Iran, like most other countries, was surprised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Over time, however, analysis of the war has led the Iranian regime to reach certain conclusions about the impact of nuclear capability and the shifting nature of the world order.
The regime’s calculations and decisions have already been affected by the Russian invasion, which has caused it to rethink its stance on reentering the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Iran now has no intention of doing so. In addition, Iran has rethought its need for military firepower and its expectation of gaining Russian support for its regional ambitions. As a result, tensions over Iran will likely rise.
The official Iranian position on the Russia-Ukraine war is deft and avoids “supporting Russia” outright. However, since the conflict began, senior Iranian politicians have taken a steadfast stance that aligns with Russia’s, blaming NATO and the West for the conflict. The Iranian position cannot be interpreted as “standing with” Russia, however. With a few exceptions, Iran and Russia are anything but allies and view one another with suspicion.
On an unofficial domestic level in Iran, one can find various viewpoints, from hardliners to dissidents, but the vast majority of Iranians traditionally despise Russia and support Ukraine. Countless Iranian youth hate Russia because they see parallels between the Russian and Iranian regimes. Given this context, it is understandable that Iranian leaders dislike being portrayed as Russia supporters.
However, the strategic sphere is where the most important lessons have been learned. These lessons are already affecting Iranian behavior. In particular, Iranian media and officials are constantly emphasizing Ukraine’s loss of deterrence. They point to Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, which took place within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 under the auspices of the U.S.
The theory presented is that the Russian invasion could have been prevented if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons. Iran, therefore, should not give up on its quest for a nuclear shield. Officials in Iran highlight the 1994 U.S. guarantee of Ukraine’s security as evidence of American and Western untrustworthiness. Thus, the regime’s logic becomes clear: Nuclear weapons are required for effective deterrence, and Iran should not trade this deterrence for untrustworthy promises from the U.S. and its allies.
Iran has also learned from the Ukraine conflict that military capability, rather than international standing, is the most critical factor in deterrence. Russia’s use of precision-guided short- and medium-range ballistic missile strikes to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure is crucial to this analysis. Even if Iran does not intend to fight a conventional war, the importance of rockets on the battlefield is evident.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers have observed Ukraine’s inability to inflict damage behind Russian lines, and an official IRGC news release stated that the war in Ukraine highlights the significance of missiles for Iran, because they can create what is referred to as a “balance of terror” and force the enemy to the negotiating table.
Only artillery fire and unending missile strikes in Ukraine’s rear helped the Russian army hold the Donbas region. This supports Iran’s assessment of Hezbollah: Even if it cannot defeat the IDF on the battlefield, the terror group’s missile arsenal poses a strategic threat to Israel. Iranian nuclear weapons acting as a shield for Hezbollah would thus become Israel’s primary strategic risk.
In terms of longer-range missile projects, no country has ever developed ballistic missiles without the intention of launching them with a nuclear payload. Iran’s ballistic missile program is intertwined with its military nuclear program.
Iran appears to have lost faith in the possibility of reviving the JCPOA. It will continue on its nuclear path while attempting to take advantage of the conflict between the U.S. and Russia in order to carry on with its regional policies as usual. To keep U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise that Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, the West and ultimately Israel must now face the consequences of this strategic posture.
Biden’s decision to relax some sanctions and turn a blind eye to Iran’s efforts to evade them has been beneficial to Iran thus far. Its economy expanded last year, outpacing recent annual growth. Biden’s policy must drastically shift if Iran is to be steered away from its current course.
Capt. (res.) Alexander Grinberg is a member of the IDF Military Intelligence research department. He holds degrees in Middle East and Islamic studies and Arabic language and literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, focusing on Iranian history.
This is an edited version of an article first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.