by Miceál O’Hurley
TEHRAN — While Winston Churchill may have quipped “Truth is always the first casualty of war,” Tehran’s grasp of the very concept to speaking truth in international circles has long surpassed the boundaries of diplomatic practice of issuing the ‘non-denial, denial.’ Even a casual observer of modern diplomatic polity would conclude too often it is reduced to outright lies.
Iran has outdone itself in this regard in recent weeks. Consider a recent, un-published media release from Iran in which responding to a question about having sold drones to Russia that are being used to target civilians in Ukraine. Tehran’s response was predictable, “There is no evidence that Iranian drones are being used to kill civilians in Ukraine. We have repeatedly told both sides this conflict is not the answer to their disputes. We reject the question outright.” The question lingers despite the ‘answer.’
But, oh boy! What a difference a week makes.
At the weekend, His Excellency Mr. Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iran’s Foreign Minister caved-in to mounting physical evidence and finally admitted Tehran supplied drones to Russia. Having conceded it sold drones to Russia in the face of abject denials Tehran’s credibility stands in ruin. But the admission did little to provide clarity. Tehran’s claim it sold only a limited number of drones and did so before Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 seeks to distance Tehran for its part in the war crimes being inflicted on the Ukrainian civilian populace. It would be a feeble attempt for Tehran to now claim it could not have foreseen what Moscow would do with the drones as Russia’s war on Ukraine had been raging since 2014. Moreover, both Tehran and Moscow combined their efforts to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. Each were intimately aware of the extent to which such weapons would be brutality deployed against civilians to achieve their goals. Unsurprisingly, when Amirabdollahian denies Tehran supplied Russia with weapons after February 2022, unequivocally claiming, it “has not and will not” do so nobody should be surprised few give it any more credence than they did Tehran’s abject denials about drone sales to Russia last week.
According to a report by The Guardian:
“… in a large room somewhere in Kyiv where Ukrainian military intelligence has dismantled captured Iranian drones the manufacturing date on the propeller of a Mohajer-6, an Iranian spy drone, reads February this year. As the propeller is just one of many components needed to make the drone, the February date indicates that the drone would have been supplied – if not made – after the invasion, according to Vasyl, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence, who cannot give his surname because of security reasons…. Though the Mohajer-6 drone does not have outer markings indicating that it is Iranian-made, components from inside the drone shown to the Guardian appeared to have Farsi markings.”
Given the component markings and manufacturing dates the further claims by Iran that it did not supply drones to Russia after it expanded its invasion of Ukraine in February prove incredible.
Of course linguistic acrobatics used to disguise illicit conduct is not un-heard of in diplomatic circles. Russia famously denied it would invade Ukraine in the hours leading up to its February onslaught on the Ukrainian heartland. However, while deception is regularly part of their daily exchanges with their international partners there are few mortal sins more damaging in international diplomacy than being caught lying—badly.
The voluminous scrap heaps of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones continually recovered from the Ukrainian landscape after having been shot-down always imperiled Iran’s denials. The continued collection of such debris further renders Tehran’s latest claims the drones were only sold in limited quantities absurd.
As Ukraine continues to shoot-down significant numbers of drones on a daily basis the country has become littered with copious amounts of debris from Iranian-made Shahed-136 or Mohajer-6 drones. The sheer amount of debris from these vehicles collected since September fundamentally undermines Tehran’s claims they only sold a limited number of drones to Russia and then, only before the war started.
The physical evidence of Tehran’s assistance and contribution to Russia’s war crimes of targeting civilians is certain to further alienate whatever hope Tehran had of reinstituting the Iranian nuclear deal that would have re-started aid to Iran and substantially advanced the normalisation of relations with the Islamic Republic after decades of crushing sanctions. Worse still, Iran has long legitimately complained of how Western sanctions have had a disproportionate impact on Iranian civilians. With the knowledge that Iran is now assisting Russia to indiscriminately murder civilians by targeting civilian housing centres and destroying critical infrastructure that keeps hospitals with energy to run lights, incubators, dyalisis and myriad other life-saving devices all while destroying access to light, heat and clean water to Ukrainian homes, the moral high-ground they once claimed about how sanctions were inhumane to Iranian civilians dissipated and has now evaporated. Iran’s policy of supplying drones to Russia has made them complicit with the war crimes being leveled against civilians in violation of international law.
These self-inflicted credibility problems come at a difficult moment for Tehran and its hard-line regime. The world has been closely following the ongoing domestic uprisings fueled by Iran’s dubious denials it’s morality police murdered Jîna ‘Mahsa’ Amini. Masha was a young Kurdish woman detained by one of Iran’s ‘Guidance Patrol’ for purportedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Despite being young and healthy, with no significant, relevant medical history of heart problems, Tehran claims she died of a heart attack in their custody unrelated to anything the morality police had done. The Regime’s feeble denials proved unconvincing to the general public and mass riots around the country kicked-off after “Masha’s” September 16th arrest and death in custody.
In a reactive reflex to any criticism of the Regime, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied there were “riots” then pivoted quickly to describe any unrest as a form of “hybrid war” instigated by foreign states and dissidents abroad. Given the utter failures of the CIA, Mossad, MI5 and other foreign intelligence agencies over the past 20-years the very idea that they our others orchestrated such widespread, growing and sustained protests in major cities across Iran indicates only one of two things – Tehran is out of touch with its people or simply does not care about the wants, needs and desires of its people. It’s the very indifference that brings down regimes.
The response is typical of regimes that find themselves unable to take responsibility for their actions – blame your enemies. Of course this is not limited to hard-line regimes like Iran, North Korea, Russia or Venezuela – the West is replete with master-practitioners of obfuscating truth when it suits them all while casting suspicion and blame on their real-or-imagined enemies.
Despite international verification that Iran was complying with the terms and condition of the JCPOA, then U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iran and threatened sanctions against any Westerners who didn’t go along. The result was a JCPOA that was working, and might well have moderated Iran’s hard-line politics to breaching what little trust was necessary for the JCPOA to work such that Iran has enriched uranium far beyond what the West considers safe and is well on its way to having nuclear weapons capacity and the intercontinental means to deploy them. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA inspectors has all but ceased and Iran and the region is now a far more dangerous place. Trump bares a significant amount of responsibility for the state of affairs with Iran and their renewed mistrust of the West. Nobody should be surprised they are fighting in Russia’s corner as a result of failing to have achieved a path out of sanctions through diplomacy. The failure to make the JCPOA work then left everyone with bad choices and now they are coming home to roost.
Then there is Hungary’s Orban who continues to remain firmly rooted in both the European Union and NATO without actually sharing any of their values. Orban’s use of deception in policy and diplomacy makes Hungary a dangerous an unreliable partner. The same is true of Israel who continues to blame the Palestinian people for every death in the West Bank despite abundant evidence the Israeli Defense Forces use knowingly false denials as they have in the assassination of Shireen Abu Aqla. The alacrity by which leaders and diplomats feel ‘truth’ is transactional has become a frightening staple of modern international relations.
As long as diplomats continue to abide victim-blaming, misdirection and allow outright lies from being the standard tools of diplomacy without consequences there is little hope that dialogue will offer effective agency in conflict prevention and resolution. Nowhere is this dynamic on display more poigniantly than at the UNSC where its dysfunctional operations have led to little if any practical outcomes in making the world a better or safer place. Any sober look at the conflicts raging around the globe or issues on the verge of conflagration is proof positive of the failure of preventative diplomacy. The acceptance of deception and outright lies as normative practices in diplomatic circles today is worthy of criticism.
Iran lost a powerful instrument in its toolbox – the ability to speak truthfully about how the international community has been indifferent to human life in Iran by continuing sanctions which had a disproportionate impact on the average Iranian. By assisting Russia in the indiscriminate killing of average Ukrainians who live or lived far from the contact line Iran has bloodied its hands with Russia’s atrocities and attempt to first conceal their complicity then attempt to blame others is unworthy of its diplomats. We shouldn’t be surprised that there is a stalemate in reducing what is clearly becoming a more conflicted world showing every sign of lapsing into ‘sphere of influence’ politics where ideology not interests or truth drives decision-making. In the final analysis, with what has a diplomat to work but their words and reputation? But what does all this mean to those whose legitimacy is not rooted in the will of their people but sustained by the power at their control? Sadly, nothing.
Cover Photo: Iranian made Shaheed-136 drone captured nearly intact by the Ukrainian army. [Twitter]