Iran Update, August 18, 2023
Iran Update, August 18, 2023
Andie Parry, Johanna Moore, Annika Ganzeveld, Amin Soltani, and Nicholas Carl
The Iran Update aims to inform national security policy by providing timely, relevant, and independent open-source analysis of developments pertaining to Iran and its Axis of Resistance. This update covers political, military, and economic events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. It also provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates Monday through Friday. To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) with support from the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute launched an interactive map of Iran and the Middle East. The map depicts events in Iran that affect the stability of the Iranian regime, namely anti-regime protests and reported poisoning incidents. It also shows developments in Syria that jeopardize regional stability and pose threats to US forces and interests, including Iranian and Iranian-backed militia positions.
- Protests against the Syrian regime expanded across three southern Syrian provinces. This expansion is unsurprising given that it is a Friday—the first day of the weekend in Syria.
- Iranian-backed political actors in Iraq are spreading disinformation framing the United States as dangerous and hostile. This disinformation is similar to the narrative that Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime have amplified in eastern Syria since June 2023.
- The Iranian regime is trying to deter and preempt protests ahead of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death on September 16. These actions highlight the regime’s enduring commitment to repression.
- The Iranian regime officially connected a recent terror attack in central Iran to the Afghan branch of the Islamic State. The attack will likely exacerbate mounting tensions between Iran and the Afghan Taliban.
- The Ebrahim Raisi administration is continuing its diplomatic campaign to convince BRICS countries to admit Iran ahead of the 15th annual BRICS summit in South Africa on August 22-24. Iran faces significant diplomatic hurdles to joining BRICS, however.
Iranian Activities in the Levant
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant especially in Syria. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.
Protests calling for the fall of the Syrian regime expanded across three southern Syrian provinces on August 18. Protesters gathered in at least 15 towns across Daraa, Suwayda, and Rif Dimashq provinces to protest economic conditions and regime mismanagement. One protester group issued a statement declaring its non-recognition of the Syrian regime, calling the regime "usurped by the Russian occupier and Iranian militias." Protests and strikes initially erupted on August 16 after Syrian President Bashar al Assad adjusted bus prices and cut fuel subsidies. The uptick in protest activity on August 18 is unsurprising given that it is a Friday—the first day of the weekend in Syria. It is unclear whether these protests will sustain their momentum into the days ahead.
The southern Syrian provinces of Daraa and Suwayda are prone to this kind of anti-regime unrest. Residents similarly called for the fall of the regime over economic conditions in December 2022, for instance.
Iranian Activities in Iraq
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout Iraq. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.
Iranian-backed political actors in Iraq are spreading disinformation framing the United States as dangerous and hostile. Elements of the Shia Coordination Framework—the umbrella organization for Iranian-backed political parties in Iraq—are primarily responsible for spreading this disinformation. An Iraqi parliamentarian associated with the framework claimed that the United States had deployed 2,500 additional military personnel to Ain al Assad airbase in western Iraq and suggested that the United States did so without the consent of the Iraqi central government. An unidentified Shia Coordination Framework member claimed that the United States deployed these forces to create a buffer zone along the Iraq-Syria border. According to the same source, US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski threatened that the United States would conduct airstrikes on Popular Mobilization Forces units in the area if they do not leave. These reports began to circulate shortly after IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani met with Shia Coordination Framework members and Iranian-backed Iraqi factions in Baghdad between August 15 and 16. Romanowski and Major General Matthew McFarlane—the commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve—both denied all of these rumors and clarified that the recent deployments are part of regular troops rotations.
This disinformation identifies the United States as a belligerent in Iraq similar to disinformation that Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime have amplified in eastern Syria since June 2023. CTP previously assessed that Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime were conducting an information operation as part of a coordinated coercion campaign to pressure the United States to withdraw its forces from Syria.
Iranian Domestic and Political Affairs
This section covers factors and trends affecting regime decision-making and stability. CTP will cover domestic politics, significant protest activity, and related issues here.
The Iranian regime is trying to deter protest activity ahead of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s killing on September 16. Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have expressed concern in recent weeks about anticipated unrest surrounding the anniversary. Security officials have called on their forces to prepare for potential unrest and have threatened violence against dissidents. The regime has furthermore begun taking measures to preempt potential demonstrations. These actions highlight the regime’s enduring commitment to repression.
- The Intelligence and Security Ministry arrested on August 17 twelve individuals planning to “incite chaos and vandalism” on the anniversary in Gilan Province. The ministry accused these individuals of having previously participated in the Mahsa Amini protests. Western media reported on August 18 that the arrested individuals are women’s rights activists.
- Regime security forces deployed to Boukan, West Azerbaijan Province on August 18, according to social media claims. This movement of forces to Boukan is noteworthy given that the Mahsa Amini protests heavily concentrated in northwestern Iran. Around 21 percent of the anti-regime protests between September 16 and December 22, 2022, occurred in Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.
The Iranian regime officially connected a recent terror attack in central Iran to the Afghan branch of the Islamic State—named Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). A gunman opened fire at the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz, Fars Province on August 13, killing one individual and wounding eight. The Iranian Intelligence and Security Ministry announced on August 18 that the attacker was a Tajik national who received training from ISKP in northern Afghanistan for several months prior to the attack. This statement is consistent with previous claims from Iranian officials and state media but is the first time that the regime connected ISKP to the attack. CTP previously assessed that the attack will likely exacerbate mounting tensions between Iran and the Afghan Taliban.
The Ebrahim Raisi administration is continuing its diplomatic campaign to convince BRICS countries to admit Iran ahead of the 15th annual BRICS summit in South Africa on August 22-24. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi discussed BRICS and transportation cooperation in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian President Narendra Modi on August 17 and 18, respectively. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian similarly discussed Iran joining BRICS in a phone call with his Brazilian counterpart, Mauro Vieira, on August 18. These engagements come as Iranian officials have repeatedly advocated for Iranian membership in BRICS in recent weeks, as CTP has continually reported. Iranian leaders seek to join BRICS as part of their effort to cooperate with other revisionist states to establish a parallel international order and challenge Western “dominance.” Joining BRICS could furthermore help Iran mitigate the impact of Western sanctions, as CTP previously assessed.
Iran faces significant diplomatic hurdles to joining BRICS, however. Brazil reportedly opposes adding new members to the organization. South African officials have expressed concerns that Iran hopes for BRICS to become an anti-Western bloc. Russian officials have expressed optimism that Iran will eventually join BRICS but have nevertheless expressed doubt that it will happen in the upcoming annual summit.
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