June 01, 2023
Iran Update, June 1, 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.
- Iran has been building and training forces to target and kill US personnel and expel US forces from Syria.
- Some of the arms and training that Iran has provided to militias in Syria could also support transfers of advanced conventional weapons.
- Iran is attempting to assuage Western concerns about its nuclear program, likely to preempt the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that will detail Iran’s noncompliance with its nuclear safeguard obligations.
Iranian Activities in the Levant
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant and 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.
CTP has reported since April that Iran is bolstering its defensive position in eastern Syria, likely to facilitate the transfer of advanced and conventional weapons in Syria. This assessment was based on the types of conventional weapons that Iran has transferred into eastern Syria, the training it has provided to its militias in that area, and the steps it has taken to improve operational security.
The Washington Post reported today 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.[i] The article notes one document revealed that Iran is training Iranian-backed forces to construct and use explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) against US forces in Syria. A separate document that the Washington Post cited laid out Iranian operations to stoke and support local resistance movements to target US forces in eastern and northeastern Syria. The leaked documents also highlighted the construction of an Iranian-Russian “coordination center” in Syria to direct the new Iranian campaign in Syria. The Washington Post described the center as an inflection in Iranian-Russian cooperation in Syria. It also suggested that Iran and Russia may believe that they would be able to control an escalation cycle with the US in Syria, quoting Foreign Policy Research Institute Senior Fellow Aaron Stein.
Some of the materiel that Iran has transferred to Syria and the training it has provided to local militias could support both objectives. Iran and Iranian-backed militants have distributed and trained militias such as the Fatemiyoun and Kataib Hezbollah (KH) on air defense weapons.[ii] CTP previously explained the weapons are suitable for targeting drones, including those that killed IRGC Quds Force officers in eastern Syria earlier this year.[iii] Iranian-directed improvements to operational security in Deir ez Zor province would support stated efforts to protect Iranian convoys transporting materiel across the border from Iraq. These lines of effort also would support an Iranian offensive campaign against US forces in Syria. The air defense weapons Iran has transferred to Syria, including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), are effective for targeting helicopters. Iranian-backed militias could use them to limit US air-support and restrict maneuvering in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) militants trained local tribesmen operating in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) territory on unspecified weaponry, which is an element of supporting local resistance groups.
EFPs would support attacks against US forces, but not facilitating the transfer of advanced conventional weapons. Iranian and Iranian-backed militias would likely target US forces with EFPs in SDF territory where the US conducts routine patrols. Iranian-backed Shia militias previously used EFPs against US forces in Iraq, where they proved capable of penetrating armored vehicles, as well as inflicting a high casualty and fatality rates.[iv] Iran has established several new bases across Syria and trained militias on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones.[v] These developments would support command and control and operational planning for attacks on US forces in Syria.
For more about Iran's offensive regional strategy, CTP recommends reading:
Nicholas Carl | June 2023
Iran has embraced an offensive regional strategy to adapt for modern conflict and pursue external objectives more effectively. This shift means more aggressively empowering the so-called Axis of Resistance and expanding Iranian regional influence. Regime officials are responding to their evolving threat perceptions and acting on their growing confidence in their defensive capabilities. They now view their conflict against the US as hybrid in nature, rather than conventional. Read Nicholas Carl's latest report here and watch the accompanying video here.
Iranian Domestic 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 is attempting to assuage Western concerns about its nuclear program, likely to preempt the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that will detail Iran’s noncompliance with its nuclear safeguard obligations. Western and Iranian media reported on May 30 and 31 that Iran has reinstalled IAEA monitoring equipment and resolved two of the IAEA’s inquiries into undeclared nuclear activity.[vi] Iran’s recent cooperation with the Agency does not address the core components of its nuclear deal and nonproliferation treaty safeguards violations, however. This indicates that the regime is not seriously committed to resuming negotiations for a comprehensive agreement. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi will present a report on these violations during the Agency’s board meeting on June 5.[vii] Iran reinstalled IAEA monitoring equipment and resolved two of the IAEA’s inquiries into undeclared nuclear activity in recent days, which suggests that Iran may be cooperating with the IAEA to preempt the ramifications of the report.
Iran likely aims to disincentivize member state support for a US or European censure resolution against it during next week’s IAEA meeting, which could trigger a referral to the UN Security Council and a reimposition of UN sanctions. France, Germany, and the UK, or E3, successfully censured Iran for its safeguards violations during the November 2022 board meeting and attempted to introduce a censure resolution against Iran during the March IAEA meeting.[viii] The E3 similarly warned on May 5 that they would reimpose sanctions on Iran if the latter enriched uranium to weapons grade after inspectors discovered near weapons grade uranium at the Fordow enrichment facility on January 21.[ix]
Iran could also be attempting to incentivize the United States to propose limited concessions, likely temporary sanctions relief until it can secure a comprehensive deal. Western media reported that senior US Middle Eastern Affairs Advisor Brett McGurk visited Muscat on May 8 to discuss a potential Omani facilitated nuclear negotiation with Iran.[x] Media reports indicate that the United States has not yet offered any concrete proposals for a negotiation, however.[xi]
Iran could also be signaling its interest in nuclear diplomacy to preempt US or Israeli military action against its nuclear facilities, as CTP previously assessed.[xii] Axios reported on May 17 that the US and Israel are discussing joint military planning against Iran’s nuclear program. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi separately warned on May 23 that Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
[ii] https://euphratespost dot net/%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AE-%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%AB%D8%A7%D9%82-1-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%85/ ;
https://euphratespost dot net/%d8%b5%d9%80-%d9%80%d9%88%d8%a7%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%ae-%d9%85%d9%8a%d8%ab%d8%a7%d9%82-1-%d8%aa%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%b9-%d8%b9%d9%84%d9%89-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%85%d9%8a%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%b4%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a7/
[vi] https://apnews.com/article/iran-nuclear-program-iaea-uranium-enrichment-dded37dd0509ff0f469478b5db771027 ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-05-31/iran-steps-up-iaea-cooperation-even-as-uranium-stockpile-surges?utm_source=google&utm_medium=bd&cmpId=google#xj4y7vzkg ; https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/monitoring-equipment-re-installed-some-iranian-sites-iaea-reports-2023-05-31/
[vii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-expands-stockpile-of-highly-enriched-uranium-580bedfc ; https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/irans-enriched-uranium-stockpile-over-23-times-limit-set-by-nuclear-deal-iaea/ ; https://www.iaea.org/events?page=1
[viii] https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2022-11/p4-1-iran-nuclear-deal-alert ; https://www.axios.com/2023/03/08/israel-iran-us-nuclear-inspections-iaea ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-23-2023 ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-22-2023#_edn094cd0f872dea77f7bcdde98f8b74f2ceea1faedf17c541b71be637a5da3ea80dcd0d12f268fcf635f645ea940f450ceref22
[ix] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/smoldering-iran-nuclear-crisis-risks-catching-fire-2023-05-05/ ; https://www.reuters.com/world/us-european-powers-express-alarm-iran-enriching-uranium-84-2023-03-08/ ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-19/iran-nuclear-inspectors-detect-uranium-enriched-to-84-purity