May 16, 2023
Iran Update, May 16, 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 is taking steps to improve operational security for convoys traveling into Syria from Iraq, likely to protect arms transfers from Israeli airstrikes. Iran also is stoking conflict between Israel and Palestinian militias, likely to enable the IRGC to transfer military equipment into Syria with less risk of Israeli interdiction.
- Russia is pursuing mutually beneficial economic and military programs with Iran, very likely to ensure Iran continues to provide material support for Russian operations in Ukraine. Iran’s acquisition of Russian Su-35s through those deals may enable Tehran to more readily and independently project power in the coming years.
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.
Iran is taking steps to improve operational security for convoys traveling into Syria from Iraq, likely to protect arms transfers from Israeli airstrikes. Iranian-affiliated militias have transferred three convoys into Syria from Iraq since May 12.[i] The Quds Force commander in Deir ez Zor Province met with Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) commanders on May 15 to personally supervise the distribution of weapons and emphasized the need for secrecy.[ii] The same IRGC leaders in Deir ez Zor Province separately met with Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces leadership to discuss challenges in eastern Syria on May 15, which indicates continued Iranian concern for cross-border security.[iii] CTP previously noted that Quds Force and LH deployments to Deir ez Zor indicated the militias have struggled to preserve operational security as they expand operations in Syria.[iv] CTP also previously assessed that leaks from Syrian militia members may have damaged operational security and left Iranian convoys vulnerable to targeted attacks from ISIS or Israeli airstrikes.[v]
CTP assesses that Iranian leaders are stoking conflict between Israel and Palestinian militias, likely to enable the IRGC to transfer military equipment into Syria with a lower risk of Israeli interdiction.[vii] Iranian activity in Deir ez Zor Province between May 12 and May 16 indicates Iran is taking advantage of a possible Israeli operational pause to transfer in critical military equipment. The last Israeli airstrike in Deir ez Zor Province was on March 22.[viii] Quds Force commanders last met in Deir ez Zor Province to discuss operational security between March 19 and March 22.[ix]
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.
Russia is pursuing mutually beneficial economic and military programs with Iran, very likely to ensure Iran continues to provide material support for Russian operations in Ukraine. Iranian Ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali announced that Iran and Russia will sign an agreement on the construction of the Rasht-Astara railway line during Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak’s visit to Tehran on May 16 and 17. This agreement will link the Iranian cities of Rasht and Astara and create a connection between St. Petersburg and the Persian Gulf.[x] The completion of this rail line has been a long-standing Iranian goal, one that will support strengthening Iran’s economy and sanctions evasion efforts. Iran and Russia also are taking steps to further bilateral military cooperation. Iranian media reported on May 13 that Iran will receive its first shipment of Russian Su-35 multi-role fighter aircraft in the coming week.[xi] The White House reported on May 15 that Russia seeks to buy additional drones from Iran. Russia has expended most of the 400 Iranian drones it purchased from Iran since August 2022 in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.[xii]
Iran’s acquisition of Russian Su-35s may enable Tehran to more readily and independently project power in the coming years. Iran requested Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help prop up the Syrian regime.[xiii] Iran lacked an air force capable of supporting its military operations in Syria and benefited from Russian air power. Russia has militarily deprioritized Syria since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, leaving Iran without military air support in the country. Obtaining Su-35s would grant Iran significantly greater air power.[xiv] CTP does not know if Iran has received training on the Su-35.
Iranian-Russian defense and economic cooperation is part of a broader and evolving Iranian-Russian entente. Both sides are engaging one another in several different fields, highlighting the potential for this partnership to deepen and expand further. Artesh Navy Commander Admiral Shahram Irani, for instance, met Russian Navy Commander Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov in Tehran on May 15.[xv] Irani emphasized that the West is trying to prevent cooperation between Iran, China, and Russia and praised previous joint naval exercises between these countries. Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji separately discussed expanding cooperation in the oil and gas sectors with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak at the Oil Industry Research Institute in Tehran on May 16.[xvi] Iranian Supreme Court head Ahmad Mortazavi Moghadam additionally discussed judicial cooperation and Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with his Russian counterpart Vyacheslav Lebedev in Moscow on May 16.[xvii]
[i] https://www.syriahr.com/%d8%aa%d8%b2%d8%a7%d9%85%d9%86%d8%a7%d9%8b-%d9%85%d8%b9-%d8%a7%d8%b3%d8%aa%d9%86%d9%81%d8%a7%d8%b1-%d9%85%d9%83%d8%ab%d9%81-%d9%88%d9%82%d8%b7%d8%b9-%d9%84%d9%84%d8%b7%d8%b1%d9%82%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a7/607879/; https://eyeofeuphrates (.) com/index.php/ar/news/2023/05/15/8518; https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/%d8%af%d8%ae%d9%88%d9%84-%d8%b4%d8%a7%d8%ad%d9%86%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d9%85%d9%86-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b9%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%82-%d8%a5%d9%84%d9%89-%d8%b3%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d8%a8%d8%ad%d9%85%d8%a7%d9%8a%d8%a9/
[ii] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/05/16/8529
[iii] https://eyeofeuphrates (dot) com/ar/news/2023/05/15/8517
[ix] https://www.syriahr(.)com/en/292490/; https://qasioun-news(.)com/ar/articles/261241; https://eyeofeuphrates(.)com/index.php/ar/news/2023/03/19/8012
[x] https://ru.irna dot ir/news/85112883
[xi] https://www.etemadonline dot com/%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B4-%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-9/612283-%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AE%D9%88-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86
[xv] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85112505
[xvi] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85113017
[xvii] https://www.mizanonline dot ir/fa/news/4712956