Iran File

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

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

The US withdrawal from northern Syria has emboldened Turkey to begin a major military offensive there against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces. The offensive is weakening the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and expediting the Islamic State’s return in Syria. Iran condemned Turkey’s incursion and fears that it could threaten Syria’s stability. Iran has invested significant resources in recent years to stabilize Syria and preserve the control of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Tehran needs to oppose the Turkish invasion for regional and domestic reasons but considers Ankara a valuable economic partner. The Iranian regime seeks to deter Turkey’s offensive without damaging the countries’ relationship.

The regime criticized Turkey and expressed support for the Syrian Kurds to appease external and internal audiences. Iranian officials *emphasized the need for the Syrian Kurds to reintegrate under the Assad regime. Iran wants to show support for its ally, Assad, and frame the Tehran-Damascus axis as a suitable security guarantor to the Kurds to replace the US in northern Syria.

Iran also needs to express solidarity with the Syrian Kurds to appease its domestic Iranian Kurdish minority. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which is affiliated with the Syrian Kurdish forces—has waged a low-level insurgency in northwestern Iran in recent years and *frequently *clashes with Iranian security services. The regime fears that a lack of support for the Syrian Kurds could bolster support for the PKK’s affiliates in northwestern Iran and exacerbate the security situation there. Iran conducted an unscheduled military exercise in the country’s northwest on October 9 likely to display strength and deter an increase in anti-regime Kurdish militancy.

The regime has tried to deter the Turkish offensive through diplomatic and military means while avoiding alienating Ankara. Senior Iranian officials—such as *President Hassan Rouhani and *Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—called for Turkey to respect Syria’s territorial integrity and offered to mediate between the Assad regime, the SDF, and Turkey. The military exercise in northwestern Iran near its border with Turkey also signaled the regime’s disapproval of the offensive.

Iran has restrained its efforts to deter Turkey, however, due to Tehran’s desire to maintain friendly ties with Ankara. Rouhani used measured rhetoric when calling on “friend and brother” Turkey to reconsider its actions. Turkey is a valuable trading partner for Iran and a vital actor in Syria. Iran likely hopes to reestablish energy trade with Turkey, which was a significant importer of Iranian oil before the US revoked sanctions waivers in May 2019.

Read Further On:

Iranian Reactions to Turkish Offensive into Syria

IRGC Arrest of Prominent Anti-Regime Activist


 

 

Iranian Reactions to Turkish Offensive into Syria

The US withdrawal from northern Syria has emboldened Turkey to begin a major military offensive there against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces. The offensive is weakening the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and expediting the Islamic State’s return in Syria. Iran condemned Turkey’s incursion and fears that it could threaten Syria’s stability. Iran has invested significant resources in recent years to stabilize Syria and preserve the control of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Tehran needs to oppose the Turkish invasion for regional and domestic reasons but considers Ankara a valuable economic partner. The Iranian regime seeks to deter Turkey’s offensive without damaging the countries’ relationship.

Iran signaled its disapproval to Turkey through diplomatic and military measures. Senior Iranian officials emphasized the need to de-escalate along the border and warned of the incursion’s consequences. These officials included *President Hojjat ol Eslam Hassan Rouhani, *Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, *Presidential Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, and *Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani *canceled an official visit to Istanbul, Turkey, to protest the offensive. Supreme Leader Senior Foreign Policy Adviser Ali Akbar Velayati *stated that Syrians of every ethnicity must come together to defend the country. The Artesh Ground Forces also *launched an unscheduled military exercise in northwestern Iran near the Turkish border on October 9 likely intended to reinforce Iran’s disapproval of Turkey.

Iran also seeks to appease Kurdish constituencies to deter the spread of anti-regime sentiment and Kurdish militancy. Kurds comprise 10 percent of the Iranian population and are concentrated in Iran’s northwest. This area has a restive border region and an active anti-regime Kurdish insurgency. The regime fears that a lack of support for the Syrian Kurds could bolster support for Kurdish militants in northwestern Iran and increase Kurdish attacks on regime forces. Anti-Turkey protests began in Iran, especially in its northwest, in response to the Turkish offensive. Parliamentarians from predominantly Kurdish regions criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and compared him to Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. The Iranian Parliament also condemned the Turkish invasion and called for Iran to support the Syrian Kurds.

 

 

IRGC Arrest of Prominent Anti-Regime Activist

Iran highlighted its willingness to target opposition figures abroad. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization *announced that it arrested exiled anti-regime activist Ruhollah Zam on October 14. Zam had been living in Paris, France, where he operated anti-regime outlet Amad News. The IRGC stated that the arrest involved deception and surprise. Iranian officials *have celebrated the IRGC and its operation in recent days.

The IRGC likely coaxed Zam to travel to Iraq, where pro-Iran agents detained him. An unidentified individual reportedly lured Zam to travel to Iraq under the false pretense that he would meet with prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al Sistani. A source from Sistani’s office *denied any plans for a meeting. The French Interior Ministry confirmed that Zam left France for Iraq. The regime has boasted of its ability to feed Zam false information before when it published a *documentary on the matter in March 2019. An unidentified Iraqi source claimed that Iraqi intelligence agents arrested Zam when he arrived in Baghdad at Iran’s request and transferred him to Iranian interrogators. The IRGC then moved Zam to Iran and arrested him.

Zam’s arrest may reflect the IRGC Intelligence Organization’s increasingly external focus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered structural changes to the IRGC in May 2019. These included shifting the IRGC Intelligence Organization to a more external focus, potentially including targeting opposition figures abroad. The regime accused Zam of working with the US and Israel to spread anti-regime sentiment and likely perceived him as participating in the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Forecast: Iran’s success in capturing Zam and the relatively little international media coverage of the arrest will likely embolden the IRGC Intelligence Organization to target additional anti-regime figures.

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