen and Syria, but there’s huge propaganda about Ukraine and that’s racism,” Sedighi said.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, said his country opposes “war and destruction” while blaming America for the conflict. He also spoke of a longstanding suspicion he shares with Putin – that the United States, rather than ordinary citizens, is fueling what he described as the “color coups” that support democracy.
For Khamenei, it is the memory of the Green Movement protests that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election that directly challenged the theocracy he leads. Iran’s security services have used violence and mass arrests to quell the protests. But unrest has resurfaced in recent years over economic issues.
For Putin, it was the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its subsequent Maidan protest movement that ousted pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Yanukovych.
But other members of Iran’s Shiite theocracy have raised concerns about Tehran’s stance on the war.
Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami who was later imprisoned after disputed 2009 elections, went so far as to call Iran’s position ‘very bad’ in a recent interview .
“It was perhaps the worst, the most passive position of Iranian diplomacy since 1979,” Aminzadeh recently told the monthly magazine Ayandeh Negar.
Recently, in the streets of Tehran, 17 people agreed to speak about the war to an Associated Press journalist, others refused. Among them, 12 supported Ukraine, three reiterated Iran’s official position and two supported Russia.
“I support Ukraine,” said Sajjad, a 26-year-old computer programmer. Like others, he spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals. “The Russians kill innocent people for nothing. Why should we keep silent?
Retired Iranian captain Mehrdad has called Russia’s reasons for war ‘ridiculous’ and similar to those used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to launch a bloody eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s Saddam at the time pointed to the support of Iran’s Arab minority in its oil-rich southwest as justification for his invasion.
“He steals Saddam’s reasons for attacking Iran; possible threats from revolutionary Iran and the support of an ethnic group,” said Mehrdad, 75. “By this excuse, each country can attack the others, even Russia.”
Ali Nemati, a 64-year-old retired teacher, hailed Putin as “very brave” for defying NATO, also a new concern of Iran’s hardline government under Raisi. However, Iran has lived quietly alongside Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952.
“Iran should support Russia because it is alone in its fight against imperialism,” Nemati said.
However, in its imperial past, Russia fought multiple wars against Persia, which ceded territory to the Tsar. Russia invaded Iran alongside Britain during World War II to secure oil and trade routes in their war against Germany. After the war, Russia refused to leave, triggering the first world crisis of the newly formed United Nations.
This memory has not faded. Russia’s brief use of an Iranian air base amid the war in Syria, in which the two backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, also sparked widespread anger.
Now Iran can feel like a poker chip in a larger game rather than a player at the geopolitical table. A sudden demand from Russia for guarantees of sanctions relief has thrown negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal into disarray. Russia’s demand seems to have eased, while it now appears that US sanctions against the Guard remain the last hurdle.
The Iranians noticed the Russian scheme.
“The fact that Putin made a strategic mistake and sent forces to Ukraine and is now drowning in a Ukrainian quagmire cannot be a (logical) reason for Russia to hold the deal hostage,” he said. the conservative daily Jomhouri Eslami in a March editorial. .
Taxi driver Abbas Najafi suggested Iran stay out of this.
“It’s not our war. It’s not our problem,” he said. “We are currently under US sanctions and shouldn’t be looking for more headaches.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.