Iran Update, August 2, 2023
Iran Update, August 2, 2023
Ashka Jhaveri, Amin Soltani, Annika Ganzeveld, 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 a new 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.
- Iranian-backed militias have prepared a runway in eastern Syria to support drone operations. These operations could include attacking and surveilling nearby US forces deployed to fight ISIS.
- The IRGC used its annual naval exercise to message to the United States, Russia, China, and the Gulf states.
- Iranian media reported new details on the discussions between Iran and Belarus to expand bilateral military cooperation. Iranian and Belarusian officials have discussed conducting joint exercises and establishing military attachés in both countries.
- Iran will send a low-level economic delegation to Brazil between late September and October 2023, possibly as part of an effort to facilitate Iran joining BRICS.
- Iran’s economic and environmental conditions continue to worsen, which will likely intensify anti-regime sentiments among parts of the population. Iranian leaders are publicly discussing approaches to more effectively confront social unrest in response to anti-regime frustrations.
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.
Iranian-backed militias have prepared a runway in eastern Syria to support drone operations. These operations could include attacking and surveilling nearby US forces deployed to fight ISIS. The UK-based, anti-Syrian regime outlet Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the militias prepared the runway in farmland near Mayadin on August 1. Lebanese Hezbollah trained Iranian-backed militias in Mayadin on operating the Iranian-made Ababil-3 on June 12. The Ababil-3 is a multirole drone that requires a runway to launch and can fire guided anti-tank missiles as well as guided glide bombs. The possibility that Iranian-backed militias will use these drones to attack and/or surveil US positions is plausible because they have previously used drones for such purposes in Syria.
Iran's preparation of the runway in eastern Syria may be in support of the Iranian-Russian-Syrian regime campaign to expel the United States from Syria. Syrian regime-opposition media reported that IRGC, Russian, and Syrian regime leaders met at the Russian-operated Hmeimim base in Latakia in July 2023 to discuss perceived threats posed by US forces in Syria. The Hmeimim base is Russia’s largest operational military base in Syria, which suggests senior leadership is taking note of the developments in eastern Syria. The meeting followed a surge of pro-Syrian regime forces to eastern Syria in early July and several information operations framing the US-led International Coalition as an imminent threat to locals. The preparation of a drone runway is consistent with Russian and Iranian efforts to create optimal conditions to attack. CTP has observed Iran preparing to resume its campaign to expel US forces from the Middle East since early June. Comments from a senior US defense official on July 14 about growing ties between Iran, Russia, and Syria across the Middle East are consistent with CTP’s observations.
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 IRGC used its annual naval exercise to message to the United States, Russia, China, and the Gulf states. The IRGC Navy held one of its annual naval exercises on the island of Abu Musa on August 2. The IRGC Navy also announced that it mounted newly acquired missiles on surface vessels responsible for protecting the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs in the Persian Gulf. The IRGC Navy holds one of its several annual exercises at the beginning of August on Abu Musa, contrary to Western media reporting that this was a surprise naval drill. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami stated on the sidelines of the exercise that Iran is committed to protecting its territorial integrity and establishing regional security without the destabilizing involvement of foreigners, specifically mentioning the United States and Israel. IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri similarly stated that Iran will strongly defend its territorial integrity.
- The IRGC sought to demonstrate its naval capabilities in response to a buildup of US forces around the Persian Gulf in recent weeks. The US has sent a naval destroyer, fighter jets, and Marine units in response to Iranian threats to commercial shipping around the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. Iranian leaders have issued threats in response to the buildup. They also showcased their Abu Mehdi land attack cruise missile (LACM) on July 25 to signal Iran’s longer-range naval capabilities. Iran uses LACMs, among other systems, as part of its anti-access/area denial strategy meant to prevent enemies from entering or operating freely off the Iranian coast.
- The IRGC sought to assert Iranian control over disputed territories in the Persian Gulf. Iran seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs in 1971 shortly after the British withdrawal from the area. China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) published a joint statement calling for negotiations between Iran and the UAE over the three Iranian-controlled islands in December 2022. Russia and the GCC countries similarly issued a joint statement calling for negotiations over the islands on July 10. Iranian officials have responded by condemning both statements and summoning the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Iranian media reported new details on the discussions between Iran and Belarus to expand bilateral military cooperation. Armed Forces General Staff Chief (AFGS) Major General Mohammad Bagheri and Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Viktor Khrenin discussed conducting joint military exercises and establishing military attachés in both countries during their meeting in Tehran on August 1. This increasing cooperation is consistent with the Iranian effort to build strategic partnerships with revisionist states, such as China, Russia, Venezuela, and Belarus. Bagheri also called for increasing defense industry cooperation between Iran and Belarus during this meeting. CTP previously assessed that Khrenin may have discussed establishing Shahed kamikaze drone factories in Belarus to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These factories would benefit Russia by providing its forces Iranian drones to use in Ukraine more readily. Iran would benefit by receiving much-needed revenue to stimulate its deteriorating economy.
Iran will send a low-level economic delegation to Brazil between late September and October 2023, possibly as part of an effort to facilitate Iran joining BRICS. Iran-Brazil Joint Chamber of Commerce Chairman Fakhreddin Amerian announced on August 2 that Iranian agricultural, mining, dry fruit, and petrochemical traders, among others, will travel to Brazil. Iranian media has provided inconsistent reports about whether an Iranian trade delegation has previously traveled to Brazil. Iranian officials nevertheless lauded the planned visit as a significant development in Iran-Brazil relations. Tehran may seek to expand economic ties with Brazil in part to convince Brazilian leaders to approve Iran joining BRICS. Reuters reported on August 2 that Brazil currently opposes adding more member states to BRICS. Iranian officials have frequently expressed a desire to join BRICS and have emphasized that Iran would be a “reliable partner” for BRICS countries.
Iran’s economic and environmental conditions continue to worsen, which will likely intensify anti-regime sentiments among parts of the population.
- Economy. The Iranian rial surpassed 500,000 rials to one US dollar on August 1 for the first time since early July. Iranian and Western media have reported on the devastating impacts of these economic conditions on Iranian citizens in recent days. One Iranian citizen recently lamented to the French newspaper Le Monde that “our standard of living is plummeting, while the regime’s sons and daughters enjoy every advantage and benefit. The fire is smoldering under the ashes.” Iranian media additionally circulated a report on August 1 of medical residents committing suicide over low salaries and lack of insurance.
- Environment. The Raisi administration shut down all government offices, banks, and schools on August 2-3 due to extreme heat. Several Iranian cities have recorded temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in recent weeks. Health Ministry spokesperson Pedram Pak Ayin stated on August 2 that the closure may continue into the weekend if temperatures do not decrease. The regime is struggling to keep electricity running across Iran due in part to the extreme heat. CTP observed a protest triggered by an electricity outage for the first time in 2023 on July 31.
Iranian leaders are publicly discussing approaches to more effectively confront social unrest in response to anti-regime frustrations.
- Expanding the Basij. Iranian security officials have emphasized the need to expand and further entrench the Basij throughout Iranian society. The Basij is a vast internal security organization that includes ideological youth movements and highly trained, quasi-professional paramilitary units, among other elements. AFGS Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri relayed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s instructions to expand the size of the Basij forces during a Basij commanders conference on August 2. Basij Deputy Commander Brigadier General Haidar Baba Ahmadi similarly stated in January 2023 that the Basij currently has bases in 11,300 neighborhoods across Iran and plans on increasing this presence to 40,000 neighborhoods over the next ten years.
- Suppressing dissent in universities. Several IRGC officials warned between July 20 and 27 that universities will be the source of future anti-regime activities, called on university officials to combat anti-regime activities, and expressed the IRGC’s intent to “securitize” universities in the near future. Iranian authorities have also targeted universities in recent weeks, purging anti-regime university professors, limiting the activities of student organizations, and imposing penalties on students engaged in civic activities. Universities became a major site of unrest throughout the Mahsa Amini movement, which students helped lead. Iranian students are, furthermore, planning protests in early September 2023 in commemoration of Mahsa Amini’s killing, as CTP previously reported.
- Monitoring cyberspace: The Supreme National Security Council has approved measures as of July 27 for the Intelligence and Security Ministry to monitor cyberspace to establish “psychological security.” Regime officials have repeatedly accused protesters of causing “psychological insecurity.”
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