April 21, 2023

Iran Update, April 21, 2023

April 21, 2023, 5:30 pm ET

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.

Former President Hassan Rouhani has made national referenda the focus of the Iranian political discourse, forcing the regime into a complicated public discussion over acceptable versus unacceptable referenda—the latter of which would pose an existential threat to the regime. Rouhani has repeatedly called for a national referendum on the regime’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies.[i] Numerous regime officials and state news outlets have responded to Rouhani’s calls in recent days by discussing referenda, entrenching this issue in the domestic political discourse.[ii] Former Parliament Speaker and hardline politician Gholam Ali Haddad Adel stated that a referendum would create sedition during a political party meeting on April 19.[iii] Regime news outlets have argued that referenda are meant only to establish a new political system and not form policies and solve problems.[iv] These outlets make this distinction because rejecting all referenda would delegitimize the Islamic Republic, which was founded via a referendum in 1979.[v] Many of these outlets acknowledged that the Iranian constitution allows the regime to hold referenda on “extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters.”[vi]

These outlet’s seemingly contradictory claims--namely that the constitution permits referenda on various issues and that referenda are meant only to establish a new political system--underscore the extent to which Rouhani’s calls have placed the regime in a bind. The regime does not have a coherent response to Rouhani’s call for a referendum. Rouhani’s proposed referendum on domestic, foreign, and economic policies contrasts with reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi’s call for a referendum on whether to maintain the Islamic Republic, moreover.[vii] While the latter unquestionably falls outside the bounds of the Iranian constitution, the former is consistent with Article 59, which states:

“In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the functions of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum. Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the [Parliament].”[viii]

Rouhani has sought to reenter the domestic political arena in recent months, possibly to facilitate the implementation of constitutionally sanctioned referenda. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported on April 11 that Rouhani is heading a campaign to promote the election of moderate candidates in the March 2024 parliamentary elections, as CTP previously reported.[ix] Rouhani may seek to establish a moderate political bloc in Parliament that could initiate such referendums on major political issues.

Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid evoked the prospect of military unrest in response to worsening domestic conditions during his Friday prayer sermon on April 21, likely to galvanize support for significant reforms.[x] Abdol Hamid stated that there are many “among the armed forces...who are dissatisfied and facing [financial] pressure.” Unrest within the armed forces threatens the security of both the state and society. Abdol Hamid contrasted this to how regime officials, including military commanders, have pursued “personal, factional, and organizational interests” over the national interest, drawing particular attention to how “many organizations use the economy to their own benefit...leaving nothing for the rest of the country.” His comments appear to address widespread corruption, as well as how much the IRGC and its financial institutions have profited from their outsized involvement in the Iranian economy, as CTP has previously reported.[xi] Abdol Hamid has called for reforms to address these issues for months but assigned greater urgency to this matter in this latest speech. He argued that “the people have lost their patience” and “major reforms are needed, small changes are not enough to address the people’s needs.”

Abdol Hamid is trying to counter regime attempts to weaken his movement by addressing the core issues uniting his following.[xii] Abdol Hamid referenced recent regime “steps that have been taken” with respect to the September 2022 “Bloody Friday” massacre of protesters in Zahedan, arguing “they are insufficient.” Abdol Hamid pointed out that those who ordered the massacre have not been punished and argued they should be. He similarly posted on his social media account on April 15 “that all the perpetrators...be identified, tried and punished, and that the damages be compensated.”[xiii] Sistan and Baluchistan Province Armed Forces Judicial Organization announced indictments on April 13 against the security forces who perpetrated the massacre, which CTP previously reported.[xiv] Sistan and Baluchistan Security and Law Enforcement Deputy Governor Ali Reza Marhamati announced on April 17 that 38 individuals killed during the massacre have been designated as “martyrs”—an honorary designation for those who have lost their lives in the service of a just cause.[xv]

Key Takeaways

  • Former President Hassan Rouhani has made national referenda the focus of the Iranian political discourse, forcing the regime into a complicated public discussion over acceptable versus unacceptable referenda.
  • Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid evoked the prospect of military unrest in response to worsening domestic conditions during his Friday prayer sermon, likely to galvanize support for significant reforms.
  • Abdol Hamid is trying to counter regime attempts to weaken his movement by addressing the core issues uniting his following.
  • At least eight protests occurred in seven cities across seven provinces.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least eight protests occurred in seven cities across seven provinces on April 21. CTP assesses with medium to high confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Asalouyeh, Bushehr Province[xvi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Petrochemical workers
  • Notes: This event was both a protest and a strike.

Abadan, Khuzestan Province[xvii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Sekaf and Abadrahan Company workers
  • Notes: This event was both a protest and a strike.

Abadan, Khuzestan Province[xviii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Elixir Company workers
  • Notes: This event was both a protest and a strike.

Saghez, Kurdistan Province[xix]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered by Mahsa Amini’s grave
  • Notes: Significant security force presence

Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province[xx]

  • Size: Unknown
  • Demographic: Zahedan residents protesting after prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid’s Friday sermon
  • Notes: Protesters chanted anti-regime slogans.

Yazd City, Yazd Province[xxi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Steel workers
  • Notes: This event was both a protest and a strike.

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

Dehloran, Ilam Province[xxii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Iran International General Contracting Company workers
  • Notes: This event was both a protest and a strike.

Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province[xxiii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals gathered around the graves of killed protesters

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

President Ebrahim Raisi reiterated that Muslim countries must unite against Israel during a phone call with Qatari President Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on April 21.[xxvi] Raisi conveyed a similar message during his meeting with the ambassadors and charge d’affaires of several unidentified Muslim countries on April 20, as CTP previously reported.[xxvii] The regime has engaged in a concerted effort to create a “united front” against Israel following the Israeli raids on the al Aqsa Mosque between April 6-10.

External Security and Military Affairs

The IRGC deployed 40 Iranian “military trainers” across five Syrian provinces between April 17 and 19, possibly to support its efforts to establish an air defense network throughout Syria. Unidentified sources told local Syrian media that the 40 Iranian trainers were sent to Deir ez Zor, Homs, Daraa, Damascus, and al Suwayda provinces to support extended training exercises.[xxviii] Israeli research center Alma Research and Education Center separately confirmed reports that Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) officer Hajj Mehdi trained Iranian-backed militants on Misagh-1 man-portable air defense systems to al Hajana neighborhood, Albu Kamal district, Deir ez Zor province on April 11, which CTP previously reported.[xxix] CTP previously assessed that the IRGC’s has consolidated air defense capabilities in Deir ez Zor Province to secure its land route through the Albu Kamal crossing from Israeli airstrikes.[xxx]

IRGC trainers recently deployed to Deir ez Zor and Homs may train Iranian-backed militants on man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to counter Israeli drone strikes on Iranian convoys and weapons storage facilities. Iranian trainers that recently deployed to Deir ez Zor province may also provide Iranian-backed militants with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance training. Local Syrian media reported that IRGC Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) technical drone and surveillance experts deployed to al Mayadin, Deir ez Zor Province. Israel has primarily conducted air strikes in Al Suwayda, Damascus, and Dara, which suggests the IRGC trainers that recently deployed there will focus on training militants on air defense systems. 

Badr Organization and Popular Mobilization Force (PMF)-affiliated leadership met on April 21 to discuss future security operations in Diyala Province.[xxxi] Iraqi Deputy Parliament Speaker Mohsen al Mandalawi, Badr Secretary General Hadi al Ameri, and PMF Diyala Operations Commander Talib al Musawi presented security operations to the Badr-affiliated Diyala Governor Muthanna al Mandalawi in the wake of Iraqi Special Forces withdrawal from the province. Mandalawi inaccurately attributed the recent likely Badr-led violence perpetrated against civilians in Diyala to ISIS. Badr and PMF-affiliated leadership similarly attributed the likely Badr-committed killings in Diyala province in February and March to ISIS.[xxxii] CTP previously assessed that Badr’s targeted violence may create conditions that ISIS could exploit to establish itself as a security guarantor for Sunnis in the province.[xxxiii]

Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani portrayed the proposed 2023-2025 state budget as impartial on April 18, likely to preempt criticisms that the budget favors the Shia Coordination Framework. Sudani claimed that the budget is meant to expand government services for the average Iraqi citizen without political interference. He rejected claims from Coordination Framework members that the Framework determines his administration’s policies and fund allocations.[xxxiv] Sudani specified that some members of the State of Law coalition--the party of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki--have asserted that they should always be consulted, but he downplayed disagreements over salaries, construction projects, and government services. Sudani added that he has ordered oversight committees to pursue corruption cases irrespective of party affiliation or office.

Asaib Ahl al Haq Secretary General Qais al Khazali met with Badr Organization Secretary General Hadi al Ameri on April 20 ostensibly to discuss ways of improving Iraqi government services. PMF Chairman Faleh al Fayyadh gave an interview on April 17 in which he defended the PMF’s role in providing government services, as CTP previously reported.[xxxv]

[i] http://www.rouhanihassan dot com/fa/news/99651; https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/721199;

https://www dot rouhanihassan.com/Fa/News/99742/%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%87%D9%85%D9%87%E2%80%8C%D9%BE%D8%B1%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA

[ii] http://www.rouhanihassan dot com/fa/news/99651; https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/721199;

https://www dot rouhanihassan.com/Fa/News/99742/%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%87%D9%85%D9%87%E2%80%8C%D9%BE%D8%B1%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA

[iii] https://donya-e-eqtesad dot com/بخش-سایت-خوان-62/3960889-حدادعادل-رفراندوم-روال-متعارف-اداره-کشورها-در-هیچ-جای-دنیا-نیست

[iv] https://www dot irna.ir/news/85089500/%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%87%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D9%88-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A3%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%85 ;

https://www dot tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1402/02/01/2883483/همه-پرسی-و-مسألۀ-امکان-تحلیل-در-مردم

[v] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/3/30/irans-referendum-and-the-transformation-to-the-islamic-republic

[vi] https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iran_1989.pdf ;

https://www dot irna.ir/news/85089500/%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%87%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D9%88-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A3%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%85

[vii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-17-2023

[viii] https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iran_1989.pdf

[ix] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-11-2023

[x] https://youtu.be/cdi1ZCK3_UY

[xi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-23-2023

[xii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-17-2023

[xiii] https://twitter.com/AbdolhamidNet/status/1647347256922714115?s=20

[xiv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-17-2023

[xv] https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/722716

[xvi] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649390349981212672?cxt=HHwWgICzqZry5-MtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649418319106064385

[xvii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649366814663536641?cxt=HHwWgsCzxaKY3eMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649473013530632199?s=20 ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649473132023934976?s=20 ;

[xviii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649348324384727040?cxt=HHwWgICznf_j1OMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649339172782587904?cxt=HHwWgIC-vabP0OMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1649415257083846657 ;

https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649381728606191616

[xix] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649368962105237504?cxt=HHwWgICznaKV3uMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649344241695444998?cxt=HHwWjMC-6az20uMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649331925872517122?cxt=HHwWhIC95bypzeMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649414874529775620 ;

https://twitter.com/KurdistanHRN/status/1649322244835868674 ;

https://twitter.com/HengawO/status/1649406282153984002

[xx] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649370670457933825?cxt=HHwWgsC-udr43uMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649369371435827200?cxt=HHwWgIC8_Yut3uMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649366909538770944?cxt=HHwWgIC9teWd3eMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1649415892374024200 ;

https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1649424648294072327

[xxi] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649373313813102592?cxt=HHwWgIC2_ciS4OMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649368025609404419?cxt=HHwWhoCw5eDe3eMtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1649416166819938312 ;

https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649379168113639430 ;

https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1649409198671765504

[xxii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649445038852587522?s=20 ;

https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649431967308341253?s=20

[xxiii] https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1649371406457602048 ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1649446478635565056?s=20

[xxiv] https://www dot entekhab.ir/fa/news/723398/%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%AC%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%87-%D9%82%D8%B4%D9%85-%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%87-%D9%81%DB%8C%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%BE%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A8-%D9%85%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%AA%DB%8C%D9%85-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D9%87%D9%85%DA%A9%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A8-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%88-%DA%A9%D8%B3%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AA%D8%B4%DA%A9%D8%B1-%D9%85%DB%8C-%DA%A9%D8%B1%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%85-%D9%82%D8%B3%D9%85%D8%AA%E2%80%8C%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C-%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%B9-%D9%88-%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%B9-%D9%86%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%B4%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A2%D8%AA%D8%B4-%D8%B2%D8%AF%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%B1%D9%90-%D8%AF%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%AC%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%87-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%B7-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%B2%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%BA%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84-%DA%AF%D8%B0%D8%B4%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA

[xxv] https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1648610378673270785

[xxvi] https://president dot ir/fa/143379

[xxvii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-20-2023

[xxviii] https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/index.php/ar/news/2023/04/19/8269

[xxix] https://twitter.com/Israel_Alma_org/status/1649367904142389250 ;

https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-20-2023?mkt_tok=NDc1LVBCUS05NzEAAAGLP_R8t9kOE_gUZZHz1s4vLHrrbmzsrwKMurMgoLID1-Gt0HHtOPp_nWnAmZ_T4vg8IvvtbtA525TsnWzymKHu1-jncMal6aTf4JfpdLXGOOrAhAuy#_edncdd3cc70fe28fd17a2fd7a088aaa68a2737cfa517f3fa60a2c5287041cf03b7620 

[xxx] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-20-2023?mkt_tok=NDc1LVBCUS05NzEAAAGLP_R8t9kOE_gUZZHz1s4vLHrrbmzsrwKMurMgoLID1-Gt0HHtOPp_nWnAmZ_T4vg8IvvtbtA525TsnWzymKHu1-jncMal6aTf4JfpdLXGOOrAhAuy#_edncdd3cc70fe28fd17a2fd7a088aaa68a2737cfa517f3fa60a2c5287041cf03b7620

[xxxi] https://www.ina dot iq/183417--.html

[xxxii] https://twitter.com/mahmoud64710503/status/1641089736424009734; https://twitter.com/linaassil_assil/status/1641107314361999360; https://twitter.com/Hanan3Abdulatif/status/1641121626929479682; https://twitter.com/salehksaj/status/1641089155366019073

[xxxiii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-10-2023

[xxxiv] https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%B3%D9%87%D9%84%D8%A7-%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%87%D8%A7 ;

https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%B3%D9%87%D9%84%D8%A7-%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%87%D8%A7 ;

https://www.ninanews dot com/Website/News/Details?Key=1047941

[xxxv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-20-2023?mkt_tok=NDc1LVBCUS05NzEAAAGLP_R8t9kOE_gUZZHz1s4vLHrrbmzsrwKMurMgoLID1-Gt0HHtOPp_nWnAmZ_T4vg8IvvtbtA525TsnWzymKHu1-jncMal6aTf4JfpdLXGOOrAhAuy#_edncdd3cc70fe28fd17a2fd7a088aaa68a2737cfa517f3fa60a2c5287041cf03b7620