Shay Khatiri, author of The Russia-Iran File newsletter and a foreign policy writer for The Bulwark, spoke to an April 22nd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Clifford Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, about the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Iran and the Middle East.
According to Khatiri, Tehran's primary concern is the "resuscitation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)," currently being renegotiated with the U.S. The regime initially voiced support for Russia's offensive in Ukraine, largely because of Moscow's role as an intermediary in the indirect talks between Washington and Iran. While regime supporters in Iran "parrot" Putin's criticism of NATO and the U.S., Khatiri said there are "rifts" in the people's support for Russia.
Iran's historical grievances account for the regime's difficulty in projecting a positive image of Moscow to "a very resistant population." Russia's unpopularity among the Iranian public is attributable to the centuries-old wars between the Russian Empire and Persia, as well as Russia's history of "meddling in Iranian politics." Against this backdrop of friction between the two countries, Tehran's parliamentary officials complain about the delay in Russia's delivery of the expensive S300 missile defense systems and Russia's reneging on its contract to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
While Russia and Iran are putative allies, the fact that regime supporters "acknowledge the atrocities" being committed against the Ukrainians makes Putin's war a "wedge issue" between the regime and its supporters. Although the regime quickly dispersed sporadic protests expressing "outrage" by Iranians who vandalized the Russian embassy in Tehran, Khatiri said the "average Iranian" cares more about the "extremely miserable" circumstances living under the regime's authoritarian rule.
Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat from the days preceding the Islamic revolution and a prominent Iranian opposition figure, questioned whether the Iranians consider Russia "obstructionist" in negotiating the "revived" JCPOA. Khatiri explained that the decline in Russia's popularity began with the JCPOA of 2015 because Russia pursued its own national interests and has been "quite clear ... they don't want Iran to get nuclear weapons." He said that Russia is "no fan" of Iran's nuclear program, preferring to have a regional nuclear monopoly. The animus Iranians feel towards Russia even extends to Moscow's ally, China, and is driven by "the additional incentive that you hate your enemy's friend."
In response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Iran's regional foes, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have "gained leverage" against the U.S. as payback for the Biden administration's lack of support over both countries' "reservations" over the JCPOA. The fact that these Gulf States pointedly ignored Washington's request to "pump more oil" is an indication that the current U.S. administration did not heed the lesson learned by President Reagan who succeeded in "democratizing allies" by maintaining good relations, despite disagreements. Khatiri said it is possible, for example, to criticize KSA's "human rights atrocities ... without killing the relationship."
Erdoğan's positioning of Turkey as an intermediary in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine has impacted Ankara's relationship with Iran. While Turkey and Iran vie for the role of "defender of the Muslim nation" in the region, as they both compete to restore their empires, they also share a history of warfare. Thus, the Iranian people harbor a similar animus towards Turkey that they feel towards Russia. Iran also fears that Turkish separatists in its own country will make moves to secede, which would garner Ankara's support and stoke Tehran's fears of Turkish "annexation." Erdoğan's recent overtures to Israel is an issue Iran would exploit by fanning "anti-Zionist tendencies in the region," but NATO's Article 5 makes any move against Turkey a non-starter.
Khatiri believes the West can drive a deeper wedge between Russia and Iran with "information campaigns targeting the regime's supporters." These campaigns would emphasize the historical grievances between the two countries, spotlight Moscow's broken promises to the regime, publicize Russia's discrimination against its Muslim population, and highlight Russia's atrocities against Muslims in Syria. Given the Iranian people's animosity towards China, Russia's ally, still another strategy would inform the average Iranian about China's mistreatment of its Uyghur Muslim population. While exacerbating divisions could yield results favorable to the West, Khatiri said that "at the end of the day, Iranians need the Russians, and Russians need the Iranians."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.