Iran Update, March 16, 2023


Iran Update, March 16, 2023

Annika Ganzeveld, Amin Soltani, Johanna Moore, Nicholas Carl, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 16, 2023, 7:30 pm ET

Contributors: Anya Caraiani

The Iran Updates are produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.

Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed “reviving the national Iranian-Islamic identity” during a meeting with the Board of Trustees of the Iranology Foundation on March 16.[1] Raisi reiterated the need for more “explanation jihad,” stating that textbooks should familiarize students with this “noble and proud” identity.[2] Raisi’s emphasis on “Iranian-Islamic” being a single identity underscores his efforts to frame Islam as an intrinsic part of what it means to be Iranian. Iranian officials have similarly emphasized the compatibility of Nowrouz—the Persian New Year—with Ramadan in recent days. These two holidays—the former of which has Zoroastrian origins and the latter of which is one of the most important holidays in Islam—will overlap in 2023. Several regime officials have argued in recent days that there is “no conflict” between these holidays and that Nowrouz and Ramadan festivities can take place simultaneously.[3]

The regime’s struggle to reconcile the Islamic Republic’s ideology with pre-Islamic Iranian identity is not new. Former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini tolerated the celebration of Nowrouz but described Zoroastrianism as “fire-worshipping,” for example.[4] Iranian leaders, such as Raisi, may be giving greater attention to this issue now due to the coincidence of Nowrouz and Ramadan in 2023 and some protesters’ use of Persian nationalist themes during the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Protest organizations called for demonstrations on Cyrus the Great Day in October 2022 to celebrate the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, as CTP previously reported.[5] Although these protests did not materialize, regime officials may assess that historical Persian nationalism still poses a major ideological threat to the regime. The regime’s main strategy for countering this ideology—“explanation jihad”—may inadvertently increase historical Persian nationalism’s appeal among Iranians, however.

Iranian officials and state media have scaled back their discussion on the recent student poisonings—an unusual response to this recent, large-scale security crisis. Regime officials and media have largely shifted their attention away from the poisoning incidents to other issues—such as the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement—in recent days.[6] Their lack of attention to the student poisonings that sparked panic across Iran is striking. In normal states government officials would discuss such a security crisis for weeks and debate how best to address the physical and psychological impacts of such an event on students and other victims. The regime’s relative inattention to this issue is especially surprising in light of reports that state security services have arrested some perpetrators.[7] Regime officials accused some of the arrested individuals of cooperating with anti-regime group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and foreign intelligence services, as CTP previously reported.[8] If—as the regime claims—a foreign network did indeed infiltrate Iran and poison Iranian schoolchildren, the regime would undoubtedly publish images of these individuals and broadcast their forced confessions. Regime officials have also claimed that the majority of poisonings were psychogenic, begging the question—if this is true—why the regime is arresting dozens of people for the poisonings.[9]

Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani visited the UAE on March 16—the most senior Iranian visit to the country since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2007.[10] Shamkhani met with Emirati President Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan and National Security Adviser Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan to discuss bilateral ties and regional security, possibly to include talks on Yemen.[11] This visit follows the announcement of the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10 as well as reports that Iran and Bahrain may be engaged in similar normalization talks.[12] Central Bank Governor Mohammad Reza Farzin accompanied Shamkhani to the UAE as part of economic and financial discussions with Emirati officials. Iranian media reported that the purpose of Farzin’s visit was to pursue “monetary, banking, and foreign exchange agreements” with the Emiratis, which may support Iranian efforts to bypass US sanctions.[13] Iran has used businesses in Emirati commercial centers to circumvent US sanctions over the past decade.[14]

Key Takeaways

  • Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology.
  • Iranian officials and state media have scaled back their discussion on the recent student poisonings—an unusual response to this recent, large-scale security crisis.
  • Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani visited the UAE—the most senior Iranian visit to the country since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2007.
  • At least five protests occurred in five cities across two provinces.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least five protests occurred in five cities across two provinces on March 16. CTP assesses with high to moderate confidence that protests occurred in the following cities:

Marivan, Kurdistan Province[15]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Teachers

Saghez, Kurdistan Province[16]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered around Mahsa Amini’s grave

Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province[17]

  • Size: Medium
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered by the graves of protesters killed in the Mahsa Amini movement

Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province[18]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered in honor of those who lost their lives

CTP assesses with low confidence that protests occurred in the following cities:

Divandarreh, Kurdistan Province[19]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered by the graves of protesters killed in the Mahsa Amini movement


Amnesty International reported that Iranian security personnel tortured children as young as 12 for protesting in the Mahsa Amini protest movement. The report estimated that the regime likely arrested thousands of children protesters and corroborated prior reports that security personnel detained many children alongside adults.[20] Interviewed victims stated that Iranian authorities used inhumane acts, such as physical and sexual violence, to extract forced confessions from detained children.[21]

Hardline politician Gholam Ali Haddad Adel acknowledged ongoing divisions among hardliners during a speech to his political party—the Coalition Council of Islamic Revolutionary Forces—on March 16.[22] Haddad Adel emphasized the need for constructive interactions between the Raisi administration and Parliament and noted the need to overcome internal party disputes. Haddad Adel is close to the Office of the Supreme Leader as he is the father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei—the son of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Haddad Adel may have been signaling messages from Mojtaba or his father in the speech. Haddad Adel may have been referring to the recent debate between pragmatic hardliners and more ideological figures, on which CTP has reported previously.[23]

President Ebrahim Raisi stressed the unity between government and regime entities when inaugurating a cancer treatment center on March 16. Raisi stated that his administration did not view nehad, or institutions, as separate from his administration. Raisi additionally praised the role of the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) in providing services to the Iranian population.[24] The EIKO, also known as Setad, is a business conglomerate under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and was estimated to be worth 95 billion US dollars in 2013.[25] The US Treasury designated EIKO and several of its subsidiaries as recently as January 13, 2021.[26]

Interim Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Kazem Sadeghi urged pious individuals to advocate for mandatory veiling standards on March 16. Sadeghi warned that those who remained silent on veiling “are not guardians of the religion.”[27] Sadeghi’s statements are consistent with other senior Iranian officials’ calls for ”explanation jihad”—the regime theory that indoctrinating and ideologizing the population will increase public support for the political establishment and reduce anti-regime sentiment.[28] Sadeghi’s comments also adhere to recent regime endorsements of a collective-punishment model to enforce mandatory veiling.[29]

Economic Affairs

The regime has continued to succeed in raising the value of the Iranian after it fell to a record low of 600,000 rials to the dollar on February 26.[30] The Iranian rial further appreciated from 466,500 rials to one US dollar on March 15 to 463,500 rials to one US dollar on March 16.[31]

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

The Wall Street Journal reported on March 16 that Iran had agreed to cease covert weapons shipments to the Houthis in Yemen.[32] The Journal also reported on March 12 that Iran had agreed to cease encouraging cross-border Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia in exchange for the Saudis restraining anti-regime outlet Iran International from continuing its critical coverage of the regime.[33] Iran and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement on March 10 to reestablish bilateral relations, as CTP previously reported.[34]

Reuters reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei played a role in bringing China into the Iran-Saudi Arabia talks on March 16.[35] Reuters, citing two unidentified Iranian officials, reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei became frustrated with the slow pace of Iran-Saudi Arabia talks in September 2022 and held discussions with his team that ultimately led to China mediating.[36] It is noteworthy that the article specified that Khamenei held these discussions in September 2022—a time when rumors were circulating about Khamenei’s worsening health.[37] Reuters also reported that an unidentified Iranian official stated that Iran will use its “regional influence, particularly in Yemen, to help Riyadh’s security.”[38] These Iranian officials may have sought to convey to a Western audience that Khamenei has personally endorsed the normalization talks and thereby counter suggestions that the regime may be divided on a potential rapprochement with Riyadh.

External Security and Military Affairs

Badr Organization-affiliated Iraqi officials suggested that the Islamic State or intra-Sunni violence was responsible for a massacre in Diyala Province on March 16 that the Badr Organization likely conducted. Several members of the Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, chaired by Badr-affiliated Hakim al Zamili, reported on Mach 16 that the committee is developing a security plan to counter the Islamic State and gang-related crimes in Diyala Province.[39] Zamili previously led the Security and Defense Committee on a fact-finding mission to Diyala Province on March 1 to investigate the likely Badr committed massacre and later called on the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and Badr-affiliated Emergency Response Division to increase counterterrorism operations in the province.[40] Badr-affiliated government officials have criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani’s security reform proposals and deployments to Diyala Province to arrest individuals tied to the recent killings in the province.

The Badr Organization is meanwhile trying to preserve and reinforce its security influence in Diyala Province. The Commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces Diyala Operations Command—Talib al –Moussawi—reported that Badr’s 1st Brigade, 23rd Brigade, 24th Brigade, and 110th Brigade have deployed to Diyala ostensibly as additional security for upcoming Nowrouz holiday events.[41] Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri previously warned Sudani against removing Badr Organization officials from security posts on March 12 and suggested that Badr should be responsible for security in the province.[42]

Syrian President Bashar al Assad reiterated Syria’s demands for engaging in rapprochement talks with Turkish President Recep Erdogan and signaled close partnership with Russia in an interview with Russian state media outlet Novosti on March 15. Assad repeated his demand for Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syrian territory and retract its support for terrorist organizations in Syria prior to engaging in rapprochement talks.[43] Assad also expressed interest in establishing new Russian bases in Syria as well as hosting Russian hypersonic missiles and air defense systems. Assad and the Kremlin likely coordinated the interview to signal to Turkey unity between Damascus and Moscow, regardless of whether the Russian military presence in Syria changes. Russia’s military presence in Syria served as a deterrent against Turkish ground incursions and Assad’s interview is likely intended to garner further concessions from Erdogan in any possible normalization talks.

Turkish state-media newspaper Sabah claimed on March 16 that a deputy-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian officials is expected to take place within the next week.[44] No other state media outlet has reported on upcoming talks, however, possibly indicating that Erdogan is ready to resume negotiations, but Assad may not be. Erdogan may perceive an increased urgency to secure a political victory, such as normalizing ties with Damascus and sending back Syrian refugees, after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on February 6 damaged Erdogan’s popularity ahead of an upcoming election on May 14.[45]

[1] http://www dot president dot ir/fa/143007

[2] http://www dot president dot ir/fa/143007

[3] https://www dot isna dot ir/news/1401122316477/%D9%86%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B2-%D8%B1%D9%85%D8%B6%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%DB%B1%DB%B4%DB%B0%DB%B2-%D8%A8%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AF-%DA%86%DA%AF%D9%88%D9%86%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%B1%DA%AF%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF

https://www dot isna dot ir/news/1401122417063/%D8%A8%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%87-%D8%B1%DB%8C%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B9%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B4%D8%A8-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%86%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B2-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%87-%D8%B1%D9%85%D8%B6%D8%A7%D9%86

[4] https://iranwire dot com/en/features/69205/


[6] https://www dot irna dot ir/news/85052826/%D8%AD%D8%B0%D9%81-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%82-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86

https://www dot tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/19/2865449/اعلام-توافق-ایران-و-عربستان-در-پکن-حذف-آمریکا-از-مناسبات-مهم-غرب-آسیا

[7] https://www dot irna dot ir/news/85058440/%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%DA%AF%DB%8C%D8%B1%DB%8C-%DB%B1%DB%B1%DB%B8-%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B6%D9%88%D8%B9-%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4-%D8%A2%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%86


[9] https://www dot etemadonline dot com/%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B9%DB%8C-23/601112-%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4-%D8%A2%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%B2%DB%8C%D8%B1-%DA%A9%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%B1


[11] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/25/2868554/شمخانی-نگاه-دولت-به-همکاری-های-منطقه-ای-ایجاد-منطقه-قوی-است ; https://www.irna dot ir/news/85059334/%D8%AF%D8%B1%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%B1%D8%A6%DB%8C%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8%DB%8C-%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%DA%A9%D8%B1%D8%AF

[12] ; https://amwaj dot media/article/exclusive-bahrain-iran-held-low-profile-exchanges-amid-iranian-saudi-détente

[13] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/25/2868508/رئیس-کل-بانک-مرکزی-راهی-امارات-شد


[15] ;

[16] ; ; ; ;

[17] ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

[18] ;




[22] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85059284


[24] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85058938/%D8%B1%D8%A6%DB%8C%D8%B3-%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%87%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B4-%DA%A9%D9%86%DB%8C%D9%85-%D8%AF%D8%BA%D8%AF%D8%BA%D9%87-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A8%DB%8C%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%86-%DA%A9%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B4 ; http://www.president dot ir/fa/142998



[27] https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/719279/%D8%B5%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%82%DB%8C-%DA%A9%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%DA%A9%D9%87-%D8%BA%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%AA-%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%86%D8%AF-%D9%86%D8%A8%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B1-%DA%A9%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%AD%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%A8%E2%80%8C%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%B3%D8%A7%DA%A9%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B4%D9%86%D8%AF-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%A7%DA%AF%D8%B1-%D9%86%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B4%D8%A8-%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%A8%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%86%D8%AF-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84-%D8%B3%DA%A9%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%87%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%AF




[31] Bonbast dot com








[39] https://almadapaper dot net/view.php?cat=285528

[40] https://iq.parliament dot iq/blog/2023/03/01/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%85%d9%86-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%86%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%a8%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%aa%d8%ac%d8%b1%d9%8a-%d8%ac%d9%88%d9%84%d8%a9-%d9%85%d9%8a%d8%af%d8%a7%d9%86%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d9%84%d9%85%d8%ad%d8%a7/

[41] https://al-hashed dot

[42] https://alrafidain dot tv/57977/

[43] https://ria dot ru/20230316/asad-1858224485.html

https://www.syria dot tv/%D8%A8%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%BA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%B7-%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%88

[44] https://www.enabbaladi dot net/archives/633739




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