August 04, 2023

Iran Update, August 4, 2023

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 a new 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.

Key Takeaways

  1. Local Syrian leaders met with Iranian military leaders in Deir ez Zor City to inform them that the US-led International Coalition will not attack Syrian regime-controlled territory. These assurances will not likely stop the buildup of Iranian-backed forces in eastern Syria.
  2. Iran could pursue several courses of action in response to increasing US military deployments in the Persian Gulf. The most likely scenario is that Iran will further harass and threaten US forces.
  3. Prominent Iranian Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid did not give a Friday sermon in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province on August 4 for the first time since the Mahsa Amini protests began in September 2022.
  4. Iranian state media confirmed on August 4 that Iran and Venezuela signed an agreement for Iran to export gasoline and oil products to Venezuela during President Ebrahim Raisi’s June 2023 trip to Latin America.

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.

Local Syrian leaders met with Iranian military leaders in Deir ez Zor City to inform them that the US-led International Coalition will not attack Syrian regime-controlled territory.[i] These assurances will not likely stop the buildup of Iranian-backed forces in eastern Syria. A rumor spread in eastern Syria in late June 2023 that the US-led International Coalition planned such attacks. Pro-regime forces, including Iranian- and Russian-backed militants, deployed to the line of contact with the SDF in eastern Syria throughout July 2023, ostensibly in response, despite there being no evidence of an imminent attack.[ii] Iran and Russia amplified these rumors to frame the US as an imminent threat to local Syrians. CTP previously assessed that Iran, Russia, and Assad have emphasized these rumors and used the deployments to pressure the United States to leave Syria.[iii] Iran and Russia have coordinated since November 2022 to stoke local frustration toward US forces and create a maximally hostile operating environment for US personnel. SDF officials met with Russian and Syrian officers several times in July 2023 to deescalate and assure them that they would not attack Syrian regime-controlled territory. More recently, local anti-Syrian regime media reported on August 3 that local Syrian leaders met with Iranian military officials in Deir ez Zor City to similarly assure them that there are no plans to attack.[iv]

A continued buildup of Iranian-backed forces in eastern Syria would indicate that the talks with local Syrian leaders failed to deescalate the situation. A continued buildup would also be consistent with CTP’s assessment that the deployments are meant to pressure US forces rather than to defend against a rumored US- and SDF-led attack into Assad-held territory.

Iranian and Axis of Resistance media reported that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani visited Iranian-backed military positions in Syria on August 3 to inspect combat readiness.[v] An unidentified local source indicated Ghaani met with local Iranian-backed militia leaders in Deir ez Zor Province.[vi] Axis media quoted Ghaani as stating, “Iran and Syria’s enemies know very well the initiative in the region is in the hands of the Axis of Resistance.”[vii] As discussed above, local anti-Syrian regime media reported on August 3 that local Syrian leaders met with Iranian military officials in Deir ez Zor City to discuss military tensions and a possible SDF offensive.[viii] Ghaani may have participated in these meetings given the timing of these events.

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.

Iran could pursue several courses of action in response to increasing US military deployments in the Persian Gulf. Western media reported on August 3 that the United States is considering placing armed sailors and Marines on commercial vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz to deter Iran from attacking and/or seizing these vessels.[ix] These reports come after the United States had already sent a naval destroyer, fighter jets, and Marine units to the area to deter Iranian aggression.[x] IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri threatened on July 20 that Iran will hold the United States and US companies responsible for confiscating and unloading Iranian oil.[xi] Tangsiri was responding to the US seizure of the Suez Rajan tanker, which illegally carried Iranian oil, in April 2023. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 18 that US companies fear Iranian retaliation and are hesitant to unload Iranian oil from the Suez Rajan tanker.[xii] Possible trajectories, which are not mutually exclusive, include the following: 

  • Iran could harass and threaten US forces. Such activities could include conducting threatening displays of Iranian naval capabilities, firing in the direction of US forces, or using naval and aerial platforms to conduct unsafe, unprofessional maneuvers around US forces. These scenarios are plausible because Iran has previously resorted to such tactics to harass and threaten US service members operating in the Persian Gulf.[xiii] A potential indicator for this course of action would be Iranian officials and state media claiming that US naval vessels are coming too close to Iran’s territorial waters. Iranian officials and media often falsely frame Iranian harassment of US ships as warning the US that its vessels are approaching Iranian internal waters. CTP is unlikely to observe other indicators for this scenario in the open-source environment, however, such as Iranian leaders ordering this approach or adjusting their rules of engagement to allow for such tactics. This scenario is Iran’s most likely course of action as it carries the lowest risk of direct military confrontation while still pressuring the United States.
  • A more dangerous course of action is Iran capturing a US vessel—manned or unmanned—and possibly holding any crewmembers Iranian naval forces captured a US Navy vessel and its crew in January 2016. Iran also seized unmanned US vessels in August and September 2022.[xiv] Iranian naval forces similarly captured British naval vessels and their crews in 2004.[xv] A potential indicator for this scenario would be regime officials threatening to target US naval assets. CTP is unlikely to observe other indicators for this course of action, however, such as Iranian leaders ordering Iranian naval forces to take US sailors hostage.
  • Iran could choose not to take any action. An indicator for this approach would be Iranian state media and officials offering benign comments or simply not commenting on the increasing US naval presence in the coming days and weeks.

Prominent Iranian Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid did not give a Friday sermon in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province on August 4 for the first time since the Mahsa Amini protests began in September 2022.[xvi] Abdol Hamid’s social media accounts reported that he was present at Friday prayers but did not speak due to a “slight illness.”[xvii] The accounts posted a picture of Abdol Hamid at Friday prayers wearing a mask. Abdol Hamid has openly criticized the regime since security forces violently suppressed protesters in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, in an event that became known as “Bloody Friday.”[xviii] Abdol Hamid has frequently criticized the regime’s religious hypocrisy, discrimination of religious and ethnic minorities, and violence toward citizens in his sermons.[xix] His fiery sermons sparked anti-regime protests in Zahedan every Friday since September 30, 2022.[xx]

Iranian state media confirmed on August 4 that Iran and Venezuela signed an agreement for Iran to export gasoline and oil products to Venezuela during President Ebrahim Raisi’s June 2023 trip to Latin America.[xxi] The reports added that Iran and Venezuela signed contracts for the construction of joint refineries. CTP previously reported that the Raisi administration seeks to expand Iran’s economic influence in Latin America, especially Venezuela, which is an important energy partner for Tehran.[xxii] Iran has previously exported condensates and heavy crude oil to Venezuela, repaired Venezuelan refineries, and delivered oil tankers to Venezuela.[xxiii] Greater energy cooperation with Venezuela would enable Iran to increase its capital inflows but would not solve the problems that underlie Iran’s economic instability. Fundamental economic reforms—such as reducing the dominance of para-statal organizations in Iran’s economy, combatting corruption and nepotism, and diversifying the Iranian economy—would be necessary to meaningfully improve Iran’s economy.[xxiv]


[i] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/index.php/ar/news/2023/08/03/9328

[ii] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/12/9105%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/12/9105%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/index.php/ar/news/2023/07/11/9102%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/en/iranian-militia-reinforcements-enter-al-bukamal-from-iraq/%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://www.syria (dot) tv/%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AD%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B5%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://euphratespost (dot) net/%d8%aa%d9%86%d8%b5%d9%8a%d8%a8-%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%ac%d9%85%d9%80-%d9%80%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%b5%d9%80-%d9%80%d9%88%d8%a7%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%ae-%d9%88%d9%88%d8%b5%d9%88%d9%84-%d8%aa%d8%b9%d8%b2%d9%8a%d8%b2%d8%a7/%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/%d8%a7%d8%b3%d8%aa%d9%86%d9%81%d8%a7%d8%b1-%d9%84%d9%82%d9%88%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d8%b3%d8%af-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d8%af%d9%8a%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b2%d9%88%d8%b1-%d8%b4%d8%b1%d9%82-%d9%88%d8%ba/%C2%A0;%C2%A0https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1677278853734051846

[iii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-july-19-2023

[iv] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/index.php/ar/news/2023/08/03/9328

[v] https://alalamsyria.ir/news/41724 ; https://www.almanar.com.lb/10842713 ; https://www.alahednews.com.lb/fastnewsdetails.php?fstid=209591 ; https://paltoday.ps/ar/post/489460/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A2%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B7  

[vi] https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/1687519809846571008

[vii] https://www.alahednews.com.lb/fastnewsdetails.php?fstid=209591

[viii] https://eyeofeuphrates.com/index.php/ar/news/2023/08/03/9328

[ix] https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-place-armed-sailors-marines-on-tankers-to-deter-iran-b27cc48 ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/08/03/armed-marines-iran-ship-seizures/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-08-03/us-trains-forces-for-possible-boarding-to-help-ships-in-strait?in_source=embedded-checkout-banner&sref=RR1m1tD8#xj4y7vzkg ; https://apnews.com/article/persian-gulf-tensions-us-armed-guards-57295a81dc45c9e0755bd6a83ece86d9  

[x] https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-deploys-advanced-f-35-jets-destroyer-to-middle-east-to-brush-back-iranian-forces-7d9a92cf ; https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/07/us-sends-f-35s-navy-destroyer-middle-east-amid-aggressive-moves-russia-iran#ixzz87kMqHIH ; https://twitter.com/US5thFleet/status/1680506926692442112?s=20 ; https://apnews.com/article/iran-russia-syria-military-fighter-jets-449a4c6fc9ab90981914c77e2d290f7f

[xi] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/04/29/2928597 ; https://www.irna dot ir/news/85175663

[xii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/iranian-oil-is-stuck-off-coast-of-texas-but-u-s-firms-wont-touch-it-20f70753

[xiii] https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/may/05/timeline-us-iran-naval-encounters ; https://apnews.com/article/iran-us-navy-strait-of-hormuz-persian-gulf-tensions-63ac622781b97d7fa578f440bd074f64 ; https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/05/03/2931095 ; https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/05/03/2931051 ; https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/735894

[xiv] https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/may/05/timeline-us-iran-naval-encounters  

[xv] https://www.voanews.com/a/a-13-a-2004-07-01-1-1-67502217/283139.html  

[xvi] https://www.radiofarda.com/a/32534174.html

[xvii] https://twitter.com/AbdolhamidNet

[xviii] https://www.middleeasteye dot net/news/iran-molavi-abdolhamid-anti-establishment-sunni-cleric

[xix] https://abdolhamid dot net/persian/2023/04/01/13604/

[xx] https://haalvsh dot org/2023/08/04/%D9%88%DB%8C%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%88%DB%8C%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%BE%DB%8C%D9%85%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C-%D8%B3%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%85-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%87/

[xxi] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85186726

[xxii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-june-13-2023

[xxiii] https://www.eia.gov/international/content/analysis/countries_long/Iran/pdf/iran_exe.pdf

[xxiv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-june-13-2023#_ednef7b5e9a5c9b37fd46782c7bce4f910e529328614a1438257210a8aadb29d9b821

 

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