Iran Update, July 17, 2023
Iran Update, July 17, 2023
Ashka Jhaveri, Andie Parry, Johanna Moore, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, and Annika Ganzeveld, and Amin Soltani
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.
- A US senior defense official said Iran, Russia, and Syria are cooperating to pressure the US to withdraw forces from Syria. This is consistent with CTP’s assessment that Iran’s military buildup in eastern Syria may be to achieve hegemony.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al Sudani met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on July 16 to discuss economic, security, and normalization issues. The improvement of Iraqi-Syrian relations through joint economic integration projects very likely would enable Iran to exploit regional trade to improve its economy and bolster Iranian regional influence.
- Senior Iranian and Pakistani military officials met in Tehran between July 15 and 17. The meetings likely regard the volatile security situation in southeastern Iran, where Jaish al Adl conducted an attack on July 8.
- Israel-based i24News claimed on July 16 that Armenia has used Iranian Shahed drones in several recent clashes with Azerbaijan. Iran may expand its military support to Armenia in response to Russian “negligence” toward the Caucasus.
- The Iranian Law Enforcement Command (LEC) resumed the country-wide deployment of its morality patrol officers to enforce mandatory veiling on July 16.
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 US senior defense official said Iran, Russia, and Syria are cooperating to pressure the US to withdraw forces from Syria. This is consistent with CTP’s assessment that Iran’s military buildup in eastern Syria may be to achieve hegemony.  The official, who spoke to Pentagon reporters on the condition of anonymity, said that the United States is increasingly concerned about growing ties between Iran, Russia, and Syria across the Middle East. The ties involve collaboration, planning, and intelligence sharing between IRGC Quds Force and Russian military personnel in Syria. CTP has been monitoring Iran develop its forces in Syria to resume its campaign to expel US forces from the Middle East since early June. 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 the Assad regime on July 7 which triggered Iran and the Syrian regime to surge fighters to the province.
The official also noted that Russia’s aggressive military flights, such as an unprofessional intercept of a US drone on July 5 and repeated violations of US airspace in Syria since March, are part of growing cooperation with Iran to pressure the United States to leave Syria. CTP previously considered the hypothesis that Iran and Russia would share intelligence to support Iranian-backed attacks on US forces following a meeting on June 7 between Iranian and Russian military officials to discuss expelling the United States from Syria. The Washington Post reported on June 1 on classified documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform which highlighted the construction of an Iranian-Russian “coordination center” in Syria to direct the new Iranian campaign in Syria. The Washington Post described the center as an inflection in Iranian-Russian cooperation in Syria.
Iranian-backed militias continue to reinforce positions in Deir ez Zor Province amid rumored International Coalition attacks. Iranian-backed militias including the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Fatemiyoun deployed between July 14 and 17 to positions along Iran’s ground line of communication from Albu Kamal to Deir ez Zor cities. A massive number of civilians in Albu Kamal city fled on July 16 according to local media, following rumored International Coalition attacks as Iranian-backed militias arrived to residential neighborhoods. Syrian Minister of Defense Major General Ali Mahmoud Abbas met on July 13 with IRGC QF officials in Deir ez Zor City to discuss coordination between their two forces, which suggests an alignment of interests.
The Axis of Resistance continues to frame the US-led international coalition in Syria as an imminent security threat to local Syrians, possibly to incite and sustain local support to expel US forces from Syria. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency published a video in Arabic on July 16 entitled “The military preparation/formation of the US and its partners for attacking the resistance: America is playing with fire in Eastern Syria.” The video claims the United States sent large military reinforcements to bases in eastern Syria and that local allies, likely referring to the SDF, are preparing for an offensive military operation into regime-controlled territory. Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated media Al Mayadeen reported on July 15 that the United States deployed to Deir ez Zor Province and informed the SDF and Free Syrian Army to prepare for any attacks from regime-controlled territory. Iranian-backed militants have held several military parades in Deir ez Zor Province since late June in response to a rumored International Coalition attack. CTP previously assessed that the parades are part of an Iranian effort to incite and sustain local support.
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.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al Sudani met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on July 16. This was the first visit of an Iraqi Prime Minister to Syria since 2010 and it signifies progress in Arab-Syrian normalization. Iraqi government spokesperson Bassem al Awadis stated on July 16 that Sudani sought to involve Syria in economic integration projects and renew Iraq’s oil export pipeline through Syria. Sudani and Bashar discussed economic, security, and normalization issues during their meetings but did not sign any agreements. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in contrast, signed over 10 economic memorandums of understanding with Assad during his visit to Syria from May 3 – 5.
The improvement of Iraqi-Syrian relations through joint economic integration projects very likely would enable Iran to exploit regional trade to improve its economy and bolster Iranian regional influence. Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized their intention to link Iranian transportation infrastructure to Iraq and Syria to access Mediterranean markets. Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development met with Syrian stakeholders to discuss the revitalization of a rail link between Iran, Iraq and Syria in April. Syria-Iraq-Iran economic integration would increase capital inflow to Iran, which would help reinvigorate Iran’s deteriorating economy. A greater integrated regional economic order would also help Iran evade sanctions by using Iraq’s unsanctioned markets. Iran has already established significant economic influence in both Syria and Iraq through its state and parastatal organizations such as the Khatam al Anbia Construction Headquarters, which is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ engineering and development firm that oversees large-scale civil-military construction projects and helps the regime circumvent sanctions. An integrated economic order would ultimately enable the Iranian regime to further entrench itself in Syria and Iraq, however the regime’s ability to reap the economic, political, and military benefits depends on long term implementation.
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.
Senior Iranian and Pakistani military officials met in Tehran between July 15 and 17. Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri and IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami met with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Syed Asim Munir Ahmad Shah to discuss counterterrorism cooperation and expanding their bilateral relations more generally. Both sides agreed to share intelligence and take “effective action” against terrorist networks operating on their border. Bagheri last spoke with his Pakistani counterpart Lieutenant General Shahir Shamshad on January 9 to discuss establishing a joint military task force for addressing border security threats. Bagheri and other security officials have repeatedly met with their Pakistani counterparts over the past several years as part of Iran‘s long-standing effort to secure Pakistani cooperation with addressing anti-regime militant activity in the border areas. Iran, China, and Pakistan also held their first trilateral counterterrorism and regional security meeting on June 7. The three countries decided to hold regular regional security and counterterrorism meetings.
The meetings likely regard the volatile security situation in southeastern Iran. Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province has experienced instability since the start of Mahsa Amini protests last September. Zahedan residents have participated in anti-regime protests for 41 consecutive weeks and have consistently used the weekly Friday protests to commemorate the ”Bloody Friday,”an incident wherein Iranian security forces killed at least 80 anti-regime protesters. Four Jaish al Adl militants attacked a police station in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province on July 8 in retaliation for the September 2022 “Blood Friday” massacre following security forces’ violent suppression of protesters in Zahedan in September 2022. Jaish al Adl is an anti-regime militant group that operates around the Iran-Pakistan border region and regularly conducts attacks against Iranian regime security forces.
Israel-based i24News claimed on July 16 that Armenia has used Iranian Shahed drones in several recent clashes with Azerbaijan. Iran may expand its military support to Armenia in response to Russian “negligence” toward the Caucasus. CTP cannot independently verify this claim. This claim is consistent with former IRGC Commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi’s assertion in October 2022 that 22 countries, including Armenia, sought to buy Iranian drones. The claim also follows senior Iranian security and foreign policy officials’ articulation of the regime’s comprehensive perspective on threats emanating from the Caucasus in recent days. Supreme Leader Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati warned Russia about possible NATO interference and aggression in the Caucasus following Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO ascension on July 10. Velayati argued that Russia has abandoned the Caucasus since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and needs to be cognizant of the potential for conflict and competition in the region.
Iran’s provision of drones to Armenia would indicate that Iran perceives Azerbaijan—as well as its Turkish ally—as a growing threat. Iran holds numerous grievances against Azerbaijan and Turkey. Regime officials have frequently accused Baku of allowing Israel to use Azerbaijani territory to launch operations against Iran. The regime additionally opposes Azerbaijan and Turkey’s efforts to establish a corridor between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in Armenia. Such a corridor would directly connect Azerbaijan to eastern Turkey and hamper Iranian economic access to European and Russian markets. Iranian officials and media previously accused Israel of using Azerbaijan as an intelligence base to instigate protests during the Mahsa Amini movement.
Iran’s provision of drones to Armenia would be part of the regime’s larger effort to leverage arms sales to generate revenue for the Iranian economy. Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri stated on May 31 that Iran will export its military capabilities to “friendly countries.” Bagheri also called on Foreign Affairs Ministry officials to relay Iran’s willingness to export its defense capabilities to foreign dignitaries. Iran’s inflation rate hovers around 50 percent and the Iranian rial is currently valued at 491,500 rials to one US dollar.
The Iranian Law Enforcement Command (LEC) resumed the country-wide deployment of its morality patrol officers to enforce mandatory veiling on July 16. The morality patrol enforces dress codes that adhere the regime’s standards and is the unit responsible for arresting and killing Mahsa Amini in September 2022. Iranian security officials previously announced in March 2023 that they would use morality patrols—specifically in Qom Province--to enforce the mandatory hijab law after Prosecutor General Mohammad Javad Montazeri stated on December 3 that the LEC had reduced its number of patrols. Western media outlets inaccurately framed Montazeri’s statement as the morality patrol’s abolishment and a concession to Mahsa Amini protesters.
The regime is very unlikely to abolish the veiling law, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly identified mandatory veiling as a red line. The regime seeks to address noncompliance with the hijab law because it views violations as a threat to regime stability. The Iranian clerical establishment has previously stressed the centrality of the hijab to the regime’s core identity and has warned that continued unveiling would cause the downfall of the regime. The regime views enforced veiling as of one of the foundations of its Islamic identity and authority. The pro-regime loyalists in the state security services and population would view the failure to enforce veiling as a betrayal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ideal and of the martyrs who sacrificed themselves during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War to preserve those ideals.
The resumption of the morality patrol will likely reignite anti-regime sentiments among large segments of the Iranian populous. The violent enforcement of mandatory veiling that resulted in the death of Mahsa Amini resulted in months of anti-regime protests. A 2019 parliamentary report stated that 70 percent of Iranian women favored relaxing dress codes.
The resumed deployment of the morality patrol will also likely deepen the intra-regime fissures created by the Mahsa Amini movement. Hardliners have criticized the Raisi administration’s failed hijab bill for being too lenient and some Iranians have demonstrated against relaxing mandatory veiling in recent days. Judiciary First Deputy Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Mossadegh expressed surprise that unspecified clerics were weary of the government’s role in enforcing modesty standards on July 12, suggesting that veiling enforcement has also created fissures between hardliners and the clerical establishment.
President Ebrahim Raisi inaugurated the Cham Shir dam in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province on July 17, which Iranian media described as the largest hydro-electric project in the country. The Cham Shir dam will improve the quality of and control flooding from the Zahra River. Several environmentalists have warned of the negative ramifications of this dam. Five Iranian cities separately recorded temperatures of above and around 122 degrees Fahrenheit on July 15 and the Persian Gulf Airport in Asalouyeh, Bushehr Province recorded a heat index of 150 degrees Fahrenheit on July 16. Iranian media additionally circulated reports that Lake Ouroumiyeh had reached its lowest level in 60 years and warned of an impending environmental disaster on July 16. CTP assessed on June 30 that Iran's worsening water crisis is creating a number of internal security and humanitarian issues--such as increased food insecurity and internal migration--which will likely fuel greater popular unrest in the coming years.
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