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Iran Criticized At Home For Tepid Response To Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine


Even as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian immediately pinned the blame on the United States and its allies. (file photo)

Tehran has been walking a diplomatic tightrope over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, blaming the hostilities on "NATO provocations" while also rejecting war as a solution, but taking pains not to denounce Moscow for its military aggression.

But the cautious approach has been met with criticism inside Iran, where anti-war demonstrators chanted slogans against Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 26-27. Meanwhile, experts have warned that Tehran's stance is shortsighted and could come back to haunt it.

The protests in Tehran on February 26 were small but spoke loudly of the public's dissatisfaction with the official response to Russia's war against Ukraine, which Moscow has argued is not a sovereign state.

The conflict has officials attempting to strike a balance between maintaining ties with a key ally, and recognition of tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions as well as the country's lasting aversion to war following the bloody 1980-88 conflict with Iraq.

Within hours after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian appeared to aim for the middle by pinning blame on the United States and its allies.

After blaming "NATO provocations" for the crisis -- echoing the disputed Kremlin line that Kyiv's desire to join the military alliance left Russia no option but to fight after Washington supported Ukraine's right to choose its own direction -- Amir-Abdollahian struck a diplomatic chord.

"We don't believe that resorting to war is a solution. [It is] imperative to establish [a cease-fire] & to find a political and democratic resolution," he wrote on Twitter.

President Ebrahim Raisi later told Putin that NATO expansion was a "serious threat," while expressing the hope that "what was happening" would benefit "the nations and the region." The Russian readout of the call said Raisi had expressed "understanding" for Russia's security concerns, "allegedly caused by the destabilizing actions of the U.S. and NATO."

The stance prompted criticism and condemnation from many, including Tehran-based international law expert Mehdi Zakerian, who reminded Raisi that he was the president of Iran -- not Russia. "Not only did you not condemn the use of force [by Russia], but you sympathized with Moscow's concerns in the region," Zakerian said in a February 28 interview with the reformist Sharq daily. "In the future, other countries can say. 'We have concerns about Iran, so we will use force.'"

Raisi later appeared to rectify his position by tacitly criticizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and supporting the rights of sovereign states. "The Islamic Republic of Iran opposes hegemony and those who accept hegemony, and supports the rights of all nations to self-determination," he said on February 27, adding that Tehran was open to a role in securing peace in Ukraine.

Speaking on March 1, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Washington for the Russian attack on Ukraine, saying Ukraine was a "victim of the crises created by the United States." Khamenei said his country supported the end of the war in Ukraine while adding that the roots of the crisis must be acknowledged.

For his part, the deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, Brigadier General Amir Nasirzadeh, said the crisis in Ukraine appeared to suggest that the "important lesson" of the war in Ukraine for Iran is that the country should not give up its nuclear program, which Tehran claims is solely for civilian purposes.

"They [got rid] of deterrent nuclear power and were faced with this crisis," Nasirzadeh was quoted as saying by Iranian media on February 28. "In our country, some say we should [abandon] it and make peace. But in today's world it is impossible not to have military and deterrent power. Wherever we are weak, we will be hit."

'Looking East'?

Crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump after Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran has followed a policy of "looking to the East," turning to allies Russia and China for support.

But the policy of siding with Moscow and Beijing has been viewed skeptically by an Iranian public that distrusts the two powers, and Iran's reliance on its fallback move of criticizing a common adversary -- the West -- has led to criticism that Tehran is working against its own interests.

"The idea that whatever is bad for the United States and the West is good for us is a dangerous shortsightedness," foreign policy analyst Diako Hosseini said on Twitter.

Sadegh Zibakalam -- an outspoken, Tehran-based university professor -- apologized for Iran's support for Russia and saw similarities in Moscow's and Tehran's mindset toward its people.

"Contrary to the ruling regime, many Iranians are with the Ukrainian people and condemn this aggression," Zibakalam wrote on Twitter before highlighting the repressive nature of the Iranian regime, which routinely cracks down on protests. "Just as the Russian people cannot show their sympathy, Iranians also do not have such permission."

Others posted the Ukrainian flag on social media while expressing their opposition to the war.

"I hope Ukraine can resist Putin's assault," Tehran-based cleric Abolfazl Najafi Tehrani said on Instagram while posting the flag of Ukraine. He lamented that Ukraine was not receiving enough international support in the "unequal war" imposed on it.

A small group of citizens openly challenged the clerical regime's stance by demonstrating on February 27 outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran, where some chanted "Death to Putin," according to amateur videos of the protest posted online.

Some were seen holding Ukrainian flags while others called the Russian Embassy "a den of spies" -- a nod to the clerical regime's official terminology for the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after it was taken over by hard-line students following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranians have also been critical of the coverage by Iran's state television, which mirrored Moscow's preferred terminology by referring to the invasion as a "special military operation."

"The state broadcaster is reporting the news like a colony of Russia," former lawmaker Ali Motahari said on Twitter on the first day of Russia's unprovoked assault on its neighbor. "Iran must condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine in order to demonstrate its independence."

The daily Javan, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said the "West's henchmen" were accusing Tehran of having a pro-Russian stance.

"It is obvious that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not sided with any of the parties to the conflict [and] has never supported the killing of innocent people," Javan said, adding that Tehran had been aware that "this sedition has been led by the United States."

Nuclear Fallout?

Meanwhile, some suggested that the war in Ukraine could negatively impact the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

Tehran is counting on Russia's support in the talks, which have reached a crucial stage according to diplomats involved, including Russia's Mikhail Ulyanov. The Russian envoy has continued to meet with his U.S. and European counterparts despite heightened tensions over the war in Ukraine and has remained optimistic that an agreement can be worked out to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

"Russia will use all of its cards, including the nuclear talks, to push for its interests and achieve a balance. Therefore I believe the war in Ukraine will cast a heavy shadow on the talks, " former lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpishe said in an interview this week.

Speaking on February 25, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. officials would now only engage with Russian counterparts on issues that are "fundamental to our national security interest," including the talks to revive the nuclear deal under which Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from crushing economic sanctions.

"The fact that Russia has now invaded Ukraine should not give Iran the green light to develop a nuclear weapon," Price added.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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