March 21, 2023

Iran Update, March 21, 2023

March 21, 2023, 5:30 pm ET 

The Iran Updates are produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down intra-regime debates about political reform to address protester grievances and instead confined these debates to the economy during a Nowrouz speech on March 21. Khamenei stated that Iran’s enemies seek to transform Iran by “changing the constitution or the structure of the regime” and that some individuals in Iran have echoed this rhetoric.[i] Khamenei undoubtedly directed this statement to reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi who called for “foundational” change in Iran on February 4 as well as to individuals, such as prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid, who have expressed support for Mousavi’s proposal.[ii] Khamenei may have also directed this statement toward pragmatic hardliners, such as Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who have called for political change within the framework of the Islamic Republic.[iii] Regardless of who his target audience was, Khamenei made clear that those who call for constitutional change are counterrevolutionaries because, he said, the idea for political transformation originated with Iran's enemies.

Khamenei implied that the economy should be the primary topic of intra-regime debate. Khamenei stated that addressing the people’s economic problems will largely solve Iran’s political and sociocultural issues.[iv] Khamenei implicitly ordered Iranian officials to stop debating governance and cultural problems by asking them to focus their attention on fixing the economy. Khamenei separately called on the media to “create hope” among the Iranian people to counter the efforts of Iran’s enemies, who seek to disillusion Iranian youth.[v] This rhetoric suggests that Khamenei will continue to tolerate sociocultural discussions that focus on indoctrination and ideologization. Khamenei has not indicated that he will accept more substantial debates about the regime’s disconnect from the Iranian people, however.

Several regime elements have reflected Khamenei’s uncompromising stance toward sociocultural issues in recent days. IRGC officials in Qom have announced plans to reestablish morality patrols, as CTP reported on March 17.[vi] Regime officials additionally continue to discuss the economy instead of addressing sociocultural grievances but blame the Mahsa Amini protest movement on Iran’s foreign enemies.[vii] The regime is likely focusing on the economy, in part, because this issue is not central to the regime’s ideology. The hijab—and sociocultural issues more broadly—contrastingly challenge the very principles that underpin the Islamic Republic.

Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf may be testing the rhetorical boundaries that Khamenei identified. Ghalibaf stated in his own Nowrouz statement that “the way to realize a strong Iran... is through new governance.”[viii] It is unclear to what Ghalibaf was referring exactly when he said “new governance.” Such rhetoric could refer to installing new executive managers, especially in the Raisi administration, or to more drastic measures, such as establishing a parliamentary system under the Islamic Republic. His call for some kind of political change is now new, however. Ghalibaf made an urgent appeal for governmental change during a parliamentary meeting on February 23, as CTP previously reported.[ix] Ghalibaf did not call for constitutional change—and thus did not directly contradict Khamenei’s guidance—but he also did not follow other regime officials who more closely mirrored Khamenei’s rhetoric in their Nowrouz statements. This rhetoric may indicate that Ghalibaf was indeed carefully challenging the Supreme Leader’s order to cease all debates about political reform.

Key Takeaways

  • Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down intra-regime debates about political reform to address protester grievances and instead confined these debates to the economy during a Nowrouz speech. Khamenei implied that the economy should be the primary topic of intra-regime debate.
  • Several regime elements have reflected Khamenei’s uncompromising stance toward sociocultural issues in recent days.
  • Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf may be testing the rhetorical boundaries that Khamenei identified.
  • At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces on March 21. CTP assesses with moderate to high confidence that protests occurred in the following cities:

Izeh, Khuzestan Province[x]

  • Size: Small
  • Notes: Gathered by the graves of killed protesters, chanting anti-regime slogans

Arak, Markazi Province[xi]

  • Size: Small
  • Notes: Gathered by the graves of killed protesters, chanting anti-regime slogans

CTP assesses with low confidence that protests occurred in the following cities:

Ghaem Shahr, Mazandaran Province[xii]

  • Size: Small
  • Notes: Gathered by the graves of killed protesters, singing famous protest song

UK-based outlet Amwaj Media reported on March 20 that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may remove Mashhad Friday Prayer Leader Ahmad Alam ol Hoda from his post.[xiii] The article suggested that Khamenei may remove Alam ol Hoda due to his recent calls for vigilantes to enforce the mandatory hijab law and his generally provocative views. Alam ol Hoda is well known for his hardline stances, especially regarding women’s rights. The EU sanctioned him on March 20 for undermining women’s freedom and propagating hatred against women.[xiv] Alam ol Hoda’s calls for vigilante enforcement of the hijab law could be especially problematic for the regime as it would undermine its authority to enforce its own laws. Other clerics in Qom have recently issued similar calls.[xv]

Alam ol Hoda’s calls for vigilantism are noteworthy in the context of the recent school poisonings. Senior clerics in the two conservatively religious cities of Qom and Mashhad could have had a hand in inspiring or directly ordering attacks on schoolgirls who protested the mandatory veiling law during the Mahsa Amini movement. Prominent Sunni Cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami suggested that regime-affiliated actors were responsible for the poisoning attacks, as CTP previously reported.[xvi] Khatami’s statement was reminiscent of the 1990s “chain murders,“ during which senior clerics ordered vigilantes to assassinate political dissidents who they felt were not going to be prosecuted by the judiciary. The regime could be attempting to rein in overzealous clerics through its announced plans to implement a morality patrol in Qom Province, as CTP previously reported.[xvii]

Alam ol Hoda is the father-in-law of President Ebrahim Raisi and a member of the Assembly of Experts, the regime body responsible for appointing and monitoring the supreme leader (although the assembly has never really fulfilled the latter function). Raisi is widely considered to be a top contender to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader. The removal of Alam ol Hoda could damage Raisi’s chances. It would be highly significant if Khamenei dismissed Alam ol Hoda, but CTP has not seen indications in the open source that Khamenei has made such a decision.

Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid continued his criticism of the regime in a celebratory Nowrouz message on his Twitter account on March 21.[xviii] Abdol Hamid called on the regime to release political prisoners and end discrimination, injustice, and poverty.

Economic Affairs

The Iranian rial continued selling for around 494,000 to one US dollar on March 21 for the second consecutive day.[xix] The rial has depreciated rising from around 471,000 rials to the US dollar on March 17.

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

Senior officials from the Strategic Foreign Relations Council continued their official visit to Syria on March 21. Council Chairman Kamal Kharrazi and Secretary Abbas Araghchi met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad to discuss bilateral relations and international developments, including the normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.[xx] Kharrazi and Assad agreed to facilitate communications and exchanges between Iranian and Syrian scholars to counter Western cultural influence, especially among youth. Kharrazi and Araghchi previously met with Syrian Religious Endowments Minister Mohammad Abdul Sattar on March 19 and Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal Mekdad on March 20.[xxi]

Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian held a phone call with Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on March 21.[xxii] The two discussed the growing relations between Tehran and Islamabad as well as the recent normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to normalize relations on March 10, as CTP previously reported.[xxiii] Abdollahian described the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement during the phone call as a “constructive factor” leading to the further development and stability of the region.

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister for Political Affairs Ali Bagheri Kani announced he will pay an official visit to Yerevan, Armenia on March 21-22.[xxiv] Tensions have flared between Iran and Azerbaijan in recent months over Baku’s efforts to connect Azerbaijan proper to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic via a land corridor running through Armenia. Tehran has framed these Azerbaijani efforts as potential violations of Armenian territorial integrity and argued that this land corridor would furthermore block Iranian economic access to European and Russian markets.[xxv]

External Security and Military Affairs

Anti-Syrian regime media outlets reported that Russian forces transported military equipment to an unspecified Russian base in al Saeediyah, Manbij district, Aleppo province on March 21.[xxvi] A Thiqa report claimed that the Russian military equipment includes 40 armored vehicles, logistical materials, and weaponry. This reported deployment of additional Russian assets around Aleppo may be part of a larger effort to deter a possible Turkish ground incursion into northern Syria in the months and years ahead.[xxvii] Syrian President Bashar al Assad previously voiced his support for an increased Russian military presence in Syria during an interview with Russian-state media outlet Novosti on March 15, as CTP previously reported.[xxviii] Continued Russian and Syrian military cooperation will likely place additional pressure on Turkish President Recep Erdogan in possible normalization talks.

Anti-Syrian regime media claimed that clashes occurred between various Iranian proxy militias around the al Qaim crossing on the Iraq-Syria border on March 20. Militants from Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH) and Kataib Seyyed ol Shohada (KSS) clashed with Kataib Hezbollah (KH) forces and took control of a border crossing from KH.[xxix] Qasioun reported that clashes occurred over several months of disputes over which militia should control Iranian convoys crossing the border. CTP cannot independently verify these claims. The al Qaim border crossing is a major arms and drug smuggling route for Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.[xxx]


[i] https://www.farsnews dot ir/news/14020101000395

[ii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-6-2023; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-9-2023

[iii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-23-2023

[iv] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85062598

[v] https://www.leader dot ir/fa/content/26385

[vi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-17-2023

[vii] http://www.president dot ir/fa/143067

[viii] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85062778

[ix] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-february-23-2023

[x] https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1638115593051160578?s=20; https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1638065123460886529?s=20; https://twitter.com/1500tasvir/status/1638169518382907392?s=20; https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1638199519039967234?s=20; https://twitter.com/dariush_Zand/status/1638216697415860229?s=20; https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1638229792116842523?s=20.

[xi] https://twitter.com/1500tasvir/status/1638136780691046401?s=20; https://twitter.com/iranworkers/status/1638209587282075650?s=20.

[xii] https://twitter.com/RadioFarda_/status/1638164274513076226?s=20

[xiii] https://amwaj.media/article/inside-story-is-khamenei-s-man-in-iran-s-top-shrine-city-on-his-way-out

[xiv] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2023/03/20/human-rights-violations-in-iran-eu-sanctions-additional-eight-individuals-and-one-entity/; https://www.iranintl.com/en/202303218166

[xv] https://www.hawzahnews dot com/news/1076625

[xvi] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-13-2023#_edncde38c9b4e92ea2a337da8b7587a7491842b20623c9ac640b07b7fc1357fde72ref11; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-10-2023#_edncde38c9b4e92ea2a337da8b7587a7491dd2a38de0f2dc10407d330a8454cf52eref6

[xvii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-17-2023#_edncde38c9b4e92ea2a337da8b7587a7491bb46d37547fa6e06c8b392619ce2332cref6

[xviii] https://twitter.com/AbdolhamidNet/status/1637904150615801857?s=20

[xix] https://bonbast dot com/

[xx] www.scfr dot ir/fa/400/150214

[xxi] www.scfr dot ir/fa/400/150132; www.scfr dot ir/fa/400/150181

[xxii]https://www.irna dot ir/news/85063127/%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%86-%DA%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%B4-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B7-%DA%A9%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%82%D9%87-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%A8-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%87-%D9%88-%D8%AB%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF

[xxiii] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-10-2023

[xxiv] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85062969/%D8%B9%D9%84%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AF

[xxv] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-crisis-update-october-17

[xxvi] https://thiqa-agency dot com/%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%84-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%8A-%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8/

[xxvii] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/erdogan-says-turkey-rid-syrias-tal-rifaat-manbij-terrorists-2022-06-01/

[xxviii] https://ria dot ru/20230316/asad-1858224485.html ;

https://www.syria dot tv/%D8%A8%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%BA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%B7-%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%88 ;

https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-march-16-2023?mkt_tok=NDc1LVBCUS05NzEAAAGKi__w4p6hVyLgEYiFiyX79tukV80vtfu1aBEW3PNEsh-qZxhQOKl_5wNkLhxqnYlCAoLjEWuQJ9Ueaa9v1GaKtu3zAH0jg-tKkJs4IIkbJTW8o-dS

[xxix] https://www.qasioun-news dot com/ar/articles/261256

[xxx] https://sana dot sy/?p=1841985; https://deirezzor24 dot net/en/iranian-militias-in-deir-ezzor-are-taking-advantage-of-the-earthquake/ ;

https://asiatimes dot com/2022/05/to-stem-iraqs-drug-trade-rein-in-the-militias/

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