July 12, 2023
Iran Update, July 12, 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.
- Iranian-backed militias are continuing to reinforce their positions in Deir ez Zor Province, possibly to bolster defensive positions against a rumored International Coalition attack.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani announced the Iraqi government will evade US sanctions on Iran by trading Iraqi crude oil for Iranian gas during a televised statement on July 11.
- Social media accounts affiliated with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces called for supporters to siege the US Embassy in Baghdad, which could elevate the risk of an attack on US personnel in Iraq.
- Iranian officials and media responded negatively to the July 10 Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint statement, highlighting preexisting tensions in the Russo-Iranian relationship.
- The Raisi administration is attempting to override parliamentary adjustments to its mandatory veiling bill. Regime enforcement of mandatory veiling—in any capacity—will likely exacerbate intra-regime tensions. It will also likely reignite anti-regime sentiments.
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.
Iranian-backed militias are continuing to reinforce their positions in Deir ez Zor Province, possibly to bolster defensive positions against a rumored International Coalition attack. A rumor spread in eastern Syria in late June that the US-led International Coalition is going launch an attack into regime-controlled territory. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed to lines of contact with the Assad regime on July 7 which triggered Iran and the Syrian regime to surge fighters to the province. Iranian-backed militia leadership held a meeting on July 12 on the Syrian-Lebanon border near Damascus to discuss the developments in Deir ez Zor Province including their concerns about attacks they expect from the SDF and ways to counter them. IRGC commanders and others from several Axis of Resistance groups attended the meeting including Lebanese Hezbollah (LH), Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Afghan Fatemiyoun, and Pakistani Zainabiyoun. The IRGC maintains several command centers near Damascus and frequently uses it as meeting place to discuss operational developments in Syria. Iranian-backed militias including local elements have been reinforcing positions with personnel to repel a possible attack on Syrian regime-held territory since July 8.
A series of high-level meetings between the SDF and officials in regime-controlled territory suggest the Assad regime and Iranian-backed forces remain concerned of an imminent International Coalition attack, despite reports of the SDF’s actual intentions. The SDF issued a statement on July 11 that asserts the media has circulated misinformation about the movements of its forces in Deir ez Zor Province, as CTP has previously reported.[i] SDF leaders told Syrian regime military intelligence, the Syrian Deputy Defense Minister, and local officials that it does not intend to take control over regime-controlled territory, which is a counter-indicator to this assessment.[ii] However, Syrian military leaders and Syrian and Iranian-backed forces continued to deploy to the province to rebel against an attack following the statement and meeting. Syrian Minister of Defense General Ali Mahmoud Abbas led a delegation of Syrian officials including the deputy of the Syrian Arab Army Fourth Division Major General Mohamma Ali Durgham to Deir ez Zor City on July 11 as regime forces remained on high alert for an attack.[iii]
CTP is considering the alternative assessment that Iran may be using the security alert to pursue objectives to achieve regional hegemony, which threatens US force presence there. Iran instructed the IRGC QF to achieve total hegemony in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria in May 2023, which suggests that the buildup of forces in the province could serve objectives unrelated to defending against an International Coalition attack.[iv] Iranian-backed militia deployments of personnel and weapons to Deir ez Zor Province since July 8 have built up Iran’s military capabilities in the area. There are several factors that currently restrict Iran from achieving hegemony including ISIS threats, competition among militias, and the presence of US forces. Iranian leaders have prepared to resume their campaign to expel US forces from the Middle East, as CTP previously reported.[v] The meeting between Axis of Resistance commanders near Damascus on July 11 in addition to a surge of Iranian-backed militias in the province from the surrounding including Iraq supports both assessments. Iran relies on a robust foreign fighting force for military activities in Syria including attacking US forces.
CTP will follow up on this assessment in tomorrow's update with assessments about how Iran could exploit the changes in Deir ez Zor Province to achieve its hegemonic objectives in Syria and the broader Middle East.
Iranian Activities in Iraq
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout Iraq. 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.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani announced the Iraqi government will evade US sanctions on Iran by trading Iraqi crude oil for Iranian gas during a televised statement on July 11.[vi] Sudani reiterated the Shia Coordination’s claim that the gas supply from Iran has been cut off because US sanctions on Iranian assets have prevented Iraq from paying Iraq’s energy debts. Iranian Deputy Minister of Oil Majid Chegani claimed on June 25 that Iraq had paid off its gas debts to Iran after the US released $2.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds as CTP previously reported.[vii] Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid outlined Iraq’s intent to form a closer relationship with Iran during an interview with Iranian TV channel Al Alam on July 12 following Sudani’s announcement.[viii] Current US sanctions on Iran prevent any transactions involving Iranian petroleum or petroleum products.[ix]
Social media accounts affiliated with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces called for supporters to siege the US Embassy in Baghdad, which could elevate the risk of an attack on US personnel in Iraq. The PMF-affiliated social media users called for supporters to siege the embassy on Friday July 14 at 5:00 pm local time.[x] One account provided a WhatsApp telephone number for users to contact with more information, demonstrating an increased level of coordination and preparation.[xi] Iranian-backed Iraqi proxy Ashab al Kahf released an image of the US Embassy in Baghdad and included a caption referencing Kataib Hezbollah’s direction to storm the embassy in late 2019 to early 2020.[xii] This is the first instance of an official Iraqi proxy media channel circulating calls to storm the embassy. Ashab al Kahf has previously threatened to attack US forces without conducting an attack.
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.
Iranian officials and media responded negatively to the July 10 Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint statement, highlighting preexisting tensions in the Russo-Iranian relationship. The Russia-GCC joint statement expressed support for the Emirati claim to three Iranian-controlled Islands in the Persian Gulf.[xiii] Iran seized the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa islands in 1971 shortly after the British withdrawal from the Gulf. Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned Russian Ambassador Alexey Dedov on July 12 to object to the statement.[xiv] Iran similarly summoned Chinese Ambassador Li Tieh-tseng in December 2022 over Chinese support for a negotiated settlement of the disputed islands.[xv] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian emphasized the importance of preserving Iran‘s territorial integrity on July 12 and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani stated on July 11 that the Russia-GCC statement upset Iran’s improving relations with its neighbors while reaffirming Iran’s ownership over the islands.[xvi] Other officials similarly criticized Russia for acting against Iran’s national interests and attempting to create tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab states.[xvii] Reformist-affiliated media also published critical articles narrating what they perceived to be a history of repeated ”anti-Iranian” Russian actions in the recent and distant past.[xviii]
Chinese and Russian support for the Emirati claim to the three islands is part of their strategy to simultaneously balance their relationships with Iran and the Gulf Arab states.[xix] The Sino-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has admitted four of the six GCC member states into the organization as dialogue partners. Both China and Russia have separately initiated strategic dialogue forums with the entire GCC.[xx] The July 10 Russia-GCC joint statement was published at the conclusion of the most recent Russia-GCC strategic dialogue summit in Moscow, which started in 2016.[xxi] Chinese President Xi Jingping travelled to Riyadh in December 2022 to participate in the China-GCC summit.[xxii] Both Russia and China have simultaneously advanced their relationship with Iran, the most recent example of which was admitting Iran into the SCO as a full member on July 4.[xxiii]
The Raisi administration is attempting to override parliamentary adjustments to its mandatory veiling bill. The Raisi administration and the Iranian judiciary finalized a joint draft of its mandatory veiling and modesty bill on May 21, which would expand the scope of punishment for women it perceives to be immodestly dressed.[xxiv] The regime previously employed Article 638 of its penal code to castigate unveiled women, which states that individuals whom “explicitly violate religious taboo in public, besides being punished for the act, should also be imprisoned from ten days to two months or flogged.”[xxv] The article neither references veiling nor provides a definition of what improper veiling is, making the Raisi administration’s proposed hijab bill a codification and expansion of preexisting laws. Parliament was supposed to approved the bill on June 20 but has failed to pass it.[xxvi] A Raisi administration official claimed on July 12 that parliamentarians have changed the bill beyond recognition and stripped it of its intent.[xxvii] Iranian media previously reported that hardliners have criticized Raisi’s bill for being too lenient on unveiled women, and it is possible that hardliners changed the bill to make it more draconion than what the administration initially proposed.[xxviii]
Raisi administration officials have suggested that they will begin operating within preexisting legal parameters to enforce mandatory veiling and discouraged relevant regime entities from waiting for the bill’s approval.[xxix] The regime has previously leveraged other articles to arbitrarily enforce veiling. These articles include Article 134, which can be used to either increase or limit imposed sentences, and Article 639, wherein individuals can be imprisoned for one to ten years. [xxx] Iranian women have separately reported an uptick in modesty-related arrests and detainments in recent days, suggesting that this may encompass the Raisi administration’s new approach.[xxxi]
The regime is very unlikely to abolish the veiling law, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly identified mandatory veiling as a red line.[xxxii] The regime seeks to address noncompliance with the hijab law because it views violations as a threat to regime stability. The Iranian clerical establishment has previously stressed the centrality of the hijab to the regime’s core identity and has warned that continued unveiling would cause the downfall of the regime. The regime views enforced veiling as of one of the foundations of its Islamic identity and authority. The pro-regime loyalists in the state security services and population would view the failure to enforce veiling as a betrayal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ideal and of the martyrs who sacrificed themselves during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War to preserve those ideals.[xxxiii]
Regime enforcement of mandatory veiling—in any capacity—will likely reignite anti-regime sentiments among large segments of the Iranian populous. The violent enforcement of mandatory veiling that resulted in the death of Mahsa Amini resulted in months of anti-regime protests. A 2019 parliamentary report stated that 70 percent of Iranian women favored relaxing dress codes.[xxxiv]
Regime enforcement of mandatory veiling will also likely deepen the intra-regime fissures created by the Mahsa Amini movement. Hardliners have criticized the Raisi administration’s proposed hijab bill for being too lenient and some Iranians have demonstrated against relaxing mandatory veiling in recent days.[xxxv] Judiciary First Deputy Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Mossadegh expressed surprise that unspecified clerics were weary of the government’s role in enforcing modesty standards on July 12, suggesting that veiling enforcement has also created fissures between hardliners and the clerical establishment.[xxxvi]
Senior Iranian military officials expressed concern about the perceived Israeli threats emanating from Iran’s northwestern borders on July 11 and 12.[xxxvii] Armed Forces General Staff Chief Maj. Gen. Mohammed Bagheri warned that Iran would resume kinetic operations in Iraqi Kurdistan if it failed to disarm “separatist groups” in this region and stated that Israel had “no place” in the region on July 11. Bagheri also imposed the beginning of the Iranian month of Shahrivar (August 23) as a deadline for the Iraqi government to act. Bagheri is responsible for Iranian military policy and strategic guidance. Supreme Leader Military Affairs Advisor Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi similarly stated in a speech at the IRGC Northwest Regional Headquarters that the United States, European Union, and Israel are attempting to destabilize the Caucasus. Iran’s concern about perceived Israeli threats along its borders is not new; CTP previously assessed on May 31 that Iran was likely attempting to coerce Iraq into complying with Iranian security concerns about Israeli activities in Iraqi Kurdistan.[xxxviii]
[ii] https://nahermedia (dot) net/%d8%a7%d8%ac%d8%aa%d9%85%d8%a7%d8%b9-%d9%82%d8%a7%d8%af%d8%a9-%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%82%d8%b3%d8%af-%d9%88%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%86%d8%b8%d8%a7%d9%85-%d8%a8%d8%af%d9%8a%d8%b1-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b2%d9%88%d8%b1-%d8%a8/
[iii] https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1678804800618496004; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1678875960769224704
[vi] https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%86%D8%AD%D8%B5%D9%84-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%84-%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86 ; https://t.me/Tura313/41994 ; https://t.me/sabreenS1/79714
[vii] https://www dot tahlilbazaar.com/news/227807/%D9%87%D9%85%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%87%DB%8C-%DA%AF%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%BE%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AE%D8%AA-%D8%B4%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B2%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B4-%D8%AD%D8%AC%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84
[viii] https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7-%D9%86%D8%AE%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%A7-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%A7
[xi] Sourcing available upon request.
[xiv] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/04/21/2924803
[xvi] https://t dot co/vhRbUyAOQC ; https://en.irna dot ir/news/85166516
[xvii] https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/733155 ; https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/733273
[xviii] https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/733209
[xix] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/china-is-getting-comfortable-with-the-gulf-cooperation-council-the-west-must-pragmatically-adapt-to-its-growing-regional-influence/ ; https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep21138.13.pdf
[xx] https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/saudi-arabia-joins-the-sco-it-is-not-a-game-changer-for-saudi-us-relations-123365 ; https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/05/boost-china-uae-and-kuwait-become-dialogue-partners-shanghai-cooperation ; http://eng.sectsco dot org/politics/20220916/912890/SCO-member-states-signed-memorandums-on-granting-SCO-dialogue-partner-status-to-the-Arab-Republic.html
[xxi] https://tass dot com/politics/1644851
[xxii] https://www.fmprc dot gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202212/t20221208_10986939.html#:~:text=On%20the%20afternoon%20of%20December,the%20Kingdom%20of%20Saudi%20Arabia.
[xxiii] https://www.tehrantimes dot com/news/486375/Russian-FM-says-SCO-will-accept-Iran-s-full-membership-July-4 ; https://www.silkroadbriefing dot com/news/2023/07/03/iran-to-join-shanghai-cooperation-organisation-on-july-4th-as-a-full-member-as-bloc-hold-annual-heads-of-state-meeting-chaired-by-india/
[xxiv] https://www.farsnews dot ir/news/14020227000252
[xxv] https://www.refworld dot org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain/opendocpdf.pdf?reldoc=y&docid=52b812384
[xxvii] https://t dot co/bHChKPlkYP
[xxix] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85165471/; https://t dot co/lN0YPO4bm8 ; https://t dot co/Y6PGCTNxyH ; https://t.co/XzRIigituj
[xxxvi] https://t dot co/bHChKPlkYP
[xxxvii] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/04/21/2924658; https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/04/20/2924321/