July 20, 2023

Iran Update, July 20, 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. Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are coordinating military operations in eastern Syria likely as part of a coercive campaign to expel the United States from Syria.
  2. Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani signed a defense and security memorandum of understanding (MoU) with his Bolivian counterpart Edmundo Novillo Aguilar in Tehran on July 20. Iran may seek to sell drones to Bolivia as part of this MOU.
  3. IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri threatened that Iran will hold the United States and US companies responsible for confiscating and unloading Iranian oil, possibly signaling Iran will harass or seize US commercial and military vessels in the Gulf.

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.

Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are coordinating military operations in eastern Syria likely as part of a coercive campaign to expel the United States from Syria.[i] Iran and the Syrian regime have surged forces and materiel to eastern Syria since July 7 under the auspices of defending against a rumored US- Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive into regime-controlled territory. They have done so despite statements from the SDF to Syrian officials and Russian officials that its actions in eastern Syria are non-emergency operations to eliminate ISIS cells.[ii]  The surge of Iranian and Syrian forces to eastern Syria has occurred through greater coordination with Russia, which began last November when Iran, Russia, and Syria agreed to establish a “coordination center” for a campaign to expel US forces from Syria.[iii] An unspecified US DoD official asserted that recent aggressive Russian military activity aimed at US forces in Syria is part of that campaign.[iv]

  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC QF) has directed militia deployments to Deir ez Zor, primarily to lines of control with the SDF in Deir ez Zor City, since early July.[v] It has coordinated operational planning with the militia leaders, overseen arms transfers—including rockets and anti-aircraft systems—and instructed Iranian-backed militias to reinforce headquarters and storage facilities in the province.[vi] The IRGC QF also has raised militant salaries by 13 percent as part of an expanded recruitment effort.[vii]
  • Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Syrian Republican Guards deployed reinforcements from Damascus and the surrounding Deir ez Zor area to eastern Syria.[viii] The SAA brought tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to Albu Kamal and Mayadin.[ix] The SAA 5th Corps, which Russia helped form and backs, also deployed tanks and personnel to lines of control with the SDF.[x] The Syrian Minister of Defense led a delegation of Syrian officials, including the deputy of the SAA Fourth Division, to Deir ez Zor City on July 11, which suggests regime forces remained on high alert for an attack.[xi]
  • US Air Force Central Command noted that Russian aircraft had become more aggressive toward US forces in Syria in 2022 and drastically stepped-up airspace violations in March 2023.[xii] Russia also has contributed to the messaging about an imminent US threat in Syria. Russia claimed on July 3 that the United States brought chemical weapons into Syria to conduct false flag attacks.[xiii] Russian forces held a military exercise with the SAA from July 16-18 near the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone that surrounds the US Al Tanf garrison that simulated a US chemical weapon attack.[xiv]

Timeline sources[xv]

Iranian, Syrian, and Russian deployment acceleration to locations along the Euphrates River in conjunction with the coordinated information campaign raises the risk of unauthorized strikes into SDF territory in the near term. CTP recorded four low level skirmishes between SAA and SDF forces between July 10 and 13.[xvi] CTP previously explained that it is not uncommon for regime and SDF forces to have limited clashes like these four instances. However, these clashes highlight the risk that regular smaller level disputes could expand to include US or regime-aligned forces.

The warnings of an imminent US-led attack into Syrian regime territory coupled with mobilization of regime-aligned forces has cultivated an environment in eastern Syria that could motivate locals to form anti-US militias or attack US interests. Iranian, Syrian, and Russian sources circulated threats that the US and allied forces in Syria intended to launch an offensive to retake regime held towns.[xvii] CTP first recorded these rumors in late June. By July 8 the rumors had grown to assert that the United States also intended to retake territory spanning from al Tanf Garrison, north through Raqqa, and extending east to the Albu Kamal border crossing.[xviii] Civilians evacuated Albu Kamal in response to these rumors, which demonstrates the local-level concern about armed conflict between the US-backed coalition and Iranian, Syrian, and Russian forces.[xix] The coordinated Iranian-Syrian-Russia information operation also aims degrade perceptions of the United States among locals in eastern Syria. This is in line with the Washington Post’s report that US adversaries in Syria are seeking to cultivate a grassroots opposition to the United States.[xx]

CTP is considering several scenarios about how Iran and the Syrian regime could use their current force dispositions in Deir ez Zor Province threaten US interests in Syria. The scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Iran and the Syrian regime have the option to pursue more than one at a time or multiple scenarios sequentially.

  • Iran and the Syrian regime mount a ground incursion into SDF territory. The mobilization of militia and regime forces along the SDF contact line would enable Iran and the Syrian regime to launch a conventional ground assault into SDF territory or disputed areas. Iranian disinformation campaigns targeted at Arab locals weaken local support for the US force presence and help Iran mount a ground offensive of SAA and proxy militias and encounter less resistance from US-backed ground forces. By launching a grassroots attack at the SDF, Iran would maintain strategic depth by not directly attacking US forces.
  • Iran could direct an attack on US forces. Iran has the option to direct Iranian-backed forces in Deir ez Zor to attack US forces at the Conoco Mission Support Site and Green Village, which are less than 10 kilometers from mobilized Iranian proxies. Iran would be able to direct rocket attacks, for which there is significant precedence, or could direct sleeper cells to target US forces with EFPs in an escalation from their previous tactics against US forces in Syria.[xxi] Iranian-backed militia rocket attacks on Conoco and Green Village in 2023 have all been launched from positions farther away than the current Iranian-backed militia deployments, meaning Iranian attacks would cause greater damage.
  • Iran refrains from an attack against the United States and SDF. The rumor of an imminent US attack in Deir ez Zor against civilians is part of an Iranian campaign to cast the United States as an expansive and threatening force in the Middle East.[xxii] Iran has the option to continue this information operation to expand local opposition to the US presence in Syria and support Iranian efforts to recruit local Syrians into its militias. This would increase the risk of an attack on US interests and forces from local Syrian militants.

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 Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani signed a defense and security memorandum of understanding (MoU) with his Bolivian counterpart Edmundo Novillo Aguilar in Tehran on July 20.[xxiii] Iran may seek to sell drones to Bolivia as part of this MOU. Ashtiani stated on July 19 that Iran’s defense industry can provide Bolivia with “advanced technology.”[xxiv] Ashtiani separately stated on July 20 that Iran can help Bolivia with “border control” and “confronting drug smuggling.”[xxv] Drones are frequently used to bolster border security and combat smuggling.[xxvi] Iran has sought to increase the number of countries that buy Iranian drones in recent years.[xxvii] Former IRGC Commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi boasted in October 2022 that 22 countries—including Algeria, Armenia, Serbia, Tajikistan, and Venezuela—had submitted formal requests for Iranian drones.[xxviii] President Ebrahim Raisi additionally promoted Iranian drone technology during several recent foreign trips, including during his most recent trip to Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe between July 12-14.[xxix]

Iran is seeking to increase defense exports to generate revenue for the Iranian economy. Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri emphasized on May 31 that Iran will export its military capabilities to “friendly” countries.[xxx] Bagheri also called on Foreign Affairs Ministry officials to relay Iran’s willingness to export its defense capabilities to foreign dignitaries on May 30.[xxxi] Iran is currently facing critical economic conditions, with the value of the rial hovering slightly below 500,000 rials to one US dollar.[xxxii] Iranian media, citing the Iran Statistical Center, reported on May 25 that Iran’s inflation rate is approximately 46.1 percent.[xxxiii]

IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri threatened that Iran will hold the United States and US companies responsible for confiscating and unloading Iranian oil, possibly signaling Iran will harass or seize US commercial and military vessels in the Gulf. [xxxiv] Iran seized three international vessels in the Strait of Hormuz between April 27 and May 12, after which the US Department of Defense announced that it would bolster the Fifth Fleet’s defensive posture in the Persian Gulf.[xxxv] The IRGC Navy then conducted unprofessional and unsafe maneuvers near a US naval ship in the Persian Gulf on May 19.[xxxvi]  The Artesh Navy attempted to seize two commercial tankers in the Strait of Hormuz on July 5 and the IRGC Navy seized another in the Persian Gulf on July 6.[xxxvii] The United States similarly deployed several F-16 and F-35 fighter jets and the guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner to the Persian Gulf between July 14 and 17 to deter further Iranian tanker seizures.[xxxviii]

Tangsiri is attempting to deter both further US seizures of vessels carrying Iranian oil as well as the unloading of Iranian oil from the Suez Rajan, which the United States seized in late April. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 18 that US companies fear Iranian retaliation and are hesitant to unload Iranian oil from the tanker.[xxxix] The Journal also reported that recent Iranian seizures of commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf were in response to the US seizure of the Greek-owned tanker. IRGC Navy Deputy Commander for Research and Development Rear Admiral Ahmad Rasti stated on July 18 that Iran has seized commercial tankers in response to Western seizures of Iranian tankers, demonstrating that Iran is pursuing a tit-for-tat policy in this regard.[xl]

[i] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-july-12-2023; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-july-18-2023; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-july-13-2023  

[ii] https://sdf-press (dot) com/?p=40138; 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/; https://twitter.com/thesyrianlions/status/1680260894851211264

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/06/01/discord-leaks-iran-russia-syria/

[iv] https://apnews.com/article/iran-russia-syria-military-fighter-jets-449a4c6fc9ab90981914c77e2d290f7f

[v] https://twitter.com/baznewz/status/1679099135260082176; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1678857520184537088

[vi] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/08/9071; https://eyeofeuphrates.com/ar/news/2023/07/20/9181; https://www.syriahr.com/en/303779/; https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/11/9094; https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1679226202693812224; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1677278853734051846; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1677279431654531074; https://www.syriahr.com/en/304467/

[vii] https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/%d9%85%d9%8a%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%b4%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ad%d8%b1%d8%b3-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ab%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a-%d8%a8%d8%af%d9%8a%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b2%d9%88%d8%b1-%d8%aa%d8%b2%d9%8a%d8%af-%d9%85/

[viii] https://www.syriahr.com/en/303990/; https://deirezzor24.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/

[ix] https://eyeofeuphrates.com/index.php/ar/news/2023/07/11/9102

[x] https://www.syria.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

[xi]  https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1678804800618496004; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1678875960769224704


https://www.airandspaceforces.com/russia-increasing-very-concerning-behavior-in-syria-afcent-commander-says/; https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/3450601/russian-unprofessional-behavior-over-syria-6-july-2023/; https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/3450599/russian-unprofessional-behavior-over-syria-5-july-2023/;%C2%A0https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/3452128/us-airstrike-targets-isis-leader-in-eastern-syria/; https://www.afcent.af.mil/News/Article/3366082/9-af-afcent-commander-flies-with-77-efs-expresses-concern-over-airspace-incursi/; https://apnews.com/article/syria-russia-us-aircraft-intercept-unsafe-3a88593f3e051286424b2262d18a22af

[xiii] https://t.me/SAM_Syria0/5139; https://t.me/jharnous/989; https://t.me/jharnous/997

[xiv] https://t.me/SAM_Syria0/5139; https://t.me/jharnous/989; https://t.me/jharnous/997

[xv] https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1672617881178185728; https://deirezzor24.net/en/the-iranian-revolutionary-guard-militia-holds-a-military-parade-east-of-deir-ezzor/; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1676971647918829576; https://tass (dot) com/society/1641923; https://nahermedia.net/%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%B6-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7/; https://www.afcent.af.mil/News/Article/3449096/russian-unprofessional-behavior-over-syria-5-july-2023/; https://www.syriahr.com/en/303951/; https://www.syriahr.com/en/303990/; https://deirezzor24.net/en/the-fifth-corps-deploys-heavy-weapons-to-northeastern-deir-ezzor/; https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/en/iranian-militia-reinforcements-enter-al-bukamal-from-iraq/; https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/11/9095; https://eyeofeuphrates.com/ar/news/2023/07/08/9071; https://npasyria.com/en/101405; https://sdf-press (dot) com/?p=40138; https://www.syriahr.com/en/304232/; https://www.alaraby.co.uk/node/6822245; https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/07/13/9120; https://deirezzor24 dot net/%d9%85%d9%8a%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%b4%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ad%d8%b1%d8%b3-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ab%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a-%d8%a8%d8%af%d9%8a%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b2%d9%88%d8%b1-%d8%aa%d8%b2%d9%8a%d8%af-%d9%85/; https://apnews.com/article/iran-russia-syria-military-fighter-jets-449a4c6fc9ab90981914c77e2d290f7f; https://www.afcent.af.mil/News/Article/3462071/russian-unprofessional-behavior-over-syria-16-july-2023/; https://www.tasnimnews (dot) com/fa/media/1402/04/25/2926706/%D8%A2%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B4-%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D9%88-%D9%87%D9%85-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%A2%D8%AA%D8%B4-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87; https://t.me/SAM_Syria0/5139; https://t.me/jharnous/989; https://t.me/jharnous/997  

[xvi] https://twitter.com/DeirEzzor24/status/1678535706644234242?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1678859375337787392?s=20 ; https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1678855283576123399 ; https://t.co/jCrPHmu5Jg ; https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1678855283576123399 ; https://www.syriahr.com/en/304234/ ;

[xvii] https://deirezzor24 dot net/en/a-local-militia-holds-a-military-parade-in-al-bukamal/ ; 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/

[xviii] https://twitter.com/Hawram88/status/1678090403570958340 ; https://twitter.com/mhmdalb29379704/status/1677780914959515650 ; https://twitter.com/NujabaTv/status/1678051580803776513

[xix] https://deirezzor24 dot net/en/people-in-eastern-deir-ezzor-are-leaving-al-bukamal-on-a-massive-scale-in-an-unprecedented-move/ ; https://nahermedia dot net/%d8%a3%d8%b2%d9%85%d8%a9-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d8%ad%d8%ac%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b3%d9%81%d8%b1-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a8%d9%88%d9%83%d9%85%d8%a7%d9%84-%d8%a8%d8%b3%d8%a8%d8%a8-%d8%b4/  ; https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/07/16/9145

[xx] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/06/01/discord-leaks-iran-russia-syria/

[xxi] http://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/3258231/two-rockets-target-coalition-forces/;

[xxii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-may-25-2023

[xxiii] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85175537

[xxiv] https://www.iribnews dot ir/fa/news/3916022

[xxv] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85175537

[xxvi] https://www.unodc.org/centralasia/en/news/unodc-explains-the-combined-use-of-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-and-ground-surveillance-systems.html

[xxvii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/28/world/middleeast/iran-drone-exports.html

[xxviii] https://www.eurasiantimes dot com/22-countries-keen-to-acquire-iranian-kamikaze-drones-that/ 

[xxix] https://en.mehrnews dot com/news/203158/Iran-unveils-domestic-Pelican-2-drone-in-Nairobi-VIDEO

[xxx] https://www.foxnews.com/world/iran-prepared-wholesale-export-weapons-allies-top-general-says

[xxxi] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/03/09/2903839

[xxxii] Bonbast dot com

[xxxiii] https://t dot co/yxlSxBKEQ4

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

[xxxv] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/12/us-to-bolster-defensive-posture-in-gulf-white-house

[xxxvi] https://apnews.com/article/iran-us-navy-strait-of-hormuz-persian-gulf-tensions-63ac622781b97d7fa578f440bd074f64

[xxxvii] https://apnews.com/article/gulf-iran-us-tensions-shipping-oil-127f8b77aa7e41dcd8266b6fbe5800dc  ; https://www.voanews.com/a/us-navy-says-it-prevented-iran-from-seizing-tankers-in-gulf-/7168071.html

[xxxviii] 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

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

[xl] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/04/27/2927496

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