Iran and the Ukraine war
Ali Khamenei prepares for the future

The Ukraine war is changing the global geopolitical landscape. Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man, is already cosying up to Russia in anticipation of a harsh post-war reality. By Ali Sadrzadeh

Once a year in Iran, a handful of people get the chance to vent. On this day, Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man, gives an audience at which individuals are encouraged to be openly critical of the country's shortcomings and propose their own solutions.

Days before the event, state media announce when this special forum will take place and who has been selected to attend. As always, they add, speakers will be free to confront the Islamic Republic’s failings without censorship, to which the Supreme Leader will listen patiently, answering all questions in a subsequent address.

Academic debate

The audience is always held on an evening in the second half of Ramadan. On the guest list are representatives of state-sanctioned student associations and Iran’s minister of higher education. The gathering is supposed to exude an atmosphere of exalted academic debate. The peculiarities of this court are obvious. All speakers, except Khamenei, of course, read from manuscripts. Though varying in subject matter, the lectures are concerted in their effort to use elevated language, including poems and verses from the Koran. In previous years, there been occasional moments of excitement with one speaker or another coming dangerously close to crossing a regime red line.

This year, the event took place on 26 April. Those invited are reported to have been heavily critical of many things. What exactly the students said, however, was not divulged. Khamenei's long and unabridged answer to their questions, however, could be read in all official media, while state TV programmes ran his speech several times. As every year, he spoke more principle than propaganda, and mainly about foreign policy.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei in conversation (photo: Fars)
Veiled threat? Once a year, hand-picked Iranians are allowed to openly address Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man, about grievances in the country. This year, the conversation took place on 26 April and Khamenei's response, broadcast in full by the media, certainly packed a punch. The Supreme Leader spoke about a new multi-polar world. "And it is in this new order that we need to be present with enough hardware and software to avoid being marginalised. Students and the whole academic environment must be ready for the world to come, everything else is secondary." What Khamenei means by software and hardware, however, his audience knows perfectly well: effective propaganda for Shia-style political Islam. And more importantly: fighting, motivated militias ready to give their all for the ultimate goal of a divine order

Emergence of a new world order

Khamenei took a detailed look at Iran's "murderous enemies", the USA and Israel, as well as "maltreated" Palestine, and then briefly commented on the war in Ukraine, without, however, explicitly using the word war: "We must take a closer look at the warlike events in Ukraine. A new world order is emerging, a difficult, complex process is in the offing. We will experience a multipolar world. And it is precisely in this new order that we need to be present with enough hardware and software to avoid being marginalised. Students and the whole academic environment must be ready for the world to come, everything else is secondary."

The use of computer language terms is meant to indicate that we are attending an academic event. However, his audience knows exactly what Khamenei means by software and hardware: effective propaganda for Shia-style political Islam. And more importantly: fighting, motivated militias ready to give their all for the ultimate goal of a divine order.

Pre-emptive obedience

This is still a vision. But today, when the geopolitical map of the world is indeed being re-drawn over the war in Ukraine, Khamenei leaves no doubt as to where the Islamic Republic’s loyalties lie. A few minutes after the start of Russia's war against Ukraine in the early morning of 24 February, Iranians woke up to the following announcement by state television:

"In response to repeated incursions by Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said today that he had ordered Russian forces to begin 'special operations' in the Donbas region. The Russian Defence Ministry rejects reports of attacks on civilian targets and stresses that only military infrastructure is being destroyed. Apparently, the Kremlin wants to disarm Ukraine, which is seeking nuclear weapons. According to a statement by the Moscow Defence Ministry, any news to the contrary is false. For correct information, please refer to communications from the ministry."

Only 20 percent of Iranians watch the news on state television, Peyman Jebelli, head of radio and television, admitted a fortnight ago. The vast majority either watch Persian-language programmes from abroad, inform themselves on the Internet and social media or simply switch off. Hardly surprising, therefore, that not everyone is adhering to the ministry's language regulations. Although Levan Dzhagaryan, Russia's ambassador in Tehran, asked Iranian media on 10 March to only use the phrase "special operation" in connection with Ukraine, the words "war", "invasion" and "Russian raid" still appear on many websites.

Iranian banknotes (photo: Imago/Upi Photo)
Iran feels the pinch: the country’s severe economic and financial crisis has been going on for years. In 2018, former U.S. president Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Since then, the national currency, the rial, has lost over 50 percent of its value. Now there is also the fallout from the Ukraine war, leading to skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs such as eggs, bread, rice, noodles and cooking oil. This has already led to protests in some parts of the country

Since then, the use of Russian language has become the yardstick for measuring how far a media outlet is from the hard core of power in Iran. Almost all official media read like Russian army propaganda papers. A week after the war began, a reporter from state television showed destroyed houses in the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, commenting that this was a blatant attempt by Ukrainian soldiers to discredit the Russian army. But the propaganda achieved little.

"I am very worried about the Iranian public. It thinks very differently from its government," Russian Ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan told an Iranian reporter in a lengthy interview on 13 April. Yet Dzhagaryan must know exactly what makes the Iranian population tick. He is Armenian and speaks Persian fluently. He has represented Russia in Iran and Afghanistan for 20 years.

Iran teaches Russia how to circumvent sanctions

Regardless of public opinion or foreign media: Ali Khamenei remains true to himself. Iran’s Supreme Leader has made it clear that Iran belongs on Russia's side in the Ukraine conflict. His new government under Ebrahim Raisi, in office for nine months, is consistently pursuing this line. Amir Abdollahian, the new Iranian foreign minister, has visited Moscow seven times since Raisi's inauguration.

On the fourth day of the invasion of Ukraine, 350 Russian investors arrived in Tehran and conferred on how Iran and Russia could co-operate more closely and intensively. The conference organisers stated publicly that Iran wanted to show the guests from Russia ways to effectively circumvent Western sanctions. After all, Iran is a past master: the country has had to navigate around such obstacles ever since its inception 42 years ago.

A week after the invasion of Ukraine and shortly before the imminent agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that his country could not approve the agreement. "Problems have arisen for Russia recently," he said, owing to Western sanctions. Moscow would need written guarantees that its economic interests would remain untouched in Iran after the signing of the agreement. Since Lavrov’s declaration, nuclear negotiations with Iran have been suspended.

These interests are indeed fundamental. As fundamental as the war that is being waged in Ukraine these days. "Were the system in Iran ever to change and a pro-Western system be established there instead, it would be the death of Russia. That would be the first step towards Russia's demise." Putin’s Iran expert Rejab Safarov uttered this alarmist warning ten days ago in a talk show on the TV channel Al-Jazeera.

Safarov is Tajik, Persian is his native language. The 63-year-old is one of Russia's top diplomats and a regular guest on Iranian and Arabic media. To reassure everyone, he added on the talk show: "God has granted Iran a leader who radiates divine light when he speaks. In Moscow, too, we have a wise, strong leader who knows how to avert danger."

Cartoon from Iran (source: DW)
Different perspectives on the Ukraine war: while the leadership supports Moscow, the Iranians do not necessarily share this perspective, as this Iranian cartoon shows. The Ukrainian ambassador to Iran, Sergey Bordiliak, also shares this assessment. "The Iranian people are on our side. But we are not getting any help from the government," the ambassador said in a newspaper interview on 14 April, which caused quite a stir in Iran. He recounted how people in the streets of Tehran sympathised with him. "After the war, we will ask Iranian leaders where they were during the war"

In short, Russia considers Iran its backyard. The Islamic Revolution has aligned Iran with Moscow once and for all. And for the time being, it remains so.

Anti-Western from cradle to grave

Ali Khamenei is the best guarantor of this status quo. He is fond of boasting that he has been fighting Western culture and order his entire life. And here Khamenei is indeed speaking the truth. He must have been eleven or twelve years old when he met the young rebel Navab Safavi in his hometown of Mashhad.

It was the early 1950s, the handsome and rhetorically skilled Safavi had just arrived from revolutionary Egypt. And he was armed with a lot of information about political Islam. In Egypt, he had internalised the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed a sizeable following there. Ali Khamenei would later translate one of the Egyptian Brothers' books into Persian. His mentor Safavi, who founded a terrorist group and conducted several attacks in the 1950s and 1960s, went on to be executed. Today he is revered as a martyr in Iranian schoolbooks.

How the Ukraine war will end, we do not know. "After the war, we will ask Iranian leaders where they were during the war," Sergey Bordiliak, Ukrainian ambassador to Tehran, said on 14 April in a newspaper interview that caused a great stir. "The Iranian people are on our side. But we are not getting any help from the government," the ambassador added, talking about how people in the streets of Tehran sympathise with him.

"Don't forget that you buy your food from Ukraine. We supply half of Iran's cooking oil, not to mention a lot of its wheat," the ambassador said, also reminding the audience that Ukraine is the only country to jointly build planes and helicopters in and with Iran.

That the Islamic Republic is already feeling the impact of the war in Ukraine could be read last week on the websites of Iranian state broadcasters: the price of some foodstuffs, especially cooking oil, has been rising daily since the onset of hostilities.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal / 2022


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