The Iran File is a weekly intelligence summary that synthesizes events from the past week and forecasts what to expect in the future. {{authorBox.message}}



Flood Gates May Open to More Protests

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]

Forecast: The Iranian regime’s mismanagement of resources and inability to provide key services to its population in light of recent natural disasters may catalyze the reemergence of anti-regime protests, especially in southwestern Iran. Extreme rainstorms and flooding have devastated 28 out of Iran’s 31 provinces in recent weeks, severely damaging houses and infrastructure. Iranians have criticized the regime for its inefficient and ineffective response to the floods and its mishandling of the provision of aid to the victims. Environmental issues and government resource mismanagement have previously fueled anti-regime protests.

Heavy rains and flooding have significantly damaged urban centers and infrastructure throughout much of Iran in recent weeks. The flooding began on March 16 and is still affecting large swaths of Iran. The disaster killed at least 70 individuals and left thousands homeless and internally displaced. The floods also damaged an estimated one-third of Iran’s road network. The disaster most significantly affected Khuzestan and Lorestan provinces in southwestern Iran, where floodwaters have partially submerged towns. Golestan Province in northern Iran was also severely damaged. Rain and flooding are expected to continue. Khuzestan Province Governor Gholam Reza Shariati *ordered for the evacuation of more villages near Ahvaz on April 10.

Flood victims have criticized the regime over its ineffective response to the disaster. Many expressed their discontent with the regime’s disaster management and failure to prepare over social media. Others criticized President Hassan Rouhani’s apparent public absence when the flooding began. Senior officials, including Rouhani, subsequently visited flood-stricken areas only to be met with angry flood victims expressing their grievances over the regime’s disaster management. Disaffected citizens confronted Rouhani in Golestan Province and separately confronted Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour and Expediency Discernment Council (EDC) Secretary Mohsen Rezaei in Lorestan Province. The severe flooding and public anger also prompted the Rouhani administration and the IRGC to attack and blame one another for the regime’s inefficient response.

The regime’s environmental mismanagement and unsatisfactory disaster relief efforts may spark anti-regime protests, particularly in southwestern Iran. Anti-regime sentiments and violence have flared up in southwestern Iran since the flooding began, setting the stage for further possible escalations between locals and regime security services. Two reported clashes occurred during confrontations between locals and IRGC personnel in Khuzestan Province in the past week. A gunmen reportedly shot at the IRGC Ground Forces Karbala Operational Base Commander about 30 miles south of Ahvaz on April 3. IRGC forces also reportedly shot and killed a man during a confrontation in another part of Khuzestan Province on April 4.

Southwestern Iran has historically experienced some of the country’s most deadly anti-regime protests and could see more as grievances over regime neglect mount. Demonstrations erupted in 2018 over the regime’s resource mismanagement and neglect in addressing local environmental issues. Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province is also home to Iranian Arabs, one of Iran’s largest and most economically-disenfranchised ethnic minorities. Existent ecological and ethnic issues in Khuzestan compounded with a sustained low-level anti-regime insurgency there make Khuzestan a tinderbox for anti-regime protests. The recent floods, the regime’s inability to deal with the financial damages, and rising public anger at the government could catalyze the reemergence of anti-regime riots, particularly in southwestern Iran.

More Protests, No Progress: The 2018 Iran Protests

Iran's Nearing Dire Straits

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]

Forecast: Iran may threaten maritime trade going through the Strait of Hormuz in coming weeks as U.S. economic pressure against the regime reaches an all-time high. Senior regime officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event that the U.S. successfully cuts off Iran’s oil exports. These threats to close the Strait follow an increase in senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders’ visits to key strategic islands in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz as well as an increase in the number of military drills and exercises near the Strait. Tehran’s provocative military gestures near the Strait picked up following the reimposition of U.S. oil-related sanctions against Iran in November 2018 and may indicate that Iran may make good on its long-standing threat to close the Strait. As U.S. economic pressure against Tehran mounts and Iranian oil exports continue to sink, Iran may leverage its military assets near the Strait in an effort to exact economic concessions and sanctions relief from the U.S. and the international community, potentially setting the stage for direct military conflict between Iran and the U.S. near the Strait of Hormuz.

U.S. secondary sanctions could potentially reduce Iran’s oil exports to a point the regime can no longer tolerate. Reimposed U.S. secondary sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 have dropped Iranian oil exports and battered Iran’s already-fragile economy. The Iranian regime has already readied itself for reduced oil exportations in the face of mounting U.S. economic pressure on its oil economy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a governmental decree to reduce the amount of oil revenue allocated to Iran’s National Development Fund for Iran’s final budget. He made the change with the expectation that Iran’s oil revenues will drop because of significantly-reduced oil exports over the next year. Iran exported approximately 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil in March 2019, more than 50 percent below its export levels in April 2018. Europe is no longer importing Iranian oil and China (the regime’s largest buyer of oil) is importing less Iranian oil despite its sanctions waiver from the U.S. Treasury Department.

The Trump administration has vowed to cut off Iran’s oil exports entirely. Trump administration officials have signaled that they will not reissue waivers to the eight importers of Iranian oil in May 2019, after the current waivers expire. Recent reports suggest that the U.S. will extend waivers to four of the original eight waiver recipients. It is unclear how many, if any, sanctions waivers will be issued, however.

Mounting U.S. economic pressure on Iran’s oil economy could force Iran’s oil exports to a point the regime no can longer reasonably tolerate—a point above zero oil exports. Even if the U.S. reissues waivers to some exporters of Iranian oil in May, Iran could still experience an existential economic crisis. Some analyses indicate that Iran’s “breaking point” is 700,000 bpd. According to a recent S&P Platts report, if the U.S. extends waivers only to China, India, South Korea, and Turkey, Iranian oil exports will dip below 800,000 bpd in June 2019. The U.S. could force Iranian oil exports to drop even lower, potentially as a low as 500,000 bpd if the U.S. allows waivers for South Korea and Japan to expire. Iran could very well experience a financial crisis and economically-motivated protests at that point. Economic protests in Iran have a tendency to become political and quickly devolve into protests against the regime, potentially forcing the regime into survival mode.

Iran may seek to use its perceived leverage over commercial traffic through the Strait of Hormuz to exact economic concessions and sanctions relief to cool a domestic crisis. Senior regime military and political officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz since the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 (and, periodically, long before that). IRGC Sarallah (Greater Tehran) Operational Base Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Kowsari *declared on July 4 that if the U.S. blocks Iranian oil exports then Iran “will not allow the [flow] of oil to other points in the world via the Strait of Hormuz.” President Hassan Rouhani *reissued a similar threat more recently in December 2018, days after Iran test fired a ballistic missile. Rouhani implied that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz, stating that “if [the U.S.] wants to one day block Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.”

Such statements are not unusual—Iranian officials, especially those in or close to the IRGC, regularly threaten to close the Strait. But these threats have coincided with an increase in military exercises near the Strait of Hormuz and official visitations to key strategic islands near the Strait, particularly after the reimposition of oil sanctions on Iran in November 2018.

The U.S. has already sensed an increase in provocative Iranian military actions in recent months and has moved naval assets to counter a potential Iranian attempt to close the Strait. The USS John Stennis Carrier Strike Group (CSG) arrived in the Persian Gulf on December 22, 2018. The Stennis CSG arrived in the Gulf during a joint IRGC-Artesh Ground Forces exercise in the Persian Gulf and was reportedly pursued by 30 IRGC fast boats upon its arrival. More recently, in late March 2019,  U.S. and Oman signed a naval agreement permitting the U.S. access to Arabian Sea ports in Oman, that are located outside of the Persian Gulf but near the Strait of Hormuz. The locations allow the U.S. Navy freedom of navigation and greater flexibility in the event Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz. It is unclear if Iran will ever make good on its threats to close the Strait. Increased regime military activity near the Strait, rhetorical threats from senior IRGC and political figures to block commercial traffic, and mounting economic pressure on Iran are setting the conditions for a potential military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, possibly in the coming weeks. The Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) on April 8 increases this potentiality. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari *warned that U.S. armed forces personnel in western Asia “will not have calm,” if the U.S. decides to designate the IRGC as a FTO. The designation will bring additional economic pressure against Iran as Iranian oil exports continue to drop.

Iran cannot actually close the Strait if the U.S. chooses to fight to re-open it but can disrupt shipping through it for weeks or longer. The American military, along with its allies, is capable of keeping the Strait open, even in the face of Iran’s acquisition of the Russian S-300 air defense system. Iran could mine the Strait, conduct small-boat attacks on ships, and fire missiles at naval targets—of which the mining would be the most serious challenge largely due to the paucity of minesweepers among American and allied militaries. The military effort to re-open the Strait could be large, however, requiring the significant reinforcement of U.S. air, sea, and missile-defense assets in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The risks of further escalation of such a conflict, including attacks by Iranian proxies on American forces and personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, are high. 

The likelihood of Iran actually trying to close the Strait fully remains low but is rising.  The likelihood of increased tensions in the Strait is much higher. The dangers inherent in either scenario warrant this warning despite the long-established pattern of Iranian threats to close the Strait and exercises aimed at demonstrating the ability to do so.






Raisi’s Future Looks Bright for Supreme Leadership

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]

Forecast: Hojjat ol Eslam Ebrahim Raisi is becoming a top contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei appointed Raisi as Judiciary Chief. Less than one week later the powerful quasi-legislative body tasked with electing Iran’s next Supreme Leader elected Raisi as its First Vice Chairman. Raisi’s sudden meteoric rise in the Islamic Republic’s political ranks is not by itself a guarantee that he will be Iran’s next Supreme Leader, however. Raisi must still compete against other contenders, including recently-elected Expediency Discernment Council (EDC) Chairman Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, in order to secure the supreme leadership. 

Khamenei is grooming Raisi for supreme leadership and hand-picked Raisi to lead the Judiciary. Khamenei has shown a fondness toward Raisi despite his embarrassing loss to President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections. Khamenei *selected Raisi as Judiciary Chief on March 7 to replace Sadegh Larijani, whom Khamenei *appointed as EDC Chairman on December 30. (The Judiciary Chief is co-equal with the president and the speaker of Iran’s parliament. They are at the top of one of the three branches of the formal Iranian government). Raisi’s appointment to the Judiciary places him among some of Iran’s most powerful clerical leaders. Many of these past position holders, including Amoli Larijani and the late Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, have been considered likely successors to Khamenei. Raisi is also a close ally and student of Khamenei. Before Raisi’s presidential candidacy in 2017, Khamenei *appointed him head of the Mashhad-based bonyad Astan Quds Razavi, a position that granted Raisi not only custodianship of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad but also oversight over an enormous economic empire with diverse, international business interests in oil and gas, construction, agriculture, transportation, pharmaceutical products, food goods, and financial investment services. Khamenei’s appointment of Raisi to lead Astan Quds Razavi was significant and demonstrated Khamenei’s affinity for and trust in Raisi.

Raisi’s subsequent election to the Assembly of Experts first vice chairmanship may indicate a clerical preference for Raisi over other top contenders. The Assembly of Experts *elected Raisi to this position on March 12, less than one week after Raisi’s appointment to the Judiciary. Raisi received 43 votes of the 73 cast, an absolute majority, whereas other Supreme Leader-hopeful Sadegh Larijani received only 27 votes. The Assembly’s preference for Raisi over Larijani for the important leadership board post may suggest that the Assembly considers Raisi a more suitable leader and better choice for next Supreme Leader over Sadegh Larijani.

Raisi’s succession is not guaranteed, but he may have the edge over Larijani. Sadegh Larijani’s contention to be Khamenei’s successor improved following his replacement of the late Ayatollah Shahroudi as EDC Chairman and as one of the six jurisprudential members of the Guardian Council. Shahroudi was widely considered to be a top candidate to replace Khamenei up until his *death on December 24, 2018. Recent events and Larijani’s personal background may work against him, however. Larijani was born in Iraq, whereas Raisi was *born in Mashhad, where Khamenei was also born. Larijani is the youngest sibling of the politically powerful Larijani family which is viewed negatively by many Iranians due to their perceived political omnipotence (Ali Larijani, Sadegh’s brother, is speaker of the parliament). Raisi’s only politically relevant family member is Ayatollah Ahmad Alam ol Hoda, who is a close confidante of Khamenei and serves as his representative to Khorasan Razavi Province. Larijani has also been accused of involvement in a land grab corruption scandal. Raisi may oversee the case if the Judiciary becomes involved, potentially leading to a situation where Raisi could bring charges against Larijani, although that remains very unlikely. Raisi has tried to establish himself as a youth-friendly regime official and remains active on social media. His Instagram account has over 500,000 followers. Larijani has no official account and his Instagram fan page account has less than 4,000 followers. During the 2017 presidential elections, Raisi *met with the popular Iranian pop star Amir Tataloo (who is now estranged and living abroad) in order to make him more attractive to Iranian youth. Raisi’s path to supreme leadership is by no means guaranteed but his recent appointments and relative popularity may serve him well against Larijani.

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