February 28, 2023

Iran Update, February 28, 2023

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.

Contributors: Anya Caraiani and James Motamed

Regime incompetence and mismanagement is driving further protest activity and popular frustration toward the regime and may unite citizens with disparate grievances. The regime is facing several concurrent crises over its mishandling of economic, ecological, and security issues. The regime is continuing to victimize its people with a range of different problems, stoking anti-regime frustration across many different demographics.

CTP recorded 20 protests across 14 provinces on February 28, 18 of which focused on Iran’s deteriorating economic conditions. The extent and scale of these demonstrations supports CTP’s previous assessment that protest activity in Iran is rising and returning to levels not seen since the end of 2022, and economic frustrations are driving much of this unrest.[i] The value of the Iranian rial appreciated slightly to 556,500 against the US dollar on February 28—an improvement from a record low of roughly 600,000 on February 26—following the reported intervention of the Central Bank of Iran to stabilize the currency, although the Raisi administration has not yet articulated a clear policy to meaningfully improve the economy.[ii] An Iranian parliamentarian characterized Raisi’s economic strategy as “emotional—not a plan based on science and decisive decisions” on February 28, echoing previous criticisms of Raisi’s cabinet in recent days.[iii]

Iranian social media users are framing Iran’s ecological issues as another consequence of regime incompetence in response to the death of a critically endangered 10-month-old Asiatic cheetah cub named Pirouz on February 28.[iv] Pirouz, whose name means ”victory,” was a symbol of hope among many Iranian dissidents and featured in Shervin Hajipour’s popular protest song ”Baraye“—the unofficial anthem of the Mahsa Amini protest movement.[v] A senior official at Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization previously stated in late 2022 that the regime did not have ”the time nor money” to care for Pirouz.[vi] Iranian leaders have long suppressed and silenced environmental activists due to these leaders’ paranoia and fear of their own population. The regime arrested wildlife conservationists who were monitoring endangered species, including Asiatic cheetah, in January 2018.[vii] The regime also reportedly excluded these environmental activists from the mass amnesty that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued on February 5.[viii] 

The regime has furthermore failed to protect hundreds of Iranian women going to school in recent months. Hundreds of schoolgirls in at least 10 Iranian cities have experienced poisoning symptoms since late 2022.[ix] Victims experience symptoms such as coughing, smelling a “tangerine-like smell,” lethargy, numbness, and shaking.[x] Some victims have been hospitalized.[xi] Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan announced on February 28 that the Law Enforcement Command (LEC) is investigating these countrywide incidents of chemical poisoning but noted that it had not yet arrested suspected perpetrators.[xii] Some social media users have suggested that religious extremists have perpetrated the attack to dissuade Iranian females from obtaining an education.[xiii] Victims’ parents protested in Qom and criticized the government response on February 14, as CTP previously reported.[xiv] The pro-Pahlavi Iranian Neighborhood United Front called for countrywide demonstrations in response to the poisonings.[xv]

Iran has intensified efforts to expand its influence over the Iraqi state security services in recent days. Iraqi Defense Minister Thabet Mohammad Saeed al Abbasi paid an official visit to Tehran on February 25-27, as CTP previously reported, likely to discuss Iran providing arms and military training to Iraq.[xvi] Iranian leaders may seek to sell basic ground forces equipment that the regime produces domestically, such as ammunition, artillery, and small arms, and provide training to generate much-needed revenue and increase Iranian influence over the Iraqi security forces.  Iranian and Russian officials have discussed in recent weeks cooperating to manufacture helicopters, which Iran could also eventually sell to Iraq.[xvii] Social media rumors have furthermore reported in recent days that the Iraqi Parliament may soon consider legislation that would further institutionalize the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the Iraqi security structure.[xviii] The PMF is a loose umbrella of Shia militias—many of whom Iran directs and materially supports—that operate independently of the Iraqi central government. The draft legislation reportedly permits the PMF to independently pursue arms deals with foreign sellers, although CTP cannot confirm these rumors presently. The parliamentary committee preparing the draft legislation reportedly has ties to the Iran-backed Badr Organization, which Iranian proxy Hadi al Ameri leads.[xix] These efforts may be part of a larger Iranian strategy to build a cohesive coalition of proxy and partner militias throughout the region to project strength and pursue strategic objectives. CTP will explore this assessment in greater detail in an upcoming report.

Key Takeaways

  • Regime incompetence and mismanagement is driving further protest activity and popular frustration toward the regime and may unite citizens with disparate grievances.
  • Iran has intensified efforts to expand its influence over the Iraqi state security services in recent days.
  • At least 20 protests occurred in 15 cities across 14 provinces on February 28.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported on February 28 that the International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA) confirmed the discovery of traces of 84-percent enriched uranium--near weapons-grade--at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in a confidential report circulated among member states.
  • The IRGC Aerospace Force and Artesh Air Defense Force conducted an annual “Velayat Sky Defenders” joint air defense exercises on February 28.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least 20 protests occurred in 15 cities across 14 provinces on February 28. CTP assesses with high to moderate confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Karaj, Alborz Province[xx]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Civil servant retirees

Shahr-e Kord, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari[xxi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Tabriz, East Azerbaijan[xxii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[xxiii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Civil servant retirees
  • Chants: “Inept Raisi, go back to the seminary”

Kermanshah City, Kermanshah Province[xxiv]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Civil servant retirees
  • Chants: “Raisi, feel ashamed, leave the country”

Arak, Markazi Province[xxv]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Civil servant retirees

Tehran City, Tehran Province[xxvi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals who are owed remittances by Azerbaijan Khodro automobile company
  • Notes: Strike and protests

Tehran City, Tehran Province[xxvii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: University of Tehran students
  • Notes: Students protested the decision to move all classes to virtual learning after Nowruz

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

Ardabil City, Ardabil Province[xxviii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[xxix]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Esfahan Art University students

Ghazvin City, Ghazvin Province[xxx]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Rasht, Gilan Province[xxxi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Ilam City, Ilam Province[xxxii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Marivan, Kurdistan Province[xxxiii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province[xxxiv]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Babol, Mazandaran Province[xxxv]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Tehran City, Tehran Province[xxxvi]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Moradabad landowners

Tehran City, Tehran Province[xxxvii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Waste workers
  • Notes: Strike and protest. Pro-Khamenei and Khomeini banners

Yazd City, Yazd Province[xxxviii]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Yazd City, Yazd Province[xxxix]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Steel workers

Protest coordinators and organizations called for anti-regime demonstrations on the following dates:

March 1[xl]

  • Notes: Protests against student chemical poisonings, environmental mismanagement, economic corruption, and protester arrests

March 8[xli]

  • Location: Countrywide, city centers at 18:00 local time
  • Notes: Commemorating International Women’s Day

March 13-15[xlii]

  • Location: Countrywide
  • Notes: Coincides with a Zoroastrian fire festival—Chahar Shanbeh Souri—on March 15

Social media accounts reported on February 28 that an individual set themselves aflame in public in Kashmar, Khorasan Razavi Province.[xliii] The individual was reportedly protesting against the poor economic conditions.

Economic Affairs

The Supreme Economic Coordination Council met to discuss Iran’s economic problems on February 26. The council, which is chaired by President Ebrahim Raisi, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, emphasized the importance of cross-branch cooperation between the judiciary, parliament, and the Raisi administration to control exchange rates and provide currency for the import of goods.[xliv] Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Ehsan Khandouzi characterized exchange rates as “inaccurate” in the Forex Management Integrated System.[xlv]

Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf publicly denounced Program and Budgeting Organization Head Massoud Mir Kazemi’s allegation that Parliament had increased the yearly fiscal budget by roughly four quadrillion rials (7.142 billion US dollars). Ghalibaf added that “if the budget ceiling goes up, inflation will increase, and disharmony will arise.”[xlvi] It is possible that Iranian leadership is renegotiating the fiscal budget as inflation rates and the depreciation of the rial have reduced Iranian purchasing power.[xlvii] Simply adding to the budget, however, risks fueling inflation and further devaluing the rial, worsening the vicious economic circle.

Nuclear Program

The Wall Street Journal reported on February 28 that the International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA) confirmed the discovery of traces of 84-percent enriched uranium--near weapons-grade--at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in a confidential report circulated among member states.[xlviii] The IAEA report stated that the regime experimented with producing weapons-grade uranium at the same time as it had altered the connections between cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow. An unidentified individual connected to the IAEA stated that the amount of 84-percent enriched uranium produced thus far is likely very small. Iran’s stockpile of 60-percent enriched uranium has increased to 87.5 kilograms; more than triple the amount the IAEA considers a “significant quantity” of highly enriched uranium (even if not weapons-grade) needed to produce a single compact nuclear explosive.[xlix] US Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl estimated on February 28 that the Iran could produce enough fissile material for a single traditional nuclear weapon in 12 days.[l]

External Security and Military Affairs

The IRGC Quds Force and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reportedly cooperated to arrest the commander of the Iranian-backed SAA 47th Hashemiyoun Brigade in Deir ez Zour Province on February 25, ostensibly on drug trafficking and smuggling charges.[li] Syrian media suggested that the newly appointed local Quds Force commander in the province—known by the pseudonym “Hajj Abbas”—had personal disputes with the 47th Brigade commander, who is close to Hajj Abbas’ predecessor, Hajj Askar. The IRGC appointed Hajj Abbas to replace Hajj Askar on February 2, as CTP previously reported.[lii] Former Syrian officer Ahmed Rahal claimed that the IRGC dismissed Hajj Askar over his failure to protect Iranian convoys crossing the Iraq-Syria border from Israeli airstrikes. These explanations do not explain the reported redeployment of the 47th Brigade and its replacement by elements of Iran’s Afghan Fatemiyoun units that CTP reported on February 27th.[liii]

The LEC Border Guard sent a delegation to the UAE on February 28.[liv] Iranian state media reported that the delegation will discuss security cooperation, such as combatting organized crime and smuggling, with its Emirati counterparts.

The IRGC Aerospace Force and Artesh Air Defense Force conducted an annual “Velayat Sky Defenders” joint air defense exercises on February 28. Iranian media circulated images of the Khordad 3 and 15 air defense systems targeting cruise missiles and detecting and intercepting drones.[lv] Brigadier General Abbas Faraj Pour, the exercises’ spokesperson, added that the IRGC Aerospace Force and Artesh Air Defense Force additionally participated in cyber warfare training on this date.[lvi]

[i] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-27-2023

[ii] bonbast dot com ; https://www.reuters.com/markets/currencies/iran-rial-plunges-new-lows-amid-unrest-international-isolation-2023-02-26/ ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-21-2023

[iii] https://t.co/fYo56WpSEm ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-27-2023

[iv] https://twitter.com/maasalan/status/1630462001947312129?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/pishiagust_D/status/1630515280282804224?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/arghorbani51/status/1630542170762428416?s=20

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKo6DqTU7M8

[vi] https://www.independentpersian.com/node/284461/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D9%88-%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B9%DB%8C/%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AD%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B8%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%AD%DB%8C%D8%B7%E2%80%8C%D8%B2%DB%8C%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D9%86%D9%85%DB%8C%E2%80%8C%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C%D9%85-%D8%A8%DB%8C%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B2-%D9%87%D8%B2%DB%8C%D9%86%D9%87-%DA%A9%D9%86%DB%8C%D9%85

[vii] https://twitter.com/arghorbani51/status/1630542170762428416?s=20

[viii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/iran-prison-sentences-khamenei-decree-1.6737710 

[ix] https://www.entekhab dot ir/0030Vh; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64797957

[x] https://twitter.com/SedayeShahrivar/status/1628673252825395200

[xi] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64797957


[xii] https://www.isna.ir/news/1401120906819/%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%84%DB%8C%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%A7%DA%A9%D9%86%D8%B4-%D9%BE%D9%84%DB%8C%D8%B3-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4-%D8%A2%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B9%D9%85%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%86-%D9%87%D9%86%D9%88%D8%B2-%D8%AA%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C%D8%AF

[xiii] https://twitter.com/KhatibiOfficial/status/1630109448814448640?s=20

[xiv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-14-2023

[xv] https://twitter.com/Jmahalat_ir/status/1630607134558769152

[xvi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-27-2023

[xvii] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/en/news/2023/01/17/2838722/russia-ready-for-joint-production-of-cars-copters-with-iran

[xviii] https://twitter.com/Tammuz_Intel/status/1629190993571377154

[xix] https://manhom dot com/%D8%B4%D8%AE%D8%B5%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA/%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A/

[xx] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630602573001392128?cxt=HHwWgICw2dOZiKEtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630571162492174338?cxt=HHwWhIC8lan1-aAtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1630589543370874882?cxt=HHwWhICzsZ2jgqEtAAAA

[xxi] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630510189467107330?cxt=HHwWhIC83ZyY3qAtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630507612805505026?cxt=HHwWhIC9jZ-C3aAtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630506656869109762?cxt=HHwWhMC-6czK3KAtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630498995620528131?cxt=HHwWhoC-idSM2aAtAAAA ;


[xxii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630542575978311680?cxt=HHwWgMCzha_17KAtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630540404499046401?cxt=HHwWgoCzofz266AtAAAA ;


[xxiii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630597004714811393?cxt=HHwWgoC93cTVhaEtAAAA; https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630571520199127042?cxt=HHwWhMCzpZKK-qAtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1630592559452938241?cxt=HHwWgoCz-eTSg6EtAAAA

[xxiv] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630596214499549185?cxt=HHwWgoC9lcWnhaEtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630519742179033089?cxt=HHwWgoC-_aHE4qAtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1630533153533177857?cxt=HHwWgsC9rfTQ6KAtAAAA

[xxv] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630508064661987328?cxt=HHwWgICz2cWc3aAtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630498090074402816?cxt=HHwWgMCznfnX2KAtAAAA ;


[xxvi] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630605849138700288?cxt=HHwWgICx6azYiaEtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630589571422470145?cxt=HHwWgoC-se6kgqEtAAAA

[xxvii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630648640271163413?cxt=HHwWqoCxzY-TnaEtAAAA ;

https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630677975342493697?cxt=HHwWgsC99dK-qqEtAAAA ;


[xxviii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630508602073939968?cxt=HHwWgICw3em73aAtAAAA ;


[xxix] https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630522803077226496?cxt=HHwWgIC9ubf246AtAAAA

[xxx] https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630528025090555907?cxt=HHwWhoC8vbKm5qAtAAAA ; https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630573574758039552?cxt=HHwWgIC8-d2B-6AtAAAA

[xxxi] https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1630526318558183424?cxt=HHwWgICw6YfD5aAtAAAA ;


[xxxii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630508184111570947?cxt=HHwWhoCz1b-j3aAtAAAA ;


[xxxiii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630509318079479810?cxt=HHwWhIC8scDl3aAtAAAA ;


[xxxiv] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630510512092991488?cxt=HHwWgMC-vYCr3qAtAAAA ;


[xxxv] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630648640271163413?cxt=HHwWqoCxzY-TnaEtAAAA

[xxxvi] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630595918041849856?cxt=HHwWgICxsaSWhaEtAAAA

[xxxvii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630603122388205569?cxt=HHwWgoC8-dC5iKEtAAAA

[xxxviii] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1630516464703664130?cxt=HHwWhMCz8b6F4aAtAAAA ;


[xxxix] https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1630600421138919425?cxt=HHwWgsCzibOch6EtAAAA

[xl] https://twitter.com/Jmahalat_ir/status/1630607134558769152

[xli] https://twitter.com/javanane_g/status/1630299842005041154?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/Afra_org/status/1629859987643064322?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/javanane_hmd/status/1629905673050812424?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/UYI_fa/status/1629948898646138885?s=20

[xlii] https://twitter.com/100_mahalle/status/1629174055491215362?s=20

[xliii] https://t.me/fa_UYI/293

[xliv] https://president dot ir/fa/142613

[xlv] https://www.isna dot ir/news/1401120805659/%D8%AF%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1-%DA%86%D9%82%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF

[xlvi] https://t.co/5AXrWxkqnd

[xlviii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-n-agency-confirms-iran-produced-enriched-uranium-close-to-weapons-grade-7ccd4069

[xlix] https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/iaea_safeguards_glossary.pdf

[l] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-can-make-fissile-material-bomb-in-about-12-days-us-official-2023-02-28/

[li] https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/02/25/7820

[lii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-6-2023

[liii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-27-2023

[liv] http://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/09/2860178

[lv] https://www.irna.ir/news/85043281/%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%BE%D9%87%D9%BE%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87-%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%B7-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C-%D9%85%D8%AC%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D9%88-%D8%AF%D8%B2%D9%81%D9%88%D9%84  ; http://www.defapress.ir/fa/news/575980 ; http://www.defapress.ir/fa/news/575983 ; https://www.isna.ir/news/1401120906346/%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%81-%D9%85%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B5%D9%85-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%88%D8%B3%DB%8C%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C-%DB%B1%DB%B5-%D8%AE%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D9%88-%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%85 

[lvi] https://www.isna.ir/news/1401120906609/%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A2%D9%81%D9%86%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D9%88-%D9%BE%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%86%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%AC%D9%86%DA%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%DA%A9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%DB%8C%DA%A9-%D9%88-%D8%B3%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%A8%D8%B1%DB%8C

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