July 21, 2023
Iran Update, July 21, 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 transferred air defense weapons to eastern Syria, which likely will jeopardize the US-led International Coalition mission to defeat ISIS.
- Iran expanded judicial cooperation with Syria, likely as part of a policy of building institutional links with regional allies.
- CIA Director William Burns stated on July 20 that Russian technicians are assisting with the Iranian Space Launch Vehicle and missile program inside Iran. Russian assistance could advance Iran’s development of inter-continental ballistic missiles and a military space program that would enhance Iran’s intelligence gathering capabilities.
- BRICS has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to attend its 15th summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in late August.
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 transferred air defense weapons to eastern Syria, which likely will jeopardize the US-led International Coalition mission to defeat ISIS. Some militias including Lebanese Hezbollah deployed air defense guns and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) such as the Misagh-1 to eastern Syria.[i] The Washington Post reported on June 1 that Iran has been building and training forces to target and kill US personnel and expel US forces from Syria, according to classified documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform.[ii] CTP previously reported that the air defense weapons Iran has transferred to Syria are effective for targeting helicopters.[iii] Iranian-backed militias could use them to limit US air-support and restrict maneuvering in Syria. Read ISW’s "Salafi Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Iran, Russia, and Syrian Prioritization of Challenging the United States over ISIS Will Present ISIS with Space to Grow Its Capabilities, Rest, and Refit," for more analysis on the impacts of Iranian activity in Deir ez Zor on the counter-ISIS mission.[iv]
The deployment of air defense weapons to eastern Syria may also support Iranian objectives to achieve total hegemony in Deir ez Zor Province. Iran instructed the IRGC QF to achieve total hegemony in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria in May 2023.[v] Syrian state and local media reported the US-led International Coalition in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) arrested three people in a security operation on July 20 using helicopters in SDF-controlled territory, across the river from Deir ez Zor City.[vi] Iranian-backed militias surged forces into Deir ez Zor Province between July 7 and 17 following rumored US-led International Coalition offensives into Syrian regime-controlled territory in late June, as CTP previously reported.[vii]
Iran expanded judicial cooperation with Syria, likely as part of a policy of building institutional links with regional allies. Iranian Justice Minister Amin Hossein Rahimi and his Syrian counterpart Ahmed al Sayyid signed a memorandum of understanding on judicial cooperation and discussed forming a joint legal committee in Damascus on July 20.[viii] Rahimi’s visit is the first by an Iranian Minister of Justice since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Rahimi expressed that Iran aims to create a defense line against sanctions and address international law violations with judicial cooperation.[ix] Iran and Iraq implemented a similar judicial cooperation agreement in 2021, demonstrating Iran’s vision of implementing institutional, not just military and economic, links with countries in its Axis of Resistance.[x] This is part of a broader trend of Iran growing ties with Syria. Iran and Syria agreed to cooperation in 15 fields outside of the judiciary during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi‘s visit to Syria in May.[xi] Efforts to institutionalize ties in governance, trade, culture and transportation builds long-term alignment between Iran and its few regional allies.
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.
CIA Director William Burns stated on July 20 that Russian technicians are assisting with the Iranian Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) and missile program inside Iran. Russian assistance could advance Iran’s development of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a military space program that would enhance Iran’s intelligence gathering capabilities. Iran is developing its SLVs with lift capacity and boosters that could be capable of reaching ICBM ranges, potentially reaching the United States, if they were reconfigured, according to the DIA.[xii] Advancing Iran’s space program would contribute to its development of ICBMs because SLVs use similar technologies.[xiii] Iran can use SLVs to launch satellites capable of collecting imagery and maintain an updated target bank for attacks abroad.[xiv] Iranian state media has reported that the IRGC used launched satellites to collect intelligence on US military positions in the region.[xv] The IRGC Aerospace Force Space Command launched its first Iranian military satellite in April 2020 and a second in March 2022.[xvi] Russia, furthermore, launched a Kanopus-V satellite—alternatively referred to as the “Khayyam” in Iran—into orbit on behalf of Iran in August 2022.[xvii]
Russia’s assistance to Iran’s SLV program highlights another form of Russian payment for Iranian support in the Ukraine war and the expansion of Russian-Iranian relations.[xviii] Iranian Deputy Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Hojatollah Qureishi separately discussed unspecified military cooperation with his Russian counterpart Alexander Fomin on July 21 in Moscow.[xix] Iran’s Ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali also stated that Iran and Russia are cooperating on civilian passenger plane development.[xx] Russian assistance with Iranian civil aviation could reinforce its proxies in Syria.[xxi] Iranian civil aviation has been in a state of decay for decades due to international sanctions.[xxii]
The above developments in Russo-Iranian cooperation follow reports that Iran is no longer expecting Russian delivery of Su-35 fighter jets.[xxiii] Western media previously speculated that Iran could receive Russian military equipment, including Su-35 fighter jets, in return for supplying Russia with drones in the Ukraine war.[xxiv]
BRICS has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to attend its 15th summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in late August.[xxv] BRICS is an economic and political organization composed of Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa.[xxvi] Raisi emphasized Iran’s readiness to connect BRICS countries to global energy and economic markets during a speech at the 14th BRICS summit in June 2022.[xxvii] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian separately emphasized that Iran will be a ”reliable” partner if it joins BRICS during a meeting with BRICS foreign ministers in Cape Town, South Africa on June 2.[xxviii] This invitation comes amid the Raisi administration’s increased emphasis on using multilateral organizations to advance Iran’s political and economic goals, such as undermining Western sanctions. Iran became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on July 4.[xxix]
The Iranian regime has detained a US national.[xxx] UK-based Middle East Eye reported on July 21 that Iranian authorities detained the individual in 2022, citing one inside source.[xxxi] US-based Semafor news outlet separately stated on July 21 that it did not disclose the identity of the detainee to avoid jeopardizing negotiations over their release. Semafor added that the United States and Iran have held prisoner swap negotiations in recent weeks and agreed that “the [most recently detained] American will be part of any deal and there are no delays being cause by [the person’s] inclusion.”[xxxii] The Iranian regime is also detaining other American citizens such as Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz.[xxxiii] The United States and Iran conducted prisoner exchanges in 2015 following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is no evidence that suggests current prisoner exchange discussions encompass a nuclear agreement.[xxxiv]
[i] https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1679226202693812224; https://www.syriahr.com/en/304467/; https://euphratespost (dot) net/%d9%85%d9%8a%d9%84%d9%8a%d9%80-%d9%80%d8%b4%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a5%d9%8a%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%86-%d8%aa%d9%86%d9%82%d9%84-%d8%b5%d9%80-%d9%80%d9%88%d8%a7%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%ae-%d9%85%d9%8a%d8%ab/
[viii] https://sana[dot]sy/?p=1935352 ; https://en[dot]isna.ir/news/1402042818587/Iranian-Syrian-Justice-Ministers-meet-in-Damascus ; https://sana[dot]sy/?p=1934913
[xv] https://www. tasnimnews.com/en/news/2020/07/29/2317175
[xix] https://www.isna dot ir/news/1402043019329 ; https://sana dot sy/?p=1935722
[xx] https://www.iranintl dot com/202307210727
[xxi] https://israel-alma.org/2022/12/14/mahan-air-smuggling-weapons-into-syria-and-lebanon-in-service-of-the-iranian-quds-force/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CMahan%20Air%E2%80%9D%20is%20a%20standard,via%20their%20Special%20Unit%20190. ; https://www.iranintl dot com/en/202212153611
[xxiii] https://www.bourseandbazaar.com/articles/2023/7/13/iran-paid-for-su-35-jets-but-russia-wont-deliver-them ; https://defapress dot ir/fa/news/593633 ; https://www.iranintl dot com/202307210727
[xxv] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85176159
[xxvii] https://en.mfa.gov dot ir/portal/newsview/684680/We-consider-the-transformation-of-global-justice-into-an-all-encompassing-global-discourse-an-undeniable-necessity
[xxviii] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85129536
[xxix] https://president dot ir/fa/145193
[xxx] https://www.semafor.com/article/07/20/2023/iran-detains-a-fourth-american-complicating-prisoner-talks#jays-view ; https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/07/us-seeking-release-fourth-american-held-iran
[xxxiv] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/16/463293941/iran-says-its-releasing-four-iranian-american-detainees-in-prison-swap ; https://www.brookings.edu/articles/done-deal-as-the-iran-nuclear-agreement-is-implemented-sanctions-and-prisoners-are-released/