April 28, 2023
Iran Updates, April 2023
This page collects the Iran Updates produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) for April 2023. CTP and ISW began publishing daily updates in September 2022 covering key events related to supreme leader succession, the Mahsa Amini protests, and regional developments. Full list of Iran Updates are available here.
Iran Update, April 28, 2023
President Ebrahim Raisi will visit Damascus on May 3 to initiate several economic projects, possibly to reinvigorate Iran’s economy by securing resources outside of Iran. Reuters reported on April 28 that Raisi will visit Syria on May 3 for a two-day trip, citing an informed source.[i] An Iranian president has not visited Syria since 2011, when the Syrian civil war commenced. The source stated that the recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement and dialogue between Syria and other Arab states prompted the visit. The Lebanese Hezbollah (LH)-affiliated news outlet Al Akhbar reported that Raisi’s two-day visit would result in several economic agreements.[ii] An unidentified source cited by Al Akhbar claimed that Raisi’s visit is a part of a larger effort to broaden the Axis of Resistance’s activities beyond its current military activity. Iranian Roads and Urban Development Minister Mehrdad Bazarpash announced on April 25 that Iran intends to connect trade through Iran, Iraq, and Syria via a rail link to reduce tariffs and facilitate banking exchanges during a multi-day visit to Damascus.[iii] Bazarpash reported on April 26 that the Iranian-Syrian Joint Economic Forum established eight new committees focused on Iranian investment, energy, and electricity.[iv] Iran has cancelled previous economic projects in Syria, including the construction of two power stations on March 13, because the Assad regime sought to pay for the project in raw phosphate.[v]
CTP previously assessed that Iranian leadership may capitalize on financial resources gained through regional normalization with the Assad regime.[vi] Iranian leadership may grant construction contracts to proxies for possibly energy infrastructure projects in Syria as a means for Iran and its proxies to reap additional profits from the economic deals. Construction contracts would also open the opportunity for Iranian-backed proxies to establish or strengthen militia positions across Syria similarly to the PMF’s deployment to northern Syria under the guise of earthquake humanitarian relief.[vii]
Economic projects in Syria would provide Iran with sources of revenue to address the domestic economic problems it has not been able to resolve internally. Regime officials have expressed concern over the state of the Iranian economy for several months and the regime’s economic policies have not restored the value of the national currency.[viii] Regime officials continued to express alarm on April 28. Qom City Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Hosseini Boushehri stated that the Raisi administration’s inconsistent monetary policies disincentivized investment and created an unpredictable market.[ix] Tehran Interim Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Hasan Abou Tarabifard similarly argued that the Raisi administration and parliament had contributed.[x] Former Rouhani administration First Vice President Esghagh Jahangiri warned of the economic ramifications of closing facilities that violated the mandatory veiling laws.[xi] Former Central Bank of Iran Head under President Rouhani Abdol Nasser Hemati separately warned against removing the US dollar from all Iranian business transactions and blamed the Raisi administration for the rising inflation rate.[xii]
Protesters in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province called for a referendum following prominent Sunni cleric Abdol Hamid’s weekly Friday prayer sermon on April 28, underscoring the extent to which the idea of referenda has permeated the Iranian political discourse.[xiii] Zahedan residents chanted “referendum, referendum” following Abdol Hamid’s sermon, in which he endorsed holding a political referendum.[xiv] CTP has not previously observed protesters in any part of Iran using chants referencing referenda. The protesters’ call for a referendum on April 28 thus reflects how this topic has gained traction in the Iranian political sphere and among some segments of the population. Iranian news outlets and officials from across the political spectrum have increasingly discussed referenda in recent days following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s explicit rejection of referenda during a meeting with student activists on April 18, as CTP previously reported. [xv] The Zahedan protesters' call for a referendum also highlights Abdol Hamid’s influence on his congregation. Abdol Hamid has given anti-regime sermons since the “Bloody Friday” massacre in September 2022.
The regime’s refusal to grant political or sociocultural concessions to its population may increase the appeal of a referendum among Iranian citizens. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s office initially called for a referendum in November 2022 at the height of the Mahsa Amini protest movement.[xvi] It was not until reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi called for a referendum in February 2023 and Khamenei rejected referenda in April 2023 that Iranian officials and media began fervently discussing this issue, however. That Mousavi and Khamenei’s remarks—which followed the culmination of the Mahsa Amini protest movement in January 2022—have gained traction indicates some citizens are dissatisfied with the regime’s failure to grant protesters meaningful concessions.
- President Ebrahim Raisi will visit Damascus on May 3 to initiate several economic projects, possibly to reinvigorate Iran’s economy by securing resources outside of Iran.
- Protesters in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province called for a referendum following prominent Sunni cleric Abdol Hamid’s weekly Friday prayer sermon on April 28, underscoring the extent to which the idea of referenda has permeated the Iranian political discourse.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across one province on April 28.
- Western Persian-language media reported that pro-regime actors have been issuing hijab observance warnings to women across Tehran, citing eyewitness accounts.
- The Intelligence and Security Ministry (MOIS) downplayed ongoing poisoning attacks in Iranian schools in a report published on April 28.
- Pars Special Economic Energy Zone CEO Sakhavat Asadi threatened to dismiss workers who participate in strikes on April 28.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stated that Iran and the US concluded a prisoner exchange agreement 13 months ago during a press conference in Beirut on April 28.
- The US military is equipping A-10 Warthog aircraft in the Middle East with 250-pound “bunker busting” bombs to deter Iran.
- Several Shia Coordination Framework party leaderships held separate meetings with a Kurdistan Workers Party (PUK) delegation, likely to negotiate Kurdish support for the proposed 2023-2025 budget.
Iran Update, April 27, 2023
The domestic Iranian information space is currently shaped such that violence against religious figures is being viewed as part of escalating tensions between the public and Iranian regime. Iranian social media users circulated a video of an unidentified car driver seemingly trying to run over a cleric in Tehran City, Tehran Province on April 27.[i] This incident follows a bank security guard killing Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani in Babolsar, Mazandaran Province on April 26.[ii] Many social media users have connected these incidents, arguing that the relationship between regime dissidents and loyalists has become more tense and sensitive in recent months.[iii] The driver’s motive for attempting to run over the cleric on April 27 remains unclear. It is possible that the driver deliberately attempted to harm the cleric out of frustration toward the regime. The driver’s decision to attack the cleric is noteworthy regardless of the motive given the extent to which the killing of Ali Soleimani captured the national attention the day prior.
The recent violence against members of the clerical establishment corroborates CTP’s previous assessment that the regime’s encouragement of pro-regime loyalists to enforce mandatory veiling could exacerbate tensions between regime dissidents and supporters.[iv] Khorasan Razavi Provincial Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Kazem Taghavi separately announced on April 27 the arrest of two females who assaulted an individual enforcing regime morality standards in this province.[v] This incident underscores that the regime’s refusal to grant sociocultural concessions to the population is fueling physical altercations between regime dissidents and loyalists. Such incidents could continue as citizens remain devoid of any other outlet to release their frustrations and grievances toward the regime.
Iranian state media published slightly differing reports on Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s call for privatizing the economy on April 27. Ghalibaf made these comments while visiting local companies in East Azerbaijan Province. Iranian Students’ News Agency framed Ghalibaf’s remarks as an urgent call for privatizing Iran’s economy to “save the country.”[vi] IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency similarly reported Ghalibaf’s call for economic privatization but did not report “save the country,” assigning less urgency to the issue.[vii] Ghalibaf called for the government and parastatal organizations to decrease their involvement in the Iranian economy on February 22, as CTP previously reported.[viii]
Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al Shammari announced plans to “restore the security situation” in Tarmiyah, Salah al Din Province, Iraq on April 27, which could lead to Iranian-backed Shia militias conducting sectarian cleansing against the local Sunni community under the guise of counter-ISIS operations. Shammari unveiled his plan after visiting Tarmiyah on April 17.[ix] ISIS attacks Iraqi Security Forces in Tarmiyah regularly.[x] Shammari did not specify the measures included in his plan, but Al Araby Al Jadeed reported on April 27 that local residents are concerned he will deploy elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).[xi] The 6th Iraqi Army Division and the Tarmiyah Regiment—a PMF unit comprised of locals— are already stationed in Tarmiyah, suggesting locals are concerned specifically about the possible deployment of non-local, Iranian-backed PMF forces.[xii] Iranian-backed militias previously advocated for the sectarian cleansing of Tarmiyah after an ISIS attack in the town in February 2023.[xiii] Iranian-backed PMF militants have previously massacred Sunni civilians in response to ISIS attacks targeting PMF units. Asaib Ahl al Haq killed eight Sunni civilians in Farhatiya—35 kilometers north of Tarmiyah—in October 2021, for instance.[xiv] The Badr Organization has similarly exploited its control over Diyala Province, which borders Tarmiyah, to force out Sunni inhabitants in sectarian cleansing efforts under the guise of counter-ISIS operations.[xv] Iranian-backed militia and US-designated terrorist organization Kataib Hezbollah has separately cleansed Jurf al Sakhr of its Sunni population and turned the town into a military bastion inaccessible to federal Iraqi officials.[xvi]
ISIS is setting conditions to take advantage of Iranian-backed militia efforts to cleanse Tarmiyah of the Sunni population. ISIS responded to Iranian-backed militia calls to cleanse Tarmiyah of its Sunni population in February 2023, stating that the militias aim to “extend [Iranian-backed militia] influence over [Tarmiyah], steal [Tarmiyah’s] wealth, and displace [Tarmiyah’s] people.”[xvii] ISIS has historic support zones in Tarmiyah, which is one of the primary towns in the northern Baghdad Belts. The Baghdad Belts are a series of rural and semi-urban towns surrounding Baghdad that ISIS and its predecessors use to stage attacks into the capital.[xviii] ISIS’s predecessor—al Qaeda in Iraq—similarly leveraged Shia militia abuses to present itself as a security guarantor for Sunni communities in the early 2010s, allowing it to reconstitute its support structures and rapidly reconstitute its insurgency after the withdrawal of US forces.[xix]
- The domestic Iranian information space is currently shaped such that violence against religious figures is being viewed as part of escalating tensions between the public and Iranian regime.
- Iranian state media published slightly differing reports on Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s call for privatizing the economy.
- Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul Amir al Shammari announced plans to “restore the security situation” in Tarmiyah, Salah al Din Province, Iraq on April 27, which could lead to Iranian-backed Shia militias conducting sectarian cleansing against the local Sunni community under the guise of counter-ISIS operations.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with senior Lebanese politicians during an official visit to Beirut.
- The Artesh Navy seized the Chinese-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Advantage Sweet in the Gulf of Oman.
- The Iran-aligned Shia Coordination Framework is trying to further manipulate Iraqi elections processes to consolidate its political power.
- IRGC Quds Force Deputy Commander for Abu Kamal Hajj Sajjad met with an unidentified Russian general in Abu Kamal, Deir ez Zor Province.
Iran Update, April 26, 2023
An unidentified man shot and killed Shia cleric and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani in a bank in Babolsar, Mazandaran Province on April 26.[i] The assailant was a bank security guard who intentionally targeted Soleimani, although his motive remains unclear.[ii] Soleimani most recently represented Sistan and Baluchistan in the Assembly of Experts--the regime body responsible for selecting the supreme leader.[iii] Soleimani previously served as the Friday prayer leader of Kashan, Esfahan Province and Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province between 2001 and 2022.[iv] Soleimani oversaw Sunni affairs during his tenure as Zahedan Friday Prayer Leader.[v] Soleimani’s connections to the historically restive Sistan and Baluchistan Province are noteworthy following heightened tensions between Iranian officials and Sistan and Baluchistan residents in recent months.
Soleimani’s murder also follows a series of attacks on clerics within the past year.[vi] An unidentified individual stabbed a cleric and fled on a motorcycle in Tehran on February 13, as CTP previously reported.[vii] Unidentified individuals separately stabbed and wounded four clerics in Qom on December 18.[viii] An unidentified man additionally stabbed Esfahan Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai Nejad in June 2022.[ix] It is unclear if these incidents are becoming more frequent or if they reflect heightened anti-regime sentiments. It is additionally unclear if the regime is interpreting these incidents as such.
Iranian state media and officials issued conflicting messaging on the nature of the attack. Iranian officials called for an investigation into Soleimani’s death and described him as a martyr.[x] Regime-affiliated outlets initially reported that a bank security guard used a firearm to intentionally target Soleimani, but later stated that an unidentified individual stole the weapon from the security guard.[xi] Mazandaran Provincial Governor Mahmoud Hosseini Pour claimed that the bank security guard used his weapon to aimlessly fire at a group of individuals. Hosseini Pour added that the incident was not a terrorist attack.[xii]
Fanouj, Sistan and Baluchistan Province residents protested the death of a 16-year-old boy in front of the city Law Enforcement Command (LEC) headquarters on April 25.[xiii] LEC officers reportedly ran over a 16-year-old boy while he was riding a motorcycle on April 25. Iranian social media users circulated videos of LEC officers shooting at the protesters, injuring three individuals.[xiv] The regime deployed a “large number of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces” from Iranshahr—a city approximately 160 kilometers away from Fanouj—to Fanouj on April 25 in response to the incident.[xv] Sistan and Baluchistan Province LEC Social Deputy Colonel Ali Rahimi denied in an interview with IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency on April 25 that the LEC was involved in the death of the 16-year-old motorist.[xvi] Rahimi added that LEC officers “were forced to shoot in the air” after the crowd began throwing stones and glass at the headquarters. Security forces previously killed roughly 100 individuals during the “Bloody Friday” Massacre in Zahedan in September 2022, sparking months of ongoing anti-regime activity within the province.[xvii]
- An unidentified man shot and killed Shia cleric and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani in a bank in Babolsar, Mazandaran Province on April 26.
- Fanouj, Sistan and Baluchistan Province residents protested the death of a 16-year-old in front of the city Law Enforcement Command (LEC) headquarters on April 25. ci
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces on April 26.
- CTP recorded reported student poisonings in two cities across two provinces on April 26.
- The Washington Post reported on April 26 that the World Health Organization (WHO) had offered to assist the Iranian Health Ministry investigate ongoing poisoning incidents on an unspecified date.
- Iranian authorities arrested two former advisors of reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi on April 25.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Yemeni National Salvation Government Chief Negotiator Mohammad Abdol Salam in Muscat, Oman on April 25.
- The Iranian Minister of Roads and City Construction Mehrad Bazerbash announced that the Syrian-Iranian Joint Economic Forum established eight new committees focusing on Iranian investment, energy, and electricity during a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad on April 26.
- A Kataib Hezbollah (KH) delegation arrived in Albu Kamal city, Deir ez Zor province on April 25 to replace Iranian militias according to a report from Eye of Euphrates.
- Members of the Shia Coordination Framework—via Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani—are consolidating government resources through budget allocation and office appointments.
Iran Update, April 25, 2023
Qom Provincial Governor Mohammad Taghi Shah Cheraghi stated that the provincial government should take “negative measures” against unveiled women “in accordance with the law” during a 19 Dey Headquarters meeting on April 25.[i] The 19 Dey Headquarters is an organization dedicated to preserving Qom’s status as Iran’s religious and revolutionary heartland.[ii] This organization met on April 25 to discuss the actions it has taken in the field of chastity and hijab.[iii] Regime officials have increasingly discussed using “positive” and “negative” measures to enforce the mandatory hijab law in recent weeks, although it is unclear what they mean exactly when using these terms.[iv]
The fact that Shah Cheraghi made this statement is noteworthy for several reasons. He has a long history serving as a senior IRGC officer. Shah Cheraghi commanded the IRGC provincial corps responsible for Mazandaran, Semnan, Tehran, and Qom provinces at different points between October 2009 and November 2021.[v] President Ebrahim Raisi appointed Shah Cheraghi as Qom provincial governor in November 2021.[vi] Shah Cheraghi comes from an influential family with connections to the Office of the Supreme Leader. His father—Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Shah Cheraghi—served as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to Semnan Province between January 2003 and August 2021 and is currently a member of the Assembly of Experts—the regime body responsible for selecting the supreme leader.[vii] Shah Cheraghi’s remarks about “negative” hijab enforcement are lastly noteworthy given how significant the recent wave of student poisonings has been in Qom compared to the rest of Iran. The first reported student poisoning incidents in November and December 2022 both took place in Qom.[viii] The poisonings have primarily targeted schoolgirls, suggesting that the poisonings may be related to the issue of women’s rights and, in particular, the hijab. CTP previously assessed that the regime is tolerating the countrywide, coordinated campaign to poison schoolgirls.[ix]
Regime security forces have renewed their efforts to combat popular celebrity figures who publicly oppose the mandatory hijab law. The Law Enforcement Command (LEC) has closed at least eight “celebrity-affiliated” restaurants and commercial complexes in Tehran City since the Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan announced the implementation of his veiling enforcement plan on April 15.[x] IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency argued on April 25 that the closures are meant to demonstrate that “celebrities are not exempt from the law.”[xi] The regime arrested and charged two prominent Iranian actresses on April 25 with the crime of unveiling in public and posting pictures of themselves unveiled on their social media accounts.[xii] Western Persian-language outlets separately reported that the regime formed a secret ”Celebrity Task Force” on September 22, 2022, to identify and punish Iranian celebrities who supported the Mahsa Amini protests.[xiii] The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry reportedly led this effort.
Human Rights Watch reported on April 25 that state security services have tortured, sexually abused, and killed children since the beginning of the Mahsa Amin protests in September 2022.[xiv] This reporting is consistent with CTP’s previous assessments about the regime’s brutality toward children both during and after the protest movement. CTP reported the regime’s violent arrests, clashes with, and killing of young students throughout the Mahsa Amini protests.[xv] Regime security forces killed 23 children in the first ten days of the protests alone, as CTP reported.[xvi] This reporting comes as the regime has callously tolerated the countrywide poisoning campaign against schoolchildren over the past several months.[xvii]
- Qom Provincial Governor Mohammad Taghi Shah Cheraghi stated that the provincial government should take “negative measures” against unveiled women “in accordance with the law” during a 19 Dey Headquarters meeting.
- Regime security forces have renewed their efforts to combat popular celebrity figures who publicly oppose the mandatory hijab law.
- Human Rights Watch reported that state security services have tortured, sexually abused, and killed children since the beginning of the Mahsa Amin protests.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.
- A senior Iranian military delegation paid an official visit to Moscow to meet with Russian, Syrian, and Turkish officials.
- IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pak Pour appointed Brigadier General Ahmad Ali Faizollahi as the Saberin Special Forces Brigade commander.
Iran Update, April 24, 2023
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei briefly lost control of his audience during a speech to Basij students on April 18, indicating the degree to which dissatisfaction has spread among parts of the Iranian regime’s most loyal factions.[i] Western Persian-language outlets circulated leaked footage of the speech on April 22. The footage showed a Basij university student in the audience interrupting Khamenei’s speech, shouting “[regime officials] do not listen to the people’s voice.” Khamenei appeared to dismiss the student, leading the other audience members to reportedly protest Khamenei’s response. These audience members called on Khamenei to respond to the student’s grievances, after which Khamenei abruptly ended the speech.[ii] The outbursts from the audience are remarkable given that the regime likely vetted each participant thoroughly beforehand, permitting only individuals who ardently support the regime to attend the speech.
It is similarly remarkable that an actor with access to the supreme leader’s office leaked the footage, indicating further frustrations among some regime elements. The circumstances of the leak suggest that someone with access to the footage sought to undermine Khamenei by publishing it. The Office of the Supreme Leader omitted the exchange in an edited recording of the speech published on Khamenei’s website on April 18.[iii]
Social media users have speculated that the regime or some other actor planted the Basij university student in the audience to interrupt Khamenei, but a much simpler explanation is that Iran’s worsening domestic conditions are spreading frustration even among the regime’s most loyal supporters. This explanation is consistent with CTP’s previous assessments about widespread dissatisfaction within the regime. CTP observed on October 30, 2022, that the regime appeared concerned about the morale of its security forces during the Mahsa Amini protest wave.[iv] IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency reported on October 19, 2022, that two percent of detained protesters were government employees.[v]
IRGC Coordination Deputy Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi tried to downplay the possibility of dissent within the regime in a televised interview on April 23. Naghdi emphasized the respect that the security forces’ personnel held for Khamenei.[vi] Naghdi described Khamenei as among the “most outstanding” world leaders whose loyal soldiers always “accept his word as superior.” It is noteworthy that Naghdi, in particular, made these remarks. Naghdi has held several prominent roles in which he has been responsible for the Basij Organization and the indoctrination of armed forces personnel. Naghdi was the Basij commander from 2009-16 and the IRGC deputy for cultural and social affairs from 2016-19.
Strike activity among Iranian petrochemical, copper, and steel industry workers increased significantly between April 22 and 24 in response to worsening economic conditions. Social media users reported 58 industrial worker strikes throughout central and southern Iran between April 22-24. Industrial workers are challenging the Supreme Labor Council’s decision to increase the minimum wage by 27 percent on March 19, which some strike participants argue is insufficient to offset Iran’s high inflation rate.[vii] Central Bank of Iran Governor Mohammad Reza Farzin previously announced on March 26 that Iran’s inflation rate was 46.5 percent.[viii] Some regime officials have indicated that inflation has increased further in recent weeks. Parliamentarian Jalal Mahmoud Zadeh stated on April 22 that the price of many basic goods increased by 50 percent in the first month of the current Persian calendar year (March 20-April 20).[ix] He added that chicken currently costs approximately 850,000 rials or 20 US dollars. Some workers participating in the strikes have called for a 79 percent wage increase to offset inflation.[x] It is unclear, however, whether the regime has the resources or will to fulfill this demand.
CTP has not verified the reported strike activity between April 22-24. The following map illustrates all reported strike activity and its locations within this time range.
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei briefly lost control of his audience during a speech to Basij students, indicating the degree to which dissatisfaction has spread among parts of the Iranian regime’s most loyal factions.
- Strike activity among Iranian petrochemical, copper, and steel industry workers increased significantly in response to worsening economic conditions.
- At least 14 protests occurred in 13 cities across 12 provinces.
- The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 24 that Russian ships are ferrying Iranian ammunition across the Caspian Sea to resupply Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani is trying to remove four provincial governors from office, likely to sideline political opposition, especially Iraqi Sunnis.
Iran Update, April 21, 2023
Former President Hassan Rouhani has made national referenda the focus of the Iranian political discourse, forcing the regime into a complicated public discussion over acceptable versus unacceptable referenda—the latter of which would pose an existential threat to the regime. Rouhani has repeatedly called for a national referendum on the regime’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies.[i] Numerous regime officials and state news outlets have responded to Rouhani’s calls in recent days by discussing referenda, entrenching this issue in the domestic political discourse.[ii] Former Parliament Speaker and hardline politician Gholam Ali Haddad Adel stated that a referendum would create sedition during a political party meeting on April 19.[iii] Regime news outlets have argued that referenda are meant only to establish a new political system and not form policies and solve problems.[iv] These outlets make this distinction because rejecting all referenda would delegitimize the Islamic Republic, which was founded via a referendum in 1979.[v] Many of these outlets acknowledged that the Iranian constitution allows the regime to hold referenda on “extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters.”[vi]
These outlet’s seemingly contradictory claims--namely that the constitution permits referenda on various issues and that referenda are meant only to establish a new political system--underscore the extent to which Rouhani’s calls have placed the regime in a bind. The regime does not have a coherent response to Rouhani’s call for a referendum. Rouhani’s proposed referendum on domestic, foreign, and economic policies contrasts with reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi’s call for a referendum on whether to maintain the Islamic Republic, moreover.[vii] While the latter unquestionably falls outside the bounds of the Iranian constitution, the former is consistent with Article 59, which states:
“In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the functions of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum. Any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the [Parliament].”[viii]
Rouhani has sought to reenter the domestic political arena in recent months, possibly to facilitate the implementation of constitutionally sanctioned referenda. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported on April 11 that Rouhani is heading a campaign to promote the election of moderate candidates in the March 2024 parliamentary elections, as CTP previously reported.[ix] Rouhani may seek to establish a moderate political bloc in Parliament that could initiate such referendums on major political issues.
- Former President Hassan Rouhani has made national referenda the focus of the Iranian political discourse, forcing the regime into a complicated public discussion over acceptable versus unacceptable referenda.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid evoked the prospect of military unrest in response to worsening domestic conditions during his Friday prayer sermon, likely to galvanize support for significant reforms.
- Abdol Hamid is trying to counter regime attempts to weaken his movement by addressing the core issues uniting his following.
- At least eight protests occurred in seven cities across seven provinces.
Iran Update, April 20, 2023
The IRGC is conducting a media campaign against former President Hassan Rouhani likely to alienate him further from the political establishment. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency published an article on April 20 asserting that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech on April 18 was directed at Rouhani, which is consistent with the assessment that CTP previously published on the speech.[i] Khamenei stated during the speech that “the issues of the country cannot be solved by a referendum.”[ii] Khamenei was responding to repeated calls from Rouhani in recent weeks for a referendum on the regime’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies.[iii] The Tasnim News Agency article emphasized Khamenei’s disapproval of Rouhani and stated that audience members “made fun of Rouhani” during the speech. Tasnim News Agency has also published articles criticizing the idea of a referendum in recent days.[iv]
The IRGC may be responding to indications that Rouhani is trying to reestablish himself and his supporters in the domestic political arena. CTP first assessed that Rouhani was positioning himself to do so on February 14.[v] Tasnim News Agency reported on April 11 that Rouhani will promote the election of moderate candidates in the parliamentary elections in 2024.[vi] Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf separately met with Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri—a political ally of Rouhani—on April 18, as CTP previously reported.[vii] The repeated attacks from Tasnim News Agency on Rouhani suggest that IRGC leaders may be concerned that he will succeed in reinserting himself into the political space to some degree.
The IRGC may be emphasizing Khamenei’s disapproval of Rouhani to discourage some domestic political blocs from cooperating with Rouhani. The IRGC may be particularly concerned that pragmatic hardliners, such as Ghalibaf, could provide the political space for Rouhani and his supporters to reestablish themselves in the coming legislative elections. Ghalibaf and Rouhani have historically been staunch political rivals, but they appear to agree at least on limiting the role of parastatal entities in the Iranian economy.[viii] That common ground could be enough to foster political cooperation, especially given the increasingly dire state of the economy.
The repeated IRGC media attacks on Rouhani are inadvertently keeping domestic discourse focused on political reform. This media attention may have the unintended effect of precipitating—instead of preventing—further calls among citizens and politicians for reform. This effect could become particularly pronounced in hardline circles, given the attention that IRGC media is dedicating to the issue.
- The IRGC is conducting a media campaign against former President Hassan Rouhani likely to alienate him further from the political establishment.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.
- The Iranian regime is trying to prevent independent reporting on the ongoing student poisonings throughout Iran.
- Iranian-backed militias are bolstering air defense capabilities in Deir ez Zor Province, demonstrating the continued IRGC commitment to consolidating its position along the Abu Kamal-Deir ez Zor City land route.
Iran Update, April 19, 2023
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down growing calls for a referendum on substantial political reform from within and outside the regime during a meeting with student activists on April 18. Khamenei stated that “the issues of the country are not subject to referendum,” following weeks of statements referencing referendums from prominent officials and leaders across Iran’s political spectrum.[i] Former President Hassan Rouhani called for a referendum on the regime’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies during a meeting with former members of his administration on April 4, as CTP previously reported.[ii] Rouhani’s website subsequently published a video and analysis of Rouhani’s April 4 statements on April 9 and 17, respectively.[iii] Although Rouhani claims that the referendum he proposes is compatible with Iran’s current constitution, reforming Iran’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies would fundamentally alter the Islamic Republic that Khamenei has built since becoming supreme leader in 1989.[iv] Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has also issued calls for limited governmental change.[v] Ghalibaf met with Nategh Nouri, an associate of Rouhani, on April 18, as CTP previously reported, which indicates he may seek to cooperate with the former president.[vi] Khamenei previously dismissed reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi’s calls for “foundational change” in his March 21 Nowrouz address, claiming that Iran’s enemies seek to transform Iran by “changing the constitution or the structure of the regime.”[vii]
Iran Update, April 18, 2023
Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf met with several key regime powerbrokers on April 18, possibly to promote a pragmatic hardliner political agenda in Iran.[i] Ghalibaf held an iftar dinner with Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, Ali Larijani, and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel—all of whom were previously parliament speakers at various points. Nategh Nouri is a moderate politician affiliated with former President Hassan Rouhani.[ii] Rouhani’s former chief of staff--Mahmoud Vaezi--described Rouhani and Nouri as having a “very good relationship” and stated that “they see each other all the time” during an interview in January 2023.[iii] Ali Larijani comes from the wealthy and historically influential Larijani family, which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has politically marginalized in recent years.[iv] Larijani frequently cooperated with Rouhani when they were both in power to promote a moderate agenda. Haddad Adel is a hardline politician and the father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei--the son of Ali Khamenei. All the individuals in the meeting represent important factions across the Iranian political spectrum.
Ghalibaf may seek to form a political coalition with these powerbrokers to advance his pragmatic hardliner agenda. Ghalibaf has repeatedly called for political and economic reforms to address popular grievances following the Mahsa Amini protest movement.[v] He has also stated that he is trying to reach a consensus within the political establishment to “modernize regime governance” and solve economic issues.[vi] The iftar dinner may be part of his consensus-building efforts.
A political coalition between these factions (formal or otherwise) could push back on more ideological, less pragmatic hardliners, such as President Ebrahim Raisi, who they may view as an obstacle to serious political and economic reforms. Ghalibaf has increasingly criticized the performance of the Raisi administration in recent months, particularly its economic policy.[vii] Nategh Nouri and Larijani have historically opposed Raisi as well. It is less obvious whether Haddad Adel and his supporters would back a concerted political effort against Raisi, however. Both Raisi and Mojtaba Khamenei are considered top contenders to succeed Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. Haddad Adel could support political efforts to undermine Raisi if he seeks to bolster Mojtaba’s chances of becoming supreme leader.
- Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf met with several key regime powerbrokers, possibly to promote a pragmatic hardliner political agenda in Iran.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across two provinces.
- CTP recorded poisonings in seven cities across six provinces, primarily concentrated in the northwestern provinces of Iran.
- Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Secretary General Ziyad al Nakhalah met with senior Iraqi political officials in Baghdad.
- The IRGC and its proxies are reportedly strengthening their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities around al Mayadin, Deir ez Zor Province, likely as part of the Iranian effort to secure the Abu Kamal-Deir ez Zor City land route in eastern Syria
Iran Update, April 17, 2023
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani has allowed Iran—via its proxies—to expand its military influence in Iraq, specifically Kirkuk and Sinjar provinces, in recent days. The Popular Mobilization Authority—the official governing body of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—announced on April 17 that the PMF will establish a new operational headquarters in Kirkuk Province on April 17.[i] Sudani also gave permission to Popular Mobilization Forces Chairman Faleh al Fayadh to create a new PMF-affiliated brigade in Sinjar, Ninewa province on April 17, according to UK-based Al Araby.[ii] An unidentified PMF source cited by Al Araby claimed that the brigade will be comprised of Sinjar residents recommended by local officials and PMF leadership as well as members of the PMF and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). Sudani may have permitted these developments because his authority over the PMF has weakened in recent weeks. Sudani has suffered political losses to challenges from the Badr Organization in Diyala Province and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who sponsored electoral laws that will prevent Sudani from securing another term as prime minister, as CTP has reported.[iii]
The PMF possibly established the new headquarters in Kirkuk as part of a border security agreement between Iran and Iraq. Independent Iraqi news outlet Nas News reported that an Iranian Intelligence and Security Ministry delegation traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan late last week to follow up on the status of the border security agreement signed between Iraq and Iran.[iv] Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Sudani signed the agreement, which reportedly involves disarming Kurdish opposition groups operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, on March 19.[v]
The PMF announced it will create the new brigade in Sinjar following a Turkish airstrike in Sulaymaniyah province on the Iranian border. The head of the Kani Miran village council reported that Turkish Armed Forces targeted and killed three PKK members traveling via car in a drone strike in Kani Miran village, Penjweb district, Sulaymaniyah province on April 15, according to Al Araby.[vi] Sulaymaniyah Governor Haval Abu Bakr spoke with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to express concern regarding Turkish airstrikes in the province according to the UK based paper Al Quds al Araby.[vii] The Turkish airstrike was uncharacteristically close to the Iranian border. A new PMF brigade in Sinjar supports Iranian efforts to establish and secure ground lines of communication into Syria, however, the Badr brigade in Sinjar would operate within close proximity of Turkish forces. Iran and Turkey have become rapidly positioned themselves in a potentially escalatory face-off within Iraq.
The PMF’s plans to increase its presence in Sinjar would facilitate another Iranian shipment route into Syria and risk conflict with Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sinjar has strategic significance to both Iran and Turkey and is located within disputed Iraqi Kurdistan territory containing a highway into northern Syria. The highway, which serves as a smuggling route into Syria through the Rabia border crossing, presents an alternative ground line of transportation to the al Qaim border crossing in Anbar province and would support an effort to expand Iranian-backed proxy presence into northern Syria that CTP previously assessed.[viii] The PMF’s interaction with PKK-affiliated militants in Sinjar to facilitate materiel through northern Iraq into Syria would threaten Turkey’s stated objective of removing PKK militants from northern Iraq.[ix] This would place a PMF brigade under risk of being targeted in Turkish airstrikes that target YBS and PKK militants.
The Iranian regime’s callous response to the ongoing wave of student poisonings may exacerbate the feeling of terror that these incidents are inducing among the Iranian public. CTP recorded student poisoning incidents in five cities on April 15, seven cities on April 16, and seven cities on April 17. Regime officials have conspicuously failed to reassure citizens that it prioritizes their safety despite the persistence of these incidents. Both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi neglected to raise the issue of student poisonings in meetings and speeches over the past three days.[x] The regime’s silence on the recent student poisonings is striking given that, if these poisonings were occurring in another country, the government of that country would likely devote all of its resources and energy to ending the attacks on schoolchildren. The regime has additionally deployed security forces to confront citizens protesting the persistence of student poisonings. Security forces sprayed tear gas and attempted to disperse a crowd of protesters responding to recent student poisonings in Shahin Shahr, Esfahan Province on April 15.[xi] Iranian social media users previously circulated videos of security forces reportedly shooting at citizens protesting student poisonings in Saghez, Kurdistan Province on April 9, as CTP previously reported.[xii] The regime’s hostile response to poisoning-related demonstrations stands in stark contrast to its general noninterference in economically motivated protests. CTP recorded 17 economic protests between April 15 and 17 but did not observe security forces interfering in any of these protests. The regime’s differing responses to these two kinds of demonstrations underscore its sensitivity to accusations of the regime’s involvement in the poisonings. The regime has lastly turned a blind eye to widespread reports of school officials and personnel mistreating students in poisoned schools, such as by barring them from leaving school buildings and confiscating their water bottles.[xiii] It is thus reasonable to conclude that the regime may be seeking to instill terror among the Iranian people, and among young female Iranians in particular.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani has allowed Iran—via its proxies—to expand its military influence in Iraq, specifically Kirkuk and Sinjar provinces, in recent days.
- The PMF announced it will create the new brigade in Sinjar following a Turkish airstrike in Sulaymaniyah province on the Iranian border.
- The Iranian regime’s callous response to the ongoing wave of student poisonings may exacerbate the feeling of terror that these incidents are inducing among the Iranian public.
- The regime may be trying to weaken the anti-regime movement of Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid by addressing the core issues uniting protesters within the movement.
- The Iranian rial depreciated slightly from 508,000 rials to one US dollar on April 14 to 516,000 rials to one US dollar on April 17.
Iran Update, April 14, 2023
The Iranian regime is attempting to manage rising tensions with Azerbaijan without conceding its strategic interests in the Caucasus. Iran and Azerbaijan have engaged in several rhetorical and diplomatic altercations in recent weeks, partially due to the Iranian regime’s disapproval of strengthening Azerbaijani-Israeli relations.[i] Supreme Leader International Affairs Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati published a statement on April 14 signaling the regime’s—and specifically Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s—aversion to continuing down a path of escalation with Azerbaijan.[ii] Velayati asserted that Iran has never been and never will be the initiator of a war. He added that Iran is concerned about Azerbaijan’s interests and security and titled his statement “I am also an Azeri,” likely to emphasize the cultural and historical overlaps between Iran and Azerbaijan. Artesh Commander Major General Abdol Rahim Mousavi separately discussed Azerbaijan in a Quds Day speech in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan Province on April 14.[iii] Mousavi condemned Israel’s activities in Azerbaijan and stated that Iran desires “constructive” relations with its northern neighbor. Although Mousavi did not overtly threaten Azerbaijan, that he gave this speech in East Azerbaijan—an Iranian province that borders Azerbaijan—signals to Baku that the regime will not sacrifice its interests in the Caucasus to end the pattern of escalation. Mousavi additionally gave this speech on Quds Day—an annual Iran-sponsored holiday against Israel—to underscore that the regime will not tolerate Azerbaijan permitting Israel to use its territory to launch operations against Iran. The contrasting tone of Velayati and Mousavi’s statements reflects these officials’ different positions in the regime; Velayati is a diplomat and Mousavi is a military commander. It is unclear whether Iran’s approach to Azerbaijan will succeed in reducing tensions, however, given that Iran’s interests in the Caucasus are largely incompatible with those of Azerbaijan.
President Ebrahim Raisi gave a televised speech for Quds Day in place of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, possibly indicating Khamenei’s continued support for Raisi as Iran’s next supreme leader. Palestinian television channels broadcast a Quds Day message from Raisi in the Gaza Strip on April 14.[iv] CTP has not previously observed Raisi giving a televised address on Quds Day, making his address and Khamenei’s absence this year particularly noteworthy. CTP has not observed any indicators that would suggest Khamenei would be unable to deliver the speech, moreover. Raisi’s more pronounced role in this year‘s Quds Day festivities may indicate that Khamenei wants to help portray Raisi as capable of leading the Axis of Resistance. CTP has previously observed indications that Raisi is a top candidate to succeed Khamenei.[v]
Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid is calling on Iran’s Shia population to consider an alternative and more moderate version of the Islamic Republic that would also limit the role of the supreme leader.[vi] Abdol Hamid outlined his idea of a truly “Islamic Republic” during his April 14 sermon, consistent with his prior criticism of the Iranian regime as neither “Islamic” nor a “Republic,” which CTP previously reported.[vii] Abdol Hamid characterized his ideal system as “moderately Islamic” and “close to a democracy” in which officials will be subject to the people’s approval. Abdol Hamid also stated that no official would have “absolute authority” in that system, strictly limiting state authority to the traditional Quranic interpretation that “only God has absolute authority.”
Abdol Hamid is challenging the postrevolutionary foundation of the Islamic Republic even though he is calling for an Islamic system. Former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini grounded the current regime in the notion of the velayat-e motlagheh-ye faqih (Absolute Rule of the Jurisprudent).[viii] The supreme leader therefore has the absolute authority to not only implement God’s commandments but to legislate his own laws if necessary to preserve the Islamic nature of the regime. This interpretation departs from the traditional Shia notion of velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent), which as Abdol Hamid expressed means “only God has absolute authority” and the Shia cleric only has the authority to interpret law without legislating it.
Abdol Hamid is using the softer interpretation of Velayat-e Faqih to propose a more moderate version of the Islamic Republic to the Shia population. Abdol Hamid remains undeterred despite the regime’s repeated threats against him and his Sunni Baloch following, as CTP previously assessed.[ix] That he would risk his own and his following’s safety indicates that he is not simply attempting to carve out a permanent political space for his Sunni Baloch movement, but that he seeks to appeal to a much wider audience of observers. Not only does Shia tradition offer the flexibility to accommodate Abdol Hamid’s political vision, but there are moderate factions in the regime that can bring about such change. Abdol Hamid may be trying to appeal to the moderate Shia factions both within society as well as the regime to adopt his vision, especially once the regime transitions from the current supreme leader to the next.
- The Iranian regime is attempting to manage rising tensions with Azerbaijan without conceding its strategic interests in the Caucasus.
- President Ebrahim Raisi gave a televised speech for Quds Day in place of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, possibly indicating Khamenei’s continued support for Raisi as Iran’s next supreme leader.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid is calling on Iran’s Shia population to consider an alternative and more moderate version of the Islamic Republic that would also limit the role of the supreme leader.
- The Iranian rial appreciated slightly from 509,500 rials to one US dollar on April 13 to 508,000 rials to one US dollar on April 14.
- Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement (PIJ) Secretary General Ziyad al Nakhalah and Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave separate speeches using the usual anti-Israel rhetoric that is common on the Iran-sponsored International Quds Day.
- Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr announced a freeze to all Sadrist Movement operations in response to a deviant faction of the Sadrist Movement named Ahl al Qadaa, the People of the Cause.
- Israeli news outlet Channel 11 reported that Israel has closed six kilometers of airspace along the Lebanese, Syrian, and Gaza border, likely to preempt a possible strike into Israeli territory from Iranian-backed proxies in commemoration of Quds Day.
Iran Update, April 13, 2023
A senior delegation from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)--a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)--traveled to Iraq on April 13, highlighting the growing Iranian influence there and potential for Baghdad to become a central node in the Iran-led Axis of Resistance.[i] PIJ Secretary General Ziyad al Nakhalah headed the delegation—his first visit to Baghdad since becoming secretary general in 2018.[ii] The US designated PIJ as an FTO in 1997 and designated Nakhalah as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2014.[iii] Nakhalah met the following officials:[iv]
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani
- Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi
- Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid
- Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Mohammad Kazem Ale Sadegh
The meeting with Ale Sadegh is particularly noteworthy. He is almost certainly a key officer in the IRGC Quds Force given the longstanding pattern of Tehran assigning exclusively Quds Force members to this position.[v] Nakhalah and Ale Sadegh discussed Palestinian resistance against Israel and the growing strength of the Axis of Resistance, according to Iranian state media.[vi]
The PIJ visit is the latest example of several highlighting the ascendent Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iranian-backed Badr Organization has asserted its predominance in Diyala Province, as CTP previously reported, successfully pressuring Sudani to withdraw recently deployed Iraqi Security Forces from Diyala on April 12.[vii] Sudani does not have appear to have the political capital necessary to seriously contest Badr. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki separately pushed electoral reform laws through Parliament with the support of pro-Iran political factions on March 16.[viii] These reforms will likely sideline independent and minority political parties and advantage larger political blocs, such as Maliki’s State of Law coalition, in future elections.[ix] Although Maliki is not necessarily working to promote Iranian influence directly, these internal dynamics are fostering the space for the IRGC to consolidate its political and security influence in Iraq.
Nakhalah’s visit to Baghdad is separately likely part of an IRGC effort to demonstrate the unity of the Axis of Resistance against Israel. Nakhalah will participate in and speak at a ceremony in Baghdad to commemorate International Quds Day—an annual Iran-sponsored holiday against Israel—on April 14.[x] Iranian-backed militias are organizing holiday events in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, Babel, and Hilla.[xi] These celebrations in Iraq appear to be at a larger scale than previous years. Iranian state media separately reported that the Axis of Resistance organized a region-wide naval parade in support of Palestine on April 13.[xii] CTP has seen no evidence that this parade materialized other than a gathering of IRGC naval vessels off the Iranian coast.[xiii]
- A senior delegation from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)--a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)--traveled to Iraq, highlighting the growing Iranian influence there and potential for Baghdad to become a central node in the Iran-led Axis of Resistance.
- IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that President Ebrahim Raisi may soon dismiss Industry, Mines, and Trade Minister Reza Fatemi Amin.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian participated in a quadrilateral meeting on Afghanistan with his Chinese, Russian, and Pakistani counterparts in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
- Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji traveled to Caracas, Venezuela to visit Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) facilities and meet with his Venezuelan counterpart Pedro Tellechea.
- CTP recorded no protests in Iran.
Iran Update, April 12, 2023
Reuters reported that the IRGC brought weapons and military equipment into Syria under the guise of earthquake relief, confirming CTP’s longstanding assessment that Iran exploited the February 6 earthquake to move advanced weaponry and military equipment into Syria. Reuters reported that hundreds of Iranian flights landed in Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia airports over a seven-week period immediately after the earthquake occurred.[i] This reporting is consistent with the assessment CTP first published and has maintained since February 13 that Iran is likely surging materiel into Aleppo and elsewhere in northwest Syria.[ii] Shipments included advanced communications equipment, radar batteries, and spare parts to upgrade air defenses, according to regional and Western intelligence sources.[iii] Reuters reported that IRGC Quds Force Unit 18000, which is the Syria unit and led by IRGC commander in Syria Ali Hassan Mahdavi, oversaw the operation. [iv] IRGC Quds Force Unit 190 led by Behnam Shahriari, which specializes in transporting weapons to Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, coordinated ground transportation.[v]
The IRGC activities around Aleppo are part of a larger Iranian effort to establish an integrated air defense network throughout Syria. Tehran has long sought to transfer air defenses into Syria. Israel has conducted an intensive air campaign in recent months to disrupt Iranian transportation networks and destroy several air defense facilities, as CTP previously reported.[vi] A Syrian army officer confirmed the recent increase in the frequency of Israeli airstrikes in Syria is due to intelligence of ”something being developed quickly.”[vii]
Iranian-backed militants are continuing to move air defense systems into Syria via the Al Qaim Iraq-Syria border crossing, demonstrating that the repeated Israeli airstrikes have not deterred Tehran from pursuing this effort. Euphrates Post reported that Iranian-backed militants transferred anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army 47th Regiment Hashemiyoun Brigade headquarters in Abu Kamal, Deir ez Zor Province on April 11.[viii] The Hashemiyoun Brigade is comprised of Shia tribesmen recruited to serve as a native Iranian-backed militia element in eastern Syria.[ix] Eye of Euphrates reported that IRGC Quds Force officials held a meeting with local Lebanese Hezbollah and Fatemiyoun Division leadership near Mayadin in Ain Ali, Deir ez Zor province on April 12.[x] The Fatemiyoun Division is Iran‘s Afghan Shia proxy, which the IRGC Quds Force uses extensively throughout Syria. CTP previously reported a recent series of similar meetings and Iranian-backed militia deployments into Deir ez Zor province on April 5-12, facilitate military shipments of advanced weaponry and air defense systems into Syria.[xi] These activities are illustrated on the map below.
Iran Update, April 11, 2023
Israeli media has published several articles in recent days detailing the network of IRGC officers working to establish an integrated air defense network in Syria, citing unidentified Israeli intelligence and military sources. IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajji Zadeh is leading this effort in cooperation with the Quds Force, according to these articles.[i] CTP cannot confirm these reports, although they are consistent with previous Israeli media claiming that the IRGC Aerospace Force is organizing air defense activities in Syria.[ii] The recent Israeli articles detailed additional Iranian officers involved in this effort, including Ali Hassan Mahdavi, who replaced Javad Ghaffari as the overall IRGC commander in Syria likely sometime in late 2021.[iii]
The continued Iranian efforts to transfer air defense assets into Syria, despite repeated Israeli airstrikes, underscores the priority that Tehran likely assigns to this effort. Tehran has long sought to transfer air defense systems into Syria.[iv] Israel has conducted an intensive air campaign in recent months to disrupt Iranian transportation networks and destroy several air defense facilities.[v] Iran remains committed to entrenching itself militarily in Syria in the long term, nevertheless, reflecting its willingness to sacrifice personnel and resources to that end.
Tehran may be operating on the theory that establishing forward air defense positions in Syria and other nearby countries could impede a potential Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Such systems could provide early warning to Iran-based platforms and target the refueling and support aircraft that could be involved in such a mission.
Iranian and Iranian-backed militant activity has increased around al Mayadin, Deir ez Zour Province in recent days, which may be related to IRGC efforts against Israel and/or the United States. Syria outlet Eye of Euphrates reported that a delegation of IRGC officials met with local IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah leadership in al Mayadin on April 11.[vi] CTP cannot verify this report, although it is consistent with previous indications of a military buildup around al Mayadin. Multiple convoys of fighters from the Fatemiyoun Division—Iran’s Afghan Shia proxy—and the Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) 4th Division arrived in al Maydin on April 10, as CTP previously reported.[vii]
This increased military activity may be part of an Iranian effort to bring air defense assets and precision-guided munitions into Syria from Iraq. CTP previously assessed that Iran may view the recent escalation cycle between Israel and Hamas as an opportunity to redouble efforts to transfer advanced systems into Syria.[viii] Al Mayadin lies along a critical ground route that the IRGC uses heavily to facilitate military shipments deeper into Syria. The IRGC could use the recently deployed forces to consolidate control over this transportation route and thereby protect convoys traveling along it. Iranian and Iranian-backed militants control the al Qaim-Deir ez Zor City route but not the territory east of the Euphrates River, which is immediately adjacent to the route.
Iran may additionally seek to use its increased military presence around al Mayadin to expand the scope of its operations against the US inside Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-held territory. IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah officials met in al Mayadin on March 31 to discuss recruiting civilians in SDF to act as informants and conduct attacks on US forces, as CTP previously reported.[ix] Iranian-backed militants later fired two rockets at the US Conoco Mission Support Site on April 10.[x] Syrian media reported that the rocket attack came from SDF-held territory, suggesting that the IRGC may have, indeed, succeeded in recruiting some locals.[xi] Iranian and Iranian-backed militants can use launch sites in SDF-held territory to conduct more accurate and therefore more lethal attacks against US positions there. The map below illustrates recent kinetic activity around this area and relevant mortar and rocket ranges.
- Israeli media has published articles in recent days detailing the network of IRGC officers working to establish an integrated air defense network in Syria, citing unidentified Israeli intelligence and military sources.
- Iranian and Iranian-backed militant activity has increased around al Mayadin, Deir ez Zour Province in recent days, which may be related to their efforts against Israel and/or the United States.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across two provinces.
- School poisonings persisted across Iran, highlighting the regime’s continued failure to prevent such attacks
- Raisi Administration spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahromi announced the dismissal of three senior economic officials.
- The IRGC is planning a show of naval force in the coming days likely directed at the US and/or Israel.
Iran Update, April 10, 2023
Palestinian militants expanded rocket attacks into Israel from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to the Golan Heights. Palestinian militants have carried out a series of rocket attacks into Israel since April 6 in retaliation for Israeli security forces raiding the Al Aqsa Mosque on April 4, as CTP previously reported.[i] The attacks have originated from multiple countries—including the potential Sinai Peninsula attack and a series of terrorist incidents in the West Bank on April 7[ii]—and have targeted different areas in Israel. Palestinian militants launched two waves of two or three rockets into Israel from positions in the Golan Heights on April 8.[iii] The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intercepted several of the rockets and the rest fell on uninhabited terrain near Avnei Eitan approximately five kilometers from the Sea of Galilee.[iv] Iran-aligned Lebanese outlet Al Mayadeen claimed the Syria-based Quds Brigade militia carried out the attack.[v] A social media account affiliated with the group denied any involvement in the attack and stated it has no presence in southern Syria.[vi] The IDF also downed a Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) quadcopter surveillance drone that crossed into northern Israel on April 7.[vii] Israeli open-source intelligence social media accounts widely reported on April 8 that the Egyptian army thwarted an attempt by Iranian-backed Palestinian militants to conduct a rocket attack against Eilat in southern Israel.[viii]
The IDF responded to the April 8 attacks by striking Syrian Arab Army (SAA) positions in southwest Syria. IDF artillery and combat drones targeted positions in the Golan Heights occupied by the SAA 90th and 52nd Brigades.[ix] The IDF also conducted airstrikes on an SAA radar site, military positions occupied by the Iranian-backed SAA Fourth Division, and an unspecified target near the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus.[x] One of the airstrikes destroyed a road leading to a villa located approximately five kilometers from the Syrian presidential palace and owned by Maher al Assad, the Fourth Division commander and brother of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.[xi] CTP has not observed any evidence that SAA personnel were directly involved in the April 8 rocket attacks that originated from the Golan Heights.
Iran may view the Palestinian attacks into Israel as an opportunity to redouble its efforts to transfer air defense and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) into Syria. Iran has long sought to transfer air defense systems and PGMs into Syria and station the equipment at Iranian or Iranian-backed militia sites across the country.[xii]CTP previously reported that the Iranian regime has also publicly expressed its intent to sell air defense systems to the Assad regime, although Iranian personnel may still operate the systems sold to the Assad regime.[xiii] CTP has also previously reported that Israel is conducting an intensive military campaign to disrupt Iranian transportation networks into Syria and destroy sites that house and produce advanced weapons in Syria.[xiv] The IDF’s attacks into Syria have responded to Palestinian rocket attacks since April 6, however. The last target linked to advanced Iranian weapons that Israel struck was on March 22. Iran may perceive Israel’s focus on the threat of Palestinian militia rocket attacks presents an opportunity to surge PGM and air defense assets into Syria. The maps below show the change in the targets Israel has struck in Syria since April 4, compared to the preceding three months. Israel has focused on Palestinian and SAA locations in southwest Syria during the last week, rather than Iranian convoys transporting weapons, lines of communication, and military production sites.
CTP is considering the hypothesis that Iran has facilitated the rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in part to distract Israel from the transfer of Iranian air defense and PGM systems into Syria. Hamas likely needed permission from LH to conduct the April 6 rockets attacks from southern Lebanon, as CTP previously assessed.[xv] LH often acts as an intermediary for Iranian coordination with Iranian-backed Palestinian groups. Iran may be urging Hamas to continue rocket attacks to keep Israeli military activity focused away from Iranian efforts to bring PGM and air defense systems into Syria through Damascus and Aleppo airports or via truck. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met with LH Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on April 9, suggesting ongoing and high-level coordination of the groups’ military activities.[xvi] Leadership from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian militia groups arrived in Damascus on April 10 to allegedly pay their respects to the outgoing Iranian ambassador to Syria.[xvii] Iranian regime media reported IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani also arrived in Damascus on April 10, which suggests the reason for his visit included meeting with the Palestinian militants.[xviii]
The Iranian regime is trying to leverage the recent Israeli raids on al Aqsa Mosque to politically unite Muslim countries against Israel and prevent further expansion of the Abraham Accords. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf criticized Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian territories and the recent raid on al Aqsa Mosque and called on OIC countries to “outlaw normalizing relations with Israel and using Israeli goods” on April 10.[xix] President Ebrahim Raisi additionally called on Muslim states to condemn the al Aqsa Mosque raids and to form a broad coalition against Israel on multiple occasions between April 6 and 9.[xx] Raisi further emphasized how Iran and its Axis of Resistance is beginning to benefit from current regional dynamics.[xxi] Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani separately stated that Iran is confident that Muslim countries will “rise“ in support of ”the oppressed Palestinian nation“ on April 8.[xxii] IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami argued on April 8 that the pattern of Gulf normalizations with Israel will end following the al Aqsa incident.[xxiii] Interim Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Ahmad Khatami similarly stated on April 7 that Iran had reversed attempts to create a united Arab-Israeli anti-Iran front as regional states increasingly seek to normalize ties with Iran, citing the March 10 Iran-Saudi normalization agreement.[xxiv]
Regime attempts to unite the region against Israel coincide with heightened kinetic and rhetorical escalations between Iran and Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi expressed on April 5 Israel’s readiness to preemptively strike Iran without US support.[xxv] Artesh Commander Major General Abdul Rahim Mousavi responded to Halevi’s comments on April 10, stating that “Israel is too inferior a country to be considered a threat to Iran.”[xxvi] Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Kiomars Heydari separately warned on April 10 that Iran would provide a “toothbreaking and crushing” response to a foreign attack.[xxvii] Iran and Israel have also been engaged in a tit-for-tat escalation cycle in Syria in recent days, as CTP previously reported.[xxviii] The New York Times separately reported on April 8 that the US had warned Israeli shipping companies of a potential IRGC Aerospace Force drone attack on Israeli tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.[xxix]
Iranian officials participated in a series of diplomatic engagements between April 7 and 9 to preserve Iranian strategic interests in the Caucasus. The regime’s interests in this region include keeping overland trade routes open, preventing Israel from operating against Iran from Azerbaijan, and preempting the spread of separatist sentiments among Iran’s Azeri minority. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani discussed the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) in separate meetings with Armenian National Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan and Russian Presidential Aide Igor Levitin in Tehran on April 9.[xxx] The INSTC is a land route through the Caucasus which enables Iran to export products to Russia and Europe. Shamkhani may have discussed the INSTC with Grigoryan and Levitin in the context of Azerbaijani efforts to link mainland Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region—an Azerbaijani exclave in western Armenia.[xxxi] Connecting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region to mainland Azerbaijan would cut off Iran from an overland route in the Caucasus.[xxxii] The regime regards territorial changes in the Caucasus as a threat to Iran’s internal security, likely fearing that territorial changes could precipitate calls for separatism among Iran’s large Azeri minority in northwestern Iran.[xxxiii] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian separately held two phone calls with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov on April 7 and 8.[xxxiv] Iranian state media reported that Abdollahian and Bayramov discussed “misunderstandings” between Iran and Azerbaijan, likely referring to the regime’s disapproval of growing Azerbaijani-Israeli ties.[xxxv] Regime officials have strongly criticized Azerbaijan’s decision to open an embassy in Israel in recent days.[xxxvi] The regime has additionally repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of allowing Israel to use its territory as a base to organize and launch operations against Iran, as CTP previously reported.[xxxvii]
The regime has failed to prevent further poisonings as Iranian officials issue inconsistent messaging about the nature of the attacks. CTP recorded at least twenty-two student poisoning incidents between April 8 and 10 across twelve cities and eight provinces, resulting in several hospitalizations.[xxxviii] Iranian social media users circulated uncorroborated reports that the Ministry of Guidance advised Iranian state-owned and state-affiliated media to avoid covering poisonings and poisoning-related incidents.[xxxix] CTP did not observe Iranian state-owned and state-affiliated media coverage of poisonings following this report although more instances of poisonings did occur, which adheres to the uncorroborated reports. Impacted students’ symptoms remain consistent with prior incidents of reported poisonings throughout March and early last week.[xl] Deputy Health Minister Saeed Karimi stated that at least ten percent of the affected students showed respiratory symptoms, acknowledging in effect that the symptoms are not psychosomatic as regime officials have previously claimed.[xli] Parliament Poisoning Fact-Finding Commission Head Hamid Reza Kazemi similarly acknowledged that poisonings occurred, but denied reports of student hospitalizations.[xlii] Parliamentarian Mehrdad Karami denied that poisonings were deliberate attacks, arguing that students were nauseated by ”the smell of oil.”[xliii] A reliable Kurdish human rights organization Hengaw separately reported that one 16-year-old male student died on April 9 due to complications from a poisoning attack last month in Tehran, directly contradicting Karami’s statement.[xliv]
Protest activity increased sharply on April 9 in response to deteriorating economic conditions and recent student poisonings. CTP recorded 18 protests in 16 cities across 12 provinces on April 9. The majority of these protests were economically motivated, indicating that the regime’s success in stabilizing the Iranian rial in recent days has not been sufficient to alleviate economic hardships among large segments of the population.[xlv] Various government officials and institutions have announced in recent weeks that Iran’s inflation rate hovers between 40 and 50 percent, making it difficult for many Iranians—such as retirees with fixed incomes—to afford basic goods.[xlvi] Residents in Saghez, Kurdistan Province additionally protested the poisoning of schoolgirls in this city on April 9.[xlvii] Iranian social media users circulated videos of security forces reportedly shooting at protesters in Saghez, highlighting the regime’s sensitivity to the issue of student poisonings.[xlviii] CTP previously observed similar levels of protest activity on March 13 and 14, when Iranian citizens participated in anti-regime protests for Chahar Shanbeh Souri.[xlix] The Chahar Shanbeh Souri protests were primarily fueled by general anti-regime frustrations as opposed to poor economic conditions, however.
- Palestinian militants expanded rocket attacks into Israel from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to the Golan Heights.
- The IDF responded to the April 8 attacks by striking Syrian Arab Army (SAA) positions in southwest Syria.
- Iran may view the Palestinian attacks into Israel as an opportunity to redouble its efforts to transfer air defense and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) into Syria.
- CTP is considering the hypothesis that Iran has facilitated the rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in part to distract Israel from the transfer of Iranian air defense and PGM systems into Syria.
- Iranian officials participated in a series of diplomatic engagements between April 7 and 9 to preserve Iranian strategic interests in the Caucasus.
- The Iranian regime is trying to leverage the recent Israeli raids on al Aqsa Mosque to politically unite Muslim countries against Israel and prevent further expansion of the Abraham Accords.
- Protest activity increased sharply on April 9 in response to deteriorating economic conditions and recent student poisonings.
- At least five protests occurred in five cities across five provinces on April 8, 18 protests occurred in 16 cities across 12 provinces on April 9, and one protest occurred in one city across one province on April 10.
- Law Enforcement Command (LEC) Chief Ahmad Reza Radan announced that the LEC will begin using advanced surveillance capabilities to widely enforce mandatory veiling in public spaces on April 15.
- The Iranian rial remained relatively stable between April 7 and April 10, depreciating from 505,500 rials to one US dollar on April 7 to 506,000 rials to one US dollar on April 10.
- IRGC-affiliated media circulated reports of cabinet reshuffles within the Raisi administration’s economic team.
- Iranian and Saudi officials continued to discuss reestablishing diplomatic relations on April 10.
- IRGC Ground Force (GF) Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization Head Ali Kouhestani announced on April 9 that the IRGC-GF had successfully tested the new Meraj-532 kamikaze drone.
- Iranian-backed militants launched two rockets at US Conoco Mission Support Site in Deir ez Zor province, Syria on April 10.
- Iranian-backed militants deployed to Al Mayadin, Deir ez Zor province on April 10.
Iran Update, April 7, 2023
Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) have indicated that they seek to contain and deescalate their recent flareup with Israel—at least for the moment—after Hamas conducted a large-scale rocket attack from southern Lebanon into northern Israel on April 6.[i] This suggests that Hamas and LH seek to avoid the current cycle of violence from becoming a larger conflict. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to the rocket attack by conducting airstrikes on three Hamas military sites in southern Lebanon and multiple sites in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on April 6.[ii] Hamas conducted a small-scale rocket attack into Israel on April 7 in response to the Israeli airstrikes.[iii] This attack came from the Gaza Strip—rather than southern Lebanon—and was significantly smaller than the rocket barrage on April 6. LH officials and media separately asserted that LH had not been involved in the April 6 rocket attack.[iv]
Iran, Hamas, and LH do not appear to be conflating the attacks with the larger-scale conflict that has taken place in Syria during the last few weeks. Iranian state media and its proxies have framed the recent flareup around Israel’s raid on the al-Aqsa mosque. The Iranian regime has not linked Israeli attacks on Hamas to Israel’s campaign against Iranian and Iranian-backed militants across Syria in recent weeks.
The Israel-Hamas conflict may at least temporarily decelerate the Israel-Iran escalation cycle in Syria that has progressed in recent weeks. Israel killed two IRGC officers during airstrikes in Damascus on March 30, as CTP previously reported. Iranian leaders have acknowledged the deaths and publicly vowed to retaliate, which may have created an expectation among regime supporters that Iran will attack Israel in some way.
The escalation pattern between Iran and Israel in Syria is very likely to resume eventually, however, given that the principal drivers of armed conflict between the two remain present. Iran still seeks to entrench itself militarily in Syria by transferring precision-guided munitions, drones, and air defense systems to the country. Iran also relies on its proxy forces to secure positions along lines of communication in Syria and is aims to increase its influence over components of the Syrian Arab Army. Israel remains opposed to Iran’s military presence in Syria and views some of Iran’s actions, such as efforts to establish missile and air defense capabilities in Syria, as red lines. The targets of Israeli airstrikes since early January, which are shown on the map below, reveal Israel has given priority to disrupting Iranian arms convoys to Syria, as well as degrading military production and air defense capabilities in the country.
Regime officials are trying to unite Muslim countries to condemn Israel for its recent arrests and raids around the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, possibly to impede the warming relations between Israel and Gulf states and Turkey. President Ebrahim Raisi called for an emergency Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting to discuss how “to defend the oppressed nation of Palestine and confront the crimes of the Zionist regime” during a phone call with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on April 6.[ix] Raisi separately emphasized “the need for the convergence of Islamic countries” to confront Israel during phone calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on April 7.[x] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian additionally called for an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers from OIC member states to discuss Israeli arrests and raids during a phone call with OIC Secretary General Hissein Brahim Taha on April 7.[xi] Taha announced during the same phone call that an OIC meeting will be held at the executive council level to discuss the Israeli actions on April 8.[xii] The regime’s appeal to the OIC suggests that it seeks to use the Al Aqsa Mosque raid as well as the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) strikes on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon on April 6 to unite Muslim countries against Israel.
Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid—who has inspired weekly Friday anti-regime protests in Zahedan since September 2022—may be losing momentum. CTP assesses with low confidence that a small silent protest occurred in Zahedan on April 7—marking the first time since September 2022 that CTP has had such uncertainty that Friday protests occurred in Zahedan.[xiii] The regime in Zahedan on April 7, which could explain the relative absence of evidence of Friday protests.[xiv] Videos of Friday protests have surfaced during previous regime censorship, however. Ramadan fasting continues which could also have decreased protester turnout.
Abdol Hamid has reiterated the key points of his highly critical anti-regime rhetoric during the past few weeks, possibly normalizing his rhetoric such that it is a less persuasive call to protest. He repeated many of his familiar criticisms during his April 7 sermon, ranging from the demand to release political prisoners to calls for an inclusive political system.[xv] Abdol Hamid has sustained his criticism without calling for revolution, as CTP previously assessed.[xvi] He may be seeking to carve out a permanent political space for himself and his movement without instigating a violent regime crackdown. However, the normalization of what was once controversial and inspiring in his criticisms reduces the impetus for protests. Furthermore, sustained criticism, however controversial, can become uninspiring if it does not lead to tangible results. Abdol Hamid also echoed some unpopular regime rhetoric during his April 7 sermon by stating that he would be in favor of “intelligently” enforcing mandatory veiling. This remark could have had an adverse impact on protest turnout today.
The regime’s muted security posture in Zahedan may reflect the regime’s calculation that Abdol Hamid’s momentum is diminishing, rendering further securitization unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive as it could instigate a popular backlash. The regime has decreased its security presence in Zahedan in recent weeks, as CTP previously reported.[xvii] The regime did not noticeably increase its security presence in Zahedan on April 7. Several regime security officials recently threatened to send additional security forces to the province but none of these threats have materialized.[xviii]
- Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) have indicated that they seek to contain and deescalate their recent flareup with Israel—at least for the moment—after Hamas conducted a large-scale rocket attack from southern Lebanon into northern Israel.
- Regime officials are trying to cohere Muslim countries together to condemn Israel for its recent arrests and raids around the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid—who has inspired weekly Friday anti-regime protests in Zahedan since September 2022—may be losing momentum.
- Armenian media reported on April 7 that Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan will travel to Tehran on April 9 to meet with Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Admiral Ali Shamkhani.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across two provinces.
Iran Update, April 6, 2023
Hamas conducted a large-scale rocket attack from southern Lebanon into Israel on April 6 possibly as part of the larger pattern of escalation between Iran and Israel occurring throughout 2023. Hamas and other unidentified Palestinian militants launched at least 34 rockets into northern Israel, with four landing in Israeli territory and injuring at least three people.[i] Israeli forces intercepted around 25 rockets, and several more fell short of the border. Hamas launched an additional two rockets into Israel several hours later. Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem framed the attacks as retaliation for Israeli raids and mass arrests inside the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on April 4-5.[ii] Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants launched as many as 15 rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on April 5 in response to the raids, as CTP previously reported.[iii]
Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) likely had advance knowledge of the attacks and may have even greenlighted it. Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh traveled to Lebanon on April 5, as CTP previously reported, visiting Beirut and southern Lebanon.[iv] Haniyeh reportedly met with senior LH officials, such Hassan Nasrallah, and Hamas militants during the visits, possibly to discuss and prepare for the attacks.[v] The fact that Hamas was able to conduct a second rocket attack several hours after the first one without LH intervening to prevent it further indicates that LH may have been complicit in the operation. Iranian leaders would have been presumably aware of the planned attacks as well if Hamas did, in fact, coordinate with Nasrallah.
Iran and LH may have encouraged or tacitly approved the rocket attacks in retaliation for a series of Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks. Israel conducted airstrikes around Damascus on March 30, killing two IRGC officers.[vi] Iranian leaders have acknowledged that Israel killed these officers and have vowed publicly in recent days to retaliate, as CTP previously reported.[vii] Iranian leaders could portray the attacks as at least part of their retaliation regardless of whether they had any meaningful role in the planning and execution of the operation.
If Iran and LH were, in fact, involved in the attack, it signifies them expanding the geographic scope of their escalation pattern with Israel. The ongoing cycle of violence between Tehran and Tel Aviv has occurred primarily in Syria throughout 2023 thus far. Tehran may be expanding the geographic scope of the conflict to deter further Israeli action against Iranian interests in Syria. Involving Lebanon and Palestine in the escalation cycle threatens Israel with spreading the conflict further to involve additional crises. Conducting the rocket attacks from Lebanon has the added effect of raising the cost of certain Israeli responses given that retaliatory airstrikes into Lebanon would risk triggering an intensifying conflict with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant groups.
- Hamas conducted a large-scale rocket attack from southern Lebanon into Israel on April 6 likely as part of a larger pattern of escalation between Iran and Israel occurring throughout 2023.
- At least eight protests occurred in eight cities across six provinces.
- Iranian security leaders continued emphasizing the internal security threat that they face in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.
- Iranian officials continue to frame the mandatory hijab law as a popular demand.
Iran Update, April 5, 2023
Student poisonings have resumed in Iran after approximately three weeks without reported incidents, indicating that the regime has failed to take the necessary security measures to permanently prevent these attacks. CTP recorded ten student poisoning cases on April 5, four cases on April 4, and one case on April 3.[i] The April 3 chemical poisoning attack on Iranian school girls in Naghadeh, West Azerbaijan Province marked the first of such attacks since March 13, as CTP previously reported.[ii] The pause in student poisonings between March 13 and April 3 roughly corresponds to the Iranian New Year holiday between March 20 and April 2, suggesting that the recent respite from student poisonings was not due to the regime’s ability to effectively crack down on the perpetrators of these attacks, but because schools were not in session. The resumption of student poisoning attacks also indicates that the network targeting Iranian school girls still exists and retains the ability to operate in Iran.
There are numerous similarities between the most recent student poisonings and the poisonings that occurred between December 2022 and March 2023. Students poisoned in recent days have reported symptoms—such as smelling a strange smell before becoming ill, dizziness, and headaches—which match the symptoms experienced by students poisoned in March.[iii] Students from schools where poisoning attacks have occurred in recent days have additionally reported that school principals confiscated their cellphones to prevent the dissemination of news about the attacks.[iv] School officials reportedly behaved in a similarly abnormal and unsympathetic manner during the peak of student poisonings in early March, as CTP previously reported.[v] Regime officials have largely disregarded the resumption of student poisoning attacks. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi stated on April 5 that he “could not confirm” the poisoning of students in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan Province. Vahidi added that “further investigations should take place,” but did not exhibit any sense of urgency regarding the recent attacks.[vi] The regime’s lack of response suggests that it is incapable of preventing such attacks, does not want to acknowledge the existence of a network capable of instilling fear into the Iranian people, and still tolerates the poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls.
Iran Update, April 4, 2023
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reaffirmed his commitment to enforcing the mandatory hijab law during a meeting with senior regime officials on April 4. Khamenei framed the law as both a political and religious requirement.[i] He added that the hijab issue “will definitely be solved,” but did not specify how exactly regime officials should go about enforcing mandatory veiling.[ii] It is noteworthy that Khamenei provided no specific guidance on how to enforce the hijab law given that regime officials have articulated different theories on how to do so in recent days. Khamenei’s explicit endorsement of mandatory veiling on April 4 differs from his vague reference to this issue in his Nowrouz address on March 21. Khamenei previously implied that the economy should be the primary topic of intra-regime debate in his Nowrouz address, as CTP previously reported, implying that socio-cultural issues, such as the hijab requirement, are not up for discussion.[iii] Khamenei contrastingly stated on April 4 that “choosing an economic slogan does not mean disregarding social and cultural issues.”[iv] Khamenei may have made this clarification to explain to regime officials that they can discuss the hijab—in addition to the economy—so long as their discussions about veiling are in the context of enforcing the hijab law.
Khamenei identified solving Iran’s economic problems as critical to promoting societal cohesion and stability. Khamenei stated that “economic problems...have a negative effect on the people’s culture, thoughts, and behavior.”[v] He further stated that solving Iran’s economic problems will give the population a “feeling of comfort.”[vi] These statements suggest that Khamenei may believe that the public will accept—or at least be more amenable to—various social restrictions, such as the hijab law, if the regime can meaningfully improve the economic health and trajectory of the country. Khamenei similarly stated in his March 21 Nowrouz message that addressing the people’s economic problems will largely solve Iran’s political and sociocultural issues, as CTP previously reported.[vii] Khamenei separately called on “the presidential administration, Parliament, Judiciary, and all institutions” to prioritize realizing the new year’s slogan—“control inflation and increase economic production”—in his April 4 speech.[viii] Khamenei may have been responding to regime officials’ overwhelming focus on the hijab in recent days and implicitly instructing them to redirect their attention to the economy.[ix]
Iranian leaders have continued overtly threatening to retaliate against recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria but have not yet done so. Several senior IRGC leaders repeated on April 4 their commitment to retaliation in response to Israel killing two IRGC officers in airstrikes in Damascus on March 30.[x] These remarks follow several days of Iranian officials and state media publicly vowing to seek to revenge, as CTP has previously reported.[xi] This sustained rhetoric is likely creating an expectation among domestic supporters that the regime will respond in some way, and Iranian leaders may feel pressure to meet this expectation.
Iranian leaders have several retaliation options, which they are likely weighing. Regime officials have frequently warned that they hold the US accountable for Israeli airstrikes and could attack US positions in Syria in response.[xii] Iran has likely acted on this threat previously, such as when Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on a US base in northeastern Syria, killing an American contractor, on March 23.[xiii] Iran could alternatively target Israeli personnel or interests abroad, as it has tried to do in the past.[xiv]
Israel has likely continued its air campaign against the IRGC in Syria and especially against air defense assets. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) likely conducted four airstrikes against Iranian-affiliated military positions around Damascus and southern Syria, including two air defense sites, on April 3.[xv] Iranian officials and state media have continually expressed their intent to help the Assad regime strengthen its air defense capabilities in recent months—likely on the theory that such support may deter further Israeli airstrikes. Deputy Defense Minister for International Affairs Brigadier General Hamzeh Ghalandari emphasized the readiness of the regime to support such efforts on April 4.[xvi] Iranian state media reported in February 2023 that Tehran will likely sell Damascus air defense equipment, such as radars and surface-to-air missiles, as CTP previously reported.[xvii]
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reaffirmed his commitment to enforcing the mandatory hijab law during a meeting with senior regime officials.
- Khamenei identified solving Iran’s economic problems as critical to promoting societal cohesion and stability.
- Iranian leaders have continued overtly threatening to retaliate against recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria but have not yet done so.
- Israel has likely continued its air campaign against the IRGC in Syria and especially against air defense assets.
- At least one protest occurred in one city across one province.
Iran Update, April 3, 2023
The Israel Defense Force conducted an airstrike targeting at least two Iranian-backed militia bases in western Syria on April 1, 2023. Unidentified Western intelligence sources reported that rockets hit the al Dabaa Military Airport and T4 Tyas air base, according to a Reuters report. An unidentified Syrian military source claimed to the Syrian Arab News Agency that Israeli forces targeted multiple military targets in Homs city and its outskirts on April 1 killing five Syrian soldiers. The Syrian Ministry of Defense released a statement claiming that Syrian air defense systems shot down several Israeli missiles over Homs city and countryside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Crisis 24 reported that the IDF also damaged an Iranian research facility in Khirbat al Tain, western Homs. An anti-Syrian regime Twitter account claimed that a Lebanese Hezbollah leader was killed in the Israeli airstrike on April 1.
Iranian and Iranian-backed media outlets reported on deaths of martyrs in Israeli attacks, likely to set conditions for an attack on US or coalition forces. The IRGC Public Relations Department announced IRGC military advisor Captain Moghdad Mehghani Jafar Abadi died from injuries sustained in the Israeli airstrike in Damascus on March 30. Iranian-state media previously reported that an IRGC military advisor Milad Heydari was killed in the same airstrike in a statement on March 30. Raisi administration Spokesperson Bahadori Jahromi warned that Iran would retaliate for the Israeli airstrikes that reportedly killed Abadi and Heydari in a statement on April 2 reported by Iranian state-media outlet Tasnim. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani also released a statement warning that Iran “reserves the right to respond [to Israeli strikes] at the right place and time” during a press conference on April 2.
An unspecified Iranian-backed militia flew an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israeli airspace, which highlights the risk of further escalation in Syria. The militia flew the UAV from Syria into Israeli airspace north of Lake Tiberias, Golan Heights. The IDF reported that its forces monitored the drone in flight before downing it. Israeli media outlets reported that the drone was Iranian made. Iranian media outlet Entekhab circulated reporting on the drone entering Israeli airspace in a report on April 2. Israeli air defense systems shot and destroyed a Qassem Shehab UAV Izz ad Din al Qassem Brigade of Hamas launched towards Israeli airspace on April 3. CTP cannot verify if Iran directed the militias to fly the drones into Israel. Iranian-backed militants periodically conduct attacks independent of Iranian direction.
The Iranian regime has cohered around a collective approach to enforcing mandatory veiling laws that frames the laws as the will of the people, possibly to avoid igniting another round of anti-regime protests. The regime publicly signaled its agreement to strictly enforce the mandatory hijab law on March 30, as CTP previously assessed. The regime’s enforcement model seeks to coopt the social collective as a complementary enforcement mechanism to its security services. The regime has encouraged pro-regime loyalists to issue “verbal warnings” to unveiled women and called on the relevant state entities to continue their enforcement albeit more cautiously. The Education Ministry published a statement on April 3 outlining a guidance plan for educating the youth in the importance of veiling and “chastity.” The statement also suggested that schoolchildren who do not comply with veiling standards will be excused without any detailed explanation. The regime has also sought to expand its enforcement network beyond ordinary regime supporters to non-state social institutions such as local stores and educational centers. The regime reportedly sealed several local shops for serving unveiled women as part of an effort to expand the costs of noncompliance to those who have not directly violated veiling standards, thereby increasing the incentive for shop owners to exert pressure on their customers to observe such standards.
Iranian officials have described adherence to the law as a popular demand in recent days. President Ebrahim Raisi stated on April 3 that most women and girls adhere to the law and that observance of the hijab is a “common” demand. Islamic Guidance and Culture Minister Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili similarly stated that the Iranian nation--as opposed to the regime--opposes improper veiling.
The regime likely instituted a temporary pause on the strict enforcement of the law and its guidance patrol following the death of Mahsa Amini. The regime has altered its approach to what has been a longstanding commitment to mandatory veiling enforcement only following the aftermath of the Mahsa Amini protest movement. President Ebrahim Raisi signed a decree on August 15, 2022, authorizing the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technology to identify those who were not complying with the veiling law, immediately prior to the Mahsa Amini protest movement in September. The regime likely instituted a temporary pause on the strict enforcement of the law and its guidance patrol following the death of Mahsa Amini.
The regime’s collective punishment approach to mandatory veiling—particularly its encouragement of pro-regime loyalists to enforce mandatory veiling—may exacerbate tensions between the Iranian public and the regime. Regime-affiliated media recirculated a 1995 video of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemning “attacks” against women with “bad hijab” in recent days, likely in response to a man pouring yogurt on two unveiled women in Khorasan Razavi Province on March 31. Republishing the video indicates the regime is attempting to signal that it supports citizens’ involvement in hijab enforcement but disapproves of physical altercations between regime loyalists and unveiled women. The regime has no ability to control the actions of private citizens who decide to enforce the hijab law, however. Citizens who choose to enforce this law are likely the most passionate about it, and thus may use confrontational methods—such as physical harassment—to implement it. Iranian citizens may additionally accuse individuals who enforce the hijab law of being regime officials, even if they are in fact private citizens. This dynamic puts the regime in a dangerous situation because if vigilantes confront unveiled women aggressively or violently, citizens may place blame for these individuals’ actions on the regime and subsequently call for new anti-regime demonstrations.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been conspicuously absent from ongoing intra-regime discussions about the hijab, possibly to shield himself from criticisms of the regime’s uncompromising stance on this issue. Khamenei has not explicitly mentioned the hijab in recent weeks, although he did indirectly reference Iran’s “cultural issues” in his Nowrouz message on April 21. Numerous Friday prayer leaders—who receive guidance for the content of their sermons from the Office of the Supreme Leader—emphasized the issue of mandatory veiling in their sermons on March 31, however. Khamenei’s relative silence on the hijab issue may indicate that he recognizes that the regime’s reinvigorated effort to enforce the hijab law is unpopular among segments of the Iranian population. He may therefore be attempting to disassociate himself from this issue to maintain public support. Khamenei’s silence is particularly noteworthy given that he publicly reiterated the mandatory hijab requirement in January 2022 as the Mahsa Amini protest movement was culminating, as CTP previously reported. Khamenei may perceive that there is more resistance to the hijab law among Iranian women now then there was in January, although there is no evidence to support this hypothesis. Regime officials close to Khamenei have additionally attempted to portray the supreme leader as a fatherly and loving figure in recent days, possibly to downplay Khamenei’s role in directing the regime’s crackdown on hijab violations. Supreme Leader Office Head Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani stated on April 3 that “Khamenei is extremely kind and cannot tolerate seeing children cry.” Golpayegani added that Khamenei responds to the hardships and unkindness of people with patience and forgiveness.
- The Israel Defense Force conducted an airstrike targeting at least two Iranian-backed militia bases in western Syria on April 1, 2023.
- Iranian and Iranian-backed media outlets reported on deaths of martyrs in Israeli attacks, likely to set conditions for an attack on US or coalition forces.
- The Iranian regime has cohered around a collective approach to enforcing mandatory veiling laws that frames the laws as the will of the people, possibly to avoid igniting another round of anti-regime protests.
- At least four protests occurred in four cities across three provinces on April 3.
- CTP did not record protest activity that met its reporting thresholds on April 1 and 2.
- Social media users circulated footage of Iranian security personnel dispersing crowds celebrating Sizdah Behdar—an outdoor picnicking holiday marking the end of the Persian New Year—in Alborz, Gilan, and Tehran Provinces on April 2.
- A group of Iranian legal advisors claimed on April 2 that Basij members had attempted to coerce detained anti-regime protesters to join the organization upon their release.
- President Ebrahim Raisi appointed former Farhangian University President Reza Morad Sahraei as education minister on April 3 following Education Minister Yousef Nouri’s April 2 resignation.
- Iranian media reported a chemical poisoning attack on Iranian school girls in Naghdeh City, West Azerbaijan Province on April 3, marking the first of such attacks since March 13.
- The Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry appointed former Ambassador to Kazakhstan Mojtaba Demirchilou as Ambassador to Azerbaijan on April 1 amid heightened tensions between Baku and Tehran.
- Iranian officials and media confirmed reports of imminent meetings between high-ranking Iranian and Saudi officials.
- UK-based Amwaj Media reported that Iran has asked Iraq to play a broader mediator role between Iran and the Arab world, citing a source in the Iraqi National Security Council.
- Iraqi Security Forces arrested Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) members that were reportedly planning an attack on Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Buhriz, Diyala province while impersonating ISIS militants, likely to misdirect their participation in sectarian violence in Diyala.
- Iranian media circulated conflicting reports of a purported encounter between Iranian air defense networks and a US aircraft over the Sea of Oman on April 2.