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}}



Iran’s armed forces prepare for Sunni insurgency in Baluchistan

[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’s armed forces are likely preparing for intensified insurgent activities in southeastern Iran following an increase in anti-regime militancy by Sunni Baloch Salafi-jihadi groups. Al Qaeda-affiliate Ansar al Furqan launched a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack on the police command headquarters in Chabahar, Sistan and Baluchistan Province on December 6. Anti-regime militant organizations such as Ansar al Furqan and the Army of Justice threaten regime security and exploit local populations’ economic and social disenfranchisement to increase support and recruitment toward their cause. Anti-regime militants could capitalize on future widespread anti-regime protests across Iran to begin a low-level insurgency against the regime.

Recent anti-regime operations in southeastern Iran underscore the growing Salafi-jihadi threat in Iran’s Baluchistan. Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Furqan’s SVBIED attack killed four Iranians and wounded over 40. Ansar al Furqan is an offshoot of the now inactive al Qaeda affiliate Jundullah, which has conducted several attacks against the regime since the early 2000s. Iranian authorities captured and executed Jundullah leader Abdol Malek al Rigi in 2010. Jundullah soon thereafter splintered into various groups, most notably the Army of Justice and Ansar al Furqan. Both groups attack regime security forces and key regime infrastructure in southeastern Iran but are based in Pakistan. The Army of Justice kidnapped 12 Iranian border guards in late October 2018. These Salafi-jihadi groups claim to champion Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities’ plight. Their influence and reach will likely increase as Iran’s Baloch continue to experience high levels of economic and social marginalization in Iran.

Increased militancy among marginalized Sunni Baloch goes beyond Iran’s borders. Anti-regime militants in Sistan and Baluchistan Province have increased their deadly border attacks against the regime since summer 2018. This increased militancy is not an issue solely affecting Iran, however. The Baloch are a stateless nation and their issue is a transnational one. Their discontentment helps drive the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and several insurgencies in Pakistan. Sunni discontentment may also create one in Iran. Sistan and Baluchistan Province has one of Iran’s highest *unemployment rates and Sunni Baloch are often targets of regime *discrimination.

Iranian armed forces likely responded to a past Ansar al Furqan attack and may do so again. Ansar al Furqan’s attack in Chabahar is its second attack against the regime since December 2017, when the group claimed an attack in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province on a “major” oil pipeline. The group reported that it intended “to inflict losses on the economy of the criminal Iranian regime.” Tehran did not acknowledge the attack in state media but may have retaliated against Ansar al Furqan during an Artesh military exercise in January 2018 in southeastern Iran. Artesh Ground Forces Brig. Gen. Kiomars Heydari noted that Iranian forces *launched a precision-guided rocket during the first day of the exercises on January 22 . Ansar al Furqan posted on their Telegram channel on January 23 that the regime launched a missile targeting members of the group in the Qasr-e Qand Mountains, approximately 50 miles north of Chabahar.[1]

Iran is increasing its conventional military presence in response to militant activities in the southeast. The regime is assigning more conventional military assets in response to increased border insecurity along Iran’s tri-border area with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Heydari announced in July 2018 that Artesh Ground Forces will *establish a new division-level base in Birjand as well as a new brigade in Nehbandan, both near the eastern tri-border area in South Khorasan Province. It is unclear when the new commands will be operational, however. Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) Chief IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri *announced more recently on November 26 that Artesh Ground Forces had “in recent months” assumed control of securing the Iran-Afghanistan border from the LEF Border Guards. The Artesh Ground Forces may use their increased presence and greater authorities to employ force to operate more aggressively against militants in southeastern Iran.

[1] Ansar al Furqan’s Telegram post is no longer available. The Critical Threats Project has archived the post for research purposes. Interested readers are welcome to contact us for more information.

Hardliners Yield Back on Attacks, for Now

[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: Iranian hardliners appear to be reaching regime red-lines that will limit their further attacks on President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, at least for a time. Hardline parliamentarians seek to impeach increasingly prominent allies of Rouhani. They previously forced the removal of several senior economic officials from office including the former labor and finance ministers. They have recently expanded their attacks to Rouhani allies not directly responsible for Iran’s economic management. They attempted to interpellate Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to damage their political reputations and possibly diminish domestic support for pending Financial Action Task Force (FATF) legislation. The collapse of these efforts suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has signaled his unwillingness to let the hardliners attack such high-profile members of the regime’s leadership team, at least for now.

Hardliners recently failed to impeach prominent centrists and will not soon garner the necessary support to do so in the future. Hardliner parliamentarians attempted to interpellate Zarif and Larijani in recent weeks, but failed to secure enough parliamentarian signatures to initiate any interpellation.[1] The interpellation attempts follow months of internal dispute over pending reform to Iran’s anti-money laundering laws. Zarif and Larijani support reformist efforts to amend such laws. This reform would help Iran comply with FATF standards and make investment in Iran more attractive to international investors. These efforts are also important because they would encourage European companies and states to defy the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, thus potentially preserving some of the economic benefits of the nuclear deal—or so Zarif and Rouhani appear to believe. *Zarif’s and Larijani’s interpellation plans initially accrued the necessary number of signatures to summon the two before Parliament, yet failed shortly thereafter due to hardliners retracting their support.

Hardliners attempted to interpellate *Zarif and *Larijani over their support for FATF legislation. Hardliner action against Zarif came in response to Zarif’s *claim that a high level of money laundering is a “reality” in Iran benefitting many unspecified individuals during an interview on November 11. Zarif’s remark sparked many criticisms against him from hardliners in Iran’s *Parliament and *Judiciary. Zarif was likely referring to Iran’s clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who largely comprise the hardliner base. Hardliners separately attempted to interpellate Larijani on November 27 due to his alleged mishandling of FATF legislation. Hardliners *accused Larijani of blocking an open parliamentary vote on two FATF bills that Parliament had previously approved but to which the Guardian Council and the Expediency Discernment Council (EDC) had *raised objections.  

Hardliners presumably realized that their attacks against Zarif and Larijani lacked the necessary support from either Parliament or Khamenei. This lack of support likely resulted in hardline parliamentarians withdrawing their signatures. The move against Zarif was contentious even among hardliners and prompted intra-factional dispute. A conservative Iranian media outlet’s senior staff *published an editorial telling hardliners it was the “wrong time” to interpellate Zarif. Hardliners will need to unify together, and likely receive Khamenei’s implicit approval, before they will remove prominent figures like Zarif or Larijani.

Hardliners may use impeachment threats against vocal moderates again to reduce support for FATF legislation, however. Hardliners think that threatening the impeachment of reformists who support anti-money laundering legislation and other reforms that make Iran’s economy more transparent will diminish reformist support for such legislation. Reformist efforts to pass such amendments would cause financial harm to hardliners and IRGC officials who benefit from the opaque economy. Hardliners have opposed FATF legislation in Iran’s Parliament and Guardian Council, yet reformists continue making the case for the legislation’s ratification. Mounting U.S. economic pressure on Iran will add to the reformists’ case that Iran must promote business transparency through the FATF legislations’ approval. Conservative parliamentarians may reignite calls for Zarif’s, Larijani’s, or other FATF proponents’ interpellation in the future to discourage support for Iran’s desperately needed reforms.

[1] Parliamentarians that signed Zarif’s interpellation motion included the following: Ahad Azadikhah, Ahmad Salek, Amir Khojasteh, Gholam Reza Sharafi, Hassan Nowruzi, Hossein Ali Hajji Deligani, Jalal Mahmoud Zadeh, Jamshid Jafar Pour, Javad Karimi Ghodousi, Mahmoud Shekari, Mohammad Ali Pormokhtar, Mohammad Esmaeil Saeedi, Abolfazl Aboutorabi, Mohammad Hassan Nejad, Mohsen Kouhkan, Nader Ghazi Pour, Nasrollah Pejman Far, Seyyed Naser Mousavi Larigani, Seyyed Razi Nouri, Seyyed Mohammad Javad Abtahi, Seyyed Sadegh Tabatabaei Nejad, Shahab Naderi, Abbas Goudarzi, Ziaollah Ezazi Maleki. Parliamentarians that signed the motion to interpellate Larijani included the following: Hossein Ali Hajji Deligani, Hojjat ol Eslam Alireza Salimi, Sohrab Gilani, Javad Karimi Ghodousi, Seyyed Javad Hosseini Kia, Ziaollah Ezazi Maleki, Akbar Torki, Seyyed Naser Mousavi Larigani, Amer Kaabi, Nasrollah Pejman Far, Majid Naseri Nejad, Seyyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, Abbas Goudarzi, Mohammad Esmaeil Saeedi, Ahmad Salek, Abdollah Sameri, Hassan Nowruzi, Zabih Nikfar Leylastani, Mahmoud Shekari, Sodeyf Badri, Seyyed Ghasem Jasemi, Seyyed Ehsan Ghazi Zadeh, Seyyed Javad Sadati Nejad, Abbas Ali Pour Bafarani, Seyyed Razi Nouri, Hojjat ol Eslam Mojtaba Zolnouri, and Seyyed Javad Abtahi.

Khuzestan remains a tinderbox for any future anti-regime riots

[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: Ongoing labor strikes may exacerbate long-standing ethnic, ecological, and economic grievances in southwestern Iran, potentially leading to the renewal of anti-regime riots. Recent arrests and rumored reports of the torture of a strike leader by regime security forces will encourage the continuation of strikes in Khuzestan Province and may incite more intense solidarity protests in other parts of Iran. The regime’s reluctance to implement long-term economic fixes, paired with mounting financial pressure following the reimposition of U.S. secondary sanctions on Iran, increases the likelihood that southwestern Iran will be a trigger point for deadly anti-regime protests in the future.

Labor strikes over old, unaddressed grievances in southwestern Iran continued for the past three weeks. Workers at Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Co. in Shush, Khuzestan Province went on strike over unpaid salaries on November 5. Haft Tappeh workers also protested the company’s privatization and called on the government to retake ownership of the organization, in response to the government’s *divestment of its majority stake to the private sector in November 2015. Haft Tappeh workers have held several strikes over the last year, including in December 2017 and January 2018. Workers *gathered in front of the local Shush County Governor’s office and staged demonstrations and marches throughout Shush. Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) *reported on November 26 that Haft Tappeh workers received their August-September salaries. The field workers have yet to receive their backlogged pay from the last two months, however. 

The regime likely attempted to decapitate the strikes by suppressing the movement’s leaders through the arrest of high-profile organizers and the use of torture. The regime deployed Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) anti-riot units to control the peaceful and non-confrontational protests. Regime security forces arrested numerous Haft Tappeh demonstrators on November 18. Many of those arrested were released on bail days later. Many remain under arrest, including Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate leader Esmaeil Bakhshi. Bakhshi became a high-profile and vocal leader for Haft Tappeh laborers during previous strikes. A labor rights group reported that regime security transferred Bakhshi to an IRGC-affiliated hospital on November 29 after regime security forces tortured him during his detention. Local security forces also *arrested Syndicate board member Ali Nejati in his home on the same day. An unnamed Khuzestan Province judiciary official stated that Nejati’s arrest “probably had no connection” to the Haft Tappeh strikes, but that remains doubtful.

Solidarity protests have the potential to coalesce sectoral protests into a larger anti-regime movement. Solidarity protests could lead to a larger protest movement centered on labor-related grievances. Regime attempts to arrest protesters and to neutralize strike leaders have backfired. The recent labor strikes in Khuzestan galvanized more spirited protests in Shush. The recent labor strikes in Shush also sparked movements across other guilds and economic sectors in various Iranian cities:

  • Laborers with Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) joined Haft Tappeh in solidarity strikes in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province on November 10. INSIG employees have held intermittent strikes since February 2018. Their protesters recently chanted, “Inflation, high prices, give an answer [President Hassan] Rouhani!”
  • Workers with Aryan Steel held solidarity demonstrations in Qazvin Province on November 27.
  • Employees of Imam Khomeini Hospital in Karaj, Alborz Province have held continuing strikes, citing that they are owed seven months of backlogged pay.
  • University of Tehran students held *demonstrations expressing their support for the labor strikes in Shush.

These protests, alongside ongoing trucker strikes and other labor-related movements across Iranian cities, may coalesce into a larger, more politically charged movement against the regime’s economic mismanagement and poor policies, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The politicization of economic- and labor-related protests remains worrisome for Tehran. The recent labor strikes quickly became political with chants aimed at regime officials’ corruption and profligacy, including one recorded instance of a protester calling for Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi’s return to Iran. Pahlavi is the son of the late shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranian economic protests have a tendency to gain political and anti-regime tones. This remains a worrisome trend for the regime as Iran’s protest scene continues to evolve.

Khuzestan remains a key trigger point in Iran’s protest scene. Some of the most diverse and violent protests of the past year have occurred in Khuzestan. Khuzestan experienced some of the most violent and frequent protests during the Dey Protests. Khuzestan also experienced several ethnically-, ecologically-, economically-motivated protests over the last year. The recent strikes also included comments on the unsuitability of life in Khuzestan, including accusations that the regime has “plundered” Khuzestan of its resources, businesses, soil, and water. Protesters in Khuzestan oftentimes evoke powerful moral messages to regime leadership of the sacrifices its people made during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. They habitually note the number of martyrs their city offered for the Islamic Republic during the war. Protests in Khuzestan will undoubtedly continue. The regime’s arrest and torture of labor organizers, like Bakhshi and Nejati, may have been calculated moves against perceived future insurgent leaders during a potential future nationwide armed conflict. Worsening economic and ecological crises, discrimination against Iranian Arabs, and indicators of low-level ISIS and anti-regime infiltration make Khuzestan a dangerous nexus for the regime. Southwestern Iran may serve as a front line in any nationwide armed conflict during the next round of widespread anti-regime protests.

Arrow down red
Dec '18
Nov '18