For the first time, Iran is fighting a major war on the European continent. Iranian military advisors, most likely members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, are on the ground in Ukraine — and possibly Belarus — helping Russia operate Iranian suicide drones targeting Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. According to an Israeli news report quoting a Ukrainian official, 10 Iranians were killed in a Ukrainian attack on Russian sites. Today, Tehran is preparing to supply Russia not only with potentially thousands of additional drones but also, for the first time, two types of ballistic missiles to supplement Russia’s dwindling stockpile.
According to a report published by the ‘Foreign Policy magazine the military support for Tehran is leaving its deadly imprint on the war, but the geopolitical consequences extend much further than that. By escalating its support for Russia’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine, Iran hopes to advance its project in the Middle East. Tehran is likely to seek to take advantage of the deep Russian-Iranian partnership in new arms deals with Moscow and to take advantage of the Ukrainian battlefield to improve the capabilities of its drones and missiles. At the same time, the regime in Iran is likely to hope that fueling the crisis in Ukraine will distract the West from confronting Iran’s pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East. However, Tehran’s entry into the ‘European War’ could help push Washington and its Western allies toward a more aggressive policy to confront it.
Russia turns to Iran
To address the battlefield weaknesses holding back its eight-month war against Ukraine, Russia has found a backer. Tehran, which has spent great resources and efforts in drone and missile programs since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, has provided Moscow with hundreds of marches of various types, most notably the ‘Shahid-136’ designed to carry out suicide operations. In addition to helping Russian forces eliminate stationary targets near the front lines, Iranian munitions have enabled Russia to launch several strikes on cities across Ukraine in recent weeks while maintaining its dwindling missile stockpile. Furthermore, the Shahid-136 had helped Russia destroy about 40 percent of Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure which affected half of the country’s non-nuclear power generation capacity. This resulted in massive blackouts and power rationing. As winter approaches, Moscow hopes that a military crackdown will erode Ukraine’s will to fight.
The US officials say today that Tehran will supply Moscow not only with Shahid-136 aircraft but also the Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar short-range ballistic missiles – another escalation of Iranian support for the Russian war. These two solid-fuel missiles are among the most accurate in Iran’s ballistic arsenal, which is the largest in the Middle East. The ‘Fateh 110’ is an old missile with a range of 250 to 300 kilometers (or approximately 150 to 190 miles), while the ‘Zulfiqar’ was revealed in 2016, as an update of the ‘Fateh 110’, and has a range of 700 kilometers (435 miles).
Iran has used different types of these missiles in numerous military operations over the past half-decade, including strikes on US sites in Iraq in January 2020 that caused more than 100 brain injuries among US service members. Although Iran has deployed various types of these weapons to its proxies in the Middle East, the regime has never before brought them to Eastern Europe. The Shahid-136 planes are expected to help Moscow maintain the remaining short-range Iskander ballistic missiles and other missiles, which Russia used sparingly as the war continued.
The cooperation between Tehran and Moscow in Ukraine has surprised many observers — including some of Russia’s leading experts on Iran. Despite their recent alliance, Iran and Russia have a long history of hostility and mistrust dating back to the ‘Tsarist era’, including a series of Russo-Persian Wars and frequent Russian interference in Iranian politics. During the Cold War, their relations were strained when Iran was led by the US-allied Shah and remained even worse after the Iranian revolution of 1979. The new Iranian regime called the Soviet Union ‘Satan’ on the side of the US and supported the Afghans against the Soviets, just as Moscow helped Baghdad During the Iran-Iraq war. Relations subsequently improved, as Russia assisted Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructure and missile programs in the 1990s, but remained subject to strife after Russia’s positions on several United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran over its growing nuclear program. However, Russian-Iranian relations have gained momentum since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and especially since his military intervention in Syria in 2015 to rescue their common ally, Bashar al-Assad. Despite continued suspicion and competition, both sides increasingly see their interests intertwined and driven by common opposition to the West.
Considering this context, the deal to provide Russia with drones, missiles, and military advisors has strategic meaning for Iran and could prove valuable to Tehran as one of its key partners in the anti-Western detente. The agreement also raises the question of what Iran might get in return. Today, Russia can offer Iran advanced combat aircraft or the S-400 air defense system, which Moscow previously refused to sell to Tehran.
Ukraine is a testing ground for Iran’s rallies
At the same time, Iran will obtain a large-scale test ground for its missile and drone platforms, against Western-made air defense systems and other weapons. Tehran is sure to apply the lessons learned from the Ukrainian theater to the development of future weapons and tactics in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, for Iran’s rulers, support for the Russian war in Ukraine is also an expansion of their offensive against the West. For decades, Iran has sought to expand its influence and weaken its rivals by providing weapons — including some of the drones and missiles it supplied to Russia — to armed groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Today, Tehran is applying the same strategy in Europe.
By fueling the crisis in Ukraine, Iran will likely hope to lead the United States to continue to divert its attention from the Middle East. Under three successive presidents, Washington has indicated that it prefers to largely divest from the region to divert military resources elsewhere and focus attention on problems at home. Now that Putin’s war in Ukraine has captured the West’s attention and resources, Tehran sees an opportunity to fuel this trend.
Instead, Washington should make clear that Iran’s support for the Russian war will only lead to stronger American resolve in the Middle East. With protests continuing across Iran, now would be a good time for President Joe Biden’s administration to review its Iran policy to focus on rolling back Iranian influence in the region. US condemnations and sanctions will achieve little if not part of a larger strategy. Ironically, Tehran’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine may push the West to pay more attention to the ‘Middle East, especially if Europe adopts a tougher mistake toward Iran. Britain and the European Union followed in Washington’s lead last week, imposing targeted sanctions on elements of Iran’s drone program.
According to the report, the United States should also garner more support against Moscow from Israel and the Arab Gulf states by pointing to Russia’s strong ties with Iran. To be sure, Tehran’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine does not immediately change Israeli or Gulf calculations toward Russia. Tel Aviv, for example, remains unwilling to meet Kyiv’s requests for air defense systems. But US allies in the region could change their minds if Russia starts selling advanced weapons to Iran ‘which is partly why Moscow previously refrained from doing so.
At the same time, the United States must work to ensure that its Israeli and Arab allies, who have lived for years on the front lines of the Iranian drone and missile threat, have the military capabilities and support they need to counter Iranian aggression. Washington should also redouble its efforts to encourage and facilitate Arab-Israeli security cooperation. In addition to helping counter Iran, strong US support for its allies in the Middle East may in turn make them more open to US demands regarding Russia.
Finally, Iran’s actions in Ukraine have also given the Biden administration and its European partners another reason to abandon their quest to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. In addition to failing to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, the deal would enable more Russian-Iranian cooperation on civilian nuclear projects and evade sanctions while providing Tehran with the money it needs to purchase advanced conventional weapons from Russia and elsewhere.