Iran File

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

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Iran File: Can Iranian moderates and reformists threaten Raisi’s chances of becoming supreme leader? 

[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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Key Takeaway: Iranian moderates and reformists are cooperating to regain political influence by undermining hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, which could damage his chances of becoming the next supreme leader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may allow this moderate-reformist bloc to regain influence—despite the risks it poses to Raisi—to avoid domestic unrest.

Prominent Iranian moderates and reformists are coordinating to regain political influence. Moderate and reformist officials, such as former presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, *have met regularly in recent months, indicating cooperation. These officials reportedly *aim to obstruct hardline President Ebrahim Raisi and discredit hardliners ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections and 2025 presidential election.

This moderate-reformist bloc is likely leveraging hardline grievances about Raisi from within his own faction to damage his political capital among the regime’s power centers. Moderates and reformists are reportedly *collaborating with hardliners to obstruct Raisi’s policies. Hardliners have increasingly criticized Raisi’s administration since his inauguration in August 2021, especially in recent weeks. Hardline parliamentarians *criticized Raisi’s economic policies and *submitted proposals to *impeach two of Raisi’s ministers in March 2022.

Mounting criticisms of Raisi could damage his likelihood of succeeding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi is a top contender to replace Khamenei, who *backed regime interference in the 2021 presidential elections to help Raisi win. Moderates and reformists may attempt to sow doubt about Raisi’s political competency among actors likely to shape succession. Supreme leader succession *is an opaque process that will likely involve negotiation among the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Khamenei’s allies, and prominent politicians and clerics. A moderate-reformist bloc could leverage public criticism of Raisi to contest his bid to become supreme leader throughout this process.

Khamenei may allow this moderate-reformist bloc to regain some influence, despite the risks it poses to Raisi, to mitigate domestic unrest and reinforce the facade of political diversity. Politically and economically motivated protests have become more prevalent in recent years, as the regime faces a growing legitimacy crisis. Iran’s 2020 legislative elections and 2021 presidential election saw a record low turnout, likely signaling public disillusion with the regime following its interference to favor hardliners. It is unclear how much latitude, if any, Khamenei is willing to grant this moderate-reformist bloc. The supreme leader may grant a moderate-reformist coalition influence to mitigate further unrest. Khamenei could, alternatively, leverage regime institutions to back Raisi, as he did in the 2021 presidential election.

Iran File: Iranian missile attack on Erbil highlights growing threat to US and partners 

[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 conducted its recent ballistic missile attack into Iraqi Kurdistan primarily to retaliate for recent Israeli operations against Tehran and secondarily to pressure the US to withdraw its forces from the Middle East. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fired 12 short-range ballistic missiles at Erbil, Iraq, on March 13, targeting an alleged Israeli intelligence site near the construction of the new US consulate. The US claimed that the attack hit a residential area and reported no casualties, while Iranian state media *reported three Israelis dead and seven wounded. This attack demonstrates the growing threat that Iran poses to the US and its partners regardless of the potential conclusion of a nuclear agreement.

Iranian leadership likely pursued at least three objectives in this attack.

  1. Deter Israel. The Iran-Israel conflict has intensified over the past year as Tehran has continued its regional activities and expanded its nuclear program. Iranian officials *claimed that the March 13 missile strike was retaliation for recent Israeli attacks against the regime. Israel *conducted a drone attack on an Iranian military facility from Iraq on February 12 and *killed two IRGC colonels in an air strike near Damascus, Syria, on March 7.

    Iranian leadership may have decided to strike near the construction of the new US consulate to further involve the US in the regional conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The IRGC has increasingly attacked US forces and facilities in recent months as part of this cycle of escalation, likely seeking to fray US-Israel relations and pressure the US into discouraging Israeli operations against the regime. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces conducted two drone attacks against US forces in late 2021 to retaliate for Israeli operations. A senior IRGC commander, Gholam Ali Rashid, *stated in December 2021 that the regime would attack “all centers, bases, routes, and spaces used as sources or routes for [Israeli] aggression,” holding the US accountable for potential Israeli attacks.
  2. Degrade a perceived Mossad network in Iraqi Kurdistan. Regime officials *claim that an Israeli intelligence network operates in Iraqi Kurdistan with *US backing to support attacks like the February 12 drone strike against Iran. The IRGC has tried to disrupt this perceived network in recent months. Iranian proxies in Iraq launched two kamikaze drones at an alleged *Mossad site at Erbil International Airport on September 11, 2021.
  3. Pressure American political leadership to withdraw US forces from Iraq. This goal was likely secondary to the previous two objectives but may have informed the Iranian decision to strike near the construction of the new US consulate. The IRGC and its proxies have attacked and threatened US positions in Iraq and Syria in recent years to catalyze a US exit. Iranian officials likely calculate that the US may withdraw if the regime kills enough Americans and raises the cost of maintaining the US presence in the region without sparking a larger conflict. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan likely encouraged this long-standing Iranian expectation.

The attack indicates Iranian leadership’s growing willingness to use offensive capabilities, such as ballistic missiles, to pursue external objectives. The IRGC has conducted at least eight missile strikes abroad since 2017, highlighting the more prominent role missiles are playing in its regional strategy. Iran previously had not launched missiles abroad since 2001. Three of Iran’s recent missile attacks targeted the US or its partners. Regime officials are now more confident in their missile capabilities and more willing to use them against the US and its partners.

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Concluding a nuclear agreement would not diminish the threat that Iran poses to US forces and partners in the Middle East. Iran will continue its campaign to expel the US from the region and may therefore kill American service members in the months ahead. In January 2022, the *IRGC commander and his *chief of staff both publicly reiterated their commitment to forcing the US from the region. Tehran may also conduct further attacks against perceived Israeli intelligence locations, which could again expand to include attacks on or near US forces. The IRGC spokesperson *claimed that there are at least two other Mossad sites in Iraq and, on March 17, threatened to attack again. The Biden administration must rethink how to establish deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and should not allow the fear of derailing—or being blamed for derailing—the Vienna nuclear talks to prevent it from taking the necessary measures to protect its forces in the region, continuing to fight the Islamic State, and working with US allies.

Iran File: Iran’s evolving threat calculus in the Gulf

[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 is likely coordinating proxy and partner attacks against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to deter growing Emirati cooperation with Israel. The Houthi movement conducted drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi, UAE, for the first time since 2018 on January 17, 24, and 31, 2022. One attack targeted the Al Dhafra air base, which houses approximately 2,000 US service members. An Iranian proxy in Iraq also conducted a drone attack on the UAE for the first time on February 2. Iran may coordinate future attacks on the UAE and possibly Bahrain for cooperating with Israel, endangering US personnel in these countries.

Iran is responding to the increase in diplomatic and defense cooperation between Israel and several Gulf states, which began in December 2021. Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE participated in the US-led International Maritime Exercise in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea from January 31 until February 17. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett *became the first Israeli leader to visit the UAE, on December 13, and Bahrain, on February 14. Israel offered defense and intelligence assistance to the UAE on January 18 and signed a historic defense agreement with Bahrain on February 3.

Iranian media and officials have expressed concern about strengthened Israeli-Gulf ties and are warning the UAE and Bahrain against further cooperation with Israel. Iranian media began *circulating reports of an Israel-led and US-backed anti-Iran coalition in the Gulf after Israel and Bahrain signed a defense agreement on February 3. Iranian media also *alleged that Israel is building an underground military base in the UAE and *called the UAE an “Israeli colony.” Iranian officials reportedly warned Bahrain against permitting an Israeli naval presence in the Gulf, and have since *publicly *warned Bahrain against expanding ties with Israel. Iranian officials have historically *called an Israeli military presence in the Gulf a “red line” and *restated this position in recent weeks.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) may coordinate further attacks on Gulf states cooperating with Israel and could target US interests in these states in a less likely but most dangerous scenario. Iran may facilitate more attacks on bases hosting US service members, as it did in Al Dhafra, or target US personnel in the UAE and Bahrain. Iran may coordinate more proxy and partner attacks on the UAE and could target Bahrain to deter Abu Dhabi and Manama from further cooperation with Israel. Iran could attack Bahrain by facilitating proxy attacks, facilitating or conducting cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure, or providing increased financial or military support to Bahraini dissident groups.

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