top of page

How Iran is Benefitting from the Russia-Ukraine War

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

By Ghaffar Hussain

Guest Feature

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With the Russian military effort in Ukraine stalling on many fronts, Putin has recently resorted to launching indiscriminate drone attacks on major population centres in a move that is both strategically senseless and somewhat desperate. Putting aside the fact that most of these drones are being shot down by Ukrainian air defences, the Iranian origin of the weapons does raise some interesting questions that require deeper examination. How invested is Iran? What else are they doing besides supplying attack drones? What do they expect in return for supporting the Russian war effort?

Traditional rivals Russia and Iran have experienced a warming relationship since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This romance is built around common geo-political goals, namely the undermining of American policy in the Middle East and extending their own influence across Asia. What began as a flirtation blossomed into a fully-fledged and thoroughly consummated relationship by the early 2010s when the Syrian Civil War started and both countries bonded over their need to keep Assad in power. Syria is the main conduit for Iranian weapons to Hezbullah and Hamas whilst Russia is keen to maintain their only Mediterranean facing naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus.

After Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine, and subsequent annexation of Crimea, relations with the US plummeted and there were no longer any impediments to even deeper military ties between the two nations. Military co-operation, that had previously stalled due to US-led sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, increased dramatically in 2015 when Russia delivered helicopters, planes and artillery systems in a $10 billion deal. By early 2021, both countries were holding joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean alongside China, and by early 2022 Iran was supplying its relatively advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Moscow.

As recent as April 2023, Iran denied supplying UAVs to Russia for use in the Ukraine war. However, evidence to the contrary is mounting as more and more Iranian manufactured Shahed-136s are being shot down over Ukrainian skies. In November 2022, it was reported that 10 Iranian military advisers were killed in military strikes in Crimea, it seems they were there to train Russian soldiers in the use of Iranian military hardware. Furthermore, Tehran is expected to sell hundreds of ballistic missiles and help build a UAV factory in Russia to help the fledging war effort. Iranian military advisers have also been spotted in Belarus.

Iran is aware that it is taking a risk in supporting a globally unpopular war and siding with an increasingly isolated and sanctioned Russia. It must, therefore, feel that the risk to reward ratio is in its favour which begs the question – what is the reward? According to various sources, Tehran is currently eyeing Russian fighter jets, helicopters and warships, help with their missile programme and support for their highly controversial nuclear enrichment programme. Furthermore, they are in negotiations to purchase advanced air defence systems that can be used to defend their nuclear sites from possible Israeli strikes. This military and technological cooperation also comes with diplomatic support as Russia is able to use its veto power at the UN to protect Iran from further international isolation.

The blossoming military relationship with Russia has also coincided with an increasing economic relationship with China which is now Iran’s largest trade partner. Trade increased 7% in 2022 compared to the previous year and, in spite of sanctions, oil exports have increased dramatically with 90% of all Iranian oil now going to the rising asian super-power. Iran has also been invited to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a China-Russia led military and economic alliance that Tehran can use to overcome US-led sanctions. Furthermore, China has brokered a tentative peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has begun with the restoration of diplomatic ties.

As things stand, Iran is set to become a beneficiary of Russian faltering campaign in Ukraine and end up in a much stronger position in the process. They already have a large navy, a nascent weapons industry and are close to becoming a nuclear power. Further military support and technology exchanges could allow them to achieve their goal of getting ahead of regional rivals Turkey and Saudi Arabia and dominating the Middle East in military and geo-strategic terms. However, this could have a profoundly destabilising effect on the region.

Yemen is currently torn between three rival factions with Iran supporting the Houthi rebels who hold the main population centres and the capital Sanaa. With Saudi Arabia supporting a rival alliance and Yemen being used to launch drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in the past, the situation remains tense. If the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement fails, the proxy war between the two regional rivals in Yemen would continue and likely tip in the Houthis favour. This would have a detrimental effect on regional stability given Saudi would have to manage a belligerent Iranian proxy force on their southern border.

Lebanon is also experiencing a crisis and heading towards ‘failed nation’ status with rival factions vying for power in the background of a faltering economy. Iranian backed Hezbollah has become increasingly influential in recent years both as a political party and a militant group. A stronger Iran means an emboldened Hezbollah and that spells danger for both Sunni’s in the region and Israel. The Shia militant group has already been used to crush a Sunni uprising in neighbouring Syria and has a history of border provocations with Israel.

In neighbouring Iraq, Tehran has ensured the country remains unstable with the Sunni minority, who previously ruled the country, being side-lined whilst Iranian backed Shia leaders take control of political and military institutions. Whilst not all Shias in Iraq are pro-Iranian, a significant portion are and with a porous border and Iran’s growing economic influence in the country their hegemony is set to continue. This has led to festering grievances amongst the Sunni population that can be exploited by groups such as ISIS. It has also prevented Iraq from building closer relationships with its Sunni Arab neighbours which are much needed for the sake of regional security.

The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could temper these brewing tensions if it is genuine and lasting. It is certainly in China’s favour since the growing super-power is dependent on a stable Middle East for its growing energy needs. However, geo-political history suggests power is often a zero sum game, especially when there are conflicting interests. This period of warming relations will be used by both sides to strengthen their positions in anticipation of further hostilities in the near future. Tehran has not and will not abandon its revolutionary vision for the region and Russian failure in Ukraine has now given that vision further impetus.


bottom of page