The Iranian regime is in a steady pattern of escalation with prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid, which risks stoking sectarian tensions in Iran. Abdol Hamid is an outspoken regime critic who has used his Friday sermons in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to inspire weekly demonstrations criticizing regime mistreatment of Iranian Baloch and mistreatment of protesters. Abdol Hamid began facilitating these demonstrations initially in response to the Bloody Friday event in Zahedan on September 30, in which security forces attacked protesters and killed around 100 individuals. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded by trying to organize an effort to discredit Abdol Hamid, according to a leaked Fars News Agency bulletin, and dispatching a personal delegation to meet with him in November 2022. Both efforts failed to silence Abdol Hamid and his supporters.
A group of pragmatic hardliners is continuing to cohere around calls for the regime to reconcile with its alienated population in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf—a hardline Iranian official and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General—urged the regime to examine its weaknesses on February 2, expounding on his February 1 comments about schisms between the Islamic Republic and its population. Ghalibaf warned that Iran’s enemies would exploit its weaknesses if the regime failed to probe them. Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei separately urged Iranian officials to rectify economic, livelihood, and social justice issues and stated that Iran’s adversaries would “seize this weakness,” rhetorically mirroring Ghalibaf’s warning on the same date. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi additionally stated that the regime must engage in constructive dialogue with activists who operate within the ideological framework of the Islamic Republic and stressed the importance of political participation on February 2. Vahidi is an IRGC Brigadier General and formed Quds Force Commander and was the Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Vahidi is currently an elected official of the ultra-hardline Raisi administration and oversees the Iranian Law Enforcement Command--which the regime mobilizes to violently suppress anti-regime demonstrations—making Vahidi’s calls for improving political engagement with the Iranian population particularly noteworthy. Vahidi previously acknowledged that the Mahsa Amini protest movement had created deep sociopolitical fissures between the regime and Iranian youth on January 26. Ghalibaf’s, Ejei’s, and Vahidi’s comments follow former President Hassan Rouhani’s February 1 statement implying that Iranian leadership had lost the support of its population.
Iranian officials across the political spectrum are cohering around different lessons the regime should draw from the protest movement and how to best respond. Former reformist president Hassan Rouhani criticized the regime for marginalizing moderate and reformist actors in the political sphere in an interview on February 1. Rouhani implied that Iranian leadership had lost the support of the Iranian population and acknowledged the existence of deep societal fissures following the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Rouhani urged Iranian officials to address protester grievances by enforcing corresponding cultural and political changes, although he did not specify the nature or content of these changes. Rouhani framed deepening divides between Iranian leadership and its population as a serious threat to the legitimacy and preservation of the regime, stating: “we have no choice but to preserve and fix the regime […] we must bring the people who have turned away from us back into the fold.” Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf—a hardline Iranian official and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General—echoed Rouhani’s warnings of schisms between the regime and its people on February 1. Ghalibaf stressed the importance of Iranian leadership maintaining a dialogue with the population and stated that “the Islamic Revolution has no meaning without the participation of the people […] the people are the foundation of the revolution.”
Israeli combat aircraft conducted three airstrikes against likely Iran-backed militants in eastern Syria on January 29 and January 30. Israeli combat aircraft targeted and destroyed six trucks traveling through al-Hiri, Deir ez-Zour Province shortly after the convoy crossed into Syria from the Iraqi al-Qaim border crossing on January 29. Iranian proxy social media channels posted footage depicting a large fire in al-Hari immediately after the airstrike occurred, indicating that the attack may have detonated precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that Iran-backed militants attempted to conceal in what Iranian state media claimed to be a humanitarian convoy. Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency denied reports that the attack resulted in casualties among IRGC personnel.
Ongoing disruptions to Iran’s energy supplies may be generating severe air pollution. Semi-official ISNA reported on January 26 that the city of Tehran has introduced “emergency ambulance buses” to transport citizens affected by dangerous air pollution levels. Iranian media outlets have also reported school closures in various cities due to air pollution in recent days. This pollution may be caused by power plants burning low-grade fuel due to shortages of more refined products. Iran’s ongoing energy crisis could both impede and trigger further protests. An unusually harsh winter and high air pollution levels may explain why protest turnout has decreased in recent weeks. This crisis may increase frustration among the population and precipitate new unrest, on the other hand. The first known protest inspired by natural gas shortages during the Mahsa Amini protest wave occurred in Torbat-e Jam on January 16, as CTP previously reported. Petrochemical workers across Iran have also protested against poor living conditions in recent days. The regime’s inability to resolve this crisis may drive frustrated citizens to challenge the regime despite harsh natural conditions. Iranian officials had hoped to benefit from a harsh winter in Europe and a mild winter in Iran, but have instead suffered from the inverse weather pattern.
At least four protests occurred in three cities across two provinces in Iran on January 22.
The Iranian regime is likely escalating against prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid. Social media users continued to document a heightened security presence in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province ahead of Abdol Hamid’s weekly Friday prayer sermon and protests throughout the city. Security personnel within the past several days have reportedly blocked all roads leading to Zahedan, established new checkpoints restricting movement into the city, and detained custodians of the mosque where Abdol Hamid delivers his sermons . Social media users have additionally reported mass arrests and internet restrictions. Uncorroborated reports claim that the regime also deployed to the Zahedan airport security forces not normally assigned to the airport, alleging that Iranian officials had lost confidence in the local Basij members formerly entrusted with securing the airport. CTP cannot verify this report. An advisor to Abdol Hamid attributed the intensified security environment in Zahedan to LEC Commander Ali Reza Radan, whom Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed on January 7. CTP previously assessed that Khamenei likely appointed Radan, a hardline member of the IRGC with extensive experience in crushing political dissent, as law enforcement commander partly due to dissatisfaction with the LEC’s response to the Mahsa Amini protest movement.
Ongoing gas shortages have sparked protests in northeastern Iran. Protesters gathered in front of the local governor’s office and lit a fire in the streets in Torbat-e Jam, Khorasan Razavi Province on January 16. Protesters were responding to the Iranian regime cutting gas services for thousands of customers in the city in recent days. Citizens have struggled to keep warm in the winter conditions. Some locals have claimed that the regime has cut electricity to the city as well. These energy shortages could stoke further protests throughout Iran, especially in its northern and eastern provinces in the coming days. Iranian officials have increasingly warned of a national “gas crisis” in recent days and briefly closed banks, public facilities, and universities in some provinces to reduce gas consumption.
Iranian protest organizers circulated calls on January 15 for the international community, and especially European parties, to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Many well-known protest groups—even those who occasionally seem to disagree with one another—circulated these calls in unison. The protest groups published these calls in Persian and English. This external messaging is consistent with and may reflect the priorities some protest organizers have set in recent days. The Iranian Neighborhood Youth Union emphasized its focus on expanding external outreach to the international community on January 13.
Some protest organizers in Iran are trying to push the protest movement into a new phase—one that could include more militant activity against the Iranian regime. The Karaj Neighborhood Youth has argued in recent days that the movement has entered a “new phase” and “second wave” as protest turnout has continued to decline. The Karaj group has described this new period as featuring greater centralization and cohesion within the movement, external outreach, and insurgent activity. The Karaj group stated on January 4 that the movement has “intensified” its coordination and is making unified decisions regarding “approaches, fighting methods, assistance, etc.” The Karaj group rebranded entirely on January 13, labeling itself as the international communications wing of the Iranian Neighborhood Youth Union (INYU)—a coalition of protest groups that formed in December 2022. The Karaj group under its new name announced that the INYU is pursuing two efforts: “1. Building cohesion and cooperation among militant groups inside Iran [and] 2. Connecting with the international community (individuals, organizations, and media).” The group added that the first effort "is currently underway, and soon most militant groups in the field will gather together.” It is unclear how much real influence the INYU has over the protest movement and to what extent its efforts will succeed, especially given the challenges that it has had in generating protest turnout previously. Infighting over leadership within the protest movement could seriously hinder these efforts. It is also unclear to what extent the INYU will continue trying to coordinate overt acts of political defiance, such as demonstrations and strikes.