March 31, 2023
Iran Updates, March 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 March 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.
March 31, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on March 30 that resulted in the death of senior IRGC official Milad Heydari, which likely will prompt Iranian-backed militants to attack US forces stationed in eastern Syria in the coming days. Recent Iranian attacks on US forces in response to IDF airstrikes suggests a pattern in which Iran retaliates for instances in which IRGC personnel are killed. Local Syrian media reported that an IDF drone killed an IRGC official and a Lebanese Hezbollah official on March 23 near Abu Kamal, Deir ez Zor province.[i] The IDF drone strike occurred approximately 12-18 hours prior to the attack on US forces in Hasakah province, suggesting that Iran ordered the attack in response to the IDF drone strike and not the airstrike on Aleppo International Airport on March 22, which did not kill any IRGC personnel. CTP has observed several other Iranian-backed attacks on US forces that support this pattern, which are outlined in the timeline graphic below.
Iranian regime rhetoric suggests that Iran is preparing to respond with force. Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) described Heydari as an officer in the IRGC’s Cyber Command.[i] IRNA also described Heydari as “one of the military advisers” in Syria to Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters Command.[ii] Media outlets affiliated with the Iranian regime have uncharacteristically publicized Heydari’s death and echoed threats of retaliation made by senior Iranian officials.[iii] This unusual emphasis on his death and the related threats suggests the regime is setting rhetorical conditions to respond by attacking US forces in Syria.
The Times of Israel reported that the target of the March 30 IDF airstrike was an Iranian asset related microchips used in missile guidance systems and not Heydari.[iv] Iranian convoys smuggling precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and warehouses in Syria that store the PGMs are commonly targeted during Israeli airstrikes, suggesting Heydari may be involved in the Iranian effort to produce and smuggle missiles and other precision-guided munitions into Syria.
- Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted airstrikes in Damascus, Syria on March 30 that resulted in the death of senior IRGC official Milad Heydari, which likely will prompt Iranian-backed militants to attack US forces stationed in eastern Syria in the coming days.
- Recent Iranian attacks on US forces in response to IDF airstrikes suggests a pattern in which Iran retaliates for instances in which IRGC personnel are killed.
- The Iranian regime signaled its agreement to uncompromisingly enforce the mandatory hijab law on March 30.
- The Iranian regime’s threats to securitize Zahedan have been ineffectual in deterring prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid from criticizing the regime in his weekly sermons.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.
- The Iranian rial slightly depreciated from 549,000 rials to one US dollar on March 30 to 549,500 rials to one US dollar on March 30.
- Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani strongly condemned Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen’s March 29 discussion on Iran with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov.
- An unidentified Iraqi political source claimed that IRGC Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani discussed the recent escalation in Syria with Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) leadership in Baghdad.
March 30, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
Iran and its proxies may target US forces in Syria in retaliation for multiple Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria on March 30. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted two airstrikes targeting a likely Iranian or proxy officer and an Iranian-backed militant facility near Damascus on March 30.[i] Syrian media reported that the first airstrike targeted a “pro-Iranian” foreigner traveling in the vicinity of a possible Iranian air defense site, suggesting that the target was an individual of some significance to the Iranian project in Syria.[ii] CTP previously reported that the IDF likely targeted an IRGC Quds Force facility and headquarters in the same general area on February 18, indicating that senior Iranian and proxy officers are present there.[iii] Iranian leadership has previously warned that it holds the US accountable for Israeli airstrikes in Syria, and Iranian proxies have attacked US positions on several occasions in retaliation for such airstrikes, including the March 23 drone attack that killed an American contractor in northeastern Syria.[iv]
Iranian officials and state media outlets have signaled their readiness to continue the escalation cycle against the US in recent days. The Iranian Advisory Center in Syria—a likely front for the IRGC Quds Force—issued a statement on March 24 warning that Iran’s Axis of Resistance can retaliate against any US attacks in Syria.[v] Iranian-state and proxy media echoed these remarks, emphasizing that the Axis of Resistance is prepared to respond to attacks on its forces.[vi] State-controlled IRNA similarly reported on March 28 that some of the recent Iranian-backed attacks on US forces demonstrated that “the resistance forces are ready to respond to any American aggression.”[vii] IRNA added that the American bases in Syria are ”vulnerable,“ despite having air defenses.[viii] IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency separately reported on March 26 that Iran gave an “iron fist” response to the US in Syria and that the US decided to engage in a conflict with the Axis of Resistance in Syria because of its “reduction (in) position in regional equations.”[ix] Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stated on March 29 that Iran responded, “decisively and clearly to the American side” in “the events that took place east of the Euphrates."[x] The IDF’s latest airstrikes may therefore trigger Iranian-backed strikes on US forces meant to, in fact, deter Israeli airstrikes.
- Iran and its proxies may target US forces in Syria in retaliation for multiple Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria on March 30.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.
- Iranian officials continued discussing the mandatory hijab law with increased urgency.
- The Iranian rial depreciated from 538,500 rials to one US dollar on March 29 to 549,000 rials to one US dollar.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stated that the Iranian parliament could impose a deadline for nuclear negotiations during an interview with Al Jazeera.
- The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the US must compensate Iran for freezing its assets and declared that it had no jurisdiction over the 1.7 billion US dollars' worth of Iranian assets frozen in the US.
- IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani in an unannounced visit to Baghdad.
- Anti-regime outlet Iran International published a purported interrogation video of an Intelligence and Security Ministry officer discussing Iran’s covert operations in Africa.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian alluded to Iranian involvement in the recent attacks on US bases in Syria during his meeting with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia on March 29.[i] Abdollahian rejected US reports that Iranian drones were involved in the March 23 attack on a US base in Syria but added that Iran responded “decisively and clearly to the American side” in “the events that took place east of the Euphrates.” The US conducted airstrikes on at least two Iranian-backed militant positions in eastern Syria on March 23 in retaliation for a drone attack on a US base near Hasakah.[ii] Likely Iranian-backed militants conducted a rocket attack on the US base at the Green Village base in eastern Syria on March 24, likely in retaliation for the US airstrikes, as CTP previously assessed. Amir Abdollahian’s rejection of Iranian drone involvement in the recent attacks was likely a reference to the March 23 drone attack on the Hasaka base. His second statement about the decisive "response" was likely a reference to the Iranian's separate retaliatory rocket attack on the Green Village base, as CTP previously assessed.[iii] Amir Abdollahian’s use of the Persian word “pasokh” or “respond” suggests that he may be claiming responsibility for the rocket attacks on the Green Village base.
Amir Abdollahian also announced that Iran and Russia are finalizing a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement, that Iran has made progress in becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and noted increased economic cooperation between the two countries. Amir Abdollahian did not deny recent reports about Russo-Iranian cybersurveillance cooperation and described such cooperation as “defensive.” Amir Abdollahian emphasized the need to maintain security in the Caucasus without upsetting the region’s current geopolitical balance and agreed to discuss resolving regional tensions between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in upcoming talks in Tehran. Iran previously engaged Turkey to address Iran’s security concerns about Azerbaijan on March 17 and 20, and could be likewise consulting Russia on these concerns.[iv] Amir Abdollahian also expressed support for a ceasefire in Yemen and promoted an intra-Yemeni dialogue to end the conflict. Iran reportedly agreed to stop encouraging cross-border Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and to halt weapons shipments to its proxy in Yemen as part of the March 10 agreements with Saudi Arabia, as CTP previously reported.[v] Lavrov praised the Iran-Saudi March 10 decision to normalize relations. Lavrov also extended support for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, a longstanding Iranian proposal for a regional security dialogue forum and confidence-building-and-security-measures between the littoral states of the Persian Gulf. Both ministers emphasized the need for resuming the stalled nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West.
NOTE: The following text will also appear in The Institute for the Study of War’s (ISW) March 29 Ukraine Update.
Lavrov promoted Iran’s “Hormoz Peace Plan” for security in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman and stated that the Kremlin demands an immediate return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).[vi] Abdollahian and Lavrov likely discussed continued Russian efforts to procure Iranian weapon systems for use in Ukraine and a finalized agreement for Russia to provide Iran with Su-35 attack aircraft.[vii] The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on March 29 that Iranian Pouya Air Transport resumed regular flights between Tehran and Moscow on March 13 likely to support weapons transfers.[viii] The Ukrainian Resistance Center also reported that Iranian officials are planning to deliver Shahed-131 drones to Wagner Group personnel and that Wagner personnel have started training to operate the drones, although ISW has not observed confirmation that Wagner Group personnel have used Iranian-made drones in Ukraine.[ix] ISW previously assessed that Russia is relying on Iran for military and technological support in Ukraine and that some Iranian personnel are likely in Ukraine directly supporting Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.[x] Iran is likely attempting to solidify a bilateral security relationship with Russia in which the two are more equal partners and will likely increase weapons transfers to Russia in pursuit of this goal.
The Raisi administration’s efforts to stabilize the economy in recent weeks appear to have failed. The regime temporarily stabilized the value of the Iranian rial between February 26 and March 16.[xi] The rial has depreciated approximately 16 percent since March 16, however, reaching 538,500 rials to one US dollar on March 29.[xii] This depreciation indicates that the government’s previous economic solutions—namely injecting hard currency into the economy—were insufficient to stabilize the Iranian rial and economy for a protracted period of time.[xiii] The government’s unwillingness to adopt meaningful reforms—such as limiting parastatal organizations’ control of the economy—leaves it with very few economic solutions and forces it to announce policies that have the appearance of meaningful change but will likely not improve economic conditions.
President Ebrahim Raisi announced temporary economic solutions on March 29 that are unlikely to alleviate Iran’s economic problems in the long term.[xiv] Raisi ordered First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber to form a working group to “prevent decisions that increase inflation” during a cabinet meeting on March 29.[xv] Raisi previously tasked Mokhber with forming an economic working group on February 1 after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described Mokhber as bearing a specific responsibility for the Iranian economy in a speech on January 30, as CTP previously reported, although it remains unclear what this working group accomplished, if anything, within this timeframe.[xvi] Raisi thus likely announced the formation of a new working group on March 29 to publicly portray his administration as proactively attempting to resolve Iran’s economic challenges instead of meaningfully providing an economic solution. Raisi additionally called on Education Minister Yousef Nouri to fulfill the “legal rights and demands of educators.”[xvii] This directive is a response to nationwide teacher protests on March 28, indicating that the Raisi administration is prioritizing addressing immediate economic grievances among discontented segments of the population instead of pursuing long-term economic policies that will benefit the economy and population as a whole. The Social Security Organization similarly announced on March 2 that it would distribute new year's payments to retirees--many of whom have organized demonstrations to protest.[xix]
Some regime officials are increasingly advocating for a social pressure campaign to enforce the mandatory hijab law. Khorasan Razavi Province Supreme Leader Representative Hojjat ol Eslam Ahmad Alamolhoda called on the Iranian people to intervene in incidents of “indecency,” likely referencing mandatory veiling standards, during a speech on March 29.[xx] Alamolhoda acknowledged that citizens who confront “indecency” may be ridiculed on social media but stated that “a true believer is someone who is not afraid of sacrificing his reputation, position, and wealth.”[xxi] Alamolhoda previously emphasized on March 17 that mandatory veiling should be enforced with “the effort of the people.”[xxii] Iranian authorities have continued to seal multiple establishments where shop keepers or restaurant owners failed to confront unveiled female customers.[xxiii] Regime officials may be stressing the public’s role in enforcing the hijab law in response to some Iranian women’s regular defiance of this law in major urban areas.[xxiv] Women who defy the hijab law appear to do so independently, an uncoordinated act of anti-regime defiance that Iranian authorities are unable to preempt. Iranian officials are attempting to coopt pro-regime loyalists to enforce mandatory veiling to prevent more women from openly defying the hijab law. It is far from clear if a collective punishment model to enforce mandatory veiling standards will succeed, however, and such efforts may further entrench societal divisions and anti-regime sentiments. Social media users have recently circulated videos of individuals confronting those reprimanding unveiled women, a trendline that may continue in the coming weeks.[xxv]
- Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian alluded to Iranian involvement in the recent attacks on US bases in Syria during his meeting with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia on March 29.
- President Ebrahim Raisi announced temporary economic solutions on March 29 that will likely not alleviate Iran’s economic problems in the long term.
- Some regime officials are increasingly advocating for a social pressure campaign to enforce the mandatory hijab law.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across two provinces in Iran.
- Iran cancelled its contracts with the Assad regime to rehabilitate two power stations in Aleppo and Hama provinces on March 13.
- Unidentified militants gunned down a Shia family in Al Khalis district, Diyala Province.
- The Iraqi Wisdom Movement party and the Coordination Framework – a loose coalition of pro-Iranian political parties – are negotiating an agreement to remove judges from Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) according to a statement given to Iraqi news outlet Al Mada.
March 27, 2023, 6:00 pm ET
Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have messaged that the Iran-led Axis of Resistance is prepared to continue escalating against American forces in eastern Syria. Iran uses the term “Axis of Resistance” to refer to the regional state, semi-state, and non-state actors with which Tehran cooperates to pursue its strategic objectives, including the Bashar al Assad regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various Iraqi, Syrian, and other proxy groups. The Iranian Advisory Center in Syria—likely a front for the IRGC Quds Force—issued a statement on March 24 warning the US that the Axis of Resistance has “the upper hand” in Syria and can retaliate against any US attacks.[i] Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Spokesperson Keyvan Khosravi echoed these remarks on March 25.[ii] Iranian state media and Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated outlets have similarly emphasized in recent days that the Axis of Resistance is prepared to attack US forces in eastern Syria if the escalation cycle between them continues.[iii] The IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah are responding to the series of attacks between the US and Iranian-backed forces that erupted in Syria on March 23-24 after Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American.[iv]
The IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah are signaling their resolve against the US and readiness to absorb the military costs of further escalation in Syria. US and Israeli airstrikes have demonstrably failed to impose a high enough cost to persuade Iranian leaders to stop their efforts to entrench themselves militarily in Syria and push US forces out. The IRGC may calculate that it incurs a relatively low cost given that these airstrikes often destroy facilities that the IRGC can reconstruct and kill non-Iranian fighters whom the IRGC likely views as expendable. The failure of the US to deter Iran from attacking American positions is, in fact, the key reason that the US became entangled in this latest escalation cycle in the first place. CTP previously argued that Iran likely ordered the kamikaze drone attack that killed an American contractor in retaliation for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed targets in Syria because Tehran feared Israeli responses more than it feared American reactions.[v]
Israel has conducted a series of airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces in Syria in recent weeks in response to an uptick in Iranian military activity in Syria, especially around Aleppo.[vi] Iran has worked to exploit the earthquake in northern Syria to strengthen its military position there in recent weeks, as CTP previously reported.[vii] The IRGC is likely trying to bring advanced military capabilities and/or forces into Aleppo under the guise of humanitarian aid. It is unclear for what exactly Iran is preparing, but this activity has clearly crossed an Israeli red line.
March 24, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
The US has become entangled in a regional escalation pattern between Iran and Israel. Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American, on March 23.[i] Iran likely ordered the attack in retaliation for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed targets in Syria. Israel has conducted several such strikes in recent days, including attacking Iranian-backed positions at Aleppo International Airport on March 22, as CTP previously reported.[ii] Senior Iranian military officers frequently threaten that they will hold the US accountable for Israeli attacks in Syria.[iii]
The drone attack triggered an escalation cycle between the US and Iran, a timeline of which is presented here:
- Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on a maintenance facility at a US base near Hasakah in northeastern Syria on March 23. The attack killed an American contractor and injured six additional Americans.[iv]
- The US conducted airstrikes on at least two Iranian-backed militant positions in eastern Syria on March 23 in retaliation for the drone attack. Some outlets have circulated unconfirmed claims that the US killed 11 Iranian-backed militants in the airstrikes.[v]
- Likely Iranian-backed militants conducted a rocket attack on the US base at the Green Village base in eastern Syria on March 24, likely in retaliation for the US airstrikes. The militants used ten rockets in the attack but did not damage or injure US assets and personnel.[vi]
- Social media and Syrian outlets reported additional Iranian-backed attacks on US forces, using drones, rockets, or both, in the evening of March 24. This situation is developing at the time of this writing. CTP will provide further information in future updates.[vii]
- The US has become entangled in a regional escalation pattern between Iran and Israel.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid on March 24 responded to and challenged the main arguments that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made in his Nowrouz address.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across two provinces.
- Multiple US officials expressed alarm over the Iranian nuclear program and reiterated the US commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has trapped the Iranian regime by focusing public and government attention on improving the economy—an issue he does not yet appear willing to seriously address. Khamenei confined intra-regime debate to the economy—rather than addressing the socio-cultural issues that fueled the Mahsa Amini protests—and proposed various solutions to Iran’s economic problems during his Nowrouz address on March 21.[i] Khamenei called for privatization, stating that “the most important problem and weakness of the country is the governmental nature of the economy.”[ii] Khamenei additionally acknowledged some critics’ use of the term “khasoulati”—meaning “state-controlled”—to describe the economic dominance of parastatal entities.[iii] Khamenei’s reference to this term confirms that he is aware of some of the arguments made by pragmatic hardliners, such as Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, about what role the parastatal establishment should play in Iran’s economy. Ghalibaf has explicitly called for parastatal organizations to decrease their involvement in the economy in recent weeks, as CTP previously reported.[iv] Khamenei’s recognition of and lip service to this conversation does not necessarily mean he is prepared to make the difficult decisions involved in seriously prying the economy from the grip of the state-owned economic giants. Meaningful privatization would require an overhaul of the Iranian economy which would likely take years to complete and would cause severe economic disruptions. Khamenei declined to take such measures when former President Hassan Rouhani advocated for them fervently, moreover.[v] It is thus more likely that Khamenei is discussing privatization because he has designated the economy as one of the only acceptable topics of intra-regime debate.
The regime’s intransigence on both economic and sociocultural issues will likely fuel greater instability and unrest. This rhetorical focus on the economy is not enough to address the underlying problems or address protest grievances. Khamenei’s focus on the economy will only lead to public disappointment if he does not plan to seriously reform the economy. The regime has furthermore reiterated its uncompromising stance toward sociocultural issues in recent days, affirming that such issues, such as the mandatory hijab law, are nonnegotiable. Regime officials have intensified their efforts to enforce mandatory veiling, including by announcing plans to reestablish morality patrols, for example.[vi]
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has trapped the Iranian regime by focusing public and government attention on improving the economy—an issue he does not yet appear willing to seriously address.
- The regime’s intransigence on both economic and sociocultural issues will likely fuel greater instability and unrest.
- CTP did not observe any protest activity, possibly due to the Nowrouz holiday.
First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber discussed privatization in ambiguous terms on March 22, likely in response to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s demand for concrete action to improve the Iranian economy. Mokhber stated that the Raisi administration is examining how involved “state and parastatal companies” are in the economy.[i] He added that "the industrial and economic activities of the administration are being relinquished to the private sector.”[ii] These remarks are likely a response to Khamenei’ speech on January 30 in which Khamenei described Mokhber as bearing a specific responsibility for the economy as well as to Khamenei’s Nowrouz statement on March 21, which focused primarily on improving Iran’s economy.[iii]
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down intra-regime debates about political reform to address protester grievances and instead confined these debates to the economy during a Nowrouz speech on March 21. Khamenei stated that Iran’s enemies seek to transform Iran by “changing the constitution or the structure of the regime” and that some individuals in Iran have echoed this rhetoric.[i] Khamenei undoubtedly directed this statement to reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi who called for “foundational” change in Iran on February 4 as well as to individuals, such as prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid, who have expressed support for Mousavi’s proposal.[ii] Khamenei may have also directed this statement toward pragmatic hardliners, such as Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who have called for political change within the framework of the Islamic Republic.[iii] Regardless of who his target audience was, Khamenei made clear that those who call for constitutional change are counterrevolutionaries because, he said, the idea for political transformation originated with Iran's enemies.
Khamenei implied that the economy should be the primary topic of intra-regime debate. Khamenei stated that addressing the people’s economic problems will largely solve Iran’s political and sociocultural issues.[iv] Khamenei implicitly ordered Iranian officials to stop debating governance and cultural problems by asking them to focus their attention on fixing the economy. Khamenei separately called on the media to “create hope” among the Iranian people to counter the efforts of Iran’s enemies, who seek to disillusion Iranian youth.[v] This rhetoric suggests that Khamenei will continue to tolerate sociocultural discussions that focus on indoctrination and ideologization. Khamenei has not indicated that he will accept more substantial debates about the regime’s disconnect from the Iranian people, however.
Several regime elements have reflected Khamenei’s uncompromising stance toward sociocultural issues in recent days. IRGC officials in Qom have announced plans to reestablish morality patrols, as CTP reported on March 17.[vi] Regime officials additionally continue to discuss the economy instead of addressing sociocultural grievances but blame the Mahsa Amini protest movement on Iran’s foreign enemies.[vii] The regime is likely focusing on the economy, in part, because this issue is not central to the regime’s ideology. The hijab—and sociocultural issues more broadly—contrastingly challenge the very principles that underpin the Islamic Republic.
Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf may be testing the rhetorical boundaries that Khamenei identified. Ghalibaf stated in his own Nowrouz statement that “the way to realize a strong Iran... is through new governance.”[viii] It is unclear to what Ghalibaf was referring exactly when he said “new governance.” Such rhetoric could refer to installing new executive managers, especially in the Raisi administration, or to more drastic measures, such as establishing a parliamentary system under the Islamic Republic. His call for some kind of political change is now new, however. Ghalibaf made an urgent appeal for governmental change during a parliamentary meeting on February 23, as CTP previously reported.[ix] Ghalibaf did not call for constitutional change—and thus did not directly contradict Khamenei’s guidance—but he also did not follow other regime officials who more closely mirrored Khamenei’s rhetoric in their Nowrouz statements. This rhetoric may indicate that Ghalibaf was indeed carefully challenging the Supreme Leader’s order to cease all debates about political reform.
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down intra-regime debates about political reform to address protester grievances and instead confined these debates to the economy during a Nowrouz speech. Khamenei implied that the economy should be the primary topic of intra-regime debate.
- Several regime elements have reflected Khamenei’s uncompromising stance toward sociocultural issues in recent days.
- Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf may be testing the rhetorical boundaries that Khamenei identified.
- At least three protests occurred in three cities across three provinces.
Iranian security leaders have announced in recent days that they will resume enforcing the mandatory hijab law with a confrontational approach. The social deputy of the IRGC Qom Provincial Unit—Major Ali Mehdi Babaei—announced on March 18 the implementation of a new initiative—the “Let’s Enjoin Good in Our Neighborhood” plan—to enforce the hijab requirement and other regime behavioral expectations in public in Qom Province. Babaei described the plan as “neighborhood-centric” and mosque-based, suggesting that the IRGC will use the Basij Organization to implement the initiative. IRGC Operations Deputy Brigadier General Abbas Nilforoushan previously announced plans to establish “patrols for enjoining good and forbidding evil” in Qom between March 16 and Ramadan, as CTP reported. It is noteworthy that the IRGC and Basij—rather than the Law Enforcement Command (LEC)—appear to be trying to take lead on hijab enforcement. Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan stated on March 19 that the LEC will increase neighborhood patrols during Nowrouz and confront women not properly adhering to the hijab law. Radan specified that “travelers in Mazandaran Province must observe the hijab law much more than before,” indicating that his target audience was tourists—many of whom are likely from Tehran—traveling to the Caspian Sea for the Nowrouz holiday.
The security leaders directing this more confrontational approach may have won the intra-regime debate against more moderate figures over how to enforce the hijab law. Many parliamentarians have expressed support for a “smart” and “indirect” approach to enforce veiling in recent months. The Parliamentary Cultural Committee proposed cutting phone and internet services to unveiled women in a report published on March 14, as CTP previously reported. The Parliamentary Judicial and Legal Committee also announced plans to block the national identification cards of unveiled women and bar them from banking services on February 3. Iranian officials have discussed using surveillance cameras with facial recognition technologies to identify unveiled women as well. These measures would avoid physical confrontation with unveiled women and punish them indirectly. Many of these measures have been proposed by parliamentarians who do not have the authority to enact them, however. It appears that those who have the authority—namely the security services—have opted to ignore these calls for restraint in favor of a more confrontational—and potentially more forceful—approach.
The IRGC may have decided to first launch its morality patrol campaign in Qom for several reasons. Qom is the religious heartland of Iran, and security leaders may fear that the presence of unveiled women in this city will tarnish the image and undermine the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Security leaders may also be securitizing Qom to deter potential dissent from some in the clerical establishment. Several senior clerics voiced criticism of the regime during the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Ayatollah Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad and Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani criticized state security services for the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, as CTP previously reported. Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani separately called on the regime to listen to the people’s grievances in September 2022. Security leaders could use these patrols to message to these clerics that the regime has no intention of backing down from its crackdown on Iranian women. Security leaders’ efforts to reconstitute morality patrols are particularly striking in light of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Javaid Rehman’s announcement on March 20 that evidence confirms Mahsa Amini died on September 16, 2022 “as a result of beatings by the state morality police.”
Anti-regime outlets have published purported internal regime meeting notes detailing observations consistent with CTP’s previous assessments about intra-regime fractures and major problems within the security services during the Masha Amini protests. An anti-regime Telegram channel named “Freedom Time” published the document on March 18, claiming that it was the summary of a January 3, 2023, meeting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and regime security leadership. IranWire and Iran International then separately reported on the document on March 18 and 19, respectively. CTP cannot independently verify the authenticity of this document. If it is a forgery, it is a high-quality one whose makers have a nuanced understanding of internal Iranian security affairs. CTP does not regard the document as an independent confirmation of our previous assessments, but some key points in the document are consistent with our previous assessments and hypotheses.
High-ranking security officials, according to the document, reported in the meeting with Khamenei that many security personnel had abandoned their posts, refused to use violence against protesters, and in some cases even misled security leaders in order to help protesters. Some of the officials in the meeting stated that the above issues were due to younger security personnel’s empathy for their fellow youth. A provincial IRGC official identified the low salaries of security services as the root cause, citing an incident in which security forces looted a facility in Karaj, Alborz Province stocked with food. Others pointed to the diminishing ideological commitment within the ranks to the regime’s core values. CTP has previously assessed on multiple occasions that Iranian security services were struggling with bandwidth constraints, exhaustion, and low morale and that regime officials were alarmed by these developments. CTP had specifically assessed that less ideologically committed security personnel might struggle to sustain the level of violence that regime officials were demanding, and that the latter were concerned about low salaries leading to defections and insubordination.
The discussions detailed in the document are furthermore consistent with CTP’s prior assessments about intra-regime fractures over the security response to the protests. Different regime officials had varying accounts of the root causes and extent of the security services’ inability to confront protesters and offered correspondingly different solutions. Those who identified low salary as the cause called for tax exemptions and increasing the government’s budget for the security services. Those who identified the security forces’ declining ideological attachment to the regime as the cause called for the relevant political and cultural institutions to increase their ideological efforts. Several officials stated that the above issues within the regime’s security and intelligence services were unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. Others, including Khamenei, believed the reports were exaggerated and that regime officials should instead focus on the degree to which the services were both prepared and ideologically inclined to confront protesters. CTP previously assessed and reported on numerous occasions that the regime was internally split over the cause and extent of the security forces’ inability and unwillingness to crack down on protests.
The document included some information that CTP has not previously observed in the open-source information space. Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters Commander Major General Gholam Ali Rashid reported that the security services had thwarted plans by rogue elements to shell the Supreme Leader’s office and personal residence. If true, this event would be far beyond any level of internal mutiny that CTP has previously assessed or reported.
Various regime actors continue to portray the economy differently. The Iranian rial depreciated nearly five percent from 471,000 rials to one US dollar on March 17 to 494,000 rials to one US dollar on March 20. Parliamentarian Ahmad Alireza Beygi stated on March 18 that the Raisi administration “has lost its ability to control the market.” Parliamentarian Morteza Mahmoudvand similarly stated on March 20 that “not only are the poor suffering from economic pressures today, but the middle class is also experiencing serious damage.”
President Ebrahim Raisi and his circle have contrastingly continued to tout their purported “economic achievements.” He stated during the opening ceremony of the second phase of an oil refinery in Abadan, Khuzestan Province on March 20 that Iran’s economy grew four percent in the past year. Raisi added that the second phase of the refinery has created between 7,000 and 15,000 jobs. Oil Minister Javad Owji separately praised the administration for completing the Abadan Oil Refinery project—which he stated the Hassan Rouhani administration left “half-finished.”
- Iranian security leaders have announced in recent days that they will resume enforcing the mandatory hijab law with a confrontational approach. The security leaders directing this more confrontational approach may have won the intra-regime debate against more moderate figures over how to enforce the hijab law.
- Anti-regime outlets have published purported internal regime meeting notes detailing observations consistent with CTP’s previous assessments about intra-regime fractures and major problems within the security services during the Masha Amini protests.
- Various regime actors continue to portray the economy differently.
- At least two protests occurred on March 18, three protests on March 19, and five protests on March 20.
Some Iranian leaders continue to refuse to make the necessary changes that will meaningfully address popular frustrations. They are instead reaffirming their efforts to “Islami-ize” Iranian society and suppress public displays of behavior they perceive as unreligious during the upcoming Persian new year celebrations. Regime officials have emphasized the “Islamic” part of the “Iranian-Islamic identity” in recent days by suggesting that Ramadan—an Islamic holiday—must take precedence over Nowrouz—the Persian New Year holiday with Zoroastrian origins. President Ebrahim Raisi previously argued that the “Iranian-Islamic identity” is a single harmonious identity on March 16.[i] Multiple Friday prayer leaders warned that Nowrouz must not overshadow Ramadan during their Friday sermons on March 17.[ii] Several regime officials also emphasized on March 17 that Iranians must not “violate the sanctity” of Ramadan while celebrating Nowrouz.[iii] Khuzestan Public Revolutionary Prosecutor Sadegh Jafari Chegani stated that “eating in front of those who fast [for Ramadan] is a crime."[iv] Chegani also announced that the Khuzestan Prosecutor’s Office issued judicial orders for officers to confront unveiled women and that failure to comply with these orders will be considered a “dereliction of duty.”[v] IRGC Operations Deputy Brigadier General Abbas Nilforoushan separately announced plans to implement “patrols for enjoining good and forbidding evil” in Qom Province between March 16 and the end of Ramadan, implying the resumption of morality patrols comprised[vi] It is noteworthy that the IRGC is establishing these patrols in Qom, the religious heartland of Iran. This suggests the regime perceives that Qom residents will be less inclined to resist a new morality patrol than other Iranians due to the generally conservative nature of the city. Officials’ appeals to Iranians--particularly Iranian women--to “preserve the sanctity of Ramadan” will likely further alienate the regime from Iranians who condemn its imposition of religion on the public.
Some regime officials acknowledge that the regime has not resolved Iran’s economic problems. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf stated during a visit to the Zarand Steel Factory in Kerman Province on March 17 that “inflation in the country is progressing at such a speed that the people’s purchasing power has in effect decreased.”[vii] Some Friday prayer leaders made similar remarks. Kermanshah Friday Prayer Leader Mostafa Ulama stated during his Friday sermon on March 17 that the government must prioritize controlling and reducing the price of goods.[viii] Tehran Interim Friday Prayer Leader Mohammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari similarly acknowledged during his Friday sermon that the Iranian people “have confronted many problems stemming from the excessive increase in prices.”[ix] Although the regime has succeeded in raising the value of the Iranian rial after it fell to a record low of 600,000 rials to the dollar on February 26, the rial has not recovered to pre-Mahsa Amini movement levels.[x] The rial was valued at around 298,200 rials to the dollar in September 2022, compared to 471,000 rials to one US dollar on March 17.[xi] While the regime has increased the rial’s value in recent days, moreover, it has not addressed high inflation. Iran’s inflation rate remains at around 50 percent, as CTP previously reported.[xii] The regime’s inability to resolve Iranians’ economic grievances in addition to its refusal to provide sociocultural concessions will likely fuel greater resentment among the population toward the regime.
The regime's securitization of Zahedan in recent weeks failed to intimidate Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid into halting his anti-regime sermons, which may help normalize public discussions about creating a more inclusive political system. Abdol Hamid argued during his Friday sermon on March 17 that his local supporters have avoided resorting to violence during their weekly protests. He lauded that there was “no war or insecurity,” despite security forces injuring and killing protesters. Abdol Hamid could be trying to attract the wider non-Baloch population to his movement by signaling to them that his protest movement is peaceful. CTP has previously reported on Abdol Hamid’s attempts to appeal to the entire Iranian nation, irrespective of political, sectarian, and ethnic differences. His emphasis on the fact that the Zahedan protests did not cause any insecurity could also be part of an attempt to demonstrate that the regime has tolerated both his calls for inclusion and his other demands, signaling that the public discussion over these issues is possible and should be continued. These observations are consistent with CTP’s previous assessments, namely that Abdol Hamid’s careful balancing of actions and rhetoric pressures the regime without instigating a violence escalation and that the regime may be tolerating Abdol Hamid’s continued criticisms because of his nonviolent posture, restraining the different anti-regime militant groups in the province.
Abdol Hamid repeated his calls for an inclusive government during his March 17 sermon that involves more than just Shia representation. Abdol Hamid stated that that all the “cries and protests are due to one religious view” governing the country.[xiii] He emphasized the diversity of beliefs inside the country, arguing that the socio-political domination of one religious view over all others has limited the open expression of diverse opinions. Abdol Hamid further stated that many capable individuals belonging to minority groups have been excluded from administrative roles in government. Though Abdol Hamid was echoing the long-standing grievances of his Sunni Baluch audience, he maintained a non-sectarian tone by stating “you cannot have one ethnicity, religion, or sect governing the entire country...governance needs to be transethnic, irreligious, and non-sectarian.” CTP does not interpret Abdol Hamid’s comments as advocating for a secular state but simply demanding the inclusion of all ethnic groups and beliefs.
- Some Iranian leaders continue to refuse to make the necessary changes that will meaningfully address popular frustrations.
- Some regime officials acknowledge that the regime has not resolved Iran’s economic problems.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid intends to normalize public discussions in Iran about creating a more inclusive political system.
- At least one protest occurred in one city and one province.
March 16, 2023, 7:00 pm ET
Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed “reviving the national Iranian-Islamic identity” during a meeting with the Board of Trustees of the Iranology Foundation on March 16.[i] Raisi reiterated the need for more “explanation jihad,” stating that textbooks should familiarize students with this “noble and proud” identity.[ii] Raisi’s emphasis on “Iranian-Islamic” being a single identity underscores his efforts to frame Islam as an intrinsic part of what it means to be Iranian. Iranian officials have similarly emphasized the compatibility of Nowrouz—the Persian New Year—with Ramadan in recent days. These two holidays—the former of which has Zoroastrian origins and the latter of which is one of the most important holidays in Islam—will overlap in 2023. Several regime officials have argued in recent days that there is “no conflict” between these holidays and that Nowrouz and Ramadan festivities can take place simultaneously.[iii]
The regime’s struggle to reconcile the Islamic Republic’s ideology with pre-Islamic Iranian identity is not new. Former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini tolerated the celebration of Nowrouz but described Zoroastrianism as “fire-worshipping,” for example.[iv] Iranian leaders, such as Raisi, may be giving greater attention to this issue now due to the coincidence of Nowrouz and Ramadan in 2023 and some protesters’ use of Persian nationalist themes during the Mahsa Amini protest movement. Protest organizations called for demonstrations on Cyrus the Great Day in October 2022 to celebrate the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, as CTP previously reported.[v] Although these protests did not materialize, regime officials may assess that historical Persian nationalism still poses a major ideological threat to the regime. The regime’s main strategy for countering this ideology—“explanation jihad”—may inadvertently increase historical Persian nationalism’s appeal among Iranians, however.
Iranian officials and state media have scaled back their discussion on the recent student poisonings—an unusual response to this recent, large-scale security crisis. Regime officials and media have largely shifted their attention away from the poisoning incidents to other issues—such as the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement—in recent days.[vi] Their lack of attention to the student poisonings that sparked panic across Iran is striking. In normal states government officials would discuss such a security crisis for weeks and debate how best to address the physical and psychological impacts of such an event on students and other victims. The regime’s relative inattention to this issue is especially surprising in light of reports that state security services have arrested some perpetrators.[vii] Regime officials accused some of the arrested individuals of cooperating with anti-regime group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and foreign intelligence services, as CTP previously reported.[viii] If—as the regime claims—a foreign network did indeed infiltrate Iran and poison Iranian schoolchildren, the regime would undoubtedly publish images of these individuals and broadcast their forced confessions. Regime officials have also claimed that the majority of poisonings were psychogenic, begging the question—if this is true—why the regime is arresting dozens of people for the poisonings.[ix]
Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani visited the UAE on March 16—the most senior Iranian visit to the country since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2007.[x] Shamkhani met with Emirati President Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan and National Security Adviser Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan to discuss bilateral ties and regional security, possibly to include talks on Yemen.[xi] This visit follows the announcement of the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10 as well as reports that Iran and Bahrain may be engaged in similar normalization talks.[xii] Central Bank Governor Mohammad Reza Farzin accompanied Shamkhani to the UAE as part of economic and financial discussions with Emirati officials. Iranian media reported that the purpose of Farzin’s visit was to pursue “monetary, banking, and foreign exchange agreements” with the Emiratis, which may support Iranian efforts to bypass US sanctions.[xiii] Iran has used businesses in Emirati commercial centers to circumvent US sanctions over the past decade.[xiv]
- Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology.
- Iranian officials and state media have scaled back their discussion on the recent student poisonings—an unusual response to this recent, large-scale security crisis.
- Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani visited the UAE—the most senior Iranian visit to the country since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2007.
- At least five protests occurred in five cities across two provinces.
Hardline officials are promoting conservative reforms, which will likely generate additional calls for political change in Iran. Hardline Islamic Coalition Party Secretary General Asadollah Badamchian called for constitutional reform within the bounds of the Islamic Republic during an interview with reformist news outlet Entekhab on March 15. Badamchian’s use of the term “constitutional reform” is the first CTP has seen from a hardline official. Badamchian did not specify which reforms he had in mind, but criticized some reformists’ calls for a “Westernized constitution.” Badamchian emphasized: “I say reforms as in reforms, not reformists. If anything is deficient, it requires corrections.” Several moderate figures within the Iranian political establishment have also called for liberalizing—as opposed to conservative reforms--in recent months. Examples of recent liberalizing reform proposals include reforming certain governmental bodies, such as the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, to increase citizen participation in the political process.
The government’s pursuit of conservative reforms will likely fuel anti-regime frustrations and increase calls for political changes that address the Iranian population’s ongoing economic, political, and sociocultural grievances. Iranian news outlets reported on March 15 that the Parliamentary Cultural Committee has proposed cutting internet and phone services for unveiled women who ignore SMS warnings to veil. The Parliamentary Judicial and Legal Commission previously announced plans to block the national identification cards of unveiled women and bar them from banking services on February 3. Iranian officials have also emphasized the importance of indoctrinating and ideologizing the population, frequently calling on educational institutions and the media to “explain the issues related to hijab and chastity.” These policies do not address Iranian grievances about the government’s inability to stabilize the Iranian economy, disregard for the rights of women and religious minorities, and crackdown on civil liberties such as freedom of speech.
- Hardline officials are promoting conservative reforms, which will likely generate additional calls for political change in Iran.
- Four protests occurred in four cities across three provinces.
- Information and Communication Technology Minister Issah Zahreh Pour confirmed reports of a country-wide, and hour-long internet disruption recorded on March 15.
- Supreme National Security Council-aligned Nour News Agency reported that Secretary Ali Shamkhani will travel to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates to meet with Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan on March 16.
- An unidentified person crossed into Israel from Lebanon and detonated a roadside bomb outside Megido Prison, approximately five kilometers from the northern West Bank border on March 13.
- Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani ordered Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to conduct raids in Al Khalis, Diyala Province, Iraq on March 15.
The Iranian government is prioritizing mandatory veiling amidst poor economic conditions, recent student poisonings, and heightened protest activity. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed protecting “the culture of chastity and hijab in society” during a speech commemorating Martyrs’ Day on March 14. Raisi reiterated that Iran’s external enemies are responsible for the recent student poisonings and claimed that Iran can overcome its problems by “relying on God.”[i] The Parliamentary Cultural Committee separately published a report on chastity and hijab on March 14 emphasizing using an “indirect and intelligent approach” to enforce veiling as opposed to “physical confrontation.”[ii] The Cultural Committee added that it held meetings with the Law Enforcement Command (LEC) to “review and follow up" on this organization’s “problems.”[iii] The government’s “intelligent” approach involves--among other measures--placing responsibility for hijab enforcement on individuals such as shopkeepers as well as using facial recognition technology to identify unveiled women.[iv] This approach—despite government claims—is, in fact, confrontational. While security forces may not physically confront unveiled women, using facial recognition technology violates their privacy, and the penalties the regime has discussed levying can prompt confrontations of various sorts. Iranian authorities have additionally shut down many stores, pharmacies, and restaurants where the owners of these spaces neglected to enforce veiling among female customers in recent months.[v] Recent reports by Bloomberg and NPR also suggest that a growing number of Iranian women in urban centers are defying the mandatory hijab law on a daily basis.[vi] If this trend continues, the regime may have to decide in the near future whether to confront this outwardly defiant segment of the population.
The Iranian regime is preparing to deploy its security services to deter and likely crack down on the planned demonstrations during the upcoming Iranian holidays. Several judicial and security authorities have in recent days discussed announced deployments and threatened citizens who protest during the upcoming Chahar Shanbeh Souri holiday on March 15, during which Iranians commonly gather in public and use fireworks.[i] Iranian leaders likely fear that the holiday celebrations could catalyze anti-regime demonstrations. Tehran Provincial Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Abbas Ali Mohammadian reiterated the regime’s plans to securitize on March 13, stating that security forces will be deployed throughout Tehran starting on March 14 to confront “those who disturb the peace.”[ii] An Esfahan provincial prosecutor threatened draconian measures against potential protesters during the upcoming holiday, including a prison sentence of up to one year as well as 74 lashes.[iii] South Khorasan Law Enforcement Commander Colonel Alireza Abbasi stated that “police surveillance cameras [and] patrols will closely monitor” and confront reckless drivers during Chahar Shanbeh Souri, threatening to seize vehicles in the event of traffic violations.[iv] That the Law Enforcement Command (LEC) can so readily deploy the surveillance equipment to confront traffic violations which was apparently failing during the recent countrywide campaign to poison schoolchildren, indicates that the regime tolerated the campaign, as CTP previously reported.[v] IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency furthermore published two articles on March 13 outlining the potential dangers and growing cultural insignificance of Chahar Shanbeh Souri, likely as part of the regime effort to dissuade citizens from celebrating the holiday.[vi]
The Iranian regime is continuing efforts to dissuade Iranian citizens from celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri to forestall potential protests on that holiday. Iranians traditionally celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri—the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year—by gathering in streets and jumping over fires. The regime fears that the combination of celebratory gatherings, fires, and a general lively atmosphere on this holiday will create an environment conducive to unrest. Friday prayer leaders throughout Iran used their sermons on March 10 to discourage celebrations for Chahar Shanbeh Souri. Tehran Interim Friday Prayer Leader Ahmad Khatami warned Iranians during his sermon that many people have “lost their lives, eyes, and limbs” while celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri.[i] Khatami added that this holiday is an “unwise custom” and called on Iranian youth to listen to his “heartfelt speech.”[ii] Sanandaj Friday Prayer Leader Mamosta Faegh Rostami separately warned that Iranians should not allow the “fleeting pleasures” of Chahar Shanbeh Souri to cause a “lifetime of regret” during his sermon.[iii] Abadan Friday Prayer Leader Abdol Hossein Ghobishavi additionally called on parents to “manage” their children on Chahar Shanbeh Souri, echoing Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan’s warning to parents on March 7 that they must control their children’s “enthusiasm” during this holiday. This coordinated rhetoric from Friday prayer leaders suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his inner circle are directing this messaging campaign. Friday prayer leaders receive guidance for the content of their Friday sermons from the Office of the Supreme Leader. The regime’s continuing efforts to prevent Chahar Shanbeh Souri festivities validates CTP’s previous assessment that the regime is using the recent chemical attacks to set conditions to securitize the country ahead of major national holidays.[iv]
The regime’s calls to not celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri may be part of a broader campaign to Islamize Iranian society. Chahar Shanbeh Souri and Nowrouz—the Iranian New Year that follows Chahar Shanbeh Souri—both have Zoroastrian origins. The regime has historically tolerated—but not enthusiastically endorsed—celebrations of these holidays, especially Chahar Shanbeh Souri. Regime officials also are likely criticizing Chahar Shanbeh Souri in order to achieve their short-term goal of preventing protests on this holiday. Downplaying the significance of this holiday is in line with the regime’s longstanding effort to Islamize Iranian society. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has previously explicitly called for Iran to become more Islamic. The third and fourth steps of Khamenei’s “five steps of the revolution” are to “establish an Islamic state” and “establish an Islamic country.”[v]
Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid continued to hold the regime responsible for the poisoning campaign and suggested that the aim of the campaign was essentially to Taliban-ize Iran. Abdol Hamid characterized the student poisonings as a “form of protest suppression” targeting schoolchildren who have protested the regime during his Friday sermon on March 3.[vi] The cleric also criticized the regime for its unwillingness to protect schoolchildren and suggested that the regime knows who is responsible for the attacks and has lied to the public about them. Abdol Hamid expanded on these accusations in his Friday sermon on March 10, during which he suggested that the aim of the regime-tolerated campaign was to prevent girls from pursuing an education.[vii] The poisoning campaign has primarily targeted schoolgirls, as CTP previously reported.[viii] Abdol Hamid spoke at length about women’s ability to advance knowledge and make contributions to culture and society, stating “women should have the same rights as men” to contribute to the various fields of knowledge and that the regime should “make the appropriate plans for women” in this regard. Abdol Hamid also mentioned the Taliban at the end of his speech, possibly to intentionally or inadvertently invite congregants to consider the comparison between the regime and Taliban.
Abdol Hamid furthermore used his March 10 sermon to counter the regime narrative that the regime empowers women and promotes feminism. He underscored the need to prevent “local culture” from overpowering global trends and from contradicting “the commands of Islam with respect to women’s rights.”[ix] He furthermore called on “Islamic regimes” to look to the global situation of women, including under secular states, and see what “arrangements they have made for women” such that women have been able to contribute to “theoretical, social, and practical advancements.” Abdol Hamid may be responding to regime officials' near-constant assertion that the mandatory hijab law helps achieve equality while the West promotes moral corruption and promiscuity. President Ebrahim Raisi, for instance, stated on March 09 that the Islamic Republic’s mandatory veiling laws have protected Iranian women from the West’s “cultural vulgarity,” as CTP previously reported.[x] Abol Hamid contrastingly argued that Western secular states are the ones allowing women to flourish. CTP does not interpret Abdol Hamid’s rhetoric as him calling for a secular state but rather him trying to counter the regime’s public narrative.
Abdol Hamid has continually demonstrated since September 2022 a kind of savviness vis-a-vis his public messaging and efforts to shape the domestic information space. His Friday prayer sermons typically contain a direct response to recent regime rhetoric or other references to popular news hooks in Iran. It is noteworthy that Abdol Hamid has returned to reoccurring themes in his later sermons, only modifying them to apply to recent regime statements and actions. He has never called for violence against the regime during these sermons, though has supported calls for a referendum on the Islamic Republic. Abdol Hamid therefore appears to be carefully balance his actions and rhetoric to pressure the regime without instigating an overt escalation. The regime may be tolerating Abdol Hamid’s continued criticism for now largely because he has not yet called for a violent uprising against the political establishment. Some Iranian leaders may, in fact, view Abdol Hamid begrudgingly as a restraining influence given the different anti-regime militant groups that operate in Sistan and Baluchistan Province and promote separatism.
Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished bilateral relations on March 10—seven years after severing diplomatic ties in 2016. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani signed a tripartite agreement to this end with Saudi National Security Advisor Musaid bin Mohammad al Aiban and senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Beijing on March 10. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to normalize relations and reopen their embassies in the months ahead.[xi] Shamkhani stated that this agreement will strengthen “regional stability and security” and increase “cooperation among the countries of the Persian Gulf and Islamic world in managing existing challenges.”[xii] Iranian officials and state media are portraying this agreement as a “big failure” for the US and Israel.[xiii] It is unclear, however, whether this agreement will lead to Tehran and Riyadh resolving the old and complicated issues between them—such as Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict and Saudi Arabia’s energy investments in Iraq. Overcoming these issues would require significant diplomatic and political breakthroughs that the two parties have not yet come close to achieving.
Senior Iranian officials engaged Iraqi leaders on March 8 likely to discuss the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia and the implications for Iran-Iraq relations. Shamkhani held a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani, during which he thanked the Iraqi central government for its efforts to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh.[xiv] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian similarly held a phone call with Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Fuad Hossein to discuss the normalization of relations.[xv] Iraq has often been a theater of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially over economic and political influence.
- The Iranian regime is continuing efforts to dissuade Iranian citizens from celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri to forestall potential protests on that holiday.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid continued to hold the regime responsible for the poisoning campaign and suggested that the aim of the campaign was essentially to Taliban-ize Iran.
- Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished bilateral relations—seven years after severing diplomatic ties in 2016.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across one province.
March 9, 2023, 6:00 pm ET
The Iranian regime likely assesses that it is losing its cultural campaign for Iranian women. Iranian women are reportedly defying the mandatory hijab law regularly in major urban areas in public, despite Iranian leaders’ repeated emphasis on adhering to the hijab requirement. Bloomberg, after interviewing a female Tehran resident, reported on March 8 that parts of Tehran resemble Istanbul, Dubai, and Beirut, where both veiled and unveiled women are present in public areas. Iranian women who refuse to veil in public may believe that the regime will not violently confront them because it is fearful of reigniting public unrest. Several groups of women--some of which included unveiled women--organized protests in cities across Iran on March 8 to commemorate International Women’s Day, moreover. Their continued bravery underscores how many Iranian women remain determined to challenge the regime and have not lost confidence since the culmination of the Mahsa Amini protest movement in January 2023.
The regime is determined to win its cultural campaign by intensifying indoctrination efforts, however. President Ebrahim Raisi gave two speeches on March 9 in which he emphasized the need to prevent the Westernization of Iranian society. Raisi stated that the regime must protect Iranian youth from the West’s “cultural vulgarity” during a sociocultural gathering with teenage girls. He separately headed a meeting focused on society on March 9 in which he asserted that Iranian girls and women regard the hijab as a “safety-creating priority.” These remarks from Raisi are two recent examples of the near-constant emphasis that Iranian leaders are placing on the importance of the hijab law and the indoctrination of the youth. Iranian officials frequently attempt to portray the mandatory hijab as a measure to protect women from sins and harm—such as degradation, prostitution, and moral corruption--that these officials claim are rampant in the West. Raisi argues that “explanation jihad”—the regime theory that ideologizing the population will increase public support for the political establishment—is the best way to prevent losing its female population to Western values.
Raisi and other regime officials are focusing on coopting Iranian women rather than addressing the Iranian people’s real concerns. Raisi stated on March 9 that “[the regime has] no doubt that women and girls who make us proud and are educated in the school of the Islamic Revolution will have the most support and respect for the law.” This statement underscores Raisi’s disconnect from the general population because while he celebrates those who have been successfully indoctrinated, he fails to mention the chemical attacks which have recently hit Iran’s education system. His praise for girls and women who comply with the mandatory hijab law implies that those who do not comply bring shame upon the regime, a statement that will likely alienate women and girls who are not aligned with the regime culturally. While Raisi has made similarly tone-deaf statements previously, these statements are particularly jarring as Raisi made them only one day after International Women’s Day. They reflect the regime’s effort to portray itself as the actual defender of women from the dangers and harms it claims beset women in Western societies despite the atrocities the regime itself has committed against its own women and girls.
Several protest groups appear to be trying to challenge regime efforts to securitize Iran ahead of the upcoming national holidays. The neighborhood youth groups representing Tehran, Mashhad, and Zanjan cities and Khuzestan Province have called for countrywide demonstrations on March 13-15 in anticipation of Chahar Shanbeh Souri—a major national holiday on March 15. Protest organizers circulated the calls immediately after the regime’s security services indicated that they will be mobilizing to securitize the country during Chahar Shanbeh Souri and Nowrouz (the Persian new year celebrations), as CTP previously reported. The protest organizers may be partly responding to the regime’s enhanced security posture. Some of the calls for demonstrations even mirror Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan’s threatening March 7 statement. Radan expressed the LEC’s willingness to arrest those who behave ”above the law” during celebrations and warned parents that they will be held responsible for the actions of their children in order to deter large gatherings during Chahar Shanbeh Souri. The LEC Commander further announced that celebrations will not be permitted ”in city squares” and must be confined to ”neighborhoods and alleys.” The Tehran Neighborhood Youth Group contrastingly called on protesters to gather in the main city squares and streets of the country on the days leading up to and including Chahar Shanbeh Souri. Though other protest groups have not made such an explicit reference to Radan’s statement, their call for large gatherings during Chahar Shanbeh Souri is meant to confront the regime as it tries to securitize Iran during the holidays.
Protest groups will have to be much more cautious in the coming period as they plan and participate in demonstrations. They otherwise risk a major disruption of their networks by the state security services in a heavily securitized environment. The regime could still deter demonstrations from materializing, especially as security forces increase their presence in major urban centers and continue their threatening rhetoric and arrests of protesters. It is nevertheless noteworthy that protest groups have been bold enough to initially challenge the regime’s securitized attitude towards the holidays.
CTP has not observed any poisonings over the past couple of days, consistent with the steady decline in the number of attacks over the past week. The cessation of attacks follows the regime’s increasingly securitized rhetoric and action. The cessation could be the result of the regime’s increased security measures, but, if so, the question arises why the regime did not take such measures much earlier or at least after the major uptick in poisonings that began on March 4. Alternatively, the drop in the number of attacks could be explained by the fact that schools have been closed for a long weekend from Wednesday through Friday. On the other hand, several chemical attacks have targeted locations other than schools and demographics other than schoolchildren, so the long weekend by itself should not have led to the complete cessation of incidents. If neither the long weekend nor the perfect efficiency of the regime’s security response explains the cessation of attacks, then the reason for the cessation remains as unclear as the identities of the perpetrators.
- The Iranian regime likely assesses that it is losing its cultural campaign for Iranian women. The regime is determined to win its cultural campaign by intensifying indoctrination efforts, however. President Ebrahim Raisi and other regime officials are focusing on coopting Iranian women rather than addressing the Iranian people’s real concerns.
- Several protest groups appear to be trying to challenge regime efforts to securitize Iran ahead of the upcoming national holidays.
- At least one protest occurred in one city across one province.
- Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met separately with senior Syrian and Turkish officials ahead of Syria-Turkey normalization talks scheduled in Moscow in the coming weeks.
- An OSINT Twitter account posted satellite imagery on March 9 of an Iranian over-the-horizon radar system allegedly deployed to an unspecified location in Syria.
- The Iraqi parliament delayed a vote on the Shia Coordination Framework-backed election law.
March 8, 2023, 6:00 pm ET
The Iranian regime has validated CTP’s previous assessment that it is using the recent chemical attacks to set conditions to securitize the country ahead of major national holidays. Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan announced the establishment of a headquarters to manage the upcoming Iranian New Years’ celebration with the slogan “a different [new year] with a powerful and professional police” on March 7.[i] Although the Law Enforcement Command (LEC) organizes headquarters such as this one annually, the rhetoric Radan used in discussing this years’ celebrations placed heavy emphasis on security and confronting protesters. Radan stated on March 7 that the LEC will not permit citizens to celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri—a festival that precedes Nowrouz—the Iranian New Years’ holiday—on the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar—in “city squares.” He added that celebrations must remain confined to “neighborhoods and alleys.”[ii] This indicates the regime seeks to keep the holiday celebrations out of city centers where antiregime protesters typically gather for large demonstrations. Iranian officials also have repeatedly described the youth who comprised a core demographic in the recent Mahsa Amini protests as easily excitable. Radan also implicitly warned parents to control their children, stating that “families must remain near their children” during the holidays and “keep an eye on [their children's] enthusiasm.”[iii] This suggests the regime seeks to convince parents to restrain their children from protesting.
The regime’s threatening posture has not yet deterred protest activity nor silenced the population into compliance, though it could have either effect by the holidays. Protest activity continued on March 8, although not to the same widespread extent as the demonstrations on March 7. Protest groups have furthermore called for countrywide demonstrations on March 15. Protest groups have already called for countrywide demonstrations during the upcoming holidays.[vi] Both protest groups and individual protesters will have to be much more cautious in the coming days and weeks as they plan and participate in demonstrations. They otherwise risk being identified and captured in a heavily securitized environment, where a mobilized security force could disrupt their networks to such an extent that they would no longer be able to function as organized groups. Despite these risks and the heavy costs they entail, both protesters and the population at large appear undeterred. This could change, however, as the people digest the threatening rhetoric, LEC presence increases, and IRGC operations continue. Protest groups might refrain from publishing further calls for protests and the rest of the population might not respond, cognizant of the risks involved. CTP will continue to monitor these developments in the coming days and weeks and will report any changes if they occur.
The regime also is trying to promote the narrative that protesters and foreign enemies were responsible for the chemical attacks and is censoring individuals who challenge this narrative. Kurdistan Province Chief Justice Hossein Hosseini announced the arrest of three individuals for spreading rumors about student poisonings in Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province on March 8.[vii] Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei previously called for the creation of provincial “branches” to confront individuals spreading rumors on March 6.[viii] Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Law Enforcement Majid Mir Ahmadi stated on March 8 that an individual recently arrested in Larestan County, Fars Province for their involvement in student poisonings had shared anti-regime content online and had been imprisoned during “the fall riots.”[ix] The Interior Ministry previously accused this individual of participating in “recent riots” on March 7.[x] IRGC-affiliated Tasnim separately published an article on March 8 in which it described the poisoning campaign as the “latest counter-revolutionary excuse to create a crisis inside the country.”[xi] This news agency previously published an article on March 7 accusing “counter-revolutionaries” of trying to incite riots by “vandalizing schools and creating an atmosphere of anxiety.”[xii] The publication of these articles one day after each other highlights regime efforts to sow public doubt toward the protest groups that have appeared in recent months.
The regime may struggle to sustain the narrative and public buy-in to the argument that the chemical attacks justify an increased security presence throughout the country through till the end of the upcoming holidays. Chahar Shanbeh Souri is on March 14—six days away—and Nowrouz is on March 20—twelve days away. CTP did not observe any poisonings on March 8, moreover. The absence of poisonings may make some Iranians question why the regime continues to increase security and thus undermine the regime’s narrative that it is securitizing the country for the Iranian people’s benefit.
Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) began constructing 500 prefabricated residential units near Aleppo International Airport on March 6, which the PMF may use to establish long-term housing for its troops.[xiii] PMF-affiliated Al Mayadeen claimed the ”Al Muhandis Complex” residencies will house local families displaced by the February 6 earthquake.[xiv] This claim is likely a false narrative the PMF is using to counter recent accusations from Aleppo City residents that the PMF is harassing local women and reappropriating aid to exclusively Shia areas, as CTP reported on March 3.[xv] The construction of military encampments and housing in and around Aleppo City supports CTP‘s assessment that Iran intends to secure and strengthen positions along the Aleppo-Deir ez Zor transportation route, which is critical for moving military personnel and equipment into and across Syria.
CTP previously assessed that Iran is similarly consolidating its military presence along the Deir ez Zor-Aleppo transportation route with deployments from the Fatemiyoun Division—its Afghan Shia proxy—in southern Deir ez Zor Province. This would enable Iran to secure an important stretch of the M4 highway that leads deeper into the country toward Aleppo. Iran appears to be assigning control over certain sectors of the Deir ez Zor-Aleppo transportation route to specific elements of its proxy network. Fatemiyoun militants are stationed in Deir ez Zor Province in the vicinity of the security zone around the M4 where ISIS has concentrated many of its attacks at least since August of 2022. PMF units are concentrated in and around Aleppo City.
- The Iranian regime has validated CTP’s previous assessment that it is using the recent chemical attacks to set conditions to securitize the country ahead of major national holidays.
- The regime’s threatening posture has not yet deterred protest activity nor silenced the population into compliance.
- Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) began constructing 500 prefabricated residential units near Aleppo International Airport on March 6, which the PMF may use to establish long-term housing for its troops.
- At least six protests occurred in three cities across three provinces on March 8.
March 6, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
This special edition of our daily Iran update continues our focus on the chemical attacks in Iran. It includes maps and characterizations of protests in Iran on March 4, 5, and 6, and in Iraq on March 5.
- Over 110 separate student poisonings occurred throughout Iran on March 6.[i] Some have framed these incidents as “mass hysteria.” They are not. Someone is deliberately poisoning Iranian children—we are just not sure who.
- Students—primarily Iranian schoolgirls—have reported hundreds of chemical attacks in recent weeks, especially since March 1.[ii] Their symptoms include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and numbness.[iii]
- Some have compared these recent reports to previous instances of “mass sociogenic illnesses,” in which presenting symptoms are caused by anxiety rather than—in this case—chemical attacks.[iv]
- Mass sociogenic illness is not completely implausible in Iran. The Islamic Republic has, indeed, stoked fear and even terror through its brutal treatment of Iranian girls, especially those who participated in the Mahsa Amini protests.[v]
- No one wants to believe that anyone would deliberately poison schoolgirls, but dismissing the countrywide, months-long chemical attacks as psychogenic will not do.
- Regime officials themselves have acknowledged that some form of intentional poisoning is occurring in Iranian schools, although they deny the extent and scale of these reports.[vi]
- Reports of chemical attacks have now expanded beyond a single demographic—Iranian schoolgirls—to schoolboys and teachers at targeted schools.[vii]
- Iranian officials today stated that tested samples consisted of multiple chemicals, consistent with reports from a Tehran doctor treating poisoned patients in the ICU.[viii]
- Iranian media and social media reports suggest that several individuals have required ICU treatment after the poisonings, too, and some hospitals are crowded with victims.[ix]
- The regime response to mass poisonings in Iranian schools is also unlike what any civilized country’s reaction to countrywide reported attacks on some of the most vulnerable segments of its population would be.
- The Iranian police only announced that they would deploy security personnel to protect schools today—three months after the first reported poisoning occurred.[x]
- Security personnel and school officials behaving normally would not violently handle distressed citizens following an attack as some Iranian officials did.[xi]
- Some students reported being told to immediately return to class following a reported attack—an almost unimaginable response in most countries.[xii]
- It is unclear who is perpetrating these chemical attacks on Iranian children. But someone is making them happen. And regime officials have been behaving oddly.
- Iranian girls are not hysterics. Iranian officials are not all monsters. Something odd and awful is happening in Iran. We hope to understand it soon.
- And, of course, we hope that it will stop at once.
The Iranian regime has permitted the country-wide, coordinated attacks on Iranian schoolgirls to escalate. Between March 4 and March 5 alone there were at least 300 attacks across 16 provinces, a significant increase from the 46 reported poisoning attacks on March 2 and the other sporadic attacks from November 30, 2022, onward.The nature of these attacks, targeting primarily schoolgirls in urban areas who report similar symptoms, escalating over a period of four months, indicates that this is an organized and deliberate campaign, as CTP has previously assessed.
March 3, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid suggested that the Iranian regime may be responsible for or complicit in the recent chemical attacks on schoolgirls across the country. Abdol Hamid characterized the attacks as “a form of protest suppression” meant to target children who protested against the regime. Abdol Hamid also suggested that the regime has been unwilling to protect these schoolgirls due to their protest participation. He furthermore suggested that the regime knows who is responsible for the attacks and has lied to the public about them. Abdol Hamid thus criticized regime leadership for engaging in the great “sin” of lying, stating that “the worst ruler is the one who lies to their nation.” CTP previously reported that the regime has failed to take appropriate measures necessary to protect these schools and assessed with moderate confidence that a network of individuals whom the regime tolerates has coordinated the attacks.
Abdol Hamid separately criticized Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s CNN interview on March 1, rejecting the latter’s absurd claims about the regime’s humane treatment of protestors. Abdol Hamid stated: “we were surprised that [Amir Abdollahian] said that no one was killed in the protests, and no one was imprisoned for the protests,” citing the September 30, 2022 “Bloody Friday” massacre of protesters in Zahedan and mass arrests across the country.
Security forces sustained increased pressure against Abdol Hamid and his supporters for the second consecutive week on March 3, which could fuel further sectarian tensions. Security forces once again reportedly attempted to enter Zahedan’s Grand Makki Mosque, violently clashed with protesters, and disrupted local internet services. These forces conducted a similar escalation against Abdol Hamid and his followers in Zahedan on February 24, as CTP previously reported. The regime has significantly increased its security presence in Zahedan since January 2023 to deter Abdol Hamid from criticizing the political establishment. However, these security forces had largely refrained from interfering with Abdol Hamid’s weekly sermons and the ensuing protests until February 24. Multiple factors may have driven the regime to escalate since then. Iranian leaders may feel more confident in their capability to quell internal unrest following weeks of relatively low protest activity throughout Iran. They may also perceive a renewed sense of urgency to confront Abdol Hamid, who continues to challenge regime legitimacy and criticize its handling of domestic crises.
This continued regime pressure in Zahedan violates the red line set by the Sunni Friday Prayer Leader in Rask—Moulana Abdol Ghaffar Naghshbandi. The office of Naghshbandi published a statement on February 24 calling for mass protests in response to security forces’ attempted “siege” of the Grand Makki Mosque, as CTP previously reported. Naghshbandi warned that he would issue a “historic fatwa” if the regime continued this “brutal action,” although he did not specify what such a decree might entail. Naghshbandi’s statement was a clear threat to the regime but was also ambiguous likely on purpose. Fatwas are religious orders issued by qualified senior clerics to direct and guide Muslim behavior and are often calls to action. Such a fatwa could characterize the regime escalation around the Grand Makki Mosque as a kind of religious threat and would likely incite further tensions between the regime and its Sunni Baloch community.
The regime has likely arrested Naghshbandi, but doing so may not hinder the ability of his office to issue statements. Raisi administration-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on March 1 that Naghshbandi had fled the country out of fear of arrest and the revelation of his purported ties to foreign actors. Naghshbandi‘s family stated in an interview with Radio Farda on March 2 that they were not aware of his whereabouts and repeatedly tried to contact him when he disappeared on his way to Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi Province. A special cleric court there summoned Naghshbandi on December 12. His office reportedly released a statement on February 24, possibly after his arrest.
President Ebrahim Raisi is expanding his efforts to deflect blame for internal crises onto Iran’s foreign enemies rather than taking personal accountability. Raisi accused these foreign enemies of being responsible for the increasing chemical attacks on schoolgirls during a speech on March 3. Raisi has consistently attributed the Mahsa Amini protest movement and currency crisis to foreign actors in recent months as well. Raisi’s unwavering narrative that external actors are responsible for these internal crises highlights his unwillingness and potentially inability to seriously confront and resolve pressing domestic challenges. Raisi took four months to order the Interior Ministry to address the student poisonings after the first incidents occurred in November 2022—indicating either his incompetence or unseriousness in meaningfully addressing these issues.
President Raisi and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf likely remain divided on how to address and publicly discuss these internal crises. Ghalibaf continues to call for some kind of political and economic reform to address worsening domestic conditions rather than continuing to blame foreign actors as Raisi has done. Ghalibaf has also publicly criticized the role of parastatal entities in the economy, appearing to come into conflict with Raisi and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leadership. Ghalibaf stated that government intervention in the economy prevents growth and encourages corruption on March 3, doubling down on previous calls he made for parastatal organizations to reduce their role in the economy. Ideological hardliners, such as Raisi and IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami, have contrastingly praised parastatal organizations for their role in developing Iran‘s economy in recent days. Raisi and Salami both thanked the Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters—an IRGC-run construction and civil engineering firm—for completing a water transfer project to Lake Oroumiyeh on February 27. Raisi separately called on the Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters to accelerate its completion of “half-finished projects” in Bushehr Province on March 3.
Iran is trying to consolidate and increase its military presence in eastern Syria, likely as part of an effort to secure critical routes leading deeper into the country. Two local IRGC commanders in Deir ez Zor Province met with proxy militants in al Mayadin on March 2, reportedly to discuss reinforcing security in the area. The participants specifically discussed establishing a joint operations room for Iranian and Iranian-backed elements in al Mayadin and Abu Kamal. A commander from the Fatemiyoun Division--the IRGC Quds Force’s Afghan Shia proxy--reportedly attended the meeting as well. Iranian and Iranian-backed elements have increasingly struggled with counter-ISIS operations in the desert to the west since March 2022, possibly due to Russia pulling away its combat aircraft from the central Syrian desert. ISIS frequently conducts IED attacks and kidnappings along the Abu Kamal-al Mayadin route as well. The IRGC may additionally use its growing military presence in eastern Syria to conduct counter-ISIS sweeps into the western desert.
The Fatemiyoun Division has expanded its presence in eastern Syria in recent days likely to help the IRGC secure the area. The division replaced the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) 47th Brigade Hashemiyoun Brigade that was stationed in Abu Kamal on February 25, as CTP previously reported. Additional Fatemiyoun reinforcements deployed to the area from Iran and Damascus on February 16, 25 and 27 as well. The IRGC reportedly decided on March 2 to send Fatemiyoun militants to Iran to train on drone and radar systems, possibly to support efforts to secure the Abu Kamal-al Mayadin route from the ISIS threat on the ground and prepare for the introduction of Iranian air defense equipment in Syria.
Iran may seek to use the Abu Kamal-al Mayadin route to import air defense platforms into Syria if it cannot use air transport. The Israeli Air Force has frequently targeted convoys traveling to Syria from Iraq through al Qaim that Israeli officials assert are carrying Iranian weapons. The Israeli Air Force has also struck Damascus and Aleppo airport runways to prevent flights with suspected weapons shipments from landing. Iran is probably attempting to complicate Israeli targeting by using both transportation methods. Iranian state media reported on February 24 that Iran will likely sell air defense equipment, such as radars and surface-to-air missiles for the Iranian-made Khordad 15, to Syria. It is unclear how effective Khordad 15 systems would be against advanced Israeli stealth aircraft. Iranian military leadership may, however, seek to use these systems to deter a potential Turkish ground incursion into northern Syria, which Turkish officials have threatened in recent months.
- Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid suggested that the Iranian regime may be responsible for or complicit in the recent chemical attacks on schoolgirls across the country.
- Security forces sustained increased pressure against Abdol Hamid and his supporters for the second consecutive week, which could fuel further sectarian tensions.
- President Ebrahim Raisi is expanding his efforts to deflect blame for internal crises onto Iran’s foreign enemies rather than taking personal accountability.
- President Raisi and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf likely remain divided on how to address and publicly discuss these internal crises.
- Iran is trying to consolidate and increase its military presence in eastern Syria, likely as part of an effort to secure critical routes leading deeper into the country.
- At least two protests occurred in two cities across two provinces.
March 2, 2023, 5:00 pm ET
The Iranian regime has apparently failed to take measures to protect schools following 46 separate reports of chemical poisonings targeting schoolgirls throughout the country on March 1.[i] Social media users documented additional attacks on a girls’ schools and a dormitory in Ardabil and Alborz Provinces respectively on March 2.[ii] Iranian officials, media outlets, and the clerical establishment expressed alarm at ongoing attacks targeting Iranian schoolchildren on March 2. Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Ensieh Khazali announced that President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the formation of a special committee to investigate student poisonings.[iii] Two senior Iranian clerics separately urged the security and intelligence apparatus to address the issue on March 2.[iv] The Iranian Law Enforcement Command (LEC) denied that a plainclothes officer who was captured forcibly arresting a parent in front of a targeted school was affiliated with the LEC, and claimed that it had arrested four individuals connected to incident.[v] It remains unclear, however, what meaningful action the regime has taken to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of ongoing attacks or secure Iranian educational facilities. There is currently no indication of who is responsible for this months-long campaign against Iranian school girls, and Iranian officials have blamed both foreign and domestic actors.[vi] CTP nevertheless assessed with moderate confidence on March 1 that a network of individuals whom the regime tolerates has coordinated this campaign and that the regime has allowed them—at least for now—to do so.[vii]
It is noteworthy that the regime has apparently failed to mobilize elements of its security apparatus to secure educational facilities that are vulnerable to ongoing attacks. Incidents in a months-long, country-wide, and coordinated attack on young girls would result in significantly enhanced security around such schools in most countries. Most countries would also ensure that school buildings attacked or even reportedly attacked with poison gas were fully cleansed and certified safe before allowing students to return, whereas students at some schools were required to return to class on the day of the attack.[viii] The Iranian regime rapidly deployed security personnel to violently suppress demonstrations at Iranian universities and some grade schools throughout the Mahsa Amini protest movement, by contrast.[ix] It also increased its use of facial recognition software and security cameras to enforce the hijab laws during and after those protests, but has failed to use those technological capabilities to identify poisoners in highly populated areas.[x] This failure is noteworthy because many of the targeted schools reportedly have security cameras, and the attacks occurred in daylight while the schools were full of students and teachers.[xi] The regime’s continued failure to respond in the ways that any normal, modern government would is almost inexplicable.
- The Iranian regime has apparently failed to take measures to protect schools following 46 separate reports of chemical poisonings targeting schoolgirls throughout the country on March 1.
- The regime is taking short-term measures to address economic grievances that will exacerbate Iran’s economic crisis in the long run.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian gave an interview with CNN on March 1 likely in an attempt to convince the United States to return to the suspended nuclear negotiations.
- CTP did not record protest activity on March 2.
- Raisi administration officials struck a conciliatory tone on March 2, and stressed the need to address deepening divides between Iranian leadership and its people.
- Prominent Sunni cleric and regime critic Moulana Abdol Ghaffar Naghshbandi ‘s family stated in an interview with Radio Farda on March 2 that they are not aware of his whereabouts.
- Iranian officials and state-affiliated news outlets reported on increased Russo-Iranian economic ties on March 2.
- The Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued new sanctions targeting Iranian energy exports on March 2.
- Bloomberg reported on March 2 that Iran is seeking to obtain S-400 air defense systems from Russia, citing insider sources.
- The US Naval Forces Central Command announced that US forces supported a UK-led interdiction of an illegal Iranain weapons shipment in the Gulf of Oman on February 23.
- Iraq’s Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee went to Diyala to discuss “security breaches” likely in response to the 20 February massacre of Sunni civilians.
- Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is attempting to return to Iraqi politics as a major political actor.
March 1, 2023, 5:00pm ET
CTP assesses with moderate confidence that the Iranian regime is tolerating a country-wide, coordinated campaign to poison Iranian school girls. There is presently no evidence to indicate which individuals are responsible for this months-long campaign against Iranian school girls, and Iranian officials have acknowledged and are investigating such incidents.[vi] CTP nevertheless assesses with moderate confidence that a network of individuals whom the regime tolerates has coordinated this campaign and that the regime has allowed them—at least for now—to do so. CTP bases its assessment on indirect evidence that shows the regime has not sufficiently responded to the poisonings despite their severity of the harm to Iranian girls. Iran also maintains a security apparatus capable of handling such matters, as it has demonstrated in responding to larger-scale developments. Iranian officials have not articulated a coherent narrative explaining who is perpetrating these poisonings and why. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi placed blame for the poisonings on female students, stating on March 1 that 90 percent of the reported cases can be attributed to “stress.”[vii] State-affiliated media outlets have similarly described poisoning incidents as students attempting to escape exams.[viii] Other officials, such as Qom Deputy Governor Ahmad Hajizadeh, have conversely acknowledged that the poisonings are anomalous and likely intentional.[ix] Iranian officials have seemingly failed to take concrete steps to protect students from further poisonings, however. An Iranian social media account claimed that some school principals have ordered students not experiencing symptoms to immediately return to class following chemical poisoning incidents.[x]
There is presently no evidence to indicate which individuals are responsible for this months-long campaign against Iranian school girls, and Iranian officials have acknowledged and are investigating such incidents.[i] CTP nevertheless assesses with moderate confidence that a network of individuals whom the regime tolerates has coordinated this campaign and that the regime has allowed them—at least for now—to do so. CTP bases its assessment on indirect evidence that shows the regime has not sufficiently responded to the poisonings despite their severity of the harm to Iranian girls. Iran also maintains a security apparatus capable of handling such matters, as it has demonstrated in responding to larger-scale developments. Iranian officials have not articulated a coherent narrative explaining who is perpetrating these poisonings and why. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi placed blame for the poisonings on female students, stating on March 1 that 90 percent of the reported cases can be attributed to “stress.”[ii] State-affiliated media outlets have similarly described poisoning incidents as students attempting to escape exams.[iii] Other officials, such as Qom Deputy Governor Ahmad Hajizadeh, have conversely acknowledged that the poisonings are anomalous and likely intentional.[iv] Iranian officials have seemingly failed to take concrete steps to protect students from further poisonings, however. An Iranian social media account claimed that some school principals have ordered students not experiencing symptoms to immediately return to class following chemical poisoning incidents.[v]
- The Iranian regime is tolerating a country-wide, coordinated campaign to poison Iranian school girls.
- The regime’s failure to protect Iranian schoolgirls from the ongoing poisoning campaign is exacerbating anti-regime sentiments.
- Russia is possibly concerned that Iranian-backed militias will target US military positions in eastern Syria in the coming days or weeks.
- At least five protests occurred in three cities across two provinces on March 1.
- Raisi administration-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on March 1 that prominent Sunni cleric and regime critic Moulana Abdol Ghaffer Naghshbandi fled the country.
- The value of the Iranian rial appreciated to 546,500 against the US dollar.
- Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Mohammad Eslami denied reports that Iran has enriched uranium to 84 percent purity while acknowledging the fact that traces of 84-percent enriched uranium were discovered at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed normalization efforts between Turkey and the Assad regime with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on March 1.
- Unidentified senior Russian military officials met with their SAA counterparts near Tel Rifaat, Aleppo Province on February 28.
- Israel Alma, an Israeli think tank focused on regional security issues, released a report claiming that as many as 1000 alleged Iranian aid convoys have entered Syria from Iraq and Lebanon since February 6.