Iran Update, May 31, 2023
Iran Update, May 31, 2023
Andie Parry, Amin Soltani, Annika Ganzeveld, Johanna Moore, Ashka Jhaveri, Peter Mills, and Kitaneh Fitzpatrick
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.
1. Iran has bolstered its defensive position in eastern Syria since the end of the escalation cycle that occurred in March, likely to facilitate the transfer of advanced conventional weapons into Syria. The escalation cycle between Iran, Israel and the United States may have prompted Iran to halt transferring advanced conventional weapons through Deir ez Zor.
2. The Raisi administration is reconfiguring personnel to economically benefit from Iranian and Syrian reintegration into the region.
3. Iran is likely attempting to coerce Iraq into complying with Iranian security concerns about Israeli activities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
4. Iran and the Taliban are signaling they seek to avoid further border clashes over water disputes while preparing for further border clashes.
5. The Iranian Parliament approved Reza Morad Sahraei as Iran’s new education minister on May 30, which could lead to intensified government indoctrination efforts and crackdowns on university student protests.
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 has bolstered its defensive position in eastern Syria since the end of the escalation cycle that occurred in March, likely to facilitate the transfer of advanced conventional weapons into Syria. Iranian shipments of advanced air defense equipment and precision guided munitions that arrived in Syria through the Albu Kamal border crossing in Deir ez Zor Province were the targets of Israeli drone strikes in February and March, as CTP previously reported. Iran has been transferring conventional air defense weapons to eastern Syria, training forces in Syria to use the weapons, and improving operational security in Deir ez Zor Province since mid-March. Israel has not conducted drone strikes in eastern Syria since March 23.
Iran has transferred conventional air defense weaponry suitable for countering drone attacks to Deir ez Zor Province. CTP previously reported that Iranian-backed militias distributed over 140 Misagh-1 man-portable defense missiles (MANPADS) to Fatemiyoun and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militants in Abu Kamal and Al Mayadeen, Deir ez Zor Province on April 11.  Several Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces units, including KH subsequently reinforced positions between al Hari and al Suwayya, Albu Kamal, Syria along the Iranian-backed, militia-controlled border crossing with 12.7 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns on May 23.  MANPADs and anti-aircraft machine guns are suitable for use against drones.
Iran and Iranian-backed militias have trained forces in eastern Syria to operate conventional air defense weapons. Local anti-Iranian media outlet Eye of Euphrates reported that approximately 25 Iranian missile and air defense specialists arrived in Albu Kamal, Deir ez Zor Province on April 4.  The IRGC Quds Force also deployed 40 Iranian “military trainers” across five Syrian provinces between April 17 and 19. The Euphrates Post reported on April 20 that a Lebanese Hezbollah commander trained Iranian-backed militants in operating Misagh-1 MANPADS in the vicinity of Al Mayadeen, Deir ez Zor Province.
Iran also has taken steps to enhance operational security between the Albu Kamal border crossing and Deir ez Zor since mid-March. An unspecified Iranian-backed militia arrested and replaced at least 46 Syrian militants suspected of leaking sensitive information on March 14. IRGC Quds Force leadership in Albu Kamal City also emphasized maintaining operational security in a May 4 meeting with local militia leaders. Leaks from Syrian militia members may have damaged operational security and left Iranian convoys vulnerable to targeted attacks from ISIS or Israeli airstrikes, as CTP previously assessed. Iranian backed militias also have improved security along shipment routes in Deir ez Zor Province. Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias were identified installing surveillance at a new Iranian headquarters in Albu Kamal on April 19 and at a weapons depot in al Mayadeen, Deir ez Zor Province on May 31. Iranian leadership in Deir ez Zor Province replaced local forces with Kataib Hezbollah militants on April 25 to fortify Iranian-affiliated headquarters and weapons depots in al Mayadeen. 
The escalation cycle between Iran, Israel and the United States may have prompted Iran to halt transferring advanced conventional weapons through Deir ez Zor. An Israeli drone strike in Deir ez Zor City on March 8 resulted in the death of an IRGC QF officer. Iran launched rockets at US forces at Green Village on March 13, possibly in response to the March 8 strike. A subsequent Israeli drone strike killed an IRGC QF officer in the vicinity of Albu Kamal on March 22. The Iranian-backed militia Liwa al Ghaliboun launched a drone strike against a US base in Hasakah, Syria, on March 23, which resulted in the death of a US contractor. The United States retaliated with strikes against at least four Iranian-backed militia positions on March 23. Iranian-backed militias launched rockets at US forces at the Conoco Mission Support Site and Green Village on March 24. The United States responded on the same day by striking the Ayyash Warehouse outside Deir ez Zor City. CTP has not observed an Israeli airstrike on Iranian convoys, personnel, or infrastructure in eastern Syria since March 22. The timing suggests that the US strikes on Iranian-backed militias was decisive in changing Iran’s decision-making calculus regarding escalation in Syria. The escalation cycle culminated, before Israel raided the al Aqsa Mosque on April 4.
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.
Iran is likely attempting to coerce Iraq into complying with Iranian security concerns about Israeli activities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi met with his Iraqi counterpart Abdul Amir al Shammari to discuss border security on May 31, which suggests that Iran deployed artillery to the Iraqi border on May 30 to pressure the Iraqi government to accede to Iranian demands in subsequent negotiations. CTP previously assessed that the IRGC was preparing to launch artillery into Iraqi Kurdistan, likely as part of a short-term military conflict against perceived Israeli threats from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The deployment of artillery indicates Iran’s willingness to resort to military action if diplomatic engagements do not lead to the eradication of perceived Israeli activities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
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.
The Raisi administration is reconfiguring personnel to economically benefit from Iranian and Syrian reintegration into the region. The Raisi administration plans to reestablish the Commerce Ministry, which was dissolved in 2011, following parliamentary approval. The Commerce Ministry will supplant the Industry, Mines, and Trade Ministry’s domestic regulatory obligations, allowing the latter ministry to focus on foreign trade. Raisi also nominated an IRGC-affiliated and former parastatal industry executive, Abbas Ali Abadi, to become Industry, Mines, and Trade Minister on May 30. The official posts Abadi held signals the Raisi administration’s focus on regional economic interests. Abbas Abadi serves as the CEO of MAPNA Group, a conglomerate that has a significant presence in the Iranian economy. He also managed several IRGC-affiliated parastatal economic organizations between 2008 and 2023. Abbas Abadi presided over several investment and construction projects in Iraq and Syria throughout his career, which indicates he has the relevant experience and networks needed to reinforce Raisi’s ongoing regional economic objectives. The Raisi administration signed numerous economic cooperation agreements with the Assad regime since May 3 to capitalize on Syria and Iran’s recent normalization of relations with the Arab League and Saudi Arabia. Abadi, Raisi’s proposed Industry, Mines, and Trade Minister, may separately leverage his economic experience in Syria and Iraq to help launder potential Arab and Gulf state financing in Syria through proxy economic organizations in Iraq.
Abadi’s professional history also indicates that he will likely protect the IRGC’s economic interests and further pursue his predecessor’s corrupt path, which could increase political pressure on the Raisi administration. Abadi has not only managed IRGC-affiliated parastatal organizations but has also managed Iran Khodro – the country’s largest car manufacturing company – and belongs to the Astan Quds Razavi (AQR) network - a state-controlled charity with a history of economic corruption. Abadi’s predecessor, former Industry, Mines, and Trade Minister Reza Fatemi Amin, also belonged to the AQR network and was accused of protecting the interests of automobile manufacturers, leading to his parliamentary impeachment and removal from office on April 30.
The Iranian Parliament approved Reza Morad Sahraei as Iran’s new education minister on May 30, which could lead to intensified government indoctrination efforts and crackdowns on university student protests. Sahraei served as the president of Farhangian University—a state-affiliated teacher training university—prior to becoming education minister and has extensive experience in authoring textbooks. Sahraei may advance the regime’s effort to indoctrinate students by revising textbook content, which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei previously called for on May 2.
Sahraei additionally supports the regime’s hardline stance on women’s issues, which suggests that he will facilitate the suppression of anti-regime activity among Iranian university students. Sahraei warned Farhangian University students and professors during the Mahsa Amini movement that individuals who opposed the regime “have no place in Farhangian University.” Sahraei separately supported gender segregation as a student at Allameh Tabatabai University in 2012. University students largely spearheaded the Mahsa Amini movement between September 2022 and January 2023.
Iran and the Taliban are signaling they seek to avoid further border clashes over water disputes while preparing for further border clashes. Iranian and Afghan border guards engaged in a brief and lethal clash near the Milak-Zaranj border crossing on May 27, as CTP previously reported. Local Taliban officials denied reports of border tensions and claimed the situation near Islam Qala was calm on May 30. Iranian and Taliban officials employed de-escalatory rhetoric on May 31, emphasizing border clashes were under control.
Reports of Iranian and Taliban military movement in the vicinity of the border, if accurate, indicate decreased Iranian confidence in a deescalation cycle, however. The Taliban’s 209th Corps deployed approximately battalion-sized reinforcements, including armored vehicles and artillery, near the border with Iran by Islam Qala, Herat Province on May 31. Social media reports separately suggested that Iran amassed troops near the Dogharun-Islam Qala border crossing on May 31. 
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