The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The IRGC officers observe Ukraine’s inability to inflict damage behind Russian lines. According to an IRGC official news release, 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. The military purpose of the IRGC’s nuclear program is no longer a secret. They cite Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons under US supervision as evidence that Iran must maintain its nuclear deterrent.

Iran, along with many other nations in the region and beyond, was surprised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Initial responses in Tehran were conflicted, and there are indications of opposition from unexpected sources. Even so, the official narrative mirrors Russia’s criticism of the West; over time, this has led to conclusions about the impact of nuclear power and the shifting nature of the world order.

The Iranian regime’s calculations and decisions have already been affected by these developments, which have caused it to rethink its stance on the JCPOA (which it has no plans to reenter), its need for military firepower, and its expectation of gaining Russian support for its regional ambitions. Tensions over Iran will likely rise.

Official Iranian Position on the War

The official Iranian position is deft and avoids outrightly “supporting Russia.” 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.

In a televised speech on March 1, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claimed that Ukraine was yet another casualty of the actions carried out by Washington’s “mafia regime” No Iranian official denounced Russia or showed solidarity with Ukraine. 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 suspiciously.

With a few exceptions, Iran and Russia are anything but allies and view one another suspiciously. However, he cautioned on Twitter that Iran does not see “resort to war as a solution” and urges the establishment of a ceasefire. Iran chose not to join the only five countries (Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria) who voted against the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of Russia. It did not vote, just like 35 other countries. Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi criticized the UN resolution as biased but did not fully support Russia in his remarks. He also argued that all civilians’ safety and security must be ensured and that territorial integrity and sovereignty must be fully respected.

Iranian Domestic Criticism of Russia

However, on an unofficial domestic level in Iran, one can find various viewpoints, from hardliners to dissidents. Russia has received open criticism from unexpected sources. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in English for his “honorable, and almost unrivaled resistance uncovered the Satanic plots of enemies of mankind,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent reformist political scientist and writer in Iran, even apologized to the Ukrainians for the regime’s support for Russia. Zibakalam tweeted, “Many Iranians stand with Ukraine’s people and condemn the aggression.”

The vast majority of Iranians traditionally despise Russia and support Ukraine, prompting The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated Javan and Khamenei’s mouthpiece Kayhan to mock those who regard themselves as regime loyalists while criticizing the regime’s official leniency toward Russia. There are some internal political mechanisms at work. Dissidents or even legitimate politicians who oppose the regime, such as Ahmadinejad, openly declare their support for Ukraine. Hardliners see support for Ukraine as a sign of the potential for dissent. In other words, the discussion is about Iran, not Russia or Ukraine.

In addition, the regime is aware of the particular circumstances that call for it to juggle as best it can between opposing policy axes: it is cautious of upsetting Russia, but it cannot ignore the complicated history of Iran’s relations with Moscow. To put it mildly, the regime is aware of Russia’s lack of popularity in Iran. Countless Iranian youth despise Russia because they see parallels between Russia’s and Iran’s regimes. Given this context, it is understandable that Iranian leaders dislike being portrayed as Russia’s supporters. However, neither public opinion (as expressed primarily through social media) nor official statements provide a comprehensive picture of what is important to Iran.

Economic Objectives

Contrary to popular belief in the West, foreign companies are uninterested in the Iranian market due to rampant corruption and mismanagement, not to mention a lack of legal provisions protecting foreign investors. The Russians are well aware of this, and Russian companies have no plans to operate in Iran. In the meantime, everything portrayed in the West as growing cooperation between Russia and Iran remains only on the level of a non-binding memorandum of understanding.

Russia is Iran’s trade rival because both countries compete to export their respective hydrocarbons to the same markets. Some Iranian analysts believe that if Iran and the West reach an agreement, Iran will supply more gas to Europe, increasing competition with Russia. 

Furthermore, the Ukraine war has caused a food shortage due to skyrocketing grain prices caused by a reduction in Ukrainian wheat exports. This crisis also affects Iran with draughts and price increases for food products such as bread. As a result, the Iranian media frequently expresses concern about the ongoing crisis. Even though Iran does not influence the conflict, it is wary of the poor prospects for a quick cease-fire.

Iran Unlikely to Abandon its Nuclear Option

However, the strategic sphere is where the most important lessons can be found, not in the economic or diplomatic spheres. These lessons are already affecting Iranian behavior. Iranian media and officials are constantly emphasizing Ukraine’s loss of deterrence. At the start of the war, numerous Iranian news outlets cited Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 under the auspices of the US.

According to this logic, the war could have been prevented if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons. Iran must draw lessons from the current situation of the Ukrainian people, and one of those lessons is that it should not give up on a nuclear shield. Officials in Iran highlight that the United States guaranteed Ukrainian security in 1994 as evidence of American and Western untrustworthiness.

In a Friday sermon, Khamenei’s representative in Qazvin, Abdul Kareem Abadini, stated that “the Americans are trying to disarm the Iranian nation and trap this nation to the fate of Ukraine.” Thus, the regime’s logic becomes clear: nuclear weapons are required for better deterrence, and Iran should not trade its deterrence for untrustworthy promises from the US and its allies.

Iranian politicians are no longer concerned with concealing the military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program. Those who advocate vehemently that Iran cannot trust the US or base its strategy on US promises have further ammunition in their arsenal thanks to the Ukrainian experience. On July 17, Kamal Kharazi, a senior adviser to Khamenei, stated that Iran could develop nuclear weapons. Still, no decision on whether to do so has been made, even though the supreme leader has supposedly issued a religious injunction (fatwa) prohibiting it. However, it should be borne in mind that the wording of Khamenei’s fatwa has never been published, and there is no proof that the fatwa in question exists. Finally, Khamenei has never been an actual religious authority worthy of awe and respect.

It should be remembered that the demand for American guarantees against future administration actions was at the heart of the debate over returning to the JCPOA (such guarantees cannot be given unless the document becomes a ratified treaty – which cannot happen given the sentiments of the US Senate). An alternative mechanism involving Russia was also discussed, but its implementation is highly unlikely due to the war. Those who are now railing against trusting the US argue that Iran should walk away from the negotiating table.

Missiles and Their Importance

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 a crucial lesson. Even if Iran does not intend to fight a conventional war or invade, the importance of rockets on the battlefield is evident.

Similarly, Iran is taking into account Russia’s failed attempt to achieve total air superiority. Iran had previously relied on Russian aircraft and SAM batteries to build its air force and air defense. This reinforces Iran’s decision not to invest in its air force in favor of a missile arsenal. It may now allocate sizeable budgets to developing already-existing drones and ballistic missiles. The success of Russian missile strikes has also relied heavily on multiple missiles being simultaneously launched at a single target. Iran is also planning to expand its missile arsenal. The Ukrainian conflict may also change Iran’s perception of missile power’s effectiveness in a large-scale, long-term battle, such as that fought by Iran’s proxies in Yemen or Lebanon.

The IRGC officers observe Ukraine’s inability to inflict damage behind Russian lines. According to an IRGC official news release, 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.

Maj-Gen Aziz Nasirzadeh, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said that the major lesson of the Ukraine war is this: “Ukraine, they gave up the nuclear power, the nukes having the deterrence power; and as a result, got trapped into the crisis. Some people in our country say the same, meaning we must renounce defensive capacity and make peace.  In today’s world, we cannot ignore the military and deterrent capacity, and the weaker we become, the more strikes we will get.” 

He went on to argue, “Today, the geography of the Iranian resistance has expanded, and the resistance front has grown by localizing its capabilities so that today they make their own weapons and equipment.” It hints at Hezbollah’s and other Iranian proxies’ capabilities in the Middle East. The lesson is clear: Iran’s deterrence requires both conventional and unconventional military capabilities. As a result, Iran will never agree to negotiate its missile program within a renewed JCPOA, nor will it agree to limit its proxies.

All of the preceding statements leave no doubt that Iran wants to keep its nuclear program, that it is military in nature, and that the Ukraine war has only increased the importance that Iran places on its missile capacity and missiles used by its proxies. It is reasonable to assume that they learned the value of the Russian artillery and missile arsenal from the battlefield.

Only artillery fire and unending missile strikes in Ukraine’s rear helped the Russian army hold Donbas. These developments support Iran’s assessment of Hezbollah: even if it cannot defeat the IDF on the battlefield, the 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. It is not by chance that Iranian officers mention nuclear weapons and missile defense. In other words, Iran’s ballistic missile program is intertwined with its military nuclear program.

The Regional Dimension: Iran’s Proxies and Russian Support

The missiles and drones used by Iran’s proxies are its most immediate source of power at this point when Tehran cannot yet rely on nuclear deterrence. Thus, Nasirzadeh’s statements above about the geographic expansion of Iranian resistance demonstrate that Iranian rhetoric about ‘deterrence’ implies an aggressive and offensive approach toward Israel and Arab countries.

If indeed Iran will never agree to give up its missile program, let alone the enrichment process, the lesson of the Ukraine war will only serve to strengthen that determination. A valuable tool for deterring preventive military action is the threat to harm Sunni states, Israel, and US interests. The Iranian regime repeatedly stated that the only goal of the Vienna talks was sanction relief. Additionally, Iran is adamant that the IRGC be taken off the list of terrorist groups. Furthermore, as Rob Malley put it, any progress in the negotiation is tedious at best in light of recent revelations about Iranian cheating. Iran has falsified information and compromised the IAIA’s secure database to elude investigations.

Thus, the ongoing Iranian deception and cheating undermine the logic of the principle that a bad deal is preferable to no agreement. The IRGC Quds Force has attempted to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians in Turkey. Under these conditions, delisting the IRGC or opting for sanctions relief is politically unfeasible for the Biden Administration – as much as it would have liked it otherwise. Therefore, the prospect of “other means” looms larger: but since the Iranians are aware of this, they now seek to enlist Russia and China as a way to intimidate and deter the United States and its allies.

Iran appears to have lost faith in the possibility of reviving the JCPOA. But given the threat implicit in its ability to disrupt the region, the regime does not believe that its situation will get worse as it could send oil prices sky-high. Iran will continue on its nuclear path while attempting to take advantage of the conflict between the US and Russia to carry on with its regional policies as usual.

The crisis in Ukraine proves that the regime is proper to maintain its nuclear and missile programs. To keep President Biden’s promise that Iran will not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, the West or, ultimately, Israel must now face the consequences of this Iranian perception.

Biden’s decision to relax some sanctions and turn a blind eye to Iran’s efforts to evade them has been beneficial to the country thus far. Iran’s economy expanded last year, outpacing growth seen in previous years. This viewpoint must drastically shift if Iran is to be steered away from its current course.

Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire