After months of trading barbs with Ukraine's allies in the West, Tehran is now fully engaged alongside Moscow in the conflict, most notably with supplies of so-called Kamikaze drones. Although the fact that Iran still denies its activities is a sign that the partnership is loaded.
In Ukraine, they’ve been nicknamed “mopeds” for the sound of their motors as they terrorize from the air. The Shahed-136 kamikaze drones striking Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, and Odessa are also the most visible sign that Iran has officially entered the war in Ukraine as an active military partner for Russia.
These drones, which have a range of more than 1,000 kilometers, are being launched from Crimea and Voronezh in southwestern Russia. They cost far less than missiles, and although they don't have the same destructive power, they can kill humans and disable critical infrastructure at any moment on any street in any Ukrainian city.
U.S. intelligence, which had warned this past summer that Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to buy a large batch of drones, are now reporting that Iran is also planning to sell ground-to-ground ballistic missiles to Moscow. On top of this, there are multiple reports that Iran is sending military advisors to train Russians to use their weapons.
After limiting itself in the first months of the war to rhetorical barbs aimed at Ukraine’s allies in the West, the past two weeks have thus seen a major escalation of Tehran’s role alongside Moscow.
To some degree, it can be explained by a natural affinity between two ambitious regional powers who share authoritarian control over their respective countries and a common enemy in the West. But there are multiple layers and often conflicting interests behind this cautious alliance — one in which Iran continues to deny its direct involvement in the war. On Monday Tehran called the accusations that it is supplying weapons to Russia a "media war."
Indeed, the denials are a sign that Tehran is aware of a variety of risks to its self-interest of backing Russia, from economics to diplomacy to domestic resistance during the ongoing street protests. But Iran is forging ahead regardless.
What’s the history of Russia-Iran relations?
Relations date back more than a millennium between these two former and would-be future empires, whose geographic vicinity has varied over the centuries, depending on the reach of the respective domains.
Official diplomatic relations were established in 1521 between the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Persian Empire, with commercial and diplomatic ties ebbing and flowing until the late 19th century, when Russia and Britain sought to control parts of Iran. The Russian Revolution of 1917 would eventually lead to the expansion of the Soviet Union to include Azerbaijan, which meant that the USSR and Iran would share a border for decades.
During the Cold War, relations between the USSR and Iran were ambiguous: Politically, the Shah's Iran was oriented toward the United States. But economically, Moscow and Tehran maintained solid trade relations. Soviet leader Mikhail Brezhnev greeted the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran favorably, as it targeted Tehran's alliance with Washington; yet in the Iran-Iraq war, the USSR supported Iraq even while continuing to trade and build infrastructure and energy facilities in Iran.
The withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan markedly improved Iranian-Russian contacts, and Moscow has also been Iran's key nuclear energy partner since 1992.
More recently, Russia also helped Iran solve some of its regional military problems: In 2015, Putin sent air power to Syria to prevent the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad, whom Iran actively supported. The operations required Russian and Iranian militaries to work closely together, including Moscow’s air force covering Iranian fighters and their proxy forces in ground operations.
While the regimes of Putin and Supreme leader Ali Khamenei share a prime enemy in the United States, Tehran had held off in supplying any material support after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But that has changed with the arrival of both the deadly drones and Iranian military personnel to train Russian troops.
Why is Iran arming Russia now?
Iran's earlier position of relative neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war made sense to many, in part for economic reasons.
Both Russia and Iran are struggling under international sanctions and have to look for markets that are not as subjected to scrutiny, which makes them competitors for trade across Asia, and China specifically.
They often have contrasting positions in energy markets, with Iran's exports of oil products suffering as Russia looks to reduce supply. Iran's steel exports were down almost 15% in September, which can also be attributed to Moscow, which slashed steel prices Previously, the main exporters of Iranian steel were South Korea and China.
So what changed the policy in Tehran?
Mikhail Podolyak, the head of the Ukraine Presidential Office, blamed Iran for agreeing to be "directly complicit in the mass murder of Ukrainians." Why?, he asked: "Russia offered something important to Iran in exchange for killer drones and a ballistic missile contract. It is one of these options: uranium and other materials; nuclear technology; regional guarantees from the Russian Federation."
Yet Israeli military expert David Gendelman believes the reason why Iran is helping Russia is not the hope for assistance in developing nuclear weapons: Russia has no interest in the emergence of another nuclear state. But what Iran cannot create on its own under sanctions is military aviation, which Russia can provide.
"Iran is actively developing drones precisely because it does not have the ability to build aircraft. Russia has most likely offered practical assistance in this matter. Besides, Iran needs money; the state of their economy under sanctions is much more difficult than in Russia," he believes.
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Will Israel turn against Russia?
On Oct. 21, Israel launched missile strikes on a military facility in Syria. Syrian agencies reported that the plant where the kamikaze drones were made was completely destroyed. But there is no evidence that the factory made drones for Russia — and this strike by itself does not mean that Israel started to actively support Ukraine militarily.
This is kind of crossing a line.
Still, last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that relations between Israel and Russia have become more complicated due to Russia's cooperation with Iran, adding that Israel is monitoring arms shipments against Ukraine and is doing its best to let the U.S. and Ukraine's other allies know them. But once again, as the prime minister stressed, this does not mean that Israel is ready to help Ukraine with weapons, particularly anti-air defenses.
"This is kind of crossing a line, a crossing that, for many reasons, seems wrong to me. I'm talking about a series of arguments that are relevant to our national security. I won't go into details, but this policy seems right to me. It does not cancel our commitment to support Ukraine and the principle of its territorial integrity," the minister said.
What are the risks for Russia and Iran for their military alliance?
Ukraine responded to Iran sending drones by breaking off diplomatic relations and demanding that Kyiv's allies use all available levers of pressure on Tehran. The most important of these levers is the reactivation of the nuclear deal that Iran has been negotiating with the West since Donald Trump left office.
"Ukraine can convince the West that tying the issue of stopping drone supplies to the prospect of lifting Western sanctions is the only incentive for Iran to be cautious in its dealings with Russia," says Ilya Kusa, an expert on international politics and the Middle East at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future.
Newly reelected Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not mention Russia during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. He sees a bipolar world with only two leaders: China and the United States. In that logic, Iran, like Ukraine, will be able to get reasonable offers from the U.S. and China, thus bypassing obligatory relations with Russia — which risks being a far weaker world player if it is effectively defeated in Ukraine.
Indeed, it all returns to events on the battlefield. Russia's turning to Iran for its kamikaze zones is a reaction to its continuing difficulty to gain and hold territory in Ukraine. But if Moscow's war is ultimately a failure, Iran will be more isolated on the world stage than ever.
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