Issa Adeli: “It would be a mistake for Ukraine to lose Iran”

The New Geopolitics Research Network brings to your attention interview with independent analyst, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at the University of Tehran, Issa Adeli.

Putin’s trip to Iran comes after United States officials claimed that Tehran may sell “hundreds” of armed drones to Russia. The Kremlin and Iranian authorities denied these assumptions. Nevertheless, could you please tell how reliable these rumors are and how much they can affect the war in Ukraine?

Actually, Russia showed interest in Iranian UAVs long before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. However, the surge of interest in the topics of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow in the field of unmanned technologies arose precisely after a series of statements by officials in the United States, regarding Iran’s alleged intentions to deliver its UAVs to Russia.

So far, such assumptions have not received a factual basis and as you said, Iranian authorities denied sending drones to Russia. In my opinion, the assumption about “several hundred UAVs”, which was voiced by the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, seems to be illogical. Selling such a large number of modern unmanned aerial systems appears to be a short-sighted step since Iran is in constant need for them to secure its own objectives.

However, we may assume a theoretical possibility that such negotiations took place. American intelligence was quite accurate in its assessment of the war in Ukraine and traditionally has a heightened interest in Moscow-Tehran relations. Therefore, the announced information could be an attempt to anticipate further developments.

Anyway, I think Iranian drones, if reaches the fronts, which we don’t know yet, most likely will not change the balance at the battlefield and will not significantly affect the course of the war. The weapons provided to Ukraine by the West will sooner or later establish a technological advantage over the Russian army. I believe our Ukrainian fellow shouldn’t worry about it. The most important development of the war is the probable counteroffensive in Kherson direction. Thus, Russians need defensive capabilities at this stage, not offensive ones. It is also worth noting that, except for reconnaissance, UAVs are more useful for offensive operations.

Could there be any other reasons for concern among Ukrainians regarding Putin’s visit to Tehran?

Undoubtedly, Putin’s visit to Tehran could raise doubts about Iran’s position in the eyes of Ukrainian society. However, I want to assure you that the majority of Iranians support the independence, self-determination, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

As for Iranian government, its position is ambivalent. On the one hand, it has no interest in war. On the other hand, officials in Tehran consider the conflict through the prism of the confrontation of the East and the West – a global clash between Russia and NATO. Therefore, although the government officials publicly express support for Russia, in practice Iran remains neutral. By the way, such a policy is common to some other countries too. For example, India maintains friendly relations with Russia; in particular, India ramped up Russian oil imports, easing pressure on Moscow. However, criticism of New Delhi from the West remains very moderate. This demonstrates that Western politicians understand the importance of India in strategic balancing with China in the Asia-Pacific region – they simply define priorities.

I want to emphasize that this does not mean that Asian countries have something against Ukraine. They simply do not want to move in the fairway of the politics of the West or Russia. It is significant that the results of the visits of the US and Russian presidents to the Persian Gulf countries, which took place almost simultaneously, had such meager results for both leaders. Biden tried to enlist the support of Saudi Arabia in the issue of increasing oil production. However the Saudis’ promise of a 50% increase in production compared to what was planned for July and August does not sound like harbinger of significant changes in the oil market. 

As for Putin it was important for him to demonstrate during Tehran visit that Russia is not isolated and has reliable partners. However, this is only a declarative goal, for which we have not seen any concreteness so far.

The war in Ukraine is developing into a protracted conflict between Russia and the West. How to preserve trust in the relations between Ukraine and Iran under such conditions?

Ukrainian diplomacy should be proactive.  Still, there is a possibility to maintain a dialogue with Iran. However, in the field of communications, the peculiarities of local political culture and historical experience should be taken into account. Let me give you an example. Such narratives as “Ukraine is a democracy that opposes authoritarianism” or “Russia systematically violates international law” will not find a proper response among Iranians. But the message about the struggle for independence will be far more understandable here. The narrative of overcoming the consequences of colonialism will find an appropriate response among Iranians.

 Instead of reacting to individual reports in the media, Ukraine should focus on the development of diplomatic dialogue with Iran. Given the chosen course of deepening integration with the SCO and BRICS countries, Tehran must take Moscow’s position into account. Therefore, Iranian authorities point at the role of NATO in creating such a mess. However, the main position, which the Minister of Foreign Affairs repeatedly emphasizes in his statements, is the condemnation of violence.

Thus, given the reliable contact between Tehran and Moscow, Kyiv may even think about Iran as a mediator. Ukrainian authorities may establish a communication channel with Moscow through Tehran.   It may not necessarily be public.

By the way, President Zelenskyy recently dismissed the ambassador of Ukraine to Iran, so Ukraine should not delay in appointing its official envoy. It would be a mistake for Ukraine to lose Iran. It is possible to keep Tehran in a neutral position, which would be entirely beneficial for Kyiv.

Russia has consistently torpedoed the idea of a “nuclear agreement” between Tehran and the US, which would open the floodgates of Western markets for Iranian oil. Actually, the very aggression against Ukraine is a telling testimony that in the historical perspective, nuclear weapons are a more valuable security guarantee than international treaties. Whether Tehran takes into account the negative Ukrainian experience of Budapest Memorandum?

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 is rarely mentioned in Iran. At that time, Ukraine had neither the technological capabilities to maintain a nuclear arsenal nor the diplomatic resources to resist external pressure from both the United States and Russia, which at that time were at the peak of their bilateral relations. Therefore, in the Iranian media there were only a few mentions about Ukraine in the context of unreliable security guarantees. But even these estimates are rather moderate, so as not to undermine the reputation of Russia, which is portrayed as a friendly country. Public opponents of the nuclear agreement with the USA are supporters of Russia, so it is inappropriate for them to highlight an analogy with Ukraine and the Budapest Memorandum. It’s a contradiction they can’t resolve, so they just ignore it.

Russia and Iran officially opposed the next Turkish military operation in northern Syria. Whether these contradictions were resolved during the visit of Putin and Erdogan to Tehran?

Turkey considers current situation as favorable for implementing its regional ambitions. In the context of Turkey’s upcoming operation in Northern Syria (expansion of the 30-kilometer control zone along the Turkish-Syrian border), Moscow and Tehran could meet some of Ankara’s concerns. However, Russia and Iran doubts that President Erdogan’s real goal is probably to change the regime in Damascus. Thus, they have no desire to help him in these intentions.

Instead, Turkey believes that geopolitical factors are stacked in its favor – Russia will reduce its presence in Syria due to problems in Eastern Europe, including the war in Ukraine; Israel is involved in a more active confrontation with Iran on the territory of Syria. Under these conditions, Ankara is just waiting for a convenient moment to start acting. Therefore, at this stage, the contradictions of Turkey, Russia and Iran cannot be resolved.

Interviewer: Volodymyr Solovian, The New Geopolitics Research Network

Issa Adeli

Independent researcher, Ph.D. Candidate of International Relations at the University of Tehran

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August 2022
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