The Iran File is a weekly intelligence summary that synthesizes events from the past week and forecasts what to expect in the future.
Iran signals readiness to defend against Israeli strike
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]
Key takeaway: Iran likely signalled its readiness to defend against a potential Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities.
The Artesh Air Force, Artesh Khatam ol Anbia Air Defense Base, and the IRGC Aerospace Force conducted the Defenders of the Velayat Sky 97 air defense military exercises throughout Iran from November 5 - 6. The exercises follow the annually celebrated November 4 anniversary of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Iran as well as the November 5 reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened to restart “nuclear activities cancelled [under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)]” on August 13 if Europe cannot guarantee Iran the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Khamenei called on Europe to continue importing Iranian oil and doing business in Iran. Europe has failed thus far to implement the special purpose vehicle (SPV) which would allow European buyers to continue importing Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions.
Israel perceives Iran’s nuclear program as an immediate security threat and may take preemptive military action against Iranian nuclear sites. Israel has raised issue with Iran’s nuclear program and claimed that Iran has continued to pursue a nuclear weapons program since the JCPOA’s 2016 implementation. Israel launched strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, in 1981 and 2006 respectively.
MILITARY & SECURITY
- IRGC and Artesh hold two-day military exercise focused on air defense. The IRGC Aerospace Force, Artesh Air Force, and Artesh Khatam ol Anbia Air Defense Base *held the Defenders of the Velayat Sky 97 joint-military exercises in “northern, western, eastern, and central” Iran from November 5 - 6 following the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on November 5. The last iteration of the exercises occured in December 2016 in southern Iran. Iranian armed forces *unveiled the homegrown Mersad missile defense system during the second day of the exercises. The IRGC Aerospace Force *claimed to successfully destroy a mock unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) using the Iranian-made 3rd of Khordad missile defense system. Officials claimed the purpose of the drills were to show Iran’s readiness to defend its airspace and security against any enemy invasion and that the exercises covered 500,000 sq kilometers of territory including central Iran. Key nuclear infrastructure is located in central Iran including in Natanz (Esfahan Province), Fordow (Qom Province), and Arak (Markazi Province).
- Israel reportedly launches cyber attack against Iranian infrastructure as U.S. sanctions return. Israel allegedly conducted a cyber attack against Iranian infrastructural systems using a new generation of the Stuxnet computer worm. Passive Defense Organization IRGC Brig. Gen. *Gholamreza Jalali and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi confirmed that Iran detected a new version of Stuxnet attempting to access its systems. It is unclear how much damage the virus may have done. Jahromi accused Israel ofperpetrating the virus’s attack on November 4. Israel *has not commented on its involvement in Stuxnet’s most recent iteration. A previous version of the Stuxnet virus attacked Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2009 and 2010, infiltrating over 15 facilities and reportedly causing significant damage. Jalali accused the U.S. and Israel of directing the virus during the 2009-2010 attack.
REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS & DIPLOMACY
S. Treasury Department sanctions target Iranian energy and banking sectors. The U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it designated 700 individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) on November 5. The designations primarily targeted Iran’s banking and energy sectors and were part of the second-round of reimposed U.S. sanctions against Iran after the May 8 U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that Iran “will face mounting financial isolation and economic stagnation until they fundamentally change their destabilizing behavior.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that OFAC granted sanctions waivers to eight countries (China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, and South Korea) allowing the recipients to continue importing Iranian oil until March 2019. Pompeo previously made 12 demands of Iran including restricting its nuclear enrichment, halting ballistic missile development, and ceasing its destabilizing regional activities on May 21. Pompeo stated that the U.S. would remove all sanctions against Iran if Iran complies with his demands. OFAC issued revisions to five previously-designated Iranian banks from the designations on November 8.
- Three unidentified EU diplomats claimed that no European country has yet agreed to host the EU’s special purpose vehicle (SPV). The sources also alleged that EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini made requests to several states to headquarter the SPV. Mogherini *announced on September 9 the EU’s intention to establish the SPV, which will serve as a barter system allowing European buyers to purchase Iranian oil. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif *discussed the implementation of the SPV in a phone call with British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt on November 5.
- The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) announced that it will suspend unidentified Iranian banks from its international network on November 5. SWIFT will likely withhold access to its network from Iranian financial institutions that the U.S. has designated with secondary sanctions. EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spokesperson Maja Kocijancic described SWIFT’s decision as “regrettable.”
- Iran and Russia continue coordination in Syrian and Yemeni peace processes. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Foreign Ministry Senior Advisor for Special Political Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari met separately with a Russian delegation in Tehran on November 5 and 6. Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev *presented a report to Shamkhani about the October 27 Germany-France-Russia-Turkey quadrilateral summit in Istanbul, Turkey. The summit convened to discuss the Syrian peace process and the formation of a constitutional committee. Ansari *discussed the Yemeni peace process with Lavrentiev and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin. Ansari previously coordinated with Russian officials on Yemen in October.
- Falahatpisheh: Negotiations with U.S. are not possible. Parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy (NSFP) Committee head Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh *noted on November 3 that the “possibility of negotiations with the U.S. does not exist [under] the current circumstances.” Falahatpisheh stated that Iran “should not close negotiation channels with the U.S. if negotiations exist in different areas,” however. He noted that negotiations could take place on the “elite and secret-diplomacy level[s],” and that Iran has conducted such negotiations before. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *prohibited negotiations with the U.S. during a speech on August 13 after U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his openness to meet with President Hassan Rouhani. Falahatpisheh made his comments on November 3 during a press conference one day before the annually celebrated anniversary commemorating the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran on November 4.