June 29, 2023

Iran Update, June 29, 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. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian forces conducted airstrikes on rebel positions in Idlib Province between June 25 and 27. CTP is considering the hypothesis that Iran will commit forces to Idlib Province to support the SAA and Russian forces.
  2. The Iranian regime is seeking harsher enforcement of mandatory veiling and may block banking and IT services for unveiled women, as well as imprison those who do not comply with the veiling laws.

Iranian Activities in Syria

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.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian forces conducted airstrikes on rebel positions in Idlib Province between June 25 and 27. The head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, which is affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense in Syria, said the strikes responded to militants in Idlib Province that launched drone strikes into Syrian regime-held territory on June 22 and 23.[i]  He said on June 29 that the airstrikes will continue until the “elimination of militants”.[ii] The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that the airstrikes are the deadliest in 2023 and resulted in at least 22 casualties.[iii] Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and militants relocated to Idlib Province during the Syrian civil war, which makes it the last rebel stronghold in Syria.[iv] The US-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham established an Islamist government in Idlib Province in 2017.[v] Russia and Turkey agreed to a series of de-escalation agreements in 2017 and 2018 to stall a broader Turkish military incursion into Idlib Province.[vi] However, Russian forces and Iranian-backed militants supported the Syrian President Bashar al Assad regime in launching an offensive to retake Idlib Province in 2019, which concluded in a ceasefire agreement in 2020.[vii] Since the ceasefire, Russian forces have conducted several airstrikes on rebel positions which rarely resulted in further escalation.[viii]

CTP is considering the hypothesis that Iran will commit forces to Idlib Province to support the SAA and Russian forces. This hypothesis is plausible because Iran deployed 400-800 Afghan Shia Fatemiyoun militants to Idlib Province in 2020 to aid the Syrian regime in fighting rebels.[ix] HTS arrested several militants that were part of a Lebanese Hezbollah-directed sleeper cell in Idlib Province on June 26, which suggests Iranian-backed militants remain in the province.[x] This hypothesis is unlikely because Iran has primarily been deploying militants to Deir ez Zor Province and constructing military facilities in Damascus. This indicates Iran has given priority to eastern and southern Syria, as CTP has previously reported.[xi] Indicators that would support the hypothesis include: 1) Iranian-backed militias deploying to areas in the vicinity of Idlib Province; 2) Iran messaging support for the Syrian regime’s offensive; and 3) the Syrian regime asking Iran for military support in Idlib Province. An implication of this hypothesized event would be conflict between Iran and Tukey in Idlib Province. Such a conflict occurred in 2020, when Turkish Armed Forces killed Lebanese Hezbollah militants in Idlib Province during a Syrian-led offensive.[xii]

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.

The Iranian regime is seeking harsher enforcement of mandatory veiling and may block banking and IT services for unveiled women, as well as imprison those who do not comply with the veiling laws. President Ebrahim Raisi stressed on June 26 the need for “seriously” increasing costs on those who do not conform to the regime’s veiling standards.[xiii] Law Enforcement (LEC) Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan similarly vowed on June 26 to “forcefully” implement veiling standards.[xiv] Hardline parliamentarians have previously suggested blocking the national identification cards of unveiled women, barring them from banking services, and cutting off their mobile and internet services.[xv] The parliament was scheduled to approve the judiciary’s proposed mandatory veiling law on June 20 to address these issues, but has not done so.[xvi] The proposed law includes punishments that range from warnings and fines to imprisonment for women who do not abide by the mandatory veiling law. It is unclear whether Iran’s hardline parliament seeks to rewrite the bill to include harsher enforcement measures.

The recent emphasis on a more forceful approach follows criticisms from hardline officials and media over the inadequacy of the present veiling enforcement plan.[xvii] The LEC has been using surveillance technology to identify and issue warnings to unveiled women since April 15 in addition to employing other soft-enforcement mechanisms.[xviii] The LEC has also impounded cars, sealed stores and restaurants, and denied unveiled women access to public spaces. Women continue to defy the veiling standards, however, indicating the plan’s failure to compel compliance.[xix] Regime officials have expressed concerns that a failure to strictly enforce veiling will multiply noncompliance during the summer heat.[xx] Raisi acknowledged these enforcement measures have been insufficient on June 25. [xxi] Other regime officials have expressed concerns that certain law enforcement officials have neglected to enforce veiling policies.

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.[xxii] The regime has historically viewed enforced veiling as of one of the foundations of its Islamic identity and authority.[xxiii] 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.[xxiv]

[i] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/drone-strike-hits-syrian-presidents-ancestral-town-2023-06-23/; https://www.facebook.com/mod.gov.sy/videos/%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%81-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%8A%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%A9%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81-%D8%A5%D8%AF%D9%84%D8%A8-%D9%80-%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%8B-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B9/1058450642199759/; https://www.aljazeera (dot) com/news/2023/6/25/at-least-nine-killed-in-russian-air-strikes-in-syrias-idlib#:~:text=At%20least%20nine%20civilians%20were,group%20of%20emergency%20rescue%20volunteers.; https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/russia-strike-kills-6-al-qaida-militants-syria-100408762

[ii] https://npasyria (dot) com/en/100342

[iii] https://www.syriahr.com/en/302774/; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-06-26/russian-strikes-kill-13-in-rebel-held-syria/102521954

[iv] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/crisis-idlib

[v] https://ofac.treasury.gov/recent-actions/20180531

[vi] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/crisis-idlib

[vii] https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/15/targeting-life-idlib/syrian-and-russian-strikes-civilian-infrastructure

[viii] https://en.mehrnews (dot) com/news/201227/Russian-fighters-destroy-terrorists-drone-factory-in-Idlib

[ix] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/26/exclusive-leaked-recordings-show-qassim-soleimanis-soldiers/

[x] https://t.me/GE_SE_SE/613

[xi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-june-9-2023; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-june-27-2023

[xii] https://www.aa (dot) com.tr/en/middle-east/syria-turkish-operations-spook-hezbollah-militias/1749773

[xiii] https://www.entekhab dot ir/0034Ea

[xiv] https://t.co/8IklCoKLqo

[xv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-20-2023

[xvi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-june-9-2023

[xvii] https://www.entekhab dot ir/0034Ee ; https://www.entekhab dot ir/00340k ; https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/725796 ; https://www.isna dot ir/news/1402011506409 ; https://president dot ir/fa/144975

[xviii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-april-17-2023#_edn9e8eb5a6b55ff90ce0c584594e035ce48515092865ec7e255527d10bd7168fe0ref41

[xix] https://www.iranintl dot com/en/202306095364 ; https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/06/26/unveiling-resistance-struggle-womens-rights-iran ; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/05/world/middleeast/iran-hijab-law-businesses.html

[xx] https://www.entekhab dot ir/0031TA

[xxi] https://president dot ir/fa/145059

[xxii] https://www.instagram.com/p/Cq08MTuusQW/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

[xxiii]  https://www.worldcat.org/title/30400577; https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/88152

[xxiv] https://time.com/6238623/iran-basij-militia-meaning-mahsa-amini/ ; https://iranwire.com/en/women/115651-a-close-look-at-irans-gruesome-hijab-laws/