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Iran Update, July 11, 2023

AFGHANISTAN, July 12 - Iran Update, July 11, 2023

Ashka Jhaveri, Johanna Moore, Annika Ganzeveld, and Kitaneh Fitzpatrick

The Iran Update aims to inform national security policy by providing timely, relevant, and independent open-source analysis of developments pertaining to Iran and its Axis of Resistance. This update covers political, military, and economic events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. It also provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates Monday through Friday. To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) with support from the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute launched a new interactive map of Iran and the Middle East. The map depicts events in Iran that affect the stability of the Iranian regime, namely anti-regime protests and reported poisoning incidents. It also shows developments in Syria that jeopardize regional stability and pose threats to US forces and interests, including Iranian and Iranian-backed militia positions.

Key Takeaways

 

  1. Iranian-backed militias and Syrian regime forces are continuing to reinforce their positions in Deir ez Zor Province in response to rumors of an imminent International Coalition attack to liberate cities.
  2. The Shia Coordination Framework – a loosely aligned coalition of pro-Iranian political parties – blamed US sanctions on Iranian accounts in Iraq for failures in energy supply to Iraq from Iran, likely to place additional political pressure on the Iraqi government to remove the US from Iraq.
  3. Social media accounts affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) circulated a call on July 11 for supporters to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad.
  4. Iran is attempting to reestablish diplomatic relations with Egypt to portray itself as a member of the global community. Normalizing ties with Egypt would likely improve Iran’s economy.
  5. Iranian security personnel violently suppressed injured Iraq-Iran war veterans protesting livelihood conditions in front of the Martyr Affairs Foundation Headquarters in Tehran on July 8.

 

Iranian Activities in the Levant

This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant especially in Syria. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.

Iranian-backed militias and Syrian regime forces are continuing to reinforce their positions in Deir ez Zor Province in response to rumors of an imminent International Coalition attack to liberate cities. A rumor spread in eastern Syria in late June that the US-led International Coalition is going launch an attack into regime-controlled territory.[1] CTP cannot verify the origin of the rumor. The IRGC intensified local recruitment in eastern Syria and reinforced headquarters and weapons storage facilities with Iranian-backed militants in Deir ez Zor Province on July 11.[2] Iranian-backed militants also deployed from Iraq to Albu Kamal, Mayadin, and Deir ez Zor cities.[3] Unspecified Iranian leaders traveled from Damascus to Deir ez Zor City on July 11.[4] The IRGC Quds Force maintains several command centers and weapons storage installations in the vicinity of Damascus in addition to frequently using it as meeting place to discuss operational developments in Syria.[5] Iran and Iranian-backed forces took these steps while the Russian-backed SAA 5th Corps deployed forces and armored vehicles to several towns in the vicinity of Deir ez Zor City on July 10.[6] An unspecified delegation of high-ranking Russian officers traveled to a headquarters in the city for undisclosed reasons.[7]

The rumors are inconsistent with a statement the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued on July 11 that asserts the media has circulated misinformation about the movements of its forces in Deir ez Zor Province.[8] The statement noted that over the past few days the SDF has carried out non-emergency operations to eliminate ISIS cells, which suggests that the SDF force buildup in its territory is unrelated to an International Coalition attack into regime-controlled territory.

CTP is considering the hypothesis that Iran is deploying forces to Deir ez Zor Province to bolster its defensive positions in the event of kinetic activity with US forces or the SDF. This hypothesis is plausible because Iranian officials have warned of attacks against US forces in Syria that then occurred.[9] CTP has not observed Iranian officials warn of attacks in Deir ez Zor Province following the rumor.  Iranian-backed militias attacked US forces following the death of an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC QF) officer during an Israeli airstrike in Syria, suggesting an offensive strategy against US forces following a rumor would be anomalous.[10] This hypothesis is unlikely because Iran has deployed many forces to Deir ez Zor Province and held meetings to discuss SDF and US reinforcements following rumors of an International Coalition operation.[11] Iran issuing orders to militias in Deir ez Zor province not to attack US forces or the SDF, fortifying key military facilities, and withdrawing forces from contact lines upon SDF withdrawals would support this hypothesis. Iranian deployments to bolster its defensive positions in proximity of SDF forces and territory risks miscalculations that could lead to armed conflict between Iranian-backed militias and the SDF. Militias set up rocket launchers in eight sites in Mayadin City, noting that militias have frequently used rockets to attack US bases in SDF-controlled territory. Iran giving priority to developing its defense positioning in Deir ez Zor may require Iran to slow or delay progress toward over other Iranian objectives in eastern Syria. This includes facilitating the transfer of weapons and building military infrastructure for its proxies in the Levant via the Al Qaim Iraq-Syria border crossing.

CTP is considering an alternative hypothesis that Iranian deployment of forces to Deir ez Zor Province may support an offensive strategy against US forces in Syria. This hypothesis is plausible because Iranian leaders have prepared to resume their campaign to expel US forces from the Middle East. The Washington Post reported on June 1, citing classified documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform, on an Iranian effort to expel US forces from Syria.[12] This hypothesis is unlikely because Iran has restrained its proxies from conducting attacks against US forces. Iraqi proxies stopped threatening to attack US forces following IRGC QF Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani visit to Baghdad on June 8, suggesting Ghaani directed the proxies to deescalate.[13] Indicators that would support the hypothesis include:

1) Iranian commanders ordering an attack on SDF-controlled territory;

2) Iranian-backed militants from other Syrian provinces deploy to Deir ez Zor Province;

3) Iran deploys militants from Afghanistan or Iraq to Deir ez Zor Province;

4) Iran messages support for the Syrian regime’s territorial claims in eastern Syria;

5) Iranian-backed forces conduct small-scale attacks into SDF-controlled territory to assess US reactions.

The implications of an Iranian offensive strategy against US forces are the risk of conflict regionalizing. Iranian-backed militants in Iraq attacked US forces in Syria on March 23, suggesting Iran would be able to target US forces from Iraq. Initiating an attack campaign against US forces in Syria would require Iran to slow or stop its other lines of effort in Syria. Such a campaign also would end nuclear negotiations with the United States, which would prevent Iran from securing sanctions relief as part of a new nuclear deal.[14]

 

Iranian Activities in Iraq

This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout Iraq. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.

The Shia Coordination Framework – a loosely aligned coalition of pro-Iranian political parties – blamed US sanctions on Iranian accounts in Iraq for failures in energy supply to Iraq from Iran, likely to place additional political pressure on the Iraqi government to remove the US from Iraq.[15] Iraq’s Minister of Electricity Ziyad Ali Fadhil al-Ruzeej announced on July 4 that all energy imports to southern Iraq had stopped and that imports to central Iraq had decreased by 62.5 percent, from 45 million cubic meters to 20 million cubic meters.[16] The Shia Coordination Framework released a statement on July 9 calling on the United States to unfreeze Iranian funds so the Iraqi government can pay energy-related debts to Iran.[17] Iranian media cited Kataib Hezbollah (KH)-affiliated media Al Maalomah article published on July 11 that blamed the US sanctions on Iranian energy cuts into Iran and called for international interference to remove US influence in Iraq.[18]  Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Mohammed Kazem al-e Sadegh reiterated the Framework’s claim and called on the Iraqi government to stop the US from exploiting Iraqis as political pawns to pressure Iran.[19]

These claims are inconsistent with official US and Iraqi statements about sanctions waivers and debts. US Department of State spokesperson Mathew Miller confirmed that the United States released $2.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds for Iraqi to pay off energy debts to Iran during a press conference on June 13.[20] Iranian Deputy Minister of Oil’s clamed on June 25 that the Iraqi government had paid off all of its gas and oil debts to Iran, contradicting Iraqi and Iranian officials.[21]

Social media accounts affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) circulated a call on July 11 for supporters to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad.[22] Official Iraqi proxy media outlets did not circulate calls to storm the US Embassy. The widespread circulation among pro-PMF social media users highlights the risk that individuals may target US positions independently from proxy or Iranian orders. CTP has not observed new indications that PMF-affiliated individuals intend to target US positions independent of proxy or Iranian direction. CTP previously assessed that Iran may have directed its Iraqi proxies to deescalate rhetoric against US forces in Iraq following an unannounced visit from IRGC Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani on June 8.[23]

Iranian Domestic and Political Affairs

This section covers factors and trends affecting regime decision-making and stability. CTP will cover domestic politics, significant protest activity, and related issues here.

Iran is attempting to reestablish diplomatic relations with Egypt to portray itself as a member of the global community.[24] Iranian media, citing London-based Al Araby Al Jadeed, reported on July 11 that Egypt and Iran have conducted negotiations to restore ties in recent days.[25] Former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini severed diplomatic ties with Egypt following the 1979 Revolution, and Iran’s relationship with Egypt has remained strained ever since.[26] Iran’s pursuit of normalization with Egypt is part of its broader effort to remove itself from global isolation. Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished bilateral relations on March 10.[27] President Ebrahim Raisi has additionally traveled to Syria, Indonesia, and Latin America in the past two months.[28] Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed support for restoring relations with Egypt during a meeting with Omani Sultan Haytham bin Tareq al Said on May 29.[29]

Normalizing ties with Egypt would likely improve Iran’s economy. Egypt is the most populous Arab country and thus presents Iran with a large market to export consumer goods.[30] Iran’s Air Travel and Tourism Services Syndicate announced on July 2 that flights between Cairo and Tehran will resume within the next 45 days.[31] Direct flights would facilitate tourism and trade between Iran and Egypt. State-controlled IRNA also reported on July 2 that the Director General of Egypt’s Tourism Ministry would soon travel to Tehran to discuss developing tourism between Iran and Egypt.[32]

Iranian security personnel violently suppressed injured Iraq-Iran war veterans protesting livelihood conditions in front of the Martyr Affairs Foundation Headquarters in Tehran on July 8.[33] Social media users circulated footage of tear-gassed pepper-sprayed veterans and claimed that security personnel had also arrested and beaten an unspecified number of protesters. Iran-Iraq war veterans have previously protested poor economic conditions, but the regime did not meet these protests with force.[34]

 

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