Iran Project

Iran Update, March 29, 2023

Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian alluded to Iranian involvement in the recent attacks on US bases in Syria during his meeting with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia on March 29. Abdollahian rejected US reports that Iranian drones were involved in the March 23 attack on a US base in Syria but added that Iran responded “decisively and clearly to the American side” in “the events that took place east of the Euphrates.” The US conducted airstrikes on at least two Iranian-backed militant positions in eastern Syria on March 23 in retaliation for a drone attack on a US base near Hasakah. Likely Iranian-backed militants conducted a rocket attack on the US base at the Green Village base in eastern Syria on March 24, likely in retaliation for the US airstrikes, as CTP previously assessed. Amir Abdollahian’s rejection of Iranian drone involvement in the recent attacks was likely a reference to the March 23 drone attack on the Hasaka base. His second statement about the decisive "response" was likely a reference to the Iranian's separate retaliatory rocket attack on the Green Village base, as CTP previously assessed. Amir Abdollahian’s use of the Persian word “pasokh” or “respond” suggests that he may be claiming responsibility for the rocket attacks on the Green Village base.

Iran Update, March 28, 2023

IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour claimed foreign-backed threats are the source of unrest in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, possibly to set conditions to degrade Prominent Sunni Cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid’s anti-regime following in Zahedan. Pakpour claimed that foreign-backed “evildoers and enemies” were responsible for unrest in the province and threatened to deal “severely” with these actors in a speech to local clan leaders, scholars, and critics in Sistan and Baluchistan Province on March 28. The regime has both recently and historically blamed foreign actors to justify violently cracking down on domestic unrest. CTP has not observed any significant increase in violence in Zahedan that would warrant a regime security response. This suggests Pakpour’s statement referenced anti-regime protests inspired by Abdol Hamid, who has continuously criticized the regime during his Friday prayer sermons and generated significant in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province throughout the past several months.

Iran Update, March 27, 2023

Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have messaged that the Iran-led Axis of Resistance is prepared to continue escalating against American forces in eastern Syria. Iran uses the term “Axis of Resistance” to refer to the regional state, semi-state, and non-state actors with which Tehran cooperates to pursue its strategic objectives, including the Bashar al Assad regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various Iraqi, Syrian, and other proxy groups. The Iranian Advisory Center in Syria—likely a front for the IRGC Quds Force—issued a statement on March 24 warning the US that the Axis of Resistance has “the upper hand” in Syria and can retaliate against any US attacks. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Spokesperson Keyvan Khosravi echoed these remarks on March 25. Iranian state media and Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated outlets have similarly emphasized in recent days that the Axis of Resistance is prepared to attack US forces in eastern Syria if the escalation cycle between them continues. The IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah are responding to the series of attacks between the US and Iranian-backed forces that erupted in Syria on March 23-24 after Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American.

Iran Update, March 24, 2023

The US has become entangled in a regional escalation pattern between Iran and Israel. Iranian-backed militants conducted a kamikaze drone attack on US forces in northeastern Syria, killing one American, on March 23. Iran likely ordered the attack in retaliation for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed targets in Syria. Israel has conducted several such strikes in recent days, including attacking Iranian-backed positions at Aleppo International Airport on March 22, as CTP previously reported. Senior Iranian military officers frequently threaten that they will hold the US accountable for Israeli attacks in Syria.

Iran Update, March 23, 2023

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has trapped the Iranian regime by focusing public and government attention on improving the economy—an issue he does not yet appear willing to seriously address. Khamenei confined intra-regime debate to the economy—rather than addressing the socio-cultural issues that fueled the Mahsa Amini protests—and proposed various solutions to Iran’s economic problems during his Nowrouz address on March 21. Khamenei called for privatization, stating that “the most important problem and weakness of the country is the governmental nature of the economy.” Khamenei additionally acknowledged some critics’ use of the term “khasoulati”—meaning “state-controlled”—to describe the economic dominance of parastatal entities. Khamenei’s reference to this term confirms that he is aware of some of the arguments made by pragmatic hardliners, such as Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, about what role the parastatal establishment should play in Iran’s economy. Ghalibaf has explicitly called for parastatal organizations to decrease their involvement in the economy in recent weeks, as CTP previously reported. Khamenei’s recognition of and lip service to this conversation does not necessarily mean he is prepared to make the difficult decisions involved in seriously prying the economy from the grip of the state-owned economic giants. Meaningful privatization would require an overhaul of the Iranian economy which would likely take years to complete and would cause severe economic disruptions. Khamenei declined to take such measures when former President Hassan Rouhani advocated for them fervently, moreover. It is thus more likely that Khamenei is discussing privatization because he has designated the economy as one of the only acceptable topics of intra-regime debate.

Iran Update, March 22, 2023

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber discussed privatization in ambiguous terms on March 22, likely in response to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s demand for concrete action to improve the Iranian economy. Mokhber stated that the Raisi administration is examining how involved “state and parastatal companies” are in the economy. He added that "the industrial and economic activities of the administration are being relinquished to the private sector.” These remarks are likely a response to Khamenei’ speech on January 30 in which Khamenei described Mokhber as bearing a specific responsibility for the economy as well as to Khamenei’s Nowrouz statement on March 21, which focused primarily on improving Iran’s economy.

Iran Update, March 21, 2023

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shut down intra-regime debates about political reform to address protester grievances and instead confined these debates to the economy during a Nowrouz speech on March 21. Khamenei stated that Iran’s enemies seek to transform Iran by “changing the constitution or the structure of the regime” and that some individuals in Iran have echoed this rhetoric. Khamenei undoubtedly directed this statement to reformist politician Mir Hossein Mousavi who called for “foundational” change in Iran on February 4 as well as to individuals, such as prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid, who have expressed support for Mousavi’s proposal. Khamenei may have also directed this statement toward pragmatic hardliners, such as Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who have called for political change within the framework of the Islamic Republic. Regardless of who his target audience was, Khamenei made clear that those who call for constitutional change are counterrevolutionaries because, he said, the idea for political transformation originated with Iran's enemies.

Iran Update, March 17, 2023

Some Iranian leaders continue to refuse to make the necessary changes that will meaningfully address popular frustrations. They are instead reaffirming their efforts to “Islam-ize” Iranian society and suppress public displays of behavior they perceive as unreligious during the upcoming Persian new year celebrations. Regime officials have emphasized the “Islamic” part of the “Iranian-Islamic identity” in recent days by suggesting that Ramadan—an Islamic holiday—must take precedence over Nowrouz—the Persian New Year holiday with Zoroastrian origins. President Ebrahim Raisi previously argued that the “Iranian-Islamic identity” is a single harmonious identity on March 16. Multiple Friday prayer leaders warned that Nowrouz must not overshadow Ramadan during their Friday sermons on March 17. Several regime officials also emphasized on March 17 that Iranians must not “violate the sanctity” of Ramadan while celebrating Nowrouz. Khuzestan Public Revolutionary Prosecutor Sadegh Jafari Chegani stated that “eating in front of those who fast [for Ramadan] is a crime." Chegani also announced that the Khuzestan Prosecutor’s Office issued judicial orders for officers to confront unveiled women and that failure to comply with these orders will be considered a “dereliction of duty.” IRGC Operations Deputy Brigadier General Abbas Nilforoushan separately announced plans to implement “patrols for enjoining good and forbidding evil” in Qom Province between March 16 and the end of Ramadan, implying the resumption of morality patrols comprised. It is noteworthy that the IRGC is establishing these patrols in Qom, the religious heartland of Iran. This suggests the regime perceives that Qom residents will be less inclined to resist a new morality patrol than other Iranians due to the generally conservative nature of the city. Officials’ appeals to Iranians--particularly Iranian women--to “preserve the sanctity of Ramadan” will likely further alienate the regime from Iranians who condemn its imposition of religion on the public.

Iran Update, March 16, 2023

Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed “reviving the national Iranian-Islamic identity” during a meeting with the Board of Trustees of the Iranology Foundation on March 16. Raisi reiterated the need for more “explanation jihad,” stating that textbooks should familiarize students with this “noble and proud” identity. Raisi’s emphasis on “Iranian-Islamic” being a single identity underscores his efforts to frame Islam as an intrinsic part of what it means to be Iranian. Iranian officials have similarly emphasized the compatibility of Nowrouz—the Persian New Year—with Ramadan in recent days. These two holidays—the former of which has Zoroastrian origins and the latter of which is one of the most important holidays in Islam—will overlap in 2023. Several regime officials have argued in recent days that there is “no conflict” between these holidays and that Nowrouz and Ramadan festivities can take place simultaneously.

Iran Update, March 15, 2023

Hardline officials are promoting conservative reforms, which will likely generate additional calls for political change in Iran. Hardline Islamic Coalition Party Secretary General Asadollah Badamchian called for constitutional reform within the bounds of the Islamic Republic during an interview with reformist news outlet Entekhab on March 15. Badamchian’s use of the term “constitutional reform” is the first CTP has seen from a hardline official. Badamchian did not specify which reforms he had in mind, but criticized some reformists’ calls for a “Westernized constitution.” Badamchian emphasized: “I say reforms as in reforms, not reformists. If anything is deficient, it requires corrections.” Several moderate figures within the Iranian political establishment have also called for liberalizing—as opposed to conservative reforms--in recent months. Examples of recent liberalizing reform proposals include reforming certain governmental bodies, such as the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, to increase citizen participation in the political process.