Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}



Iran File: Tehran increases local security and strengthens ties to Venezuela amid economic crisis

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

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Iran’s mounting economic crisis is pushing the Islamic Republic to take aggressive actions abroad and domestically. The Iranian rial reached record lows this week, having lost over half its value in 2020. The Iranian regime fears protests in response to the recession and has injected billions of dollars into the economy to stabilize the rial. Iran’s most recent major protest waves—the Dey Protests of 2017–2018 and the gasoline riots in November 2019—started with economic triggers but soon adopted anti-regime tones.

Iranian leaders are pursuing more trade with Venezuela to bolster remaining currency reserves in preparation for another intervention in the currency market. Iran agreed in April to exchange fuel and technical expertise needed to restart energy infrastructure for $500 million of Venezuelan gold. Thirteen Iranian fuel tankers have sailed to Venezuela since May, but the US confiscated the cargo of four of them in August. Tehran also likely offered to help Caracas mobilize paramilitary supporters and take greater control of its information space. This technical assistance is harder for the US to interdict than Iran’s fuel shipments. The Islamic Republic could also try to sell Venezuela military hardware, particularly after the UN arms embargo on Iran expires.

Iran’s security forces are expanding their local presence to deter public displays of dissent. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deployed Basij patrol teams in Tehran and the historically restive Arab-majority Khuzestan province to preempt public gatherings. The Basij Organization is a paramilitary body under the IRGC that recruits regime supporters, indoctrinates members, produces state propaganda, suppresses political dissent, and cracks down on protests. The patrols are part of an expanding neighborhood security strategy to increase local force presence and surveillance capabilities.

Recent Critical Threats Project publications:

Iran’s security forces beef up local presence to deter dissent

The IRGC provincial guard deployed new Basij patrol teams in Tehran and the historically restive Arab-majority Khuzestan province to preempt public gatherings in mid-September. The provincial guard units, under the command and control of the IRGC Ground Forces, oversee conventional military units and a wide range of sociocultural efforts. The deployment followed the Iranian rial’s continued collapse and the controversial execution of famous Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari for participating in nationwide protests. Expanded local-level security is part of a shift in the regime’s strategy to confront social unrest with preventative intimidation.

Read the full article by Kyra Rauschenbach here.

The growing Iranian threat around the Strait of Hormuz

The Islamic Republic is laying the groundwork for greater Iranian influence around the Strait of Hormuz by expanding its military footprint and building key infrastructure. Iran’s armed forces are adapting their force posture, structure, and capabilities around the strait. The regime is meanwhile constructing an oil pipeline bypassing the strait to add credibility to Iran’s repeated threat to close the passage. These efforts reflect contingency planning for a potential conflict with the US and its Gulf partners since tensions have spiked in recent months. This threat could grow after the UN arms embargo on Iran expires. The Iranian buildup around the strait poses a relatively limited threat to the US, which has the necessary resources to overcome it, but could pose a more serious threat to American regional allies on which US regional strategy increasingly relies.

Read the full article by Nicholas Carl here.

Iran looks abroad to handle currency crisis

Iran’s mounting economic crisis is pushing the Islamic Republic to take riskier actions that will raise tensions with the US and its allies. The Iranian rial has reached record lows, and the regime fears protests in response to economic grievances. Tehran is seeking to bolster its hard currency reserves to mitigate its economic decline. The regime is risking an escalation with the US to expand economic ties with Venezuela. Iran is also leveraging jailed British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to pressure the UK to pay a long-standing debt of around $470 million. Regime infighting has stalled efforts to acquire hard currency internally.

Read the full article by Nicholas Carl here.

Iran-Venezuela cooperation expands to security realm

Iran offered to help Venezuela expand its military and internal security capabilities. The two regimes began economic cooperation in April and recently discussed security cooperation. Iranian leaders have likely offered Nicolás Maduro help mobilizing paramilitary supporters and increasing control over Venezuela’s information space. Tehran is seeking alternative ways to trade with Caracas to mitigate Iran’s economic crisis. Iran could next offer conventional military and domestic surveillance capabilities—particularly after the UN arms embargo expires—for more financial assistance. The US announced that it has “snapped back” the UN sanctions lifted by the Iran nuclear deal, but the UN and other parties to the nuclear deal have not recognized that “snapback.”

Read the full article by Nicholas Carl here.

Iran File: Hardliners eye greater control over the information space

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

Newly empowered hardline politicians are setting new conditions to increase regime control over Iran’s domestic information space. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—took control of Parliament after interfering in Iran’s legislative elections in February.[1] This hardliner victory was part of a larger shift in Iran’s political institutions, beginning in the Judiciary in 2019, toward the far-right conservative camp. Hardliners have historically sought to restrict foreign internet and social media services and are using their growing influence toward this end. Their yearslong efforts along these lines have mostly failed in the past to overcome the opposition of the more moderate Rouhani administration and the parliamentary leadership of former speaker Ali Larijani. The election of hardliner Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf to replace Larijani after the principlist legislative victory may allow these efforts to move forward.

Hardline parliamentarians submitted legislation to deter use of foreign communications and networking services and centralize the regime’s social media oversight under a new body. Forty lawmakers submitted a *motion to the parliament speaker on August 24 to impose legal penalties against citizens offering unauthorized internet and social media services (such as virtual private networks). The motion also establishes an organizing board to issue licenses for and supervise social media in Iran. The board includes not only representatives from the Rouhani administration but also many hardliner-dominated institutions, including the Judiciary, Parliament, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Law Enforcement Forces. It is unclear whether the legislation will be put to a vote or pass, but the bill’s passage is more likely under the current parliament than the previous.

This legislation is part of a larger regime effort to replace foreign social media apps with indigenous alternatives. The Islamic Republic has gradually expanded its censorship of foreign social media in response to anti-regime unrest. The regime blocked Facebook and Twitter following the 2009 Green Movement and later *targeted Telegram after the 2017–18 Dey Protests. Hardliners have lately reignited debate over banning Instagram, which is not currently blocked, following the November 2019 gasoline riots.

Eight of the motion’s signatories are veteran parliamentarians who spearheaded impeachment efforts against prominent moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani in late 2018 and early 2019. This faction includes Abol Fazl Abu Torabi, Sodeyf Badri, Hossein Ali Hajji Deligani, Javad Karimi Ghodousi, Jabbar Koucheki Nejad, Nasser Mousavi, Hassan Nawrouzi, and Nasrallah Pezhman Far. These lawmakers—among other hardliners—seek to discredit and undermine the moderates and their agenda before Iran’s 2021 presidential election.

Principlists have also pushed to expand Iran’s national intranet to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services since November. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *criticized the Rouhani administration in August 2020 for making insufficient progress on developing the intranet. Passive Defense Organization Commander Gholam Reza Jalali previously *offered to oversee the formal government’s progress. The regime shut down the internet in Iran during the November 2019 crackdown, sparking international and domestic criticism and harming Iranian businesses. Iran’s rulers will block the internet again if massive protests emerge but want to minimize the resulting discontent and cost. A national intranet would allow the regime to monitor and censor communications without necessarily hindering most network functionality.

China may support the regime’s intranet development. Parliamentarian Mohammad Saleh Jokar, one signatory of the social media legislation, *claimed Chinese support is part of the 25-year strategic agreement that Iran and China are negotiating. Jokar added Iran’s main challenge to developing the intranet is its lack of server infrastructure.

Expanding regime control over cyberspace will enable more brutal crackdowns against dissidents and greater monitoring of Iran’s population possibly with less disruption of ordinary internet activity within Iran. The chance for future anti-regime and economic protests remains high, pushing the regime to adopt increasingly authoritarian measures. The regime is not only preparing its security forces but is also expanding its control over Iran’s internal information space in preparation for serious and sustained crackdowns against demonstrators.

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[1] Principlists generally oppose engagement with the West and support protectionist economic policies and significant state involvement in society. This faction includes many in the clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who oppose President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government.

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Iran File: Newly Empowered Hardliners Move against Rouhani

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

Iran’s newly empowered hardliners will undermine President Hassan Rouhani for the remainder of his term and likely facilitate the election of a far-right president in 2021. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—took control of Parliament after interfering in Iran’s legislative elections in February. The principlist victory was part of a larger shift in Iran’s political institutions, beginning in the Judiciary, toward the far-right conservative camp. Hardliners are engineering this shift and coordinating to politically neutralize the moderate agenda.

Principlists generally oppose engagement with the West and support protectionist economic policies and significant state involvement in society. This faction includes many in the clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who oppose Rouhani’s moderate government.

Rouhani lost vital political support when former IRGC Air Force Commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf replaced Ali Larijani as parliament speaker in May. Ghalibaf is a staunch fundamentalist and *withdrew from Iran’s presidential race in 2017 to endorse current hardline Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi against Rouhani. Since entering office, Ghalibaf has *chastised the president, called for parliamentary oversight, and handled now-failed impeachment efforts against Rouhani in July. Ghalibaf also *barred the vice president from defending Rouhani’s proposed industry minister during a parliamentary vote of confidence; the nomination failed 140 to 104 votes.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *intervened to quash the impeachment proceedings against Rouhani. Khamenei likely fears that high-profile questionings and overt regime infighting would damage already dwindling public confidence in the Islamic Republic. Parliament’s attacks against the administration will nonetheless further discredit moderates before Iran’s 2021 presidential election.

Larijani is contrastingly a Rouhani ally who supported the president’s agenda. He had been speaker since 2008 and pushed approval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) through Parliament in a 20-minute session in 2015. Larijani also ardently supported Rouhani’s efforts to promote transparency and compliance with international money laundering and counterterrorism-financing standards.

Hardliners are using their newfound legislative influence to promote aggressive and authoritarian policies, undermining Rouhani’s political promises. Principlists reignited debate over the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol, and regime censorship. Hardline parliamentarians submitted separate plans to Ghalibaf in recent weeks to withdraw from the JCPOA and *Additional Protocol agreement. Hardliners also resumed their criticisms against social media, supporting a ban on Instagram.

The motion to abrogate the JCPOA depends on whether the US uses snapback sanctions to extend the international arms embargo on Iran, and it is unclear whether the regime would enforce the plan. The Additional Protocol facilitates the IAEA’s inspection, monitoring, and verification of Iran’s nuclear program. Hardliner opposition to the JCPOA and IAEA presence in Iran is not, however, new. Principlists have historically criticized the nuclear deal and generally disagreed with the Rouhani administration’s more internationalist approach vis-à-vis the West.

Ghalibaf is also likely coordinating with hardliners outside Parliament to politically neutralize Rouhani. Ghalibaf and Judiciary Chief Raisi reportedly *sent a letter to Khamenei expressing opposition to a government proposal to sell oil bonds domestically. Rouhani pushed the plan at a *Supreme Economic Coordination Council meeting on August 10, seeking to bolster Iran’s foreign currency reserves as the rial hit record lows. Rouhani co-chairs the council with Ghalibaf and Raisi. The Judiciary, however, denied sending the letter to Khamenei.

IRGC commanders will also likely leverage the principlist legislature to expand their political influence. Ghalibaf is part of a band of senior IRGC officers with close ties dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. This circle—which CTP labels the IRGC Command Network—has historically intervened in Iran’s domestic politics to assert its far-right ideals. Ghalibaf *convened with several Command Network members in June to publicly emphasize their mutual support for one another.

A hardliner will likely become president in 2021 as Rouhani is further discredited. Rouhani cannot run for reelection and is struggling to preserve his political achievements and legacy. Iran is experiencing stagflation and severe recession. A hardline candidate could leverage domestic frustrations to win the election, and many Iranians are disillusioned with moderates. Iranian media occasionally *acknowledges the likelihood of a principlist victory. Principlists could also again interfere to advantage far-right candidates as they did in February.

Analysts and Iranian media have begun speculating likely candidates, many of whom are far-right politicians close to Khamenei. Potential hardline contenders include Raisi, Mostazafan Foundation President Parviz Fattah, and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Ghalibaf may also be preparing for his own presidential bid given his behavior in Parliament. Presidential aspirants will tout their credentials in the coming months to prepare for their campaign. These candidates will likely promote themselves as anti-corruption, pro-privatization, and matching Khamenei’s public *call for a young and ideological president.

Expanding hardliner control will facilitate increasingly aggressive and authoritarian Iranian behavior while exacerbating economic turmoil and domestic dissent. Principlists will prioritize funding the armed forces—particularly the IRGC—for adventurism abroad and crackdowns domestically. Hardliners will also facilitate isolationist economic policies and may ultimately damage the economy further. Anti-regime sentiment in Iran will also likely grow as principlists consolidate power.

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