March 12, 2022
What began as an attempt by a Russian diplomat to explain his country’s position in the ongoing nuclear talks turned into a scolding over how Iranian journalists should refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Addressing a small number of reporters during a press briefing in Tehran on March 9, Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan took umbrage to a question about how long he expected the Kremlin’s “military attack” in neighboring Ukraine to continue.
Before answering, Dzhagaryan advised the Iranian journalists to refer to the deadly conflict as a “special military operation,” in keeping with Russia’s preferred and official terminology. He then informed the assembled Iranian press that Russia would “continue this operation until we achieve our goals in Ukraine.”
But Dzhagaryan then appeared to violate Russia’s directives to its own media against referring to the conflict in Ukraine as a “war” or an “invasion.”
“In the eight-year war with Iraq, you had a slogan: ‘War, war until victory,'” Dzhagaryan said, referring to Iran’s bloody 1980-88 conflict with its western neighbor. “And that is our slogan today.”
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Iran has reacted with caution, with officials blaming the conflict on Western “provocations” but also rejecting war as a solution.
Tehran also finds itself in a balancing act. On the one hand, it recognizes that it cannot afford to criticize one of its closest allies — particularly one that is involved in ongoing nuclear talks that can shape Iran’s future. On the other, Tehran appears to be taking into account the Iranian people’s aversion to war.
Iranian media, which is heavily influenced by the state, also appear to be treading carefully.
Much of the coverage has focused on the economic impact of Western sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine — an issue close to home. The measures tie into controversy in Iran over Moscow’s suggestion that it could link its approval of any new nuclear deal to how the West’s punitive sanctions affect its trade with Iran.
The Iranian press has also weaved in statements from Ukrainian officials — such as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s recent criticisms of the Western NATO military alliance — while generally following the official Russian line on daily developments in the war.
The official response to the war, meanwhile, has for the most part been passivist and accusatory toward the West.
On March 10, Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that chooses the country’s supreme leader, called for an immediate end to the Russia-Ukraine war and echoed the official stance that war is not the answer.
Earlier in the month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran supported ending the war in Ukraine, while saying the country was a “victim of the crises created by the United States.”
At the presidential level, it has been more of a mixed bag.
President Ebrahim Raisi last week told his cabinet that Ukraine had “fallen victim to the United States’ evil policies.”
However, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in a March 2 tweet, praised “the great nation of Ukraine” and said that the Iranian nation stood with it.
Small anti-war protests were held in Tehran at the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, with some participants chanting, “Death to Putin.” But individuals who have openly expressed their opposition to the war have come under criticism.
This week, a futsal player playing in Iran’s top professional women’s league was reprimanded after she displayed a shirt with the slogan “Stop The War” after scoring a goal.
Mahsa Kamali’s club in the city of Rafsanjan called the player’s actions “emotional and personal” and promised that her protest would be “dealt with decisively.”
Ambassador Dzhagaryan’s press conference at the Russian Embassy in Tehran was reportedly intended to clear up any controversy about Moscow’s position in the ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Russia has come under criticism in the Iranian media after it recently demanded that Washington provide guarantees that sanctions imposed against Moscow over the war in Ukraine would not harm its trade and military cooperation with Tehran.
The demand by Russia, which has also suggested that it would not sign off on any new nuclear deal until it could evaluate the impact of sanctions, has led to concerns that it could kill attempts to revive the nuclear accord just as Iran and Western powers appear to be nearing agreement after nearly a year of negotiations.
Discussing the issue, Dzhagaryan told the Iranian journalists on March 9 that Russia wanted the talks to succeed but that “our national interests must be taken into account, because it is necessary to continue fruitful cooperation between Iran and Russia.”
The press conference came a day after the Russian ambassador was asked in an interview with the semiofficial Tasnim news agency whether Moscow was linking its approval of a revived nuclear deal to its demand for guarantees from Washington.
In an apparent swipe at RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, which translates as Radio Tomorrow, Dzhagaryan said the situation had been misunderstood.
“We ask the Iranian people not to listen to the statements of foreign radio outlets such as ‘Radio Yesterday,’” he said.