After hesitating at the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Iranian regime is now fully backing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” there. The regime blames the United States and NATO accountable for their attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO, thereby harming Russian security interests. Iran and Russia are coordinating their positions at the highest levels, and are even deliberating with regard to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the Vienna talks enter their final stretch. Thus, it is not inconceivable that Iran will harden its stance with last-minute demands in the face of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

At the same time, in Iran’s reformist and pragmatist circles and in the reformist media there is criticism of this strong support for Russia, and concern regarding the price Iran may have to pay in the future for its presence in Syria and regarding the nuclear portfolio. A video circulated on social media showing several protesting Iranians holding a Ukrainian flag and shouting “Death to Putin and his supporters” in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran.

As the Ukraine crisis unfolds, in Iran consultations are taking place over a draft agreement formulated at the nuclear talks in Vienna. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted that Iran was “seriously reviewing the draft agreement and discussed it with Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs. Our red lines remain and we are ready to sign a good deal.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated on Feb. 28 that the Ukraine crisis would not affect the talks in Vienna. A day earlier, the Iranian foreign minister presented a progress report on the nuclear talks to a closed-door Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee session, to enable the legislative body to study the government’s implementation of the “Strategic Measure on Lifting Sanctions.”

Amir-Abdollahian reiterated that negotiations had not yet reached a conclusion and that the ball was in the U.S. court, and that Washington must take difficult political decisions. Majlis Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said that any agreement must benefit Tehran economically and provide Iran with economic guarantees to sell oil, move finance and bring in investments, but also preserve its “nuclear structure.”

Ghalibaf also criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for raising what he said were old issues to which Iran has already provided answers in the past. He was referring to the issue of “Possible Military Dimensions (PMD)” of Iran’s nuclear program. A source in the U.S. negotiating team said that the issue of nuclear safeguards was a major issue in the Vienna talks, insisting that Iran should provide answers to promote the signing of the agreement.

Meanwhile, the Noor News Agency, which is close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, denied reports circulating on social media that the Iranian leader had held a meeting to discuss the talks in Vienna, calling the accounts “media speculation.” A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied reports that the United States had set a “deadline” for Iran to make a decision on a nuclear deal in Vienna or else the agreement would “die.”

Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said that despite the sanctions, the United States would continue to engage with Russia on “significant national security issues,” including ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. “The fact that Russia has now invaded Ukraine should not give Iran the green light to develop a nuclear weapon, to weaponize, to move towards the point at which it can quickly acquire a nuclear weapon. It remains as in our interest today to deny Iran that ability than it was on Saturday.”

Iran, for its part, continued to emphasize that “until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed” and stressed the need to resolve the core issues: the lifting of sanctions, effective verification, and guarantees from the American side of the agreement’s survival in subsequent administrations as well.

The nuclear deal was also raised during a Feb. 24 phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi. The Russian president informed Raisi of his decision to invade Ukraine “in order to protect the people of Donbas in accordance with the international and bilateral agreements signed by Russia with the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.” Raisi expressed his understanding of Russia’s security concerns in light of NATO and U.S. actions to undermine its security.

“NATO’s expansion eastward poses a serious threat to the stability and security of independent policy in various regions,” the Iranian president said.

The two presidents also raised the issue of the nuclear talks in Vienna. Raisi stated that Iran was seeking “a sustainable agreement as opposed to a fragile agreement with no credible guarantees of its implementation, a real lifting of sanctions and the end of political claims from Iran.”

Speaking to his Iranian counterpart Amir-Abdollahian, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured him that Russia would guarantee the security of all foreign nationals in Ukraine, including Iranian citizens. For his part, the Iranian minister stressed that Iran was trying to get its citizens out of Ukraine through neighboring countries. Referring to the nuclear talks in Vienna, Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran would insist on lifting all sanctions, that it was a red line, and that “realism and tangible steps by Western countries are needed; otherwise, negotiations will not progress.”

The two also discussed the agreements reached during Raisi’s visit to Russia, the crisis in Yemen and the attempt to condemn Ansar Allah (the official name of the Houthi military wing in Yemen) in the Security Council and designate it as a terrorist organization. Lavrov stressed that “Russia has always supported Iran’s position during the Vienna talks and that cooperation with our friend Iran in Vienna is good and will continue.”

Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, tweeted that Western countries should draw lessons from the crisis in Eastern Europe. “The collapse of financial markets and the sharp increase in energy prices as a result of the crisis in Eastern Europe,” Shamkhani stated, “indicate that instability and security in all its forms in Eastern Europe will cause serious damage to Western and Ukrainian interests.”

Several Majlis members emphasized that Ukraine, a former nuclear power, had relied on the West and lost. The representative of the Iranian town of Shush, Mohammad Kaab Omair, stressed that Iran must have military power and civilian nuclear capabilities. Iran, he said, must insist on its right to nuclear development while preserving its sovereignty and national dignity.

Mohammad Safaei Dalouei, a representative from Gonabad, noted that Ukraine had surrendered its nuclear weapons in return for American and British assurances of protection, but in the end had been left to fend for itself. Behrouz Mohebi Najmabadi, a representative of Iran’s Sabzevar County, said the lesson of Ukraine was the need for locally-made defenses. “Now it is clear,” he stated, “how far away those who wanted to trade missile capability were from the world’s reality.”

Is the IRGC threatening an invasion of Azerbaijan and northern Iraq?

Meanwhile, social networks affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps posted what it described as “the IRGC’s first response to Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” The official Iranian response emphasized the responsibility of the United States and Europe for the crisis, and the Russian need to protect its security interests. The message further stressed that Iran “will also not tolerate the presence of infidel elements [Islamic State, Kurds] or Zionist elements on its northern borders.”

Iran was referring to its claims of a growing Israeli presence in Azerbaijan and continued Kurdish actions against Iran from the Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. It should be emphasized that the Russian news agency Sputnik quoted these reports in Persian from the social networks used by the IRGC.

In the same context, Hezbollah posted a video on social media describing how the United States abandons the countries whose fate it tries to influence in times of need (Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ukraine). The video hints at the expected fate of the U.S.-backed Gulf states. The West has no answer other than an expression of solidarity, said Hezbollah.

Biden has stated he will not fight on Ukrainian soil. The video’s editor asks, “Who will be the next country? What do the princes, kings and heirs of the thrones feel about the Gulf States? Will they serve the interests of their peoples according to their geographical sense and neighborly relations?” As for groups in Lebanon gambling on normalizing relations with the United States, the video states, “This will not entitle you to a visa or a work permit to work even as scavengers.”

Friday prayer leaders: NATO’s eastward expansion is responsible for the crisis

Friday prayer leaders in Iran took a similar unified line, which appeared to be dictated by the office of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Hosseini Bushehri, the Qom preacher for Friday meetings, stressed that the crisis in Ukraine was due to “the policy of expansion of the West and NATO. After the collapse of the USSR, it was agreed that NATO would not enter the region. Did NATO honor the agreement? Bit by bit, NATO approached Ukraine despite warnings from Moscow.”

Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s Friday prayer leader, stressed in his Feb. 25 sermon that “the NATO-led intervention and provocative actions complicated the situation in Ukraine.”

Mohammad Ali Alhashm, the Friday prayer leader in Tabriz, said, “Russia wanted to control Ukraine before it became a center of espionage and military activity against Moscow. Therefore, Russia invaded it.”

Mohammad Ali Nakounam, the Friday prayer leader of Shahrekord near Isfahan, said, “See how far American shameful behavior goes, inciting Ukraine near the border with Russia and creating a crisis in the region…. Russia attacked to prevent the spread of the crisis to other areas…. The United States and NATO seduced Ukraine’s president and ultimately left him alone.”

Referring to the domestic arena in Iran and the supporters of dialogue with the United States, Nakounam said that “those who continue to beat the drums of the need for friendship with the United States and the West know that they embody the full being of Western evil…. Where they step can be found nothing but war and bloodshed.”

He added, “Russia attacked to prevent the spread of the crisis to other areas…. The United States and NATO seduced Ukraine’s president and ultimately left him alone.”

“Ukraine was slaughtered by the dangerous intervention strategies of the U.S. and NATO”

In its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Iranian media emphasizes that the West in general, and the United States in particular, are a thin reed to lean on. A Feb. 25 editorial in Keyhan, which reflects the opinion of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, accuses the United States and NATO of committing a “heinous crime that has pushed Ukraine into an unnecessary bloodbath.” Russia, the article continued, “had no other choice but to ensure the security of the people of Ukraine and prevent it being swallowed up by a dangerous [NATO] military bloc, and to send its troops across the border.”

Keyhan added: “With his blitzkrieg, President Putin delivered, in a brilliant diplomatic move, the message to the President of Ukraine, Zelensky, a Jewish comedian who allowed himself to be deceived by the United States and the West…. “The people of Ukraine have been caught in a war not theirs by the United States, the Great Satan, that is involved in crises all over the world.” Specific locations mentioned in the article were Venezuela, Syria, Iraq and Yemen (by supporting war efforts of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Afghanistan, Bahrain and “Palestine, that continues to be crushed under the boot of Zionist occupation” supported by the United States. Keyhan also mentions U.S. involvement in Taiwan and South Korea.

The editorial wraps up the crisis in Ukraine with the nuclear talks in Vienna, and reinforces the argument of opponents of the agreement that the United States cannot be trusted: “Through the policy of economic terrorism, the United States is trying to impose an unjust nuclear deal on Iran. This follows four decades during which the United States committed every possible crime against the Iranian people, which does not need anyone’s approval to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Khamenei’s mouthpiece

In a similar vein, Hanif Ghafari, an Iranian expert on U.S. affairs, published an article in the conservative newspaper Resalat, “The Result of Trust in the West,” in which he wrote:

“Ukraine has officially become a playground for Russia and NATO. The United States and NATO are attacking Russia by announcing and imposing a series of sanctions because of its recognition of the eastern regions of Ukraine [Luhansk and Donetsk], but they forgot their part in creating the crisis. The West and its supporters in Ukraine played a large part in overthrowing the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych (president 2010–2014) and worsening ties between Kyiv and Moscow. And those same Europeans who encouraged the Ukrainians to sever political ties with Moscow refuse to allow Ukraine to join the European Union…

“Western media ignore the fundamentals of the crisis and its fundamental facts. They should answer once and for all the question of whether, had the West not intervened in the events of 2014, we would have witnessed the current chaotic situation in Ukraine? Clearly, even raising this central question is a red line for many American-European politicians and media. Ukraine was slaughtered today by the dangerous intervention strategies of the United States and NATO, a fact that not only the President of Ukraine but other Western officials will not have the power to deny.

“And today, U.S. President Joe Biden, the main culprit in the current Ukraine crisis, watches from the White House in confusion and to the embarrassment of NATO supporters, supposedly talking about his absolute support for Kyiv but at the same time insisting that he will not enter into a military confrontation with Russia! Russia knows for sure that Ukraine’s accession to NATO will be a prelude to the membership of other countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and even Azerbaijan. As a result, a siege will be imposed on Russia. This time, Russia decided to act decisively in the face of the crisis in Ukraine.”

Officials warn of consequences of standing up for Russia

Ali Motahari is a conservative, the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari and the brother-in-law of Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. The younger Motahari served as deputy speaker of the Majlis (2016–2019) and, in recent years, voiced pragmatic opinions and criticized the government of President Raisi. He recommended that the heads of the Iranian regime not be so happy about what is happening in Ukraine, because Iran may again be on the losing side.

Motahari tweeted: “Iran must condemn Russian aggression on Ukraine in order to prove its independence. Currently, the Iranian Broadcasting Authority reports on events in Ukraine as if it was one of the Russian colonies. Let us always remember the historical theft of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia from the hands of Iran by Czarist Russia, and we must remember the Soviet support for Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran.”

Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, is a courageous politician known for her blunt statements against the regime’s leaders. She declared Iran was “paying ransoms to China and Russia for anti-American and anti-Western policies and to get out of isolation. We’re selling the homeland just so there’s someone to stand with us on foreign policy. We forget to act within national interests.”

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in recent years has become one of the most outspoken critics of Iranian regime leaders, republished his long letter to President Putin of May 2021 that warned the Russian president that extending the rule of a single person would become a source of corruption. Ahmadinejad recommended that Putin end his reign and allow others to succeed him.

Mehrdad Khedir, a commentator on the conservative website Asr-e Iran, suggests that the United States will be more preoccupied with Putin and less with the nuclear deal. He emphasizes that if the nuclear talks fail and the IAEA Board of Governors passes the case to the U.N. Security Council, there is a growing possibility that this time Russia will veto a resolution. (In Khedir’s view, Russia, like China, did not use its veto power in seven resolutions on sanctions against Iran during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure because the Russians did not want Iran to become a nuclear power either, but this time the situation is different, and “Russia will not vote with the United States and Europe against us.”)

Other factors are at play: rising oil prices; imposing sanctions on Russia will make Iran less isolated; Russia did not attack an Islamic State, and therefore it was easier for Iran to take a stand in Russia’s favor; U.S. abandonment of Ukraine would allow Iran to exert pressure on elements in the region that are under U.S. protection.

At the same time, Khedir warns against euphoria because Iran’s official policy does not support separatist tendencies (such as the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk) that could serve as a boomerang in the separatism-prone Iranian provinces (East Azerbaijan, Khuzestan) and that evoke the bitter memories of the Russian Czar’s imprisonment of Persian kings, which led to the loss of Iranian territory.

The reformist newspaper Etemad was tougher against Iran’s pro-Russia policies and suggested caution, as the move, it said, could end with a deal between the West and Russia, and the latter could pay for it “with Iranian and Syrian cards… and even in the nuclear talks in Vienna. Therefore, the Iranian statesmen must end these talks quickly and maximize the profits to Iran.”

In another article (Feb. 26), Etemad criticized the phone call between Putin and Raisi and between the Iranian foreign minister and his Russian counterpart, arguing that Iran should refrain from supporting Russia and should also call the president of Ukraine. “Yes, some invasions end in favor of the attacked. Even Taliban leaders have maintained neutrality,” he wrote.

The fate of the nuclear agreement

The “final alignment” in the nuclear talks in Vienna and apparently the presentation of the draft agreement to the decision-makers in Tehran are being conducted in parallel with the crisis in Ukraine. Russia plays a central role in the talks, especially when it comes to advancing Iran’s negotiating position. The nuclear issue was also raised during the update talks that preceded the Russian leadership’s meeting with the Iranian president and its foreign minister, and it is possible that Iran will further harden its position in light of the newly created international reality and the confrontation between Russia and the West following the invasion of Ukraine. It is also possible that the signing of the nuclear agreement will be postponed or dropped from the agenda in light of the new international agenda.

Iran and its proxies are also emphasizing to the Gulf States and other U.S. allies that Washington is a slim reed on which to rely at critical times. Iran is reinforcing its national security view that local production capacity in the military, economic and energy sectors, including nuclear energy, should be relied upon. The imposition of sanctions on Russia puts Iran and Russia in a kind of fateful partnership against the West, and it appears that the two will continue their coordination in the security sphere as well.

IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.

This article was first published by The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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