Iran Update, May 17, 2023
Iran Update, May 17, 2023
Johanna Moore, Ashka Jhaveri, 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.
- Iranian-backed Iraqi militias threatened to attack US forces in Iraq, likely elevating the risk of an attack on US or Coalition forces. The militias do not always follow through with their threats to attack US forces, however.
- Iran is establishing a military base in southern Damascus, likely accelerating efforts to secure its long-term presence in Syria ahead of Arab-Syrian normalization.
- Iran has reinvigorated efforts to complete a rail line that connects India to Russia through Iran but is unlikely to complete this project within the next four years.
Iranian Activities in Iraq
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence in 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.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias threatened to attack US forces in Iraq, likely elevating the risk of an attack on US or Coalition forces. The militias were responding to a statement from US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowsi about US plans to stay in the Middle East and invest in diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation on May 15. Iraqi proxy façade group Ashab al Kaf and suspected proxy façade group Tuthia al Shiyea posted separate calls for attacks on US forces to expel them from Iraq. Tuthia al Shiyea rejected any negotiation with the United States and threatened armed resistance. Ashab al Kaf warned that it will target US forces in addition to Iraqis working for American intelligence services, but also called on Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani to expel US forces from Iraq. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias gain a significant amount of their legitimacy from opposing the US presence in Iraq and responding to instances of American or Iraqi officials commenting on a continued US presence in Iraq. The militias do not always follow through with their threats to attack US forces, however.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias may conduct IED attacks against US logistics convoys if they follow through on threats. A façade group affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah—an Iranian-backed Iraqi proxy—claimed responsibility for an IED attack on a US logistics convoy in Baghdad on January 18 after Sudani supported the continued US presence in Iraq during an interview on January 15. The claim was circulated on Iranian-backed proxy Telegram channels, which is a common practice following a suspected Iranian-backed proxy-conducted attack.
Iranian Activities in the Levant
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant and 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.
Iran is establishing a military base in southern Damascus, likely accelerating efforts to secure its long-term presence in Syria ahead of Arab-Syrian normalization. Iranian-backed militants converted land in the vicinity of Sayyidah Zaynab into a militarized area on May 17. The Iranian-backed militants established a military headquarters and barracks, some of which will be weapons storage facilities. The militants also placed berms and cement blocks within a perimeter before reinforcing the area with personnel and weapons. Iran and Iranian-backed militias maintain several weapons storage installations and command centers in Sayyidah Zaynab. Iran establishes military infrastructure, such as headquarters and ammunition depots, to build a long-term presence in Syria. The area was recently the target of an Israeli airstrike on April 3, as CTP previously reported.
Iranian Domestic 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.
Iran has reinvigorated efforts to complete a rail line that connects India to Russia through Iran but is unlikely to complete this project within the next four years. Regime officials have signed numerous multilateral agreements in recent years without progress toward completing the project, which is part of the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia signed a 16-point memorandum of understanding in January to facilitate work on the NSTC. Russia agreed to partially finance Iranian construction of the Rasht-Astara railway on May 17 during a virtual meeting between presidents Ebrahim Raisi and Vladimir Putin. Iranian media described the Rasht-Astara railway as the missing link for the NSTC and estimated that construction would take four years to complete. Iran faces numerous obstacles before it can complete the NSTC, however. The regime will have to first complete the Bandar Abbas-Ghazvin-Rasht railway, connecting the NSTC to India via the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, which is the central aim of the project. Iran and Russia will furthermore have to agree to the Russian investment method, the railway design, and operational plans. Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia will also have to conclude an agreement for making the railway operational through Azerbaijan.
Completing the NSTC would provide an avenue for Iran to evade international sanctions and bolster its domestic economy and regional activities. State media reported that NSTC would generate $20 billion in annual revenue for Iran upon the completion of the project. Iranian state media argued that the NSTC could rival the East-West transportation route through the Suez Canal. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that the NSTC would make the transportation of goods to Russia and Europe 50 percent cheaper than using the Suez Canal for India and neighboring states.
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