Iran Update, September 1, 2023
Iran Update, September 1, 2023
Ashka Jhaveri, Annika Ganzeveld, Amin Soltani, and Nicholas Carl
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 an 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.
- Iran and the Syrian regime are exploiting instability in eastern Syria to pose a greater threat to US forces there.
- The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) trained Russian forces in Syria to operate Iranian-made drones.
- Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian discussed anti-Israel operations with leaders from the Axis of Resistance in Beirut.
- The Ebrahim Raisi administration is continuing to set conditions to resume nuclear negotiations with the West to achieve a comprehensive deal.
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.
Iran and the Syrian regime are exploiting instability in eastern Syria to pose a greater threat to US forces there. Intense fighting between local tribes and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has erupted and escalated significantly since August 27. Iran and the Syrian regime are using the current security situation to create an increasingly hostile operating environment for US forces, which is consistent with their campaign to expel the United States from Syria.
- The SDF arrested Ahmed Abu Khawla—the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC) commander—on August 27 and began moving reinforcements into Deir ez Zor Province on the same day. The arrest spurred major clashes between the SDF and DMC as well as local tribes. Both sides have suffered dozens of casualties in the fighting, making these clashes deadlier and more significant than the previous SDF-DMC fighting in July 2023.
- Iranian-backed militias deployed short- and medium-range rockets along the Euphrates River in Mayadin City according to an August 31 report. Rocket launcher experts from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon deployed to the location of the rocket launchers. Local Syrian opposition media reported that the militias are preparing to attack US forces stationed nearby at the Green Village and Mission Support Site Conoco and blame the attack on tribesmen clashing with the SDF. Iranian-backed forces have previously conducted rocket attacks on US forces in Deir ez Zor Province in 2023.
- CTP previously reported that pro-Syrian regime forces, including Iranian-backed militants, are deploying to SDF-controlled territory to conduct assassinations and sabotage and fuel tribal tensions. Syrian Air Force intelligence, for instance, deployed to Dhiban in SDF-held territory on August 31. Tribal forces and the SDF have been fighting over Dhiban for several days using drones, mortars, and small arms. The SDF separately arrested Iranian-affiliated forces on August 31 for intimidating locals across the river from Deir ez Zor City.
- Pro-regime forces, including Iranian-backed elements, are trying to give local tribes medical aid and weapons, which could sustain further fighting. Iranian-backed militias offered medical treatment to injured tribesmen affiliated with the tribal forces fighting the SDF. Syrian regime forces are sending weapons into SDF-held territory through several river crossings as well.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) trained Russian forces in Syria to operate Iranian-made drones on August 31. The Russian forces trained on the Ababil-3 multirole and Qasef-1 combat drones at the Palmyra Military Airport in Central Syria, where Iranian-backed militias and Russian forces are stationed. Local Syrian opposition media reported that the Russian forces have a special site for LH Unit 127—a drone production and intelligence collection unit—to assemble, test, and train forces on drones. The IRGC could have used this opportunity to showcase Iranian drones to Russian officers, as the Kremlin continues to seek Iranian-made drones for use in Ukraine. ISW previously assessed that Russia seeks to retain Iran as a long-term strategic defense partner.
Russian forces could use the drones to offset their force reduction in Syria since the invasion of Ukraine. Russia is periodically engaged in conflict with rebels in northwestern Syria, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadist group that controls the territory.
Russia employs Iranian-made drones, notably the Shahed-131- and 136 drones for striking rear areas in Ukraine. The Qasef-1 has a range of 150 kilometers, and Russian forces could use it to strike areas along the front line, given their frequent use of ZALA Lancet and FPV drones.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian discussed anti-Israel operations with leaders from the Axis of Resistance in Beirut on September 1. Abdollahian met with Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Secretary General Ziyad al Nakhalah, and Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chairman Saleh al Arouri. Abdollahian reiterated common Iranian talking points during the meetings, calling for unity among Palestinian militias and expressing support for militancy in the West Bank. Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut comes amid a spike in inflammatory rhetoric between Israeli and Palestinian militant officials.
Abdollahian’s rhetoric is consistent with the messaging from other Iranian leaders in recent months. Senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have regularly called for further arming Palestinian militias in the West Bank since August 2022. Khamenei also called for unity among Palestinian militias and strengthening militancy in the West Bank in meetings with senior Hamas and PIJ officials in Tehran in in June 2023.
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 Ebrahim Raisi administration is continuing to set conditions to resume nuclear negotiations with the West to achieve a comprehensive deal. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian announced on September 1 that Oman will facilitate nuclear negotiations. These remarks follow several Raisi administration officials, including President Raisi, indicating that they will pursue negotiations on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that begins in New York City on September 5. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed such negotiations during a meeting with Raisi administration officials on August 30, as CTP previously reported. Future negotiations between Iran and the West would follow Iran and the United States reaching a prisoner-exchange agreement on August 10, as part of a broader understanding between both parties. The United States and Iran previously reached a confidence-building interim agreement in 2013 to facilitate further the negotiations that would yield the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.
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