Tehran finds itself in a geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic bind.
President Vladimir Putin’s decrees recognising the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent countries, which came three days before he announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine, have left the world nervous about what will come next in Europe’s worst security crisis since 1945. One country which finds itself facing a dilemma because of Russia’s multi-pronged attack on Ukraine is Iran.
Unsurprisingly, Tehran responded to both Putin’s decrees and Europe’s descent into war by blaming the US and NATO. Yet Iran did not join Moscow in recognising these two breakaway republics as independent entities, nor did Tehran express support for Putin’s declaration of war on Ukraine. Instead, on Tuesday Tehran called for calm and diplomatic measures to end warfare between Moscow and Kiev—two days before urging all Iranian citizens to leave Ukraine.
The Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesman, Said Khatibzadeh, addressed Putin’s decrees by urging “all parties to exercise restraint and avoid any action that could aggravate tensions.” The ministry called on all sides “to work to resolve disagreements [through] talks and within a peaceful framework.” Khatibzadeh stated that Tehran is “following the issues related to [Ukraine] with sensitivity.”
Hours after Russia launched its land, sea and air assault on Ukraine, the Iranian foreign ministry put out a tweet calling for a cessation of hostilities and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. “We believe resorting to war is not the solution. The establishment of a ceasefire and focusing on a political and democratic solution is a must.”
On one hand, the Islamic Republic does not want to upset the Kremlin. Tehran has had to turn to Moscow quite a bit in recent years as part of its efforts to circumvent crippling US sanctions and other forms of American pressure. Throughout this year, Iran has been attempting to capitalise on intensifying friction between the West and Russia amid the heating up of the Ukrainian crisis.
President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Russia last month underscored Iran’s determination to demonstrate to the Kremlin that Tehran stands on Moscow’s side against Washington.
“Just like you, we have also stood up against US sanctions from 40 years ago,” Raisi told Putin. “Today’s exceptional circumstances require significant synergy between our two countries against US unilateralism.”
On the other hand, just as Tehran did not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 as legitimate, nor Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics six years earlier, it is safe to bet that the Islamic Republic will not do so with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. So far, the only countries to have joined Russia in recognising these breakaway republics’ independence are Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela.
A key factor is Iran’s own internal problems with separatist forces in Khuzestan, Sistan and Baluchestan, and other parts of the country. Like Chinese officialdom, Iran’s authorities have worries about a precedent being established that could undermine the Iranian state’s territorial integrity down the line.
“I would describe the Iranian reaction [to Putin’s February 21 decrees] as cautious and rather awkward,” said Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, in an interview with TRT World.
“Iran is so isolated itself that it can’t afford to alienate the few friends it has in the international community. But it can’t be pleased to see Russia – which absorbed major chunks of the Persian empire in the past – biting off bits of another sovereign country.”
Tehran’s relationships with Russia’s neighbours, including Georgia and Ukraine, can also help explain Iran’s refusal to join Moscow in recognising Russian-backed breakaway republics as independent nation-states.
The nuclear file
Possibly the most important question that Iranian officials are asking themselves is how the consequences of Putin’s recent decrees and the Russian attack on Ukraine will impact the prospects for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as nuclear talks continue in Vienna.
This latest escalation of tensions over Donbass may bode well for hopes that world powers and Iran will successfully reconstitute the 2015 nuclear accord.
“I think [recent tensions between the West and Russia over eastern Ukraine] could actually act as a catalyst for a resolution [of the Iranian nuclear standoff] since this is one of the few areas where the P5+1 is in agreement,” Slavin told TRT World. “Nobody needs or wants another crisis affecting global security.”
By the same token, there is also the possibility that Russia could slow down the Vienna talks or undermine Iran’s positions to gain concessions from Washington in relation to the Ukraine crisis. Officialdom in Tehran have long feared that Moscow might ditch Iran as part of a greater set of negotiations with the West that would leave Tehran increasingly on its own internationally.
For now, the Iranians will carefully navigate the fallout from Ukraine in ways that enable them to avoid losing Moscow as an important partner albeit without having to support the Russian military campaign in Ukraine nor the Kremlin’s position on the breakaway regions.
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