Iran Update, April 12, 2023
Iran Update, April 12, 2023
Zachary Coles, Annika Ganzeveld, Amin Soltani, Andie Parry, Ashka Jhaveri, and Nicholas Carl
April 12, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
The Iran Updates are produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.
Reuters reported that the IRGC brought weapons and military equipment into Syria under the guise of earthquake relief, confirming CTP’s longstanding assessment that Iran exploited the February 6 earthquake to move advanced weaponry and military equipment into Syria. Reuters reported that hundreds of Iranian flights landed in Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia airports over a seven-week period immediately after the earthquake occurred. This reporting is consistent with the assessment CTP first published and has maintained since February 13 that Iran is likely surging materiel into Aleppo and elsewhere in northwest Syria. Shipments included advanced communications equipment, radar batteries, and spare parts to upgrade air defenses, according to regional and Western intelligence sources. Reuters reported that IRGC Quds Force Unit 18000, which is the Syria unit and led by IRGC commander in Syria Ali Hassan Mahdavi, oversaw the operation.  IRGC Quds Force Unit 190 led by Behnam Shahriari, which specializes in transporting weapons to Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, coordinated ground transportation.
The IRGC activities around Aleppo are part of a larger Iranian effort to establish an integrated air defense network throughout Syria. Tehran has long sought to transfer air defenses into Syria. Israel has conducted an intensive air campaign in recent months to disrupt Iranian transportation networks and destroy several air defense facilities, as CTP previously reported. A Syrian army officer confirmed the recent increase in the frequency of Israeli airstrikes in Syria is due to intelligence of ”something being developed quickly.”
Iranian-backed militants are continuing to move air defense systems into Syria via the Al Qaim Iraq-Syria border crossing, demonstrating that the repeated Israeli airstrikes have not deterred Tehran from pursuing this effort. Euphrates Post reported that Iranian-backed militants transferred anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army 47th Regiment Hashemiyoun Brigade headquarters in Abu Kamal, Deir ez Zor Province on April 11. The Hashemiyoun Brigade is comprised of Shia tribesmen recruited to serve as a native Iranian-backed militia element in eastern Syria. Eye of Euphrates reported that IRGC Quds Force officials held a meeting with local Lebanese Hezbollah and Fatemiyoun Division leadership near Mayadin in Ain Ali, Deir ez Zor province on April 12. The Fatemiyoun Division is Iran‘s Afghan Shia proxy, which the IRGC Quds Force uses extensively throughout Syria. CTP previously reported a recent series of similar meetings and Iranian-backed militia deployments into Deir ez Zor province on April 5-12, facilitate military shipments of advanced weaponry and air defense systems into Syria. These activities are illustrated on the map below.
Iran may intend to concentrate the air defense systems along a critical transportation corridor that runs through Deir ez Zor province. Eye of Euphrates reported on April 2 that local IRGC leadership issued an order to militias in Deir ez Zor to properly maintain air defense systems the possessed. The order specified that the IRGC intended to test the operability of all equipment and it may imprison those responsible for faulty equipment.
Bolstering air defense capabilities in Deir ez Zor province would support IRGC efforts to consolidate control over a critical ground transportation route that the IRGC uses to move shipments through Deir ez Zor province. These air defense systems would Iran’s ability to protect convoys from drone attacks and airstrikes as the convoys move advanced weapons into Syria. Establishing forward air defense positions in Syria and other nearby countries could impede a potential Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, as CTP previously assessed. Such systems could provide early warning to Iran-based platforms and target the refueling and support aircraft that could be involved in such a mission.
The Iranian regime’s insufficient supply of the chemical compound ammonium perchlorate (AP) may have delayed expected Iranian missile shipments to Russia. Politico, citing informed sources, reported on April 12 that Iran is negotiating with Russia and China to replenish its supply of AP, an essential ingredient in solid-rocket fuel. Politico additionally reported that Iran may send the missiles it produces using imported AP to Russia to aid its war effort against Ukraine. This reporting follows numerous phone calls between President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin between January and March 2023, during which these presidents likely discussed Iranian military support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Iran may seek military assistance from Russia in return for any missile it provides. Iranian media reported on March 11 that Iran had finalized a deal to acquire SU-35 combat aircraft from Russia, as CTP previously reported.
- Reuters reported that the IRGC brought weapons and military equipment into Syria under the guise of earthquake relief, confirming CTP’s longstanding assessment that Iran exploited the February 6 earthquake to move advanced weaponry and military equipment into Syria.
- The Iranian regime’s insufficient supply of the chemical compound ammonium perchlorate (AP) may have delayed expected Iranian missile shipments to Russia.
- Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Abbas Mousavi met with Azerbaijani Presidential Assistant Hikmat Hajiyev on April 12, likely to discuss the rising tensions between Tehran and Baku during recent months.
- The Assad regime is beginning to normalize diplomatic relations with multiple Arab countries and regional organizations.
- CTP did not record protest activity that met its reporting thresholds on April 12. CTP also did not record any student poisoning incidents on April 12.
Internal Security and Protest Activity
CTP did not record protest activity that met its reporting thresholds on April 12. CTP also did not record any student poisoning incidents on April 12.
Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid met on April 11 with the families of those killed during the “Bloody Friday” massacre in Zahedan in September 2022. Abdol Hamid’s website and Twitter account publicized the event. Abdol Hamid may be trying to invoke the memory of the crackdown to rally his supporters. This meeting comes after CTP recorded limited reporting on the weekly Friday protest that Abdol Hamid has led every week in Zahedan since September 2022. CTP assessed that Abdol Hamid may be losing momentum among his supporters.
President Ebrahim Raisi stressed adherence to chastity and the mandatory hijab law and called for an expanded effort to confront all forms of “evil” on April 12. Raisi stated that “forbidding evil” should not be limited to enforcing the hijab requirement but should include combating bribery, theft, mismanagement, and economic corruption. Raisi’s use of “forbidding evil” is a reference to the religious principle of enjoining good and forbidding wrong. The regime uses this principle to justify enforcing behavioral expectations on the public. Raisi also emphasized that confronting moral corruption is “everyone’s duty,” consistent with CTP’s previous assessments that the regime seeks to coopt the social collective as a complementary enforcement mechanism to its security services.
Iranian student unions called for widespread demonstrations against the mandatory hijab law on April 15.
The Iranian rial remained relatively stable between April 11 and April 12, appreciating slightly from 511,500 rials to one US dollar on April 11 to 511,000 rials to one US dollar on April 12.
Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani announced that an Iranian technical delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia on April 12 to pursue the reopening of the Iranian embassy and consulate general in Riyadh and Jeddah, respectively.
Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Abbas Mousavi met with Azerbaijani Presidential Assistant Hikmat Hajiyev on April 12, likely to discuss the rising tensions between Tehran and Baku during recent months. Iranian leaders have repeatedly expressed concern about growing ties between Azerbaijan and Israel. They have also criticized any attempts to undermine Armenian territorial integrity. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces exchanged fire near the Lachin Corridor on April 12.
External Security and Military Affairs
The Assad regime is beginning to normalize diplomatic relations with multiple Arab countries and regional organizations. At least seven Arab states and intergovernmental organizations have either normalized ties or indicated an interest in resuming ties with the Assad regime since the February 6 earthquake. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad met with the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Riyadh, marking a significant advancement in reestablishing bilateral ties. Tunisia resumed diplomatic relations with Syria on April 12. Officials in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have also recently expressed openness to normalizing ties since the earthquake. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad conducted his first foreign visits to Oman and the United Arab Emirates since the Arab Spring on February 20 and March 19, respectively. The Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan are expected to meet in Riyadh on April 14 to discuss Syria rejoining the Arab League.
Iran is positioned to reap several economic and political advantages from a normalized Syria without sacrificing its military influence. CTP previously reported that Iran canceled two powerplant restoration contracts in Syria due to the Assad regime’s attempt to pay in raw phosphate, demonstrating that the Assad regime has recently struggled to pay Iran for development projects. Actors that have normalized ties with the Assad regime will generate an influx of investment into Syria, which could enable the Assad regime to pay for reconstruction contracts with Iran. Iran’s existing economic and military presence in Syria may also allow it to exploit the newly opened Syrian economy for sanctions evasions and money laundering purposes.
Baghdad Today claimed that Iraqi Special Forces partially withdrew from Diyala province on April 12. CTP cannot verify the accuracy of this report. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad al Sudani deployed the unit on March 8 following a February 20 massacre of Sunni civilians that was likely perpetrated by Iranian-backed Shia Badr Organization militants, as CTP previously reported. CTP also previously reported that Badr Organization militants likely murdered several members of a Sunni household in Diyala on March 29, which Iranian proxy media outlets first blamed on ISIS and then a member of the murdered family. This assessment supports a pattern of Iranian-backed militants carrying out sectarian violence in Diyala province against local Sunni inhabitants. Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri previously argued that Sudani should allow Badr to continue overseeing security in Diyala province in a veiled threat during a Coalition Framework meeting on March 12. Sudani’s willingness to partially withdraw Iraqi Special Forces from Diyala province—despite evidence of continued violence—suggests he intends to allow Iranian-backed militants to conduct additional acts of sectarian violence while providing himself with political cover by claiming the Iraqi Security Forces have succeeded in stabilizing the region. As CTP has previously stated, sectarian conflict in Diyala presents an opportunity for ISIS to establish itself as a security guarantor for Sunnis in the province.
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