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.

October 7 Briefing

The Iranian regime is attempting to divide the US from its Gulf partners to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign. The US has applied mounting economic pressure against Tehran since May 2018 to compel it to negotiate an agreement about its nuclear program and regional activities more favorable to America than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran wants to show that it can wage a multifront war against the Gulf and impose a cost on them for supporting America’s Iran policy. The regime is also trying to depict the US as an unreliable partner to the Gulf and promote itself as an alternative security guarantor in the Middle East.

Iran has launched numerous attacks against the Gulf from multiple fronts since May 2019. These attacks have included Iranian-led strikes against Gulfi oil assets and infrastructure around the Arabian Peninsula. These attacks culminated for the moment with the September 14 drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq crude-processing plant, the world’s largest oil-processing facility. Iran also launched a cyberattack targeting parts of Bahrain’s vital water infrastructure in July.

The regime is conducting a sophisticated information campaign targeting both American and Gulfi audiences to try to divide the US from its allies. The al Houthi movement in Yemen *claimed responsibility for the Abqaiq attack and threatened additional strikes. This claim caused Western debate to shift away from discussing Tehran’s responsibility and instead focus initially on Riyadh’s intervention and failures in Yemen. Iranian officials *began publicly framing the US as an unreliable security partner to its Gulf allies. The regime simultaneously *proposed forming a coalition of regional states to promote security around the Persian Gulf during the UN General Assembly in New York—directly contesting the US-led security mission there, which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have joined.

Iranian state-controlled media is separately *messaging to its internal Persian-speaking audience that Riyadh is instigating ongoing large-scale protests in Iraq. These riots have killed over 100 individuals thus far. Protester grievances are primarily economic and anti-government, but some protesters have also voiced anti–Iranian regime sentiments. Social media accounts circulated unverified photos of Iraqi protesters burning the Iranian flag. The regime seeks to divert attention away from the protests’ anti-Iran tone and blame the unrest on Saudi Arabia and foreign intervention.

Forecast: The regime may use additional military means against the Gulf States to impose further pressure. Tehran hopes to exploit the Gulf’s desire to de-escalate and considers this an opportunity to weaken its partnership with America. Riyadh has discussed easing tensions with regional mediators. The regime will seek to highlight further its capability to strike the Gulf from multiple fronts and demonstrate that the Gulf's support for the US maximum pressure campaign will come at a cost.

Read Further On:

Iran-Gulf Dynamics

Protests in Iraq


 

Iran-Gulf Dynamics

The Iranian regime is using military, political, and information tactics to divide the US from its Gulf allies to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign. These efforts are components of Tehran’s escalation strategy against the US maximum pressure campaign. Iran wants to show that it can inflict a cost on the Gulf States for supporting the US’s economic pressure while portraying itself as an alternative security partner to the US.

Iran has attacked Gulf State interests on multiple fronts in recent months. The regime has primarily targeted Gulfi oil assets and infrastructure in attacks launched from Iraq, Yemen, and Iran itself. Iran seeks to demonstrate that it can wage a multifront war against the US’s Gulf allies and impose a cost for supporting the US maximum pressure campaign.

  • Iran attacked Saudi, Emirati, and Norwegian oil tankers near Fujairah Port, UAE, on May 12.
  • Iranian proxies in Iraq conducted a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline on May 14.
  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized an Emirati oil tanker transiting through the Strait of Hormuz on July 14.
  • Iran conducted a cyberattack on Bahrain that infiltrated the systems of government bodies and vital infrastructure.
  • The al Houthi movement conducted a drone attack on one of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil fields near the Emirati border on August 17.
  • Iran launched a drone and missile attack on the Abqaiq crude-processing plant in eastern Saudi Arabia on September 14.

The regime also launched an information campaign to highlight anti-Saudi sentiments in the West and depict the US as an unreliable security partner. The al Houthi movement *claimed responsibility for Iran’s attack on Abqaiq and alleged that the attack was in retaliation for Saudi crimes in Yemen. This claim caused Western debate to initially center on discussion of American support for Riyadh and Saudi misdeeds in Yemen instead of response options to Iran.

Senior Iranian officials began publicly framing the US as an unreliable security partner while promoting Iran as an alternate security guarantor in the Middle East. IRGC officials and close advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—including *Mohsen Rezaei and *Hossein Dehghan—argued that the US cannot protect Saudi Arabia. Armed Forces General Staff Chief *Mohammad Bagheri and President *Hassan Rouhani proposed security cooperation with the Gulf to promote stability. Rouhani suggested forming a coalition of regional states—called the HOPE Coalition—to ensure security around the Persian Gulf during the UN General Assembly in New York.

 

Protests in Iraq

Large-scale popular protests have erupted throughout Iraq, killing over 100 individuals thus far. Protester grievances are primarily economic and anti-government, but some have expressed anti-Iran sentiments. Social media accounts circulated unverified photos of protesters burning the Iranian flag.

The regime is accusing the US and Saudi Arabia of stoking the protests in Iraq. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted that Iran’s “enemies” seek to divide Iran and Iraq and emphasized the close religious connection between the two countries on October 6. IRGC-controlled and other regime-affiliated outlets previously made *similar *allegations that the US and *Saudi Arabia instigated the riots. Mehr News Agency *argued that the protests are not popular or domestically organized. The regime seeks to divert attention away from the protests’ anti-Iran tone and blame the unrest on foreign intervention.

Iranian media is also noting how the protests could threaten Iraq’s stability and prominent Shia figures. Parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee member Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh *stated that those who bombed Iraq and supported ISIS are using the protests to destabilize Iraq. ISNA *reported a failed assassination attempt against prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Ali Sistani.

Most Iranian figures had initially tried to avoid publicly acknowledging the protests before Khamenei’s tweet. Few senior Iranian officials commented on the demonstrations until Khamenei’s tweet on October 6. IRGC and Supreme Leader–affiliated outlets—such as Fars News Agency and IRIB News—initially avoided reporting details on the protests. Hardline media instead focused on Iraqi leaders’ calls for nonviolence and restraint. These outlets covered remarks from Iraq’s *Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, *President Barham Salih, and *prominent cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Forecast: The regime may intervene in Iraq through IRGC agents and proxies to crack down on protesters. Iran could try to justify a military intervention in Iraq under the pretext of defending the Shia community and Iraq’s security from foreign aggression and terrorism. Regime officials framing the protests as an existential threat to Iraq and the Shia community could indicate the regime is preparing to do this. Tehran fears the spread of protests and that they could ignite similar demonstrations in Iran. The rioters in Iraq share many grievances with previous protesters in Iran, who have demonstrated against economic mismanagement and the regime’s expeditionary behavior since December 2017. These sentiments in Iraq could spread to Iran, especially as Iranian pilgrims return to Iran following the Shia Islamic holiday Arbaeen.

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Oct '19