The Iran File is an analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
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The Iranian regime is facilitating a violent crackdown to contain and end the ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq. Tehran fears that the popular demonstrations could diminish Iranian influence there and spread instability to Iran. Meanwhile, the regime is escalating in the nuclear domain to pressure Europe into trading with Iran. Iran considers its military intervention in Iraq and nuclear escalation components of its strategy to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign and preserve Iran’s regional influence.
Iran deployed forces to Iraq to violently suppress protests and preserve the Iraqi government. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force is working with its proxies to attack and intimidate demonstrators. IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has inserted himself into the Iraqi government’s protest suppression efforts and intervened to keep Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi in office. Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) may also be advising and assisting Iraqi security forces, mirroring how the LEF aided the Assad regime at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
The regime fears that the ongoing demonstrations, which have adopted an anti-Iran slant, could deprive Tehran of strategic depth and deterrent power in Iraq. Iraqi protesters have adopted anti-Iran messages and criticized the regime for its heavy-handed intervention and pervasive influence in Iraq. The unrest could also become an existential threat to the Islamic Republic if large-scale demonstrations spread into Iran.
Iranian leaders—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have accused the US of fomenting the unrest and likely consider the protests a component of the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Senior regime officials *alleged the protests are America’s latest plot to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East. Tehran likely considers its violent suppression of the Iraqi protests as the latest form of its military escalation against perceived American aggression.
Iranian leaders are also mitigating the risk of similar protests erupting in Iran. Tehran fears that the Iraqi protests’ anti–Iranian regime messaging may resonate in Iran and has tried to minimize Iranians’ exposure to the riots. The regime has canceled flights to Baghdad and Najaf and *advised against traveling to Iraq for the Shia Islamic pilgrimage, Arbaeen. The regime organ responsible for coordinating pilgrimage logistics also *stopped sending pilgrim caravans to Iraq, citing poor security conditions and road closures.
The regime is meanwhile preparing to suppress potential large-scale protests in Iran. IRGC Brig. Gen. First Class Gholam Hossein Gheyb Parvar *traveled to Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province on November 4. Gheyb Parvar was the former Basij Organization commander and now leads the IRGC’s Imam Ali Battalions, which specialize in suppressing protests in urban environments. Small-scale protests reportedly erupted in Khuzestan over the regime’s alleged killing of a popular local poet. Social media accounts also reported that some Iranians expressed solidarity with the Iraqi demonstrators during a soccer match in Khuzestan. Iranian security forces allegedly teargassed bystanders at the game.
These conditions could cause large-scale anti-regime protests to emerge in southwestern Iran. Khuzestan has long been a tinderbox for anti-regime protests due to severe economic and environmental issues and ethnic discrimination against the local Iranian Arabs.
Iran also continues escalating in the nuclear realm to pressure Europe to defy US sanctions. The regime began enriching uranium at its Fordow nuclear facility as Iran’s fourth violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran seeks to pressure Europe to offer economic deliverables in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord. French President Emmanuel Macron described the escalation as Iran deciding to leave the JCPOA. Iran also briefly detained an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector and accused her of carrying explosive materials into an Iranian nuclear facility. Iran has not previously detained inspectors at its nuclear sites. The IAEA said the regime then refused IAEA requests to allow the inspector to leave Iran. The regime may harass IAEA inspectors again or prohibit their access to nuclear sites as Iran continues escalating in the nuclear domain.
Tehran likely considers its intervention into Iraq and nuclear escalation a continuation of the escalation pattern against the US and its allies, which Iran has pursued since May 2019. Iran previously attacked regional oil assets, US drones, and American positions in Iraq while incrementally violating the JCPOA. The regime seeks to impose a cost on the US for its maximum pressure campaign and coerce Europe into helping Iran circumvent US sanctions.
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Iran’s Intervention in Iraq
Iran is intervening in Iraq because the protests could become an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Tehran fears that the anti–Iranian regime sentiments in Iraq could reignite similar protests within Iran. Iran has invested significant resources in Iraq to expand its influence and propagate Iranian proxies. The instability could deprive the regime of its gains and diminish its strategic depth and deterrent power.
Iran sent forces to Iraq to suppress the popular protests and preserve the Iraqi government. The regime has deployed the IRGC Quds Force, and possibly the LEF, to facilitate the Iraqi government’s violent crackdown on the ongoing protests. IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has reportedly visited Iraq on at least three separate occasions since the protests began in early October.
- October 2: Soleimani chaired a meeting of senior Iraqi security officials in place of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi in Baghdad. Soleimani stated, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests.” Iraqi security services have killed hundreds of protesters in a violent crackdown to end the riots. Some Iranian proxy militias in the Iraqi security structure have likely participated in the crackdown on Soleimani’s orders.
- October 30: Soleimani met with Iraqi politician and Iranian proxy Hadi al Amiri in Baghdad. Soleimani called on Amiri to continue supporting Abdul Mehdi. Prominent Iraqi politician and cleric Moqtada al Sadr had previously urged Amiri to support Abdul Mehdi’s removal from office. Amiri reportedly rejected Sadr’s calls for Abdul Mehdi’s removal after his meeting with Soleimani.
- November 2–3: Soleimani met with senior Shia clerics in Najaf.
Senior Iranian security officials blame the Iraqi protests on the US and compared the unrest to ISIS. Supreme Leader Senior Military Adviser IRGC Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi *accused the US, the UK, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of creating ISIS to destabilize the region and provide security for Israel on November 4. Safavi described the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as the “new sedition after the ISIS sedition.” Supreme National Security Council Secretary Artesh Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani *stated that the US attempt to create insecurity will fail “like the ISIS sedition.” The regime will use this characterization of the Iraqi protests as the new sedition to justify its intervention and violent suppression of Iraqi demonstrators.
Forecast: Iranian forces and proxies in Iraq may choose to escalate against the US or its partners in response to the US’s perceived role in fomenting the protests. Iranian officials—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have accused the US of stoking the unrest. The Israel Defense Forces *went on high alert in late October, anticipating a potential Iranian cruise missile or drone attack. Iran also warned that international shipping in the Red Sea is unsafe, potentially setting conditions for an attack there.
Iran Braces for Potential Protests
The Iranian regime seeks to prevent the Iraqi protests from spreading to Iran. Tehran fears that the Iraqi protests’ anti–Iranian regime messaging may resonate in Iran and has tried to minimize Iranians’ exposure to the riots. The Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry *advised Iranians traveling to Iraq for the Shia Islamic pilgrimage, Arbaeen, to suspend their travel on October 29. Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization *stopped sending caravans to Iraq, and the regime suspended flights to Baghdad and Najaf. The regime has attributed the advisory and travel suspensions to the unrest in Iraq.
The regime is particularly concerned with preventing unrest in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, is poor, and its population is predominantly Iranian Arab. Southwestern Iran was the location of some of the country’s most violent and sustained protest movements in 2018.
Iran is also preparing to confront potential large-scale unrest in southwestern Iran. IRGC Imam Ali Central Security Headquarters Commander Brig. Gen. First Class Gholam Hossein Gheyb Parvar *met with Supreme Leader Representative to Khuzestan Province Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Nabi Mousavi Fard in Ahvaz, Khuzestan province on November 4. Other unnamed IRGC and LEF officials participated in the meeting. Gheyb Parvar was previously the Basij Organization commander and now leads the IRGC’s Imam Ali Battalions, which specialize in suppressing protests in urban environments.
Small-scale protests began in Khuzestan province on November 10 in response to the regime’s alleged poisoning of popular Iranian Arab poet, Hassan Heydari. Social media accounts accused Intelligence and Security Ministry agents of killing Heydari. Khuzestan Provincial Security and Law Enforcement Managing Director Reza Najafi claimed that Heydari died of a stroke and that the protests were actually mourning ceremonies. Unconfirmed reports suggested that thousands of protesters participated, took down Islamic Republic flags, and blocked roads.
Social media accounts also reported that a small group of Iranians expressed solidarity with the Iraqi protests during a soccer match in Ahvaz. Other uncorroborated reports alleged that Iranian security forces used tear gas against some of the bystanders at the game.
Forecast: Anti–Islamic Republic sentiments in Khuzestan and sympathy for the Iraqi protesters could catalyze the reemergence of large-scale anti-regime protests. A heavy-handed regime response to any emerging demonstrations could further encourage Iranians to take to the streets.
Nuclear Deal Developments
Iran began enriching uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility as its fourth JCPOA violation. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) began injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at the Fordow facility in Qom province on November 7. President Hassan Rouhani previously *announced this intention on November 5. The facility’s location inside a fortified mountain limits the ability of conventional military strikes on the site to disrupt its nuclear activities.
This is the fourth Iranian violation intended to pressure Europe to defy US sanctions. The regime has given Europe a series of 60-day deadlines since May 2019 to offer Tehran economic deliverables in exchange for compliance with the JCPOA. Iran violated a different aspect of the JCPOA at the end of each deadline.
Rouhani reiterated Iran’s commitment to dialogue and stated that Iran would comply with the JCPOA if Europe offers economic incentives. American and European officials expressed concern over Rouhani’s announcement. US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus stated, “Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program” and described the decision as “nuclear extortion.” French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA.”
The escalation occurred amid heightened tensions between Iran and the IAEA. Iran *accused an IAEA inspector of carrying explosive materials into the AEOI’s Natanz nuclear facility on October 28 and briefly detained her. The regime has not previously detained inspectors at its nuclear sites. Iran’s harassment of the inspector is likely part of its larger escalation in the nuclear realm. The IAEA disagreed with Iran’s “characterization of the situation” and accused the regime of refusing IAEA requests to allow the inspector to leave Iran.
IAEA Deputy Director General Massimo Aparo also accused Iran of failing to cooperate with a probe investigating uranium particles found in a warehouse in Tehran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued in April 2018 that Iran covertly stored files and materials related to its old nuclear weapons development at the site. The IAEA reportedly has satellite imagery indicating that Iran cleared out the site following Netanyahu’s accusations.
Forecast: Tensions between Iran and the IAEA could flare up in the coming months as Rafael Grossi assumes office as IAEA director general in early December. Grossi has signaled a stricter approach to monitoring Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran may harass inspectors again or prevent them from accessing nuclear sites as Iran further reduces its adherence to the JCPOA.