Iran File

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}}

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[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 may attack or threaten Israeli interests in coming weeks to deter perceived Israeli aggression. Tel Aviv launched an air campaign against Iran in Iraq and will also participate in the US-led maritime security mission in the Persian Gulf, Operation Sentinel. Tehran considers both efforts significant security threats and will adjust its approach to rising tensions with the US and Israel accordingly. Recent meetings between the regime and Iranian-backed groups may indicate that Iran is planning a military response or contingencies to respond to future Israeli attacks.

Israel launched an air campaign against Iran in Iraq and will participate in the US-led military coalition in the Persian Gulf. Israel is targeting Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq to degrade their military capabilities and capacity to threaten Israel from Iraq with ballistic missiles. *Iranian, *Saudi, and *Israeli media attributed recent explosions at Iranian proxy bases in Iraq to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The explosions killed at least one Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) member.

Tel Aviv has not confirmed its role in the attacks, but the targets of the explosions — arms depots and weapons caches — are consistent with the IDF’s previous attacks against similar Iranian and Iranian-backed locations in Syria. Israeli media *reported on August 1 that the IRGC increased its transfer of ballistic missiles to its Iraqi proxies to avoid Israeli strikes in Syria. The IDF may conduct future strikes in Iraq if it continues to assess that Iran poses a security threat to Israel there. These attacks come as Israel *joins US-led Operation Sentinel to protect commercial traffic in the Persian Gulf from Iranian aggression. Israel is reportedly assisting “with intelligence and in other unspecified fields.”

The regime considers Israeli strikes in Iraq and participation in Operation Sentinel a national security threat and military aggression. Iran views Iraq and the Persian Gulf as key theaters for ensuring its national security and strategic depth. Former IRGC Commander and Supreme Leader Senior Military Adviser Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi *stated that the “defense of Baghdad is like the defense of Tehran” on August 4. The IRGC uses its forces and assets in Iraq and the Persian Gulf to establish deterrent power and pursue its regional objectives. Iran’s forces in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, for example, recently attacked international commercial traffic and Saudi oil infrastructure to increase oil prices and destabilize the global energy market.

Tehran may attack or threaten Israeli interests if Tel Aviv continues to escalate. The regime has thus far tempered its attacks against the US and its partners to avoid inciting a war. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami *described this approach as a defensive strategy with offensive tactics. Iranian leaders may adjust this approach in response to perceived threats to the regime in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. IRGC Navy Commander RADM Alireza Tangsiri *warned on August 12 that an Israeli presence in the Persian Gulf would be illegal and could “create a war and conflict in the region.” The regime views Operation Sentinel as military aggression and an extension of the US maximum pressure campaign. Tehran seeks to deter perceived Israeli aggression and is likely contingency planning in case of further escalation.

Attacks into Israel from Hamas in the Gaza Strip or from Iranian and Iranian-backed forces near the Golan Heights are Iran’s two most likely courses of action if Israel’s air campaign in Iraq continues. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces could also attack Israeli or Jewish targets globally as they have done previously. The likelihood that Iran will pursue one or several of these options will increase with additional Israeli attacks in Iraq. Senior Iranian officials, including Safavi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convened with their proxies and partners from *Iraq, *the Gaza Strip, and *Syria after the first Israeli strike on July 19. Such high-level meetings are unusual and indicate that they may have met to discuss responses to Israeli strikes in Iraq and contingencies in the event of further escalation.

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

Key Takeaway: The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is expanding its economic influence and role in the Iranian regime’s effort to mitigate US sanctions, possibly seeking to outcompete the Rouhani administration.

IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani restructured his economic arm in Iraq, emphasizing the need to “neutralize” sanctions. Soleimani’s decision comes shortly after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed IRGC financier and hardline industrialist Parviz Fattah as head of the Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mostazafan). The foundation is a major regime-controlled business conglomerate and holding company that the regime uses to dominate the Iranian economy. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Fattah in 2010 due to his close ties to the IRGC and its economic network. Fattah’s control over this economic giant may mitigate the impact US sanctions have on the IRGC’s finances. The IRGC may also begin to assert itself as the most central and influential Iranian body in countering sanctions, increasing the economy’s reliance on the Guards.


ECONOMY

IRGC Quds Force Commander Soleimani restructures his economic arm in Iraq to mitigate US sanctions. IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani *appointed on July 25 Hassan Polarak as his personal adviser and assistant and Mohammad Jalal Moab as the executive head of the Iraqi Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters. Polarak was the organization’s previous head and served with Soleimani in the IRGC Ground Forces 41st Sarallah Division in Kerman Province. Soleimani now charged Polarak to work with the IRGC Quds Force’s Economic Committee to “neutralize” US sanctions. The Iraqi Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters supports the rebuilding of Shia religious sites and is involved in economic, cultural, and social activities in Iraq. Soleimani also *divided the organization into two components: one for executive and development affairs and one for pilgrimage supervision and tourism. Soleimani’s appointments and orders indicate the IRGC Quds Force’s increasing role and influence in Iran’s effort to mitigate sanctions.

Supreme Leader Khamenei appoints new heads of Iranian economic giants. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 22 *appointed Parviz Fattah as head of the Foundation of the Oppressed and Morteza Bakhtiari to replace Fattah as head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Fattah *replaced Mohammad Saeedi Kia, who is now the chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees. Bakhtiari was previously deputy and *special adviser to Hojjat ol Eslam Ebrahim Raisi during his time as Astan Quds Razavi custodian. Astan Quds Razavi is another regime-controlled economic entity with a vast and diverse network of companies in various sectors across the Middle East.


REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS & DIPLOMACY

US sanctions Foreign Minister Zarif. The US Treasury Department designated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as a specially designated national on July 31. The Treasury Department attributed the designation to Zarif’s ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who the US also sanctioned on June 24. The Treasury Department also accused the Foreign Ministry of cooperating with the IRGC Quds Force. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated the designation signals to Iran “that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable.”

Oman and the UAE hold talks with Iran to de-escalate regional tensions. Law Enforcement Forces Border Guards Commander IRGC Brig. Gen. Ghassem Rezaei *met and discussed maritime security cooperation with his Emirati counterpart Brig. Gen. Ali Mohammad Mosleh al Ahbabi in Tehran on July 30. The two signed a memorandum of understanding to promote border cooperation. Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi also traveled to Tehran on July 27 and discussed regional tensions and US sanctions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Supreme National Security Council Secretary RADM Ali Shamkhani. The UAE and Oman sought to de-escalate regional tensions after the IRGC seized a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on July 19. Oman has historically served as a diplomatic mediator between the US and Iran.

Supreme Leader Khamenei condemns Bahrain amid rising tensions with Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *condemned the Bahraini government in response to its execution of two Shia men on July 27. Bahrain accused the two of “terrorism crimes” and maintaining ties to the Iranian regime. Iranian-backed Bahraini militias separately released threats against the Bahraini government for the executions. These tensions come as the Bahraini government *hosted an international security meeting on July 31 to address Iran’s threat to maritime trade. The UK invited the US, France, and other unspecified European countries to participate in the Bahraini meeting to discuss protecting commercial traffic from Iranian aggression near the Strait of Hormuz.


NUCLEAR DEAL DEVELOPMENTS

Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Araghchi convenes with JCPOA Joint Commission. Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi traveled to Vienna, Austria, to participate in an *extraordinary meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Joint Commission on July 28. British, Chinese, EU, French, German, and Russian officials also participated in the meeting. Araghchi *described the meeting as “constructive.” The meeting comes after Iran *violated the JCPOA on July 8  to pressure Europe to provide Iran economic relief.

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

Key Takeaway: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed reservations about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal, to distance himself from the potential failure of the agreement and to direct blame toward the Rouhani administration.

Khamenei stated on May 22 that he lacked faith in the JCPOA based on its implementation and that he had repeatedly said this to President Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei’s remarks come after the Iranian regime, likely at his command, reneged on some of its JCPOA commitments to pressure Europe to offer Iran economic deliverables. The regime also quadrupled its low-enriched uranium (LEU) production rate, indicating that it may violate the deal’s limitation on LEU stockpiles in the near future. Khamenei may be increasingly inclined to abandon the JCPOA and could decide to do so after July 7, which marks the end of Iran’s 60-day deadline to Europe to provide Iran economic guarantees.

 


NUCLEAR DEAL DEVELOPMENTS

Supreme Leader Khamenei distances himself from the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *stated on May 22 that he did not have much faith in the JCPOA based on its implementation. Khamenei noted that he frequently expressed his lack of confidence to President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Khamenei added that as supreme leader, he should not intervene in executive affairs unless it relates to the Islamic Revolution movement.


DOMESTIC POLITICS

President Rouhani seeks expanded executive powers to combat US economic pressure. President Hassan Rouhani *stated on May 20 that he needs greater executive power to combat US economic pressure. Rouhani referenced the creation of the Supreme War Support Council during the Iran-Iraq War, which wielded expanded powers to address the conflict. Rouhani emphasized that Iran is currently in an economic war with the US as justification for granting him additional powers. Hardliners, including Guardian Council Spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei and Kayhan Managing Editor *Hossein Shariatmadari, criticized Rouhani in response.

Second Iranian cleric in slightly over a month is murdered. An unidentified assailant stabbed and killed Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Khorsand in Kazeroun, Fars Province, on May 29. Khorsand was the Kazeroun Friday prayer leader. Kazeroun previously experienced deadly and massive anti-regime protests in April and May 2018. Khorsand’s killing also comes after an Iranian man in Hamedan, Hamedan Province, shot and killed Hojjat ol Eslam Mostafa Ghassemi on April 27. It is not clear whether the murders are linked.

Larijani reelected as parliament speaker. Parliamentarians reelected Ali Larijani as parliament speaker on May 26. Larijani will serve in this position for the 12th straight year. Larijani received 155 votes, reformist-leaning Omid faction representative Mohammad Reza Aref received 105, and hardliner Seyyed Mohammad Javad Abtahi received nine votes.


REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS & DIPLOMACY

President Rouhani suggests talks with US are possible if Washington lifts sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani suggested that Iran may negotiate with the US if Washington “lift[s] the unjust sanctions and fulfills [its] commitments” to the JCPOA on May 29. Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stated that Iran will not negotiate with the US.

Foreign Minister Zarif visits Iraq to discuss regional developments amid US-Iran tension. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led a senior political delegation to Baghdad, Iraq, on May 25 and met with senior Iraqi officials to discuss regional developments. Zarif met separately with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul al Mehdi, President Barham Salih, Foreign Minister Ali al Hakim, and Parliament Speaker Mohammad al Halbousi. Al Hakim noted during a joint press conference that Iraq could serve as a mediator between Iran and the US to “reach a satisfactory solution.” Zarif’s visit follows the US announcement to deploy 1,500 troops and additional defense assets to the Middle East. Zarif’s visit also follows an increase in political and military tensions in the region including a rocket attack on May 19 near the US Embassy in Baghdad.


ECONOMY

Iranian oil exports drop to 400,000 barrels per day. Iran’s oil exports fell to 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in late May 2019. The significant reduction in Iranian oil exports follows the Trump administration’s decision to not reissue sanctions waivers to buyers of Iranian oil. India and Turkey, two of the eight original waiver recipients, have ceased their importation of Iranian oil in compliance with US sanctions. Iran exported around 1 million bpd in April 2019. Iranian officials reportedly told Europe that Iran must sell 1.5 million bpd to ensure its continued commitment to the JCPOA.

TIMELINE
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Aug '19