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Ukraine and Iran: What's the Connection?

On 19 April 2024 Israeli drones made a series of strikes on Iranian nuclear architecture around the city of Isfahan in central Iran, striking at facilities pertinent to Iran’s civilian and military nuclear programmes. Although both Israel and Iran were extremely cagey about what was being struck at, and how all this happened, what we do seem to know is that Israel managed to launch some short-range drones from inside Iran at key Iranian nuclear targets, causing unknown but potentially extensive damage to Iran’s military nuclear programme of upgrading the uranium used in light water nuclear reactors to that involved in atomic bomb manufacture. This was going on in a number of known sites in the region of Isfahan and it is remarkable that the Israeli government was able to launch these strikes from within Iranian territory itself. The explanation may be that certain elements within the Iranian government have closer than thought cooperation with Israel and the West, because Iran is in the middle of a power struggle. How this power struggle plays out is important to the war in Ukraine.

There are three principal poles of power in Iranian politics, and this is how it was designed by the modern country’s founder in his constitution in 1979: the theocracy, which consists of a series of civilian clerics who appoint one-another; the civilian government, elected in a process that has been known to be democratic (less so in recent years); and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a constitutionally mandated army whose role is supposed to be to uphold the revolution and its ideals but that in practice has always been in search of its own role and it has often been reduced to racketeering, interference in the affairs of foreign states, and events of this kind. The IRGC are responsible for funding Hamas’s invasion of Israel on 7 October 2023; the ongoing Houthi insurrection in Yemen; sewing discord in Syria; and a variety of other foreign policy malaises. They are also smugglers and gangsters of the highest order, responsible for smuggling a lot of sanctioned Iranian oil on non-banking bases (e.g. cash; gold) and for doing things like selling Iranian drones to Russia, another international pariah.

The IRGC increasingly holds the rest of the Iranian constitutional architecture hostage and elements of the democratic infrastructure in particular are known to have been cooperating with western intelligence agencies to try to undermine the influence of the IRGC both at home and abroad. It is the IRGC that has been pushing for a military nuclear capacity on the part of Iran, something that would cause colossal increase in regional tensions as Israel would then increase its own covert military nuclear capacity as well as causing Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-enemy in the Islamic world, to develop its own nuclear capacity as well as a number of other sovereign states in the region wanting to have a nuclear capacity as well. Therefore what may have happened here is that the punishment inflicted upon the IRGC for their recent attacks upon Israel may have been inflicted from inside Iran with the cooperation of the West.

Unfortunately this is unlikely to weaken the IRGC within Iran, which sits on enormous quantities of illicit wealth and smuggling capacity and has been shown to be able to inflict military losses and interferences across the Middle East. It is thought that of the Iranian matériel, including drones, being exported to Russia from Iran it is the IRGC that is responsible for this over the more moderate (and even the conservative clerical) voices in Iran that caution that Ukraine is not a country with which Iran has historically had quarrels and intervening in a Russian invasion of Ukraine has no foreign policy benefit to Iran whatsoever. Nevertheless the fact that cooperation of the other parts of the Iranian bureaucracy with Israel and the West against the IRGC has now been brought into the open (at least within intelligence circles) will give the IRGC an opportunity to clamp down on the other branches of Iranian government and to sideline the clerics and further hold the democratic institutions of Iran hostage.

The deterrence effect of bombing the Isfahan nuclear facilities may have been very effective against the IRGC. However in practice it will strengthen the IRGC internally and thereby render Iran ever more a pariah state. This means that we can continue to see the supply of Iranian munitions to Russia to support her ongoing invasion and also that we can expect to see the IRGC continue to smuggle oil, including sanctioned Russian oil, increasing its stranglehold over a global network of non-banking financial products designed to circumvent Russian and Iranian banking sanctions alike. The issues of Russia and Iran will be pulled ever closer in the American and western consciousness and Ukraine will be perceived as increasingly an ally of Israel because they are both fighting Iran. This perception of linkage is particularly important in the United States in order to secure further packages of military and political aid to Ukraine from Washington, DC because irrespective of who wins the November 2024 US General Election, high hostility for Iran is a certainty. Therefore for Ukraine to be seen as allied with forces against Iran and Russia as combined sanctions-busting nuclear proliferating drone-flying bogeymen is an extremely attractive political perception indeed from the Ukrainian point of view.


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