Monday, February 27, 2023

Iran Update, February 27, 2023

Nicholas Carl, Zachary Coles, Annika Ganzeveld, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, and Frederick W. Kagan

February 27, 2023, 5:00 pm ET

The Iran Updates are produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.

Protest activity in Iran is rising and returning to levels not seen since the end of 2022. CTP has recorded an uptick in demonstrations in recent weeks, most of which have focused on the worsening economic conditions in Iran. Costs of goods and services have risen over 53 percent since February 2022, and the Iranian rial continues to depreciate dramatically.[1] The rial fell to a record low on February 26, valuing at around 600,000 to the US dollar.[2] CTP previously reported that the rial fell to 500,000 for one dollar on February 21.[3] The economic nature of these protests diverges slightly from the rest of the Mahsa Amini movement, which focused primarily (but not exclusively) on socio-cultural and political grievances. These economically motivated protests may nevertheless add momentum to and build on the Mahsa Amini movement, as CTP previously suggested.[4]

Different regime power centers are arguing with one another over how to address economic issues and trying to deflect blame away from themselves. President Ebrahim Raisi emphasized the role of foreign enemies in driving the worsening currency crisis and lauded the economic performance of his administration on February 27.[5] Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and IRGC-affiliated outlets have contrastingly blamed the Raisi administration in recent days for the poor performance of the economy.[6] Ghalibaf stated on February 27 that Parliament predicted the current crisis weeks ago and made policy recommendations to Raisi that he did not implement. Ghalibaf has regularly warned that the regime must reform to address popular grievances and indicated that he lacks faith in Raisi to resolve these issues in recent months.[7] Regime actors close to Parliament may have organized protests or at least chants against the Raisi administration on February 26 as well. Retired workers gathered in Esfahan and chanted “the [Raisi administration] betrays, Parliament supports.” CTP has not previously observed such chants among protesters.

Ghalibaf may be additionally clashing with IRGC leadership over the role of parastatal organizations in the economy. Ghalibaf explicitly called for state-run economic conglomerates to decrease their involvement in the economy on February 22, correctly diagnosing that these entities have impeded economic efficiency.[8] IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami appeared to respond on February 27, publishing a statement praising the Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters for cooperating with the Raisi administration to complete a water transfer project to Lake Oroumiyeh.[9] The Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters is an IRGC-controlled civil engineering and construction firm that dominates broad swaths of the economy. It is difficult to interpret Salami’s statement as anything other than a response to Ghalibaf given the context in which Salami issued it and the fact that the Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters is one of the parastatal entities to which Ghalibaf was likely referring.

The Raisi administration may replace some of its economic managers with figures closely tied to the IRGC financial network to address the economic crisis. Online rumors have suggested in recent days that Raisi may replace First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber with IRGC financier Parviz Fattah.[10] Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei designated Mokhber as particularly responsible for economic policy during a speech on January 30.[11] The rial has lost about 25 percent of its value since then.[12] Fattah is long-retired IRGC officer and a hardline industrialist who has held leadership positions in several prominent parastatal organizations, including some closely affiliated with the IRGC. If the online rumors are true, Raisi may seek to bring into his administration economic managers who appear capable and could draw on their connections in the parastatal network to try to address the currency crisis. The broader IRGC economic network likely has access to capital and the ability to generate and smuggle hard currency into Iran. That network would likely insist on securing a return on any such investment, however, whether in the form of increased control over portions of the Iranian economy or in the form of greater control over Islamic Republic policy or both. Installing Fattah as a senior economic policy official would likely expand hardliner and possibly IRGC influence in the Raisi administration and over the economy regardless of the possibility of the Guards infusing their own cash into the budget. Doing so would also likely fuel tensions with Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf given his apparent opposition to the dominance of parastatal entities in Iran.

The Raisi administration may be trying to revitalize the nuclear negotiations with the West. Online rumors have claimed in recent days that former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi has joined the nuclear negotiating team and traveled to Geneva with Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.[13] Araghchi is a career Iranian diplomat who played a prominent role in the nuclear negotiations with the West under the Hassan Rouhani administration. CTP cannot confirm these rumors. Raisi may seek to add diplomatic momentum to the negotiations, which could increase confidence in the Iranian economy in the short-term and obtain sanctions relief for Tehran in the event of a deal.

Iran could need months if not longer to secure significant, long-term economic improvement if it reached a nuclear deal with the West. Iran has slowly abrogated its commitments to the nuclear deal since 2019.[14] Resuming compliance to achieve sanctions relief would require that Iran reestablish significant monitoring and verification cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and resume compliance with the centrifuge requirements and uranium and heavy water enrichment and stockpile limits set by the nuclear deal, among other possible measures. Such measures would take time to complete and time to verify. Even if an agreement to return to the deal were announced instantly, therefore, Iran could not expect to receive significant economic relief for some time unless the Biden Administration front-loaded the execution of US commitments without waiting for Iran to execute its own.

Iran is likely continuing to reinforce its military presence in Syria. Forces from the Fatemiyoun Division—Iran’s Afghan Shia proxy—arrived at the Imam Ali base in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria from Iraq on February 25 to replace local elements of the Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) 47th Hashemiyoun Brigade stationed at the base.[15] The Imam Ali base is a prominent Iranian military base near the Iraq-Syria border that the IRGC constructed in 2018 and uses to host drones, missiles, and fighters. It is unclear where the 47th Brigade elements went after the Fatemiyoun forces replaced them. They may have returned to their local headquarters in Deir ez Zour City. The Quds Force maintains a much tighter degree of control over the Fatemiyoun militants than it does over SAA forces, suggesting that the Quds Force is trying to strengthen its control over local militia elements at the Imam Ali base and nearby military positions in Deir ez Zor Province.

This activity is part of a larger trend of Iran increasing its paramilitary forces in Syria in recent weeks. CTP has repeatedly observed Iranian-backed militants entering eastern Syria from Iraq via the al Qaim border crossing and dispersing throughout the country under the guise of humanitarian aid convoys since the February 6 earthquake.[16] Lebanese Hezbollah units have also used the same justification to deploy forces from Lebanon likely to Hama and Aleppo Provinces.[17] Some Iranian-backed Iraqi militants have traveled to Aleppo, Homs, and Hama Provinces from other positions in Syria as well, sometimes leaving SAA or Fatemiyoun forces to backfill their positions.[18] CTP has yet to observe indications that Iranian-backed forces are conversely traveling back into Iraq or Lebanon from Syria.

Key Takeaways

  • Protest activity in Iran is rising and returning to levels not seen since the end of 2022.
  • Different regime power centers are arguing with one another over how to address economic issues and trying to deflect blame away from themselves.
  • The Raisi administration may replace some of its economic managers with figures closely tied to the IRGC financial network to address the economic crisis.
  • The Raisi administration may be trying to revitalize the nuclear negotiations with the West.
  • Iran is likely continuing to reinforce its military presence in Syria.
  • At least one protest occurred on February 25, eight protests on February 26, and 13 protests on February 27.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least one protest occurred in one city across one province on February 25. CTP assesses with high confidence that one protest occurred in the following location:

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[19]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Iranian workers on strike

At least eight protests occurred in seven cities across five provinces on February 26. CTP assesses with high confidence that one protest occurred in the following location:

Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province[20]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

CTP assesses with moderate confidence that protests occurred in the following locations on February 26:

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[21]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Steel industry retirees

Shoush, Khuzestan Province[22]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Shoushtar, Khuzestan Province[23]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

Yasouj, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer Ahmad Province[24]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Municipal workers

Yazd City, Yazd Province[25]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Steel workers

CTP assesses with low confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Ardabil City, Ardabil Province[26]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Sablan Power Plant workers on strike

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[27]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retirees

At least thirteen protests occurred in ten cities across ten provinces on February 27. CTP assesses with high confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Esfahan City, Esfahan Province[28]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province[29]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province[30]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Arak, Markazi Province[31]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province[32]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Tehran City, Tehran Province[33]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: University of Tehran Students
  • Notes: Students protested the decision to move all classes to virtual learning after Nowruz

Tehran City, Tehran Province[34]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

CTP assesses with moderate confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Hamedan City, Hamedan Province[35]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunication workers

Sirjan, Kerman[36]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Gol-e Gohar Mine workers on strike

Kermanshah City, Kermanshah Province[37]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Retired telecommunications workers

Tehran City, Tehran Province[38]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Ayandeh Bank shareholders

CTP assesses with low confidence that protests occurred in the following locations:

Tehran City, Tehran Province[39]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Veterans wounded during the Iran-Iraq war

Yazd City, Yazd Province[40]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Steel workers

Protest coordinators and organizations called for anti-regime demonstrations on the following dates:

March 8 [41]

  • Location: Countrywide, city centers at 18:00 local time
  • Notes: Commemorating International Women’s Day

March 13-15[42]

  • Location: Countrywide
  • Notes: Coincides with a Zoroastrian fire festival—Chahar Shanbeh Souri—on March 15

IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami approved a plan to establish “Ali Akbar battalions” in the IRGC in the next Persian calendar year (March 2023—March 2024).[43] The IRGC operates several different kinds of battalions and tasks them with different missions and responsibilities. The Imam Ali battalions, for instance, are highly trained, anti-riot forces trained to rapidly traverse urban environments, and the Imam Hossein battalions are light infantry designed to fight insurgencies domestically and abroad.[44] It is unclear what function the Ali Akbar battalions would serve. IRGC Coordination Deputy Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi stated on February 25 that personnel in these battalions will take courses to promote “growth and excellence.”[45] The coordination deputy position is equivalent to a chief of staff in the US military.

President Ebrahim Raisi appointed Mohammad Amin Aghamiri as Supreme Cyberspace Council secretary on February 25. Aghamiri replaced Abol Hassan Firouzabadi, who held this post since September 2015.[46] Aghamiri previously worked as head of the Radio Communicatons Regulatory Organization, deputy information and communications technology minister for innovation, and head of a Basij branch at Sharif University.[47] The Supreme Cyberspace Council is a regime policy body responsible for enforcing state censorship. Raisi called on Aghamiri to develop the national intranet and review censorship policies “with an emphasis on religious and revolutionary values.”[48] Raisi also ordered Aghamiri to “effectively deal with the enemy’s intellectual-cultural invasion,” highlighting Raisi’s emphasis on trying to indoctrinate the Iranian population.[49]

Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan is continuing to try to reassert regime control in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Radan appointed Doust Ali Jalilian as Sistan and Baluchistan Provincial LEC Commander on February 26—two days after security personnel escalated against protesters in Zahedan.[50] Jalilian previously served as a local LEC commander in Tehran and replaced Brigadier General Mohammad Ghanbari, who served less than four months in the role.[51]  Radan likely sought to replace Ghanbari, whom Radan‘s predecessor appointed, with his own trusted officer. Radan warned that the regime would not permit individuals to “cross [its] red lines” and framed anti-regime protests as an obstacle to national development.[52] Radan separately stressed the importance of religious unity and cooperation with local provincial tribe leaders on February 27.[53]

External Security and Military Affairs

Iraqi Defense Minister Thabet Mohammad Saeed al Abbasi paid an official visit to Iran on February 25-27, possibly to discuss arms deals and training assistance.[54] Iranian political and security officials expressed their readiness support the Iraqi defense industry and military training. Abbasi met with the following individuals:

  • President Ebrahim Raisi
  • Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani
  • Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri
  • IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami
  • Artesh Commander Major General Abdol Rahim Mousavi.

Ali Akbar Velayati—a senior international affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—held a phone call with Hamas Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh on February 26.[55] Hamas-run media reported that Velayati and Haniyeh discussed political and military developments related to the recent uptick in violence in Palestine.[56] Khamenei commonly uses Velayati as his personal envoy abroad and especially to members of the Axis of Resistance and Palestinian groups.





[5] https://president dot ir/fa/142604

[6] www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/716838; http://sahebkhabar dot ir/news/58979484; https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/07/2859289



[9] http://www.defapress dot ir/fa/news/575417

[10] https://www.namehnews dot com/%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B4-%DA%AF%D9%88%DA%AF%D9%84-%D9%86%DB%8C%D9%88%D8%B2-66/672361-%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%AD-%D8%A8%D8%AC%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D9%88%D9%81%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%AC%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%B3%D9%86-%D8%B1%D8%B6%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C


[12] www.bonbast dot com/historical



[15] https://www.syriahr dot com/en/289881/; https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/02/26/7823




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[43] http://www.defapress dot ir/fa/news/575364


[45] http://www dot defapress dot ir/fa/news/575364


[47] https://www  dot tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/06/2858881/%D8%A2%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%AF%D8%A8%DB%8C%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%84%DB%8C-%D9%81%D8%B6%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%85%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%B4%D8%AF

[48] https://president dot ir/fa/142596

https://t dot co/N6IrDR0TSj

[49] https://president dot ir/fa/142596


[51] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1401/12/07/2859522/%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B9%D9%84%DB%8C-%D8%AC%D9%84%DB%8C%D9%84%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D8%A8%D9%84%D9%88%DA%86%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B4%D8%AF ; https://www.irna dot ir/news/84936939/


[53] http://www dot nournews dot ir/fa/news/131666

[54] https://president dot ir/fa/142605; http://www.nournews dot ir/fa/news/130582; http://www.defapress dot ir/fa/news/575667; http://www.defapress dot ir/fa/news/575811; http://www.defapress dot ir/fa/news/575678

[55] https://hamas dot ps/ar/p/16787

[56]; https://hamas dot ps/ar/p/16787