Skip to content
Commentary | 3 April 2024

Why the Ukraine and Gaza wars mean Russia could now support a nuclear-armed Iran

Iran JCPOA Middle East Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Russia Global Security

According to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) currently has sufficient uranium enriched to 60% to build three nuclear weapons if it decides to do so. Building a nuclear bomb would provide the IRI with unprecedented diplomatic and military leverage in the Middle East.

The ongoing Gaza war could provide Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime with the opportunity to cross the nuclear threshold. The IRI leadership perceives the war as stretching Israeli military resources to the limit while US diplomatic focus and military resources are being stretched thin fighting the Houthis in Yemen and Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the US is committing financial and military assets to support Ukraine and Taiwan. Consequently, the IRI leadership could conclude that the US and Israel lack the military resources to attack IRI’s nuclear facilities. This is in addition to managing Iran’s retaliatory attacks against US and Israeli targets in the Middle East. This perception may be incorrect, but in war, as in politics, perception is more important than reality.

A further reason why the IRI leadership may decide to cross the nuclear threshold is because a nuclear Iran may no longer be viewed as a threat by the Russian leadership.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a nuclear-armed Iran was not in the interest of Russia. First, because it risked starting a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, thus threatening Russia’s diplomatic and economic interests in the region. Regional stability is important to these Russian interests. Second, the minimum distance between Iran and Russia is approximately 650 kilometres. Iran’s missiles can easily cover this distance. Understandably, the Russians did not want their southern border to be threatened by nuclear-armed missiles of Iran. Third, a nuclear-armed Iran would increase US commitment and presence in the Middle East. The Kremlin, who see the US as a rival for regional influence, always looked disapprovingly at its presence in the region. Lastly, Iran and Russia are rivals in places such as Syria and the Caucasus. Nuclear weapons could potentially boost Iran’s hand in its rivalries with Moscow.

But in the post-Ukraine war era, a nuclear-armed Iran may, in fact, be in Russia’s interest.

Boosting Russia’s leverage in the Middle East 

A nuclear-armed Iran could offer Russia at least one of the advantages that a nuclear-armed North Korea has provided China: increased diplomatic importance.

A study by Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies states, “The heightened threat of North Korean missile attacks incentivises both Japan and South Korea to avoid alienating Beijing, which they hope will help keep Pyongyang in check.” In the case of a nuclear-armed Iran, the same could also apply to Russia. To counter Iran’s threats and influence its policies, Middle Eastern countries would have to prioritise further improving relations with Moscow. This would significantly increase Russia’s influence and leverage in the Middle East.

An isolated Iran serves Russian interests  

A nuclear-armed Iran would be economically and politically isolated. This would enable Russia to have more control over Iran, especially its economic resources, such as its oil and gas. The Russians are not shy about such ambitions. On 22nd October, Konstantin Simonov, head of the National Energy Security Center in Moscow, stated on Russian national television that Western sanctions against Iran are in Russia’s interests. “Iran will remain under sanctions and these sanctions will worsen. To be honest, this is good news for Russia,” stated Simonov. This is because Russia intends to invest $40 billion in Iran’s gas and oil sector. Iran and Russia have already signed a $6.5 billion deal as part of this investment program to develop Iranian gas and oil fields.

Despite becoming a nuclear-armed state, the IRI would still be dependent on Russia diplomatically and politically. As a nuclear-armed Iran is likely to incur the diplomatic and economic wrath of the US, having close relations with Russia will remain a crucial interest for the IRI’s leadership.

In fact, relations could become closer. Because of Iran’s crucial military support to Russia, post-war Ukraine will undoubtedly be against the Iranian regime, and Kiev could likely turn into a centre for anti-Iran regime opposition groups and individuals. To counter this, the Iranian regime, especially its intelligence operatives, will need help from Russia’s intelligence-gathering operations to spy on Ukraine.

Diverting attention from Moscow

Increased US presence in the Middle East would be to Russia’s advantage as it would mean the US would have to pull away some of its military resources and political focus away from confronting Russia in Europe. Meir Javedanfar

The threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, coupled with its missile tests, has shifted some of the attention of the US and its regional allies away from China. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring the same advantage to Russia. This is especially true as a nuclear Iran would be viewed as a danger by US allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Their sense of threat will likely translate into calls for increased US presence in the region. In contrast to the pre-Ukraine war period, today, increased US presence in the Middle East would be to Russia’s advantage as it would mean the US would have to pull away some of its military resources and political focus away from confronting Russia in Europe.

The post-Ukraine and Gaza war realities and Iran’s perception of these events may motivate it to cross the nuclear threshold sooner than we think. The post-Ukraine war Russia could support such a decision if it were to be taken by supreme leader Khamenei – or, indeed, by his successor. The EU and the rest of the Western world must ensure that the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East do not shift their focus away from Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomacy must be tried where possible. But the West must also make it clear to Iran’s supreme leader that their current military commitments have not reduced their capability and resolve to prevent the scenario of a nuclear-armed IRI.

Image: Wikimedia commons, Mehr News Agency

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.