Iran and Ukraine had decades of good relations. What happened?

Illustration - Analysis - Iran/Ukraine
6 min read
17 November, 2022
Analysis: Ties between the two nations are at breaking point, with Tehran managing in three years to destroy three decades of friendly relations with Kyiv.

Thirty years ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the newly independent Ukrainian state established diplomatic relations.

In the ensuing years and decades, Kyiv and Tehran signed a large number of bilateral agreements, memorandums of understanding (MoU), and protocols, and enjoyed relatively cordial and productive relations.

Now Iran is actively supplying Russia with huge quantities of Shahed loitering munitions (colloquially referred to as kamikaze or suicide drones) that Moscow is using in its daily attacks against Ukrainian cities and electricity infrastructure, endangering millions of civilians. 

Iran only recently acknowledged that it had supplied Russia with military drones. However, Tehran maintains that it provided only a “limited number” of these drones to Moscow before Russia launched its infamous invasion on 24 February. 

"Why is Iran directly aiding and abetting Russia's destruction of a country with which it had decades of friendly relations and peaceful coexistence?"

In his 5 November address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed Iran, accusing it of lying again about its role in the war against his country. 

“We shoot down at least ten Iranian drones every day, and the Iranian regime claims that it allegedly gave little and even before the start of the full-scale invasion,” he said. “Only during one day yesterday, 11 Shahed drones were destroyed. We know for sure that Iranian instructors taught Russian terrorists how to use drones, and Tehran is generally silent about it.”

In mid-October, The New York Times reported that Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel had been deployed to a Russian military base in Crimea to help the Russians maintain their new drones.

The report noted that it’s not clear if these IRGC instructors are flying any of the drones themselves. What is clear, on the other hand, is that Iran is directly supplying Russia with the means to destroy the Ukrainian electricity grid and infrastructure, subjecting innocent Ukrainians to blackouts, and increasing the dire risk of civilians potentially freezing to death this winter.

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“If Iran continues lying about the obvious, it means that the world will make even more efforts to investigate the terrorist cooperation between the Russian and Iranian regimes and what Russia is paying Iran for such cooperation,” Zelensky said in that nightly address.

How did we reach this bleak point? And why is Iran directly aiding and abetting Russia’s destruction of a country with which it had decades of friendly relations and peaceful coexistence?

“Relations between Ukraine and Iran have been largely positive since Iran recognised Ukraine following the breakup of the Soviet Union, as both countries share a desire to protect their territorial and political independence from stronger external powers,” Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the RANE risk intelligence company, told The New Arab

“Even as Ukraine has developed stronger relationships with Western countries to help Kyiv reduce reliance on Russia, Iran has maintained a steady economic and political relationship with Ukraine, and importantly did not recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.”

Iran and Ukraine had decades of good ties. What happened?
Iran has provided substantive military support for Russia’s ongoing invasion. [Getty]

In those early years, relations were indeed promising. In 1992, Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk visited Tehran and signed a cooperation declaration. That same year the two countries signed an agreement on oil and gas cooperation and an MoU on cultural and scientific cooperation.

They also reached a four-year barter deal under which Ukraine would supply Iran products in exchange for oil. A separate agreement with Azerbaijan enabled Iran to send fuel to Ukraine through Azerbaijani territory. 

The existence of such agreements, and Ukraine’s eagerness by 1994 to bolster its struggling economy by reviving its military industries, led to some worries in the West, particularly the United States, that Kyiv might even supply Tehran with military hardware.

Their fears weren’t completely ill-founded. In 2005, Ukraine admitted that 12 Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles from its stockpiles were illegally sold to Iran in 2001 as part of a black-market operation. In 2015, Iran unveiled a domestically built long-range cruise missile called the Soumar. Tehran likely based the Soumar on those Ukrainian Kh-55s. Today, Iran is reportedly exporting its domestically produced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to Russia for use against Ukraine.

"This swift deterioration in relations between the two countries undoubtedly began in January 2020, when the IRGC infamously shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran"

In 1998, Ukraine cancelled a $45 million deal to provide Iran with nuclear technology following months of pressure from the United States.

Kyiv and Tehran signed a number of MoUs and agreements on education in the 1990s and 2000s. In early October, Ukraine reportedly began expelling Iranian students in response to the Russian drone attacks in another sign of rapidly deteriorating relations. 

This swift deterioration in relations between the two countries undoubtedly began in January 2020, when the IRGC infamously shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran, killing all 176 aboard.

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At that time, Zelensky said Kyiv expected “Iran to bring those responsible to justice, return the bodies, pay compensation and issue an official apology”. After three long days, Tehran finally conceded that its forces had made an “unforgivable mistake”. Ukraine does not believe the downing was merely accidental and has gone so far as to call it an “intentional” and “conscious attack” and “a terrorist act committed against a civilian aircraft”. 

In December 2002, another plane crashed in Iran under very different circumstances. A Ukrainian An-140 aircraft carrying Russian and Ukrainian aerospace scientists crashed near the central city of Isfahan, killing all 44 aboard. They had been flying to see the first flight of a locally assembled Iranian version of the An-140 Ukraine was then helping Iran develop. 

The failure of Iran to properly address and redress the Flight 752 incident and its substantive military support of Russia’s ongoing campaign strongly indicate that relations are at a breaking point or have already suffered irreparable damage. It seems to have taken Tehran less than three years to destroy three decades of relations with Kyiv.

Iran and Ukraine had decades of good ties. What happened?
The IRGC shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran in 2020, killing all 176 aboard. [Getty]

If Ukraine survives this war, it will undoubtedly push for extensive reparations from Iran for the widespread and wanton destruction and harm it has helped Russia level against it and its people. 

“If it was not for the Iranian supply of weapons to the aggressor, we would be closer to peace now,” Zelensky said in his 6 November address before adding, “absolutely everyone who helps Russia prolong this war must be held responsible for the consequences of this war along with Russia itself.” 

Nevertheless, Iran’s denial of supplying Russia drones since hostilities began in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary may indicate it wants to preserve at least some ties with Ukraine or somehow have it both ways. 

"It is likely that Iran supplying military equipment to Russia is a step too far for Kyiv, and ties between Iran and Ukraine remain disrupted for the foreseeable future"

“Iran will continue to try and deepen economic ties with Ukraine, in part as a way to telegraph to Kyiv that it technically wants to maintain neutrality in the conflict,” Hawthorne said. “But it is likely that Iran supplying military equipment to Russia is a step too far for Kyiv, and ties between Iran and Ukraine remain disrupted for the foreseeable future,” she added.

“Another factor playing into this is that Iran and Russia currently need each other economically as well as politically in a way that Iran does not need Ukraine,” she said. “Both Iran and Russia share the imperative to help each other beat Western sanctions.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon