Iran Update, August 23, 2023
Iran Update, August 23, 2023
Andie Parry, Amin Soltani, Annika Ganzeveld, and Ashka Jhaveri
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.
- At least 16 anti-regime protests occurred in the southern Syrian provinces of Suwayda and Daraa on August 23. The protests have gained popular support and activists are circulating calls for protests in Deir ez Zor Province on Thursday, August 24, and in all Syrian provinces on Friday, August 25.
- Armed groups assassinated four pro-regime personnel, two of whom were from Iranian-backed groups, in eastern Syria between August 10 and August 22. Syrian regime forces refused to complete patrols in Mayadin City on August 23 following the assassinations.
- The Supreme Leader’s office showcased the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of Palestinian resistance groups on August 22 after Israeli officials blamed Iran for kinetic activity in the West Bank.
- Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Kiomars Heydari traveled to Moscow between August 20-23. Heydari’s visit to the border surveillance equipment center and comment about “terrorism” indicate that Iran seeks Russian assistance in enhancing its border security.
Anti-Regime Protests in Syria
At least 16 anti-regime protests occurred in the southern Syrian provinces of Suwayda and Daraa on August 23. Local media reported higher numbers—around 30 protests—but ISW could only verify 16. The total number of protest locations declined from August 22 as more than 700 protesters in delegations from small towns converged in Suwayda City on August 23. The delegations and participation from Druze religious leaders indicate the growing organization of the protest movement.
The protests have gained popular support and activists are circulating calls for protests in Deir ez Zor Province on Thursday, August 24, and in all Syrian provinces on Friday, August 25. Anti-regime protests began on August 16 after Syrian President Bashar al Assad adjusted bus prices and cut fuel subsidies. Suwayda locals burned photos of Assad, closed government offices, and led chants urging the overthrow of the regime. Syrians in other provinces have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, as have activists in Syrian Democratic Forces-, Turkish-, and rebel-controlled territories. Unidentified people wrote anti-regime phrases on buildings in Deir ez Zor City on August 23, which prompted regime forces to deploy to the area. ISW previously reported that the regime is trying to prevent the protests from spreading to additional provinces, including by patrolling in Deir ez Zor City.
The Syrian regime’s efforts to address the protesters demands are unlikely to quell the protests. Syrian regime forces used a reserve stock of wheat in Deir ez Zor Province to appeal to protesters in other provinces. The forces transported dozens of trucks loaded with wheat on August 23 from Deir ez Zor Province towards mills in Homs to convert into flour and then distribute to protesters. These steps do not meet the demands of protesters and are not long-term solutions to deteriorating living conditions. Protesters spread a slogan across the internet "Revolution of dignity, not revolution of hunger." Anti-Syrian regime outlet Eye of Euphrates estimates the regime has transferred 80 percent of Deir ez Zor wheat rations to other regions. The rising cost of living has driven discontent in eastern Syria, which suggests that the loss of wheat rations will further aggravate people.
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.
Syrian regime forces are failing to protect pro-regime forces from armed militant groups. Armed groups assassinated four pro-regime personnel, two of whom were from Iranian-backed militias, in eastern Syria between August 10 and August 22. Syrian regime forces refused to complete patrols in Mayadin City on August 23 following the assassinations of Iranian-backed militias and regime forces. The regime’s failure to secure urban areas is emblematic of poor morale and discipline.
- A militia called the Burkan al Furat Brigade also claimed to kill a Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) officer with a roadside bomb eastern Syria on August 22. CTP previously reported that Burkan al Furat Brigade has claimed multiple attacks on Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, including killing an Iranian-backed Iraqi commander outside of Deir ez Zor City on August 10.
- No group has claimed responsibility for the other two assassinations.
Iranian-backed militias installed dozens of surveillance cameras in Mayadin City on August 21 because of the assassinations. Iran maintains critical military infrastructure throughout eastern Syria, including weapons storage facilities, training camps, and houses for forces. Iran also relies on senior commanders and officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and LH to direct Iranian-backed militias in carrying out operational goals, such arms smuggling or directing attacks.
The Supreme Leader’s office showcased the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of Palestinian resistance groups on August 22 after Israeli officials blamed Iran for kinetic activity in the West Bank. Supreme Leader Foreign Policy Adviser Ali Akbar Velayati held separate telephone calls with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Secretary General Ziyad al Nakhalah and Hamas Political Bureau Head Ismail Haniyeh on August 22. Velayati praised both groups for their recent operations against Israel. The phone calls follow Israeli officials blaming Iran for two terrorist attacks on August 19 and 21 in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further claimed on August 21 that Iran is financing and directing the general uptick in kinetic activity in the West Bank in recent months. Hamas claimed responsibility for the two recent attacks on August 22.
Senior regime officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have called for further arming resistance groups in the West Bank since August 2022. These calls have coincided with an uptick in kinetic activity in the West Bank during the past year, as CTP previously reported. Khamenei emphasized the need to strengthen West Bank resistance groups during his meeting with Nakhalah on June 14 and Haniyeh on June 21, further claiming that Israel was attempting to create “divisions and differences” among Palestinian resistance groups. President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian echoed Khamenei’s call for expanding operations in the West Bank in separate meetings with Nakhalah and Haniyeh on June 17 and 19. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami previously specified during an interview with the Supreme Leader’s website in August 2022 that Iran seeks to arm Palestinian groups’ ”infantry” in the West Bank to conduct more ground operations against Israeli security forces and stoke unrest.
Palestinian militants thanked Iran and the broader Axis of Resistance on July 5 for their help during the Israel Defense Forces raid on Palestinian militant sites in Jenin, West Bank between July 3 and 5. IRGC-affiliated media subsequently touted the successes of Iran-sponsored armed resistance in the West Bank against the Israeli raids into the area.
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.
Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Kiomars Heydari traveled to Moscow between August 20-23. Heydari met with Russian Ground Forces Commander General Oleg Salyukov and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin. Heydari and Salyukov discussed improving combat readiness and agreed to increase military cooperation on August 21, as CTP previously reported. Heydari also visited Russia’s border surveillance equipment center and defense equipment production center. Heydari stated on August 23 that Iran will continue to deepen its cooperation with Russia to combat “terrorism.”
Heydari’s visit to the border surveillance equipment center and comment about “terrorism” indicate that Iran seeks Russian assistance in enhancing its border security. Iran has insecure borders with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and Pakistan, which have previously presented threats to the regime. Iranian media accused Kurdish opposition groups of helping Israel smuggle military equipment into Iran that Israel used in its January 2023 drone attack on a munitions factory in Esfahan City, Esfahan Province, for example. The regime most recently blamed the August 13 Shah Cheragh Shrine attack in Shiraz, Fars Province, on foreign nationals who illegally entered Iran via its eastern border. Iranian media criticized the Afghan Taliban’s failure to ensure border security on August 15, the second anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, moreover.
Heydari’s visit to the defense equipment production center indicates that the Artesh Ground Forces are looking to Russia to fulfill some of its defense equipment needs. Procuring Russian equipment for the Artesh Ground Forces or securing Russian assistance to produce the equipment in Iran would expand the military support the Kremlin already provides to the Iranian regime. Russia is assisting Iran with the development of space launch vehicles and missiles and Iran has sought to purchase Su-35 fighter aircraft from Russia, for example.
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