Iran File

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

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

Hardliners will likely control Iran’s parliament after legislative elections on February 21 and promote increasingly aggressive and authoritarian policies. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—generally oppose close ties with the West and support significant state involvement in Iranian society. A parliament dominated by hardliners will increasingly prioritize funding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps under US sanctions and further enable brutal crackdowns against protesters.

Principlists are interfering in the election to replace so-called “moderates” with more hardline figures. Iran’s ultraconservative Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderates from the elections. The council is responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates and includes six clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and six legislators elected by parliament. The council historically disqualifies large numbers of candidates, but its most recent disapprovals are abnormally high. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees.

The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *claimed most disapprovals were due to corruption—which is endemic in parliament—and a lack of commitment to the Islamic Republic.

This is part of a hardliner effort to leverage domestic economic grievances to remove moderates from power since the Dey Protests in 2017–18. Anti-regime demonstrators decried government mismanagement and corruption and protested again in November 2019. Hardliners argued President Hassan Rouhani’s government could not manage the economy and impeached senior administration officials in mid-2018 in response to the protests. Hardliners—led by Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi—later arrested political opponents in 2019, ostensibly to combat corruption.

A hardliner-dominated legislature would likely elect a hardline parliament speaker. The current moderate parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has held office since 2008 and *announced in November 2019 he is not running for reelection. Larijani has been an ally to Rouhani and supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Parliament is institutionally weak, but the parliament speaker is an ex officio member of Iran’s top security and economic decision-making bodies—the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Economic Coordination Council. Parliament does, however, influence key processes such as approving the fiscal budget and international accords such as the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

 

Read Further On:

Parliamentary Elections

Iran-EU Nuclear Talks


 

Parliamentary Elections

The Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderate and reformist candidates from competing in the parliamentary elections on February 21. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees. The council also barred 90 incumbents, including some conservatives who have broken from hardliner positions. The council disqualified conservative Ali Motahari, who Radio Farda described as “known for challenging hardliners including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views.”

The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *attributed disapprovals primarily to “economic corruption, moral corruption, and opposition to sovereignty” on January 12. Expediency Discernment Council member Ahmad Tavakkoli *argued the Guardian Council’s disapproval of candidates was arbitrary on January 30.

Moderate leaders—including President Hassan Rouhani—attacked the Guardian Council in response and seek to curb its powers. Rouhani *stated the council was preventing competition among candidates and likened the elections to an “appointment” on January 27. Rouhani *ordered First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to draft legislation to limit the council’s authorities over candidate vetting.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports the disqualifications and defended the Guardian Council. Khamenei implicitly *criticized Rouhani on February 5, saying comparing the elections to appointments reduced public confidence. Khamenei also called for high voter turnout. Khamenei likely aims to install a new hardline cohort into the political establishment while maintaining the façade of democracy in Iran. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi stated questioning the electoral process aided Iran’s “enemies” and reduced public trust.

Hardliners also tried to persuade the public that the elections would still be competitive. Guardian Council Spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei *stated the council approved over 7,000 candidates. Tabnak—a media outlet owned by hardliner and former IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaei—*reported more reformists are participating in the elections than in previous cycles.

Forecast: Hardliners will likely take control of Iran’s parliament from the current moderate majority after the elections on February 21. The cyclical nature of Iranian elections further increases the likelihood moderates will perform poorly. Rouhani has failed to achieve many campaign promises, and the economy is in severe recession.

The regime’s heavy-handed interference will nonetheless fuel anti-regime sentiment in Iran but not likely cause the Islamic Republic’s collapse. Overt regime influence in the elections could catalyze anti-government protests, but the regime maintains the will to kill protesters and is seeking greater control over Iran’s information space and security services in anticipation of future unrest.

 

Iran-EU Nuclear Talks

The EU is stalling bringing Iran’s nuclear deal violations to the UN Security Council. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell *met with Rouhani in Tehran on February 3 and later stated the EU will indefinitely extend the time limit to resolve the regime’s JCPOA breaches. Rouhani expressed Iran’s commitment to cooperating with the EU to preserve the JCPOA. Borrell stipulated this extension is contingent on Iran’s continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Borrell separately *met with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

France, Germany, and the UK activated the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism on January 14 in response to Iran’s violations. The regime gave Europe a series of 60-day deadlines from May 2019 to January 2020 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. France, Germany, and the UK agreed to “continuously postpone” imposing a time limit to resolve the dispute. The EU seeks to avoid bringing the dispute to the UN Security Council, which could lead to the reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

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 emergence of new leadership in the “Axis of Resistance” following Qassem Soleimani’s death may undermine the Quds Force’s role in leading the proxy network. Soleimani commanded the Axis of Resistance and reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, circumventing the Iranian armed forces’ chain of command. Leaders outside the Quds Force will likely seek to fill the power vacuum created by Soleimani’s death.

The new Quds Force commander, Esmail Ghaani, lacks the qualities required to easily replace Soleimani. Ghaani does not have Soleimani’s stature, relationship with Khamenei, experience, or interpersonal connections in the Middle East. Ghaani instead worked in Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America when he was Quds Force deputy commander and reportedly does not speak fluent Arabic—unlike Soleimani. Ghaani will likely struggle to cultivate the same effective relationships in the region that Soleimani had. Ghaani’s less intimate relationship with Khamenei may allow Ghaani’s military superiors to subordinate him in a way they could not with Soleimani.

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leaders—including its commander, Hossein Salami—may seek greater operational control over the Axis of Resistance. Soleimani commanded Iran’s external operations and proxy network largely independent of the rest of the IRGC. The IRGC Ground Forces helped the Quds Force coordinate proxy operations in Syria but operated under Soleimani’s command framework. Salami may seek to build a distinct command echelon to bring the Quds Force back into the IRGC hierarchy and better control Iranian military and proxy activities abroad.

This goal may have motivated Salami’s *appointment of Mohammad Hejazi to Ghaani’s old position–Quds Force deputy commander—on January 20. Hejazi had a key role in integrating the Basij Organization with the IRGC Ground Forces after Khamenei appointed him as IRGC deputy commander in 2008. Hejazi previously commanded the Basij from 1998 to 2007. Salami may similarly hope to leverage Hejazi to better integrate the Quds Force with the Basij and IRGC Ground Forces, increasing Salami’s control over Iran’s external activities.

Non-Iranian actors could also assume greater leadership in the Axis of Resistance. Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah reportedly *convened with Iraqi proxy leaders in Beirut at Iran’s request to discuss overcoming internal divisions after Soleimani’s death. Nasrallah’s mediation among Iraqi proxies indicates Tehran may increasingly rely on him to coordinate its proxy activities.

Iran needs leadership in the Axis of Resistance—whether from the Quds Force or elsewhere—to moderate its escalation against the US. The regime likely worries that Soleimani’s death degraded its control over its proxies. Iran risks an inadvertent escalation with the US if Iranian-backed militias take unilateral action against Americans. The Institute for the Study of War assessed this possibility and found that Iran is likely working to establish more centralized control over its Iraqi proxies to mitigate this risk.

Read Further On:

New Quds Force Leadership

Student Protests

 

 

New Quds Force Leadership

Iran’s Supreme Leader appointed Qassem Soleimani’s successor. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *appointed Soleimani’s former deputy, Brig. Gen. First Class Esmail Ghaani, as Quds Force commander on January 3. Khamenei stated that the Quds Force’s agenda will remain unchanged under Ghaani. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami later *appointed Brig. Gen. First Class Mohammad Hejazi as Quds Force deputy commander on January 20.

Ghaani lacks Soleimani’s experience working in the Middle East and interpersonal relations with Iranian proxies. Ghaani has historically operated in secondary priority theaters to the Quds Force, likely maintaining a division of labor with Soleimani. Ghaani has traveled to Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, while Soleimani typically worked in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The US sanctioned Ghaani in 2012 for facilitating the transfer of funds and weapons shipments to Africa.

Hejazi has experience suppressing protests and working in the field with Iran’s proxies. Hejazi fought in the Iran-Iraq War and has held senior positions in the IRGC, Basij Organization, and Armed Forces General Staff. Hejazi was also deputy commander of the IRGC’s Sarallah Operational Base, which is responsible for suppressing protests and security threats in Tehran. The US sanctioned Hejazi in 2007.

Hejazi was also likely a Quds Force liaison to Lebanese Hezbollah. Iranian media *described Hejazi’s most recent position as a field officer “in one of the resistance fronts” and “responsible for the IRGC in Lebanon.” The Israel Defense Forces claimed in August 2019 that Hejazi commanded Iranian personnel in Lebanon and ran a precision-guided missile project with Hezbollah.

 

 

Student Protests

Anti-regime protests erupted in several Iranian cities and universities after the IRGC Aerospace Force shot down a Ukrainian airliner on January 8. The protests began on January 11 after mourning ceremonies for the passengers. The protests were primarily concentrated in Tehran and comprised of students. Smaller demonstrations spread to other cities including Esfahan and Karaj. Protesters criticized the IRGC and called for Khamenei’s resignation. The regime deployed the Law Enforcement Forces to suppress the demonstrations.

The expansion of Iran’s protest movement to include students in major cities could pose an increasingly complex security challenge to the regime. Iran’s last two major protest waves were the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018 and the November 2019 gasoline riots. These anti-regime protests were concentrated in cities’ peripheries and Iran’s border regions and mostly driven by economic grievances. Iran’s working class and economically disenfranchised youth were the main demographics present.

Forecast: Iranian security forces would struggle to manage simultaneous mass protests in rural areas and cities. The regime will maintain the will and capability to kill protesters, however, and will likely resort to lethal violence rapidly to quash a cross-class protest movement.

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 Iranian regime identified weaknesses in its internal security apparatus during the November gasoline riots. The regime conducted a brutal crackdown and blocked the internet to end the anti-government protests. Regime officials seek greater control over Iran’s information space and security services in anticipation of future unrest. Anti-government protests may resume in response to upcoming political events: parliamentary elections and approval of Iran’s next fiscal budget.

The internet shutdown in November sparked international and domestic criticism of the regime and hurt Iranian businesses. Iran’s rulers will block the internet again if protests reemerge but want to minimize the resulting discontent and cost. Iranian leaders *called for a stronger national intranet after the protests to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services. The regime aims to increase public use of indigenously developed social media platforms and networks to better monitor and control Iran’s information space. However, it is unlikely that the regime could replace foreign internet services in Iran completely.

Regime officials also fear insubordination and dissent among their security services’ less ideologically indoctrinated ranks. Many of Iran’s security personnel are locally recruited, and less ideologically committed personnel could refuse to employ high levels of violence against members of their own communities. The regime reportedly circulated anti-riot units around Iran during the November crackdown likely to mitigate dissent among security forces.

The regime may have arrested some Basij Organization members over insubordination during the November crackdown. On November 27, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *warned that the “enemy” seeks to infiltrate the Basij, indicating he may perceive dissent within the Basij. Iranian intelligence agents reportedly arrested over ten Basij members tied to the crackdown after Khamenei’s remarks.

Upcoming political events could catalyze the resumption of protests.

  • Anti-government protests could begin if the regime allocates more funds to up-gunning security forces for the upcoming Persian calendar year’s fiscal budget. President Hassan Rouhani submitted on December 8 his proposed budget to Parliament, which will amend the bill before submitting it to Iran’s Guardian Council for final approval. Parliament will likely increase funds for the Basij and Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) substantially. Parliament previously *increased the LEF budget by 200 percent after the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018.
  • Overt regime influence in Iran’s parliamentary elections in February 2020 could ignite anti-government demonstrations. Many Iranians are disillusioned with Iran’s political system and protested in 2009 after the fraud-plagued election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime’s vetting process for parliamentary candidates and the elections’ results could similarly inflame public frustration. Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members recently *called for vetting candidates for commitment to revolutionary ideals, likely hoping the Guardian Council will disqualify less hardline individuals.

Read Further On:

Regime Preparations for Future Protests

Iranian Escalation in Iraq

International Mediation Efforts

 

 

Regime Preparations for Future Protests

The Iranian regime anticipates and is planning to suppress future anti-government protests. Widespread anti-regime protests swept Iran in November after the regime raised gasoline prices by 50 percent. Protests spread to 100 locations across Iran, including major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Ahvaz. The regime used the Basij and LEF to stage a brutal crackdown and blocked internet access throughout Iran to end the riots.

Regime officials are detaining individuals tied to the protests to discourage dissent and organization among demonstrators. Security forces *have *arrested dozens of individuals and alleged protest leaders since the demonstrations ended in late November.

Khamenei also *called on the Basij to prepare strategies, tactics, and contingencies throughout Iran to defend the regime from further unrest. An unnamed IRGC Intelligence Organization official *warned during a meeting with parliamentarians that protests could reemerge.

Regime officials are also prioritizing the expansion of Iran’s domestic intranet, the National Information Network, to better monitor and control Iran’s information space. Rouhani *announced plans to “strengthen” the National Information Network to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services on December 8. Rouhani suggested Khamenei supports the initiative. The details of this effort are unclear, however.

IRGC officials have similarly called for improving Iran’s intranet. Passive Defense Organization (PDO) Director Gholam Reza Jalali *stated that Parliament should require Rouhani to “complete” the National Information Network by March 2021. The PDO is a quasi-military organization responsible for cyber activities and defending critical infrastructure.

 

 

Iranian Escalation in Iraq

The Iranian regime is likely preparing to attack the US or its allies in the Middle East again, possibly in Iraq. The regime has pursued an escalation strategy since May to impose a cost for the US maximum pressure campaign and divide America from its allies. Tehran attacked US drones, international commercial traffic, and oil assets and infrastructure around the Arabian Peninsula. Iran’s 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.

Iranian proxies in Iraq may kill US service members in the near future as part of Tehran’s escalation strategy. Likely Iranian proxies—likely on the IRGC Quds Forces’ order—have launched consistent rocket attacks near US positions in Iraq since May. The US assesses two Iranian proxies—Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah—conducted the attacks and observed that the attacks’ frequency and sophistication are increasing. The recent strikes injured Iraqi counterterrorism forces based around American troops.

Iranian proxies could also attack with ballistic missiles and “suicide drones.” US officials indicated that Iran added to its covert short-range ballistic missile arsenal in Iraq in November. The IRGC began storing missiles in Iraq in 2018 to deter American or Israeli attacks into Iran. American officials also warned that the IRGC Quds Force conducted reconnaissance operations with suicide drones near US troops in the region.

Forecast: Israel may resume its air campaign against Iran in response to the expansion of the IRGC’s missile arsenal in Iraq. Tel Aviv attacked Iranian and Iranian-backed positions in Iraq in July and August to degrade their military capabilities and capacity to threaten Israel from Iraq with ballistic missiles.

 

 

International Mediation Efforts

Oman is mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions and establish a partial cease-fire in Yemen. Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi discussed regional security and Yemen with senior Iranian officials while visiting Tehran on December 3. Bin Alawi met with *Rouhani, Foreign Affairs Minister *Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary *Ali Shamkhani. Rouhani noted that good relations with Saudi Arabia would facilitate regional security. Oman has hosted meetings between Riyadh and the al Houthi movement since Iran attacked Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq crude-processing plant on September 14.

Bin Alawi also met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC, on November 25. Oman has historically mediated between the US and Iran as well.

Pakistan and Kuwait also mediated between Tehran and Riyadh in recent months. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed Yemen with *Khamenei and *Rouhani in Tehran on October 13. All three called for a resolution to the civil war, and Rouhani advocated for a cease-fire. Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al Jarallah *announced on November 5 that Kuwait relayed messages from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

A component of Iran’s escalation strategy is to divide the US from its Gulf allies to degrade the US maximum pressure campaign. Iran has attacked Gulf State interests since May to impose a cost for supporting US economic pressure and tried to depict America as an unreliable security partner. Iranian officials also proposed a peace plan to Riyadh that includes a “mutual pledge of nonaggression and cooperation.”

Switzerland facilitated a prisoner exchange between the US and Iran. The US released an Iranian university professor, Masoud Soleimani, who the US convicted of helping Iran circumvent sanctions in 2018. The regime released Xiyue Wang, an American doctoral student convicted of espionage charges in Iran in 2016. Iran’s SNSC *approved the prisoner swap. Zarif later tweeted that Iran is ready for a “comprehensive prisoner exchange” and that “the ball is in the US’ court.” The prisoner exchange is unlikely to reduce tensions between the US and Iran.

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