In Iran, Russia’s war against Ukraine is a political flashpoint

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — During its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran embraced the protest cry of “neither East nor West,” rejecting both the US and the Soviet Union, then locked in the Cold War. The sentence still hangs above the doors of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But Russia’s war on Ukraine has shown just how much Tehran has turned to Moscow in recent years, as the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers fueled decades of uncompromising anger at America. Members of Iran‘s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards train on Russian surface-to-air missile systems and aircraft. Uncompromising President Ebrahim Raisi visited Russian President Vladimir Putin on one of his first foreign trips.

The war also exposes deeper fault lines even within Iranian domestic politics. There is much sympathy among ordinary Iranians for Ukraine, a nation that staged a pro-democracy “Orange Revolution” similar to the “Green Revolution” that rocked Iran more than a decade ago but was violently crushed.

Iran’s historic enmity with Russia has combined with a broader feeling among some that supporting Moscow betrays the Islamic Republic’s often-voiced message that it stands against the world’s great powers.

“We must help the oppressed people of Ukraine, just like we support the people of Palestine and Yemen just because they are attacked by powers that be,” said Zohreh Ahmadi, a mother of two in downtown Tehran’s Sarcheshmeh district. “A bullying force is killing children and women in Ukraine.”

Iran’s state-controlled TV station, whose English-language service Press TV bills itself as “the voice of the voiceless,” sticks to Russian talking points. It used Moscow’s euphemistic term “special operations” to describe the early days of the war. Stories related to the killing of civilians in Bucha by Russian forces Contains headlines that incorrectly describe it as a “fake attack” or “provocation” on Press TV’s website.

Some of the Iranian government‘s anger at Ukraine likely stems from the aftermath of the Guard’s downing of a Ukrainian airliner in 2020, which killed 176 people on board. Tehran denied shooting down the plane for days before saying troops made a mistake after Iran fired ballistic missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the killing of a top general.

Ukraine’s criticism of Iran has become more direct over time. This was mentioned by Kazem Sedighi, the leader of Friday prayers in Tehran, in a sermon in March after Russia started its war against Ukraine.

“In the case of the plane, Ukraine misbehaved towards us and misused it to support the US,” Sedighi said.

He also delved into the “whataboutism” rife in both Iranian and Russian state media – bringing up a separate issue to indict hypocrisy while distracting the issue at hand.

“Wars claim the lives of innocent people in Yemen and Syria, but there is huge propaganda about Ukraine and that is racism,” Sedighi said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all matters of state, said his nation opposed “war and destruction” and blamed America for the conflict. He also brought up a long-standing suspicion he shares with Putin – that the US, and not ordinary citizens, is fueling what he called “color coups” that support democracy.

For Khamenei, it is a reminder of the Green Movement protests following Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 which directly challenged the theocracy he led. The Iranian security services used violence and mass arrests to quell the demonstrations. In recent years, however, unrest has resurfaced over economic problems.

For Putin, it is Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and the subsequent Maidan protest movement that ousted pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Yanukovych.

But others within Iran’s Shia theocracy have expressed concerns about Tehran’s stance on the war.

Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister to reformist President Mohammad Khatami who was later jailed after the disputed 2009 election, went so far as to describe Iran’s position as “very bad” in a recent interview.

“It was possibly the worst, most passive attitude taken by Iranian diplomacy since 1979,” Aminzadeh recently told the monthly Ayandeh Negar.

On the streets of Tehran recently, 17 people agreed to speak to an Associated Press journalist about the war, while others declined. Of them, 12 supported Ukraine, three reiterated Iran’s official stance, and two supported Russia.

“I support Ukraine,” said Sayyad, a 26-year-old computer programmer. Like others, he spoke on condition that he be identified by his first name only, fearing reprisals. “The Russians kill innocent people for nothing. Why should we be silent?”

A retired Iranian captain, Mehrdad, called Russia’s reasons for the war “ridiculous” and similar to those used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to launch a bloody eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. Saddam then cited the support of Iran’s Arab minority in its oil-rich southwest as justification for his invasion.

“It steals Saddam’s rationale for attacking Iran; possible threats from revolutionary Iran and supporting an ethnic group,” said Mehrdad, 75. “Any country can use this excuse to attack others – even Russia.”

Ali Nemati, a 64-year-old retired teacher, praised Putin as “very brave” for challenging NATO, which is also a new concern of Iran’s hard-line Raisi government. However, Iran lives quietly alongside Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952.

“Iran should support Russia as it is alone in its fight against imperialism,” Nemati said.

However, in its imperial past, Russia waged several wars against Persia, which ceded territory to the Tsar. Russia invaded Iran alongside Britain during World War II to secure oil and trade routes in its war against Germany. After the war, Russia refused to leave, sparking the first global crisis of the newly formed United Nations.

That memory hasn’t faded. Russia’s brief use of an Iranian airbase amid the war in Syriain which both supported embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad also sparked widespread anger.

Now Iran may feel more like a poker chip in a bigger game than a player at the geopolitical table. A sudden demand from Russia for sanctions relief guarantees upset the negotiations in Vienna over the disrupted nuclear deal with Iran. Russia’s demand seems to have eased, while now American sanctions against the Guard seem to remain the last hurdle.

The Iranians have noticed Russia’s gambit.

“The point that Putin made a strategic mistake and sent troops to Ukraine and is now drowning in a Ukrainian swamp cannot be a (logical) reason for Russia to hold the deal hostage,” the conservative daily Jomhouri Eslami said in a March editorial.

Taxi driver Abbas Najafi suggested that Iran stay out of everything.

“It’s not our war. That’s not our problem,” he said. “We are now under US sanctions and we should not be looking for another headache.”

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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