October 04, 2023
Iran Update, October 4, 2023
The Iran Update covers provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. It also covers events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more on developments and in Iran and the region, see our interactive map of Iran and the Middle East.
- IRGC personnel backfilled a formerly Wagner-held position in Sukhnah in central Syria on September 28, supporting Iranian efforts to establish a permanent presence in Syria.
- Lebanese Hezbollah-controlled outlet Al Manar published a video mapping US military positions in Syria.
- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev implicitly threatened on September 25 to forcefully take control of some of Armenia's southern territory, which would violate Iran's stated red line of preserving Armenia's territorial integrity.
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.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel backfilled a formerly Wagner-held position in Sukhnah in central Syria on September 28, supporting Iranian efforts to establish a permanent presence in Syria. Wagner forces withdrew from Sukhnah, among other positions in the central Syrian desert, in September 2023 as part of Wagner’s departure from Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry had previously instructed Wagner forces to leave Syria or join the Russian armed forces by September 20. Iran commonly uses the route running through Sukhnah to move forces and weapons throughout Syria, which the backfilling may further facilitate.
ISW previously assessed that Iran could assume control of other formerly Wagner-held positions in the central Syrian desert to reap economic benefits. Some of those positions have gas and oil fields that Wagner had guarded. Russia is helping the Syrian regime backfill some of those locations. There remain, however, several formerly Wagner-held positions with gas and oil fields to which neither the Syrian regime nor Iran have backfilled at this time. Syria has some of the largest known reserves of phosphate, which is a key fertilizer ingredient, as well as several oil and gas fields.
Lebanese Hezbollah-controlled outlet Al Manar published on October 4 a video mapping US military positions in Syria. The video purported to show where and how US forces operate as well as details on each position. The video grossly exaggerated the US force presence and areas of operation in Syria. The video also depicted the locations of major oil fields in Syria, which is consistent with the Axis of Resistance‘s attempts to portray the United States as an occupier looking to exploit Syria’s natural resources. The video risks enflaming grassroots frustration among Syrian militants toward the United States and possibly motivating attacks on US positions.
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.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev implicitly threatened on September 25 to forcefully take control of some of Armenia's southern territory, which would violate Iran's stated red line of preserving Armenia's territorial integrity. Aliyev made the threat during a visit to Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave. Aliyev during the visit met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and used additional irredentist rhetoric, describing Armenia’s southern Syunik province as rightfully belonging to Azerbaijan. Controlling Syunik province would fulfill Aliyev’s desire to connect Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan proper directly. Tigran Balayan—the Armenian envoy to the EU—warned on October 2 that an Azerbaijani attack into Armenia “is imminent.” Iranian leaders have repeatedly expressed opposition to Azerbaijani expansion into Armenia, arguing that doing so would block Iranian land access to Russia and Europe. Tehran has also expressed concern that such expansion could facilitate the spread of Turkish influence in the Caucasus.
Aliyev's threat came shortly after he ordered a two-day military offensive into the Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 19-20. Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave in Azerbaijan that is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but until the offensive was effectively controlled by the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Armenia has historically supported the enclave with financial and military assistance. Azerbaijani forces nevertheless seized the region rapidly during the offensive. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has since then announced plans to dissolve by January 2023, ceding full control to the Azerbaijani government.
Armenia has begun seeking external security assistance from parties other than Russia—its traditional security partner—in recent months to defend against Azerbaijan. Armenian and Iranian officials have separately indicated dissatisfaction with Russia, asserting that Moscow has neglected protecting Armenia since the invasion of Ukraine. Armenia hosted a joint military exercise with the United States between September 11-20. French officials separately announced on October 4 that Armenia and France are discussing arms agreements.” Armenian National Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan lastly met with senior Iranian political and military officials in Tehran between October 2-4.
Iran could pursue various courses of action to defend Armenia and thereby protect its strategic interests in the Caucasus:
- Iran could continue its current approach of using diplomacy and military threats to prevent Azerbaijan from attacking Armenia. Iranian officials have held nine separate meetings with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials since the Azerbaijani offensive in September 2023. The Iranian officials called for dialogue, specifically through the 3+3 format. The 3+3 format involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey working together to address problems in the Caucasus. Iran has also conducted a series of military exercises along its border with Azerbaijan over the past year to pressure Baku to avoid escalation.
- Iran could provide military support to Armenia. This course of action is plausible because Israeli media previously claimed that Iran has supplied drones and other unspecified military equipment to Armenia in recent months. CTP cannot corroborate or verify this claim, however.
- Iran could send military forces to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This course of action is plausible because Iranian Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri offered to deploy Iranian “observers” to the border during his meeting with Grigoryan in Tehran on October 4. These observers would presumably be Iranian military personnel, given Bagheri’s position. Iran deploying forces to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border would be meant to deter Azerbaijan from attacking but would also signal Iranian readiness to militarily escalate with Azerbaijan to at least some level. It remains unclear whether Iranian leaders would risk a large-scale conflict with Azerbaijan to protect Armenia, however.
- Iran could take no serious measures to prevent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This course of action could involve various kinds of support, such as economic and humanitarian assistance, to Armenia. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian emphasized readiness to send aid to Armenia for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh during his meeting with Grigoryan in Tehran on October 4.
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https://armenianweekly dot com/2023/09/27/the-region-in-brief-44/
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https://www.tasnimnews dot com/en/news/2023/10/01/2964816
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https://defapress dot ir/fa/news/617459
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https://www.i24news dot tv/en/news/analysis-opinion/1689501192-gallant-s-visit-to-azerbaijan-underlines-iranian-threat-to-regional-security
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