Commentary by Dr. Raz Zimt, Iran Expert, Allianz Iran Research Center and Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Interviewed by Mikhail Borodkin, Oriental Express.
Is it possible to say that on February 24 (the day of the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine) bottles of non-alcoholic champagne were opened in Tehran?
I wouldn’t say so. Tehran at the official level, of course, supported Russia. This is not surprising, as Iran, as isolation tightens in the international arena, especially after (Donald) Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear program agreement, believes that the United States cannot and should not be relied upon, and European states have not provided assistance in overcoming US sanctions. Therefore, Iran turned to China and began to strengthen economic cooperation with Beijing, as well as develop cooperation with Russia in the political sphere and in the field of security. So the Iranian leadership officially supported Russia’s actions after the invasion of Ukraine and blamed the US and NATO for the crisis.
But at the same time, Iran understands that Russian interests do not always coincide with Iranian ones, so in general the position is cautious. On the one hand, the Iranian government supported Moscow, on the other hand, it abstained from the UN vote on the resolution condemning the invasion. That is, they say that the bloodshed must be stopped, but at the same time they express understanding why Russia did what it did.
But hasn’t the war made it easier to lift sanctions on Iran? US President Joe Biden seems to have thrown himself into the Iranian arms at full speed and is ready to lift all sanctions as soon as possible, the British government transferred half a billion dollars to Tehran for the release of a British citizen…
If the war had started two or three months ago, you would have been right. But remember that the war in Ukraine began when an agreement on the nuclear program was almost reached. There were only minor disagreements between Iran and the West, so it’s not correct to think that the fighting caused the West to become drastically flexible, or that Iran suddenly tightened its demands. Rather, the impact of the conflict in Ukraine was reversed, as Russia, unexpectedly for Iran, demanded guarantees from the West that future Russian-Iranian trade relations would be exempt from sanctions.
Will the agreement be signed, despite these unexpected Russian demands?
Good question. On the one hand, Iranian Foreign Minister (Hossein Amir) Abdollahian visited Moscow, met with (Sergei) Lavrov, and claims were made that Russia got what it wanted. But, as far as I understand, this is not the case at all. The West, it seems, agreed only not to impose sanctions against Russian cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere, which is logical, because the Russian side, under the agreement on the nuclear program, should, for example, export excess enriched uranium from Iran. But the demand that Russia freely trade with Iran or cooperate in any other way has not been met. Let’s wait a few days and see how things unfold.
At the same time, as follows from Iranian statements, Russia does not interfere with the conclusion of the agreement. There are two small issues that need to be resolved, after which the deal will go into effect. But I can’t tell if it will take a couple of days or longer.
What will happen the next day after the conclusion of the agreement? Will we see the Persian Empire between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas? Will the pressure on Israel and the Arab countries increase? Or will the main efforts be focused on economic recovery?
We need to separate these topics. Israel’s biggest fear is Iran’s nuclear program. In the 2.5 years that have passed since Iran declared itself free from obligations under the previous agreement in response to the US withdrawal from the deal, their program has moved forward significantly. They are one to two months away from the so-called jump to nuclear weapons, which is very problematic for Israel. They have a lot of enriched uranium, ten times the allowed amount, they enrich uranium to the level of 60 percent. But if they return to an agreement, then this is a positive step. Of course, the progress made in research and development over the past two years cannot be reversed, but uranium enrichment and its quantity can be controlled.
The second problem concerns Iran’s access to financial and economic resources after the lifting of sanctions. This will allow them to operate freely. I would like to hope that Tehran will invest these funds in the right sectors, for example, in the restoration of infrastructure abandoned due to lack of money. But at least part of these funds will be used to strengthen the armed forces, to support terrorist organizations, to support Iranian proxies. It should be remembered that in the past two or three years, despite the sanctions, Iran has been doing all this: developing the army, developing long-range missiles, producing drones and supporting Hezbollah. So all this will continue with renewed vigor.
Will Iran conclude from the Russian-Ukrainian war that it is necessary to acquire nuclear weapons as the only real guarantee of the regime’s inviolability?
This is an interesting question. The Iranians have already made this conclusion, and now they have simply strengthened their opinion. I remember how in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, the Iranian media published an interview with the Ukrainian ambassador in Tehran, under the heading that Ukraine’s refusal of nuclear weapons in Budapest was a strategic mistake. They have learned this lesson.
I believe that the Iranian nuclear authorities have always wanted and still want to become a country with the ability to create nuclear weapons at any moment. They can wait a bit for the sake of lifting sanctions, but in 2030, after the expiration of the agreement, Iran wants to be in this place. This does not mean that they will immediately create nuclear weapons, but the Iranian regime wants them to be separated from warheads only by a political decision and a minimum period for its implementation, if it is made.
The conclusion drawn from the current war is that Iran will never give up the strategic capabilities it already has, such as long-range missiles. In Iran, over the past weeks, there have been constant statements that the crisis in Ukraine proves the impossibility of counting on the West and its guarantees, therefore Iran cannot fulfill the Western demand and close the missile program.
Another conclusion that Iran is addressing mainly to the Gulf Arab states is that the West cannot be relied upon, and they compare how the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps helps Iranian allies with how the United States, they say, betrayed Ukraine, and before that, Afghanistan.
Is it possible to say that the recent shelling of Erbil and reports of a strike on an American base in Syria are intended to show that the United States is a nonentity, incapable of defending even itself, not to mention its allies?
These are unrelated events. Iran is constantly fighting the American presence in the region, which it considers illegitimate. But the shelling of Erbil, according to both Tehran and Washington, was not directed against the United States. The Iranians said they fired on Israeli bases, so this is part of the conflict between Iran and Israel, which has been escalating in recent months, with both sides making progress.
So we’re on the path to collision?
We are constantly in a state of conflict, but this does not mean that there will be a large-scale war, since neither Israel nor Iran is interested in this. But both sides are checking the borders, and we see that Iran is losing patience and refusing not to respond to Israeli operations. If Israel, for example, attacked the drone base in Kermanshah, then Iran responded by shelling Erbil. If Israel carried out a cyberattack against gas-fired power plants and gas stations a few months ago, Iran carried out cyberattacks against government websites and published the personal details of the Mossad director. Both actions were not crowned with grandiose success, but they speak of the growing activity of the Iranians in this area.
In conclusion, you recently wrote that there was an initiative in Iran to abolish the institution of the president?
In past years, there have been occasional proposals to abolish the office of president and restore the office of prime minister, which was abolished in 1989. Ali Khamenei’s experience with presidents has been very negative, both with Rafsanjani and with Khatami, with Ahmadinejad and with Rouhani. He had conflicts with everyone, so there were proposals to replace the president with a prime minister, who would be elected not by the people, but by the parliament.
Recently, this initiative has reappeared, and the difference from past cases is that it is supported both by the conservatives, who now control all the authorities in the country, and by some reformists. They believe that only a change in the constitutional order can restore some influence to them, since the last presidential election showed that the conservatives will never give up control over the institutions elected by the citizens.
Khamenei, to put it mildly, is not a young man, and is close to the end of his term, so, perhaps, the conservatives, preparing for his death, want to ensure control over all elected authorities, including through such a reform. Perhaps, after the implementation of the deal on the nuclear program, the Iranian authorities will deal with this issue.