Iran Update, July 13, 2023
Iran Update, July 13, 2023
Andie Parry, Ashka Jhaveri, Johanna Moore, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, Amin Soltani and Riley Bailey
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.
1). Iran instructed the IRGC QF to achieve total hegemony in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria in May 2023 and the recent surge of Iranian and Iranian-backed militia deployments to the province may support this objective.
2). Some official Iraqi proxy channels rejected calls to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad on July 14, possibly to diminish the risk of being drawn into a conflict with the United States.
3). UK-based, economic think tank Bourse and Bazaar reported that Iran completed payments for 50 Su-35 fighter jets during the second term of reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s administration between August 2017 to 2021.
4). Two security and foreign policy officials from the Supreme Leader’s office expressed concern over expanding Western and NATO influence in the Caucasus between July 12 and 13.
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.
A rumor spread in eastern Syria in late June that the US-led International Coalition is going launch an attack into regime-controlled territory. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed to lines of contact with Syrian regime-controlled territory on July 7, triggering an influx of Iranian-backed and Regime forces to Deir ez Zor Province in eastern Syria. Yesterday, CTP assessed that Iranian-backed militias are possibly bolstering their defensive positions due to the rumor. CTP also considered the hypothesis that Iran may be using the security alert to pursue objectives to achieve regional hegemony. CTP is expanding on these assessments and hypotheses today by presenting additional developments that show Iran continues to expand its military presence in Deir ez Zor. Today’s update also includes several scenarios that present the courses of action Iran could take in the province to advance its regional objectives.
Iranian-backed militants continue to deploy to Deir ez Zor Province under the pretext of defending against rumored International Coalition attacks. Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deployed on July 12 to military checkpoints to support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regime forces against an International Coalition attack, according to local media Deir Ezzor 24. Iranian-backed militants brought vehicles with anti-aircraft and heavy machine guns on July 12 to the area across the Euphrates River from Deir ez Zor City. Additionally, Iranian-backed militants fortified positions behind regime forces along the river on July 13. The IRGC maintains several headquarters and weapons storage facilities in Deir ez Zor Province and uses the ground line of communication from Albu Kamal to Deir ez Zor city to facilitate weapons shipments to its Axis of Resistance in the Levant, which suggests these reinforcements are anticipating defending Iranian assets.
SDF militants also deployed to positions along the Euphrates River between Albu Kamal and Deir ez Zor cities on July 13. CTP assesses that there are ISIS support zones in these areas. SDF positions along the line of control and against the river help to prevent ISIS from fleeing back to regime-held territory. Syrian regime forces and SDF militants conducted limited attacks in four locations along contact lines between July 10 and 13 according to local reporting. Regime forces and the SDF occasionally clash using light arms over smuggling disputes.
Iran instructed the IRGC QF to achieve total hegemony in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria in May 2023 and the recent surge of Iranian and Iranian-backed militia deployments to the province may support this objective. Iran perceives threats from the United States, ISIS, the SDF, and competing militias in Deir ez Zor. CTP is considering several scenarios about how Iran could use its current disposition in Deir ez Zor Province to establish hegemony. The scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Iran has the option to pursue more than one at a time or multiple scenarios sequentially.
- Iran could mount a ground incursion into SDF territory and attack US forces to compel a US withdrawal. The mobilization of militia forces along the SDF contact line enables Iranian proxies to launch a conventional ground assault into either disputed territory between regime and SDF-held territory or into SDF territory. Iranian-backed forces in Deir ez Zor also can attack US forces at al Omar oil field and Conoco gas fields, which are less than 10 kilometers away from mobilized Iranian proxies. A ground incursion differs tactically from Iranian-backed militants attacks US forces in Deir ez Zor in 2023, which used rockets.
- Iran may intend to use the threat of attacks on US forces to coerce the US to withdraw from Syria. Iranian-backed forces in Syria have attacked US forces in Deir ez Zor Province with rockets in 2023. Iranian backed militants transported short and medium range rockets to positions close to contact lines with the SDF and within range of US forces on July 8 and July 12. Developments in Iraq suggest this is plausible. PMF-affiliated social media accounts circulated calls on July 11 to storm the US Embassy in protest of US sanctions that supporters claimed were responsible for energy cuts from Iran. Iran appears instead to have restrained its proxies from attacking US interests in Iraq since last month.
- Iran could use the buildup of Iranian-backed forces for counter-ISIS operations in Deir ez Zor Province. The mobilization of militia forces would enable Iran to combat ISIS in areas near and along the river in Deir ez Zor Province. ISIS attacks on the western bank of the Euphrates in the vicinity of Albu Kamal increased in the first half of 2023, possibly due to local militia strife as CTP previously reported. The SDF claimed its recent deployments in Deir ez Zor are for counter-ISIS operations, which is supported by additional SDF deployments to ISIS hotspots of Al-Basira and Al-Hawaij in Deir ez Zor Province on July 13. This signifies the growing threat from ISIS.
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.
Some official Iraqi proxy channels rejected calls to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad on July 14, possibly to diminish the risk of being drawn into a conflict with the United States. PMF-affiliated social media accounts first circulated calls on July 11 to storm the US Embassy in protest of US sanctions that supporters claimed were responsible for energy cuts from Iran. The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (PMF)-affiliated Telegram channel Youth Axis of Resistance called on its supporters on July 14 to ignore all non-official calls to storm the embassy and to display discipline. Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba (HAN) spokesperson Nasr al Shammari falsely claimed that the calls to storm the embassy had been fabricated by international media. Kataib Hezbollah-backed Telegram stated that social media had circulated a fake announcement from HAN calling on supporters to storm the US Embassy on Friday. HAN-affiliated façade group Ashab al Kahf, however, officially called on supporters to participate in storming the US Embassy on July 14. Asaib Ahl al Haq has not released a statement concerning the calls to storm the embassy.
Key Iranian-backed Iraqi proxies are not supporting calls to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad, which indicates that Iran did not authorize or direct the militias to storm the embassy. Iran appears instead to have restrained its proxies from attacking US interests in Iraq since last month. IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani made an unannounced trip Baghdad on June 8 following threats from Iraqi proxies to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad. CTP recorded no new threats from Iraqi proxies to attack the US Embassy or other US targets following Ghaani’s visit and assessed that Iran may have ordered its proxies to deescalate rhetoric against the US. Kataib Hezbollah (KH), Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH), and HAN’s decision not to support the calls to storm the embassy is consistent with CTP’s assessment that Ghaani has ordered Iraqi proxies to deescalate against the US in Iraq. This does not exclude the possibility that individual militants or civilians will respond to calls to storm the US Embassy on July 14.
CTP is considering a less likely and high impact scenario in which Iran authorizes its proxies to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad to pressure the US to withdraw from Iraq. This is plausible because one of Iran’s objectives is to expel the United States from the Middle East. CTP does not have any indications that Iran intends to authorize its proxies to storm the embassy. CTP is highlighting this scenario because of the risk it would pose to US personnel in Iraq. An Iranian directive to storm the US embassy in Baghdad also would at a minimum risk ending nuclear negotiations with the United States and block Iran’s path to sanctions relief through a new nuclear deal.
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 following contains text featured in the Institute for the Study of War’s Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment on July 13.
UK-based, economic think tank Bourse and Bazaar reported that Iran completed payments for 50 Su-35 fighter jets during the second term of reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s administration between August 2017 to 2021. The article cited two Iranian diplomats who claimed that Russia had promised and failed to deliver the aircraft in 2023. Neither source expects that Russia will make the deliveries this year. CTP cannot verify this report. One Su-35 fighter jet is estimated to cost roughly 85 million US dollars, which means that Iran would have paid roughly 4.25 billion US dollars for 50 fighter jets.
Iranian rhetoric about the Su-35s delayed deliveries has shifted in recent months in a manner that is consistent with the sources from the Bourse and Bazaar report. Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani previously expressed optimism about obtaining Su-35s on March 6. Ashtiani later stated on May 28 that reports of Iran receiving Su-35s from Russia were “mostly speculation.” Artesh Air Force Commander Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi stressed Iran needed the aircraft on June 2, but also added that “we don’t know when it will enter our squadron.”  Russia took nine years to deliver S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran in 2016 after signing an agreement in 2007.
Iran’s acquisition of Russian Su-35s may enable Tehran to more readily and independently project air power in the coming years. Iran requested Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help prop up the Syrian regime. Iran lacked an air force capable of supporting its military operations in Syria and benefited from Russian air power. Russia has given lower priority to Syria since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, leaving Iran without military air support in the country.
The Wall Street Journal reported on July 13 that Iranian drones retrieved from Ukraine show that Iranian companies are replicating drone components that they previously used to source from foreign firms. Weapons investigators in Ukraine have discovered parts in downed drones that show Iranian private electronics firm Sarmad Electronics Sepahan has started producing analogues for parts that used to come from Japanese electronics manufacturers. Iran‘s efforts to produce its own components appears to be in part focused on maintaining the supply of drones to Russia, and Russian forces continue to routinely use Shahed-131/136 drones in strikes targeting rear areas in Ukraine.
Two security and foreign policy officials from the Supreme Leader’s office expressed concern over expanding Western and NATO influence in the Caucasus between July 12 and 13. Supreme Leader Military Affairs Advisor and former IRGC Commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi expressed concern on July 12 about Western attempts to sow discord in the Caucasus by making geopolitical changes in the region. Supreme Leader Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati elaborated on this point on July 13 in a warning to Russia about possible NATO interference and aggression in the Caucasus. Velayati argued that the change in Turkey’s policies vis-à-vis NATO, such as agreeing to approve Sweden’s NATO ascension, and Turkey’s links to Azerbaijan raises the risk of conflict in the Caucus region. He highlighted that such conflict will lead to long-term tensions in the region that Iran’s adversaries will exploit to “undermine the security of the entire region.” That Velayati’s letter was written in English also suggests that it was intended for a foreign and not Iranian audience.
Both Safavi and Velayati are senior advisers to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which means their statements reflecting the views of the supreme leader and the threats he perceives to Iranian interests in the Caucus region. Iran and Azerbaijan have engaged in several rhetorical and diplomatic altercations in recent months, partially due to the Iranian regime’s disapproval of strengthening Azerbaijani-Israeli relations. Velayati published a statement on April 14 signaling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the regime’s desire to avoid war with Azerbaijan as part of the recent diplomatic altercations. Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen accused Iran on July 13 of planning the recent attempted attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku.
CTP will follow up on this in tomorrow’s update.
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