Friday, March 10, 2023

Iran Update, March 10, 2023

  Annika Ganzeveld, Amin Soltani, Johanna Moore, and Nicholas Carl

March 10, 2023, 6:30 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.

The Iranian regime is continuing efforts to dissuade Iranian citizens from celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri to forestall potential protests on that holiday. Iranians traditionally celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri—the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year—by gathering in streets and jumping over fires. The regime fears that the combination of celebratory gatherings, fires, and a general lively atmosphere on this holiday will create an environment conducive to unrest. Friday prayer leaders throughout Iran used their sermons on March 10 to discourage celebrations for Chahar Shanbeh Souri. Tehran Interim Friday Prayer Leader Ahmad Khatami warned Iranians during his sermon that many people have “lost their lives, eyes, and limbs” while celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri.[1] Khatami added that this holiday is an “unwise custom” and called on Iranian youth to listen to his “heartfelt speech.”[2] Sanandaj Friday Prayer Leader Mamosta Faegh Rostami separately warned that Iranians should not allow the “fleeting pleasures” of Chahar Shanbeh Souri to cause a “lifetime of regret” during his sermon.[3] Abadan Friday Prayer Leader Abdol Hossein Ghobishavi additionally called on parents to “manage” their children on Chahar Shanbeh Souri, echoing Law Enforcement Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan’s warning to parents on March 7 that they must control their children’s “enthusiasm” during this holiday. This coordinated rhetoric from Friday prayer leaders suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his inner circle are directing this messaging campaign. Friday prayer leaders receive guidance for the content of their Friday sermons from the Office of the Supreme Leader. The regime’s continuing efforts to prevent Chahar Shanbeh Souri festivities validates CTP’s previous assessment that the regime is using the recent chemical attacks to set conditions to securitize the country ahead of major national holidays.[4]

The regime’s calls to not celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri may be part of a broader campaign to Islamize Iranian society. Chahar Shanbeh Souri and Nowrouz—the Iranian New Year that follows Chahar Shanbeh Souri—both have Zoroastrian origins. The regime has historically tolerated—but not enthusiastically endorsed—celebrations of these holidays, especially Chahar Shanbeh Souri. Regime officials also are likely criticizing Chahar Shanbeh Souri in order to achieve their short-term goal of preventing protests on this holiday. Downplaying the significance of this holiday is in line with the regime’s longstanding effort to Islamize Iranian society. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has previously explicitly called for Iran to become more Islamic. The third and fourth steps of Khamenei’s “five steps of the revolution” are to “establish an Islamic state” and “establish an Islamic country.”[5]

Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid continued to hold the regime responsible for the poisoning campaign and suggested that the aim of the campaign was essentially to Taliban-ize Iran. Abdol Hamid characterized the student poisonings as a “form of protest suppression” targeting schoolchildren who have protested the regime during his Friday sermon on March 3.[6] The cleric also criticized the regime for its unwillingness to protect schoolchildren and suggested that the regime knows who is responsible for the attacks and has lied to the public about them. Abdol Hamid expanded on these accusations in his Friday sermon on March 10, during which he suggested that the aim of the regime-tolerated campaign was to prevent girls from pursuing an education.[7] The poisoning campaign has primarily targeted schoolgirls, as CTP previously reported.[8] Abdol Hamid spoke at length about women’s ability to advance knowledge and make contributions to culture and society, stating “women should have the same rights as men” to contribute to the various fields of knowledge and that the regime should “make the appropriate plans for women” in this regard. Abdol Hamid also mentioned the Taliban at the end of his speech, possibly to intentionally or inadvertently invite congregants to consider the comparison between the regime and Taliban.

Abdol Hamid furthermore used his March 10 sermon to counter the regime narrative that the regime empowers women and promotes feminism. He underscored the need to prevent “local culture” from overpowering global trends and from contradicting “the commands of Islam with respect to women’s rights.”[9] He furthermore called on “Islamic regimes” to look to the global situation of women, including under secular states, and see what “arrangements they have made for women” such that women have been able to contribute to “theoretical, social, and practical advancements.” Abdol Hamid may be responding to regime officials' near-constant assertion that the mandatory hijab law helps achieve equality while the West promotes moral corruption and promiscuity. President Ebrahim Raisi, for instance, stated on March 09 that the Islamic Republic’s mandatory veiling laws have protected Iranian women from the West’s “cultural vulgarity,” as CTP previously reported.[10] Abol Hamid contrastingly argued that Western secular states are the ones allowing women to flourish. CTP does not interpret Abdol Hamid’s rhetoric as him calling for a secular state but rather him trying to counter the regime’s public narrative.

Abdol Hamid has continually demonstrated since September 2022 a kind of savviness vis-a-vis his public messaging and efforts to shape the domestic information space. His Friday prayer sermons typically contain a direct response to recent regime rhetoric or other references to popular news hooks in Iran. It is noteworthy that Abdol Hamid has returned to reoccurring themes in his later sermons, only modifying them to apply to recent regime statements and actions. He has never called for violence against the regime during these sermons, though has supported calls for a referendum on the Islamic Republic. Abdol Hamid therefore appears to be carefully balance his actions and rhetoric to pressure the regime without instigating an overt escalation. The regime may be tolerating Abdol Hamid’s continued criticism for now largely because he has not yet called for a violent uprising against the political establishment. Some Iranian leaders may, in fact, view Abdol Hamid begrudgingly as a restraining influence given the different anti-regime militant groups that operate in Sistan and Baluchistan Province and promote separatism.

Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished bilateral relations on March 10—seven years after severing diplomatic ties in 2016. Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani signed a tripartite agreement to this end with Saudi National Security Advisor Musaid bin Mohammad al Aiban and senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Beijing on March 10. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to normalize relations and reopen their embassies in the months ahead.[11] Shamkhani stated that this agreement will strengthen “regional stability and security” and increase “cooperation among the countries of the Persian Gulf and Islamic world in managing existing challenges.”[12] Iranian officials and state media are portraying this agreement as a “big failure” for the US and Israel.[13] It is unclear, however, whether this agreement will lead to Tehran and Riyadh resolving the old and complicated issues between them—such as Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict and Saudi Arabia’s energy investments in Iraq. Overcoming these issues would require significant diplomatic and political breakthroughs that the two parties have not yet come close to achieving.

Senior Iranian officials engaged Iraqi leaders on March 8 likely to discuss the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia and the implications for Iran-Iraq relations. Shamkhani held a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani, during which he thanked the Iraqi central government for its efforts to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh.[14] Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian similarly held a phone call with Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Fuad Hossein to discuss the normalization of relations.[15] Iraq has often been a theater of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially over economic and political influence.

Key Takeaways

  • The Iranian regime is continuing efforts to dissuade Iranian citizens from celebrating Chahar Shanbeh Souri to forestall potential protests on that holiday.
  • Prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid continued to hold the regime responsible for the poisoning campaign and suggested that the aim of the campaign was essentially to Taliban-ize Iran.
  • Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished bilateral relations—seven years after severing diplomatic ties in 2016.
  • At least two protests occurred in two cities across one province.

Internal Security and Protest Activity

At least two protests occurred in two cities across one province on March 10. CTP assesses with moderate to high confidence that protests occurred in the following cities:

Zabol, Sistan and Baluchistan Province[16]

  • Size: Small
  • Demographic: Individuals demanding that the Foreign Affairs Ministry pursue Iran’s rights to the Helmand River.
  • Notes: This event was not an anti-regime protest and was reported by regime-affiliated news outlets.

Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province[17]

  • Size: Medium
  • Demographic: Individuals protesting after prominent Sunni cleric Moulana Abdol Hamid’s weekly Friday prayer sermon.

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

President Ebrahim Raisi held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 10.[18] They may have discussed Iranian military support to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The phone call comes one day after Russian forces conducted a large-scale missile attack across Ukraine on March 9.[19] The attack also involved Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.

External Security and Military Affairs

Iranian-backed Shia militias are likely taking advantage of security deployments to Diyala to target opposition groups. On February 20, likely Iranian-backed Shia militants massacred unarmed Sunnis in al Jayalah village, Khalis, Diyala province.[20] The Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee led by Badr-affiliated chair Abbas al Zamili conducted a fact-finding mission to Diyala province on March 1 in response to the “security breaches” and ordered a review to deploy additional forces to Diyala province.[21] Unidentified militants detonated an IED and fired on a vehicle killing eight members of the Bani Tamimi tribe including Sheikh Tamimi’s son on March 7.[22] Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani ordered additional security and military forces be deployed to Diyala following a meeting with local security tribal leadership on March 8. Diyala government officials criticized Sudani for believing accusations from local tribal leadership for recent crimes in the province.[23]

The Badr Organization-backed 1st Emergency Response Division established checkpoints in Diyala and conducted sweeping operations in March reportedly to arrest individuals connected to recent killings in Diyala.[24] Families of the Bani Tamimi tribe released a statement on March 10 calling on security forces to release members of their tribe that were reportedly arrested that morning.[25] Iraqi Special Forces arrested a Badr Organization commander Sabah Zaini in Muqdadiyah on March 10.[26] Sabah’s brother, Najah Zaini held a rally demanding Iraqi Special Forces release Sabah and threatening the governor of Diyala province with armed violence in the streets. Unverified reporting suggests that Iraqi Special Forces released Sabah Zaini from custody on March 10.[27] The Iraqi Security Forces’ arrest of a Badr Organization commander in Muqdadiyah, Diyala Province suggests that there is a disconnect between Popular Mobilization Force leadership and the Iraqi central government. Iraqi Security forces furthermore reportedly arrested four individuals in Muqdadiyah on March 10 accused of taking part in the massacre of Sunnis in al-Jayalah village, Khalis.[28] Sectarian conflict in Diyala presents an opportunity for ISIS to establish itself as a security guarantor for Sunnis in the province.

IRGC-affiliated Mahan Air flew a plane from Tehran to Aleppo on March 10, likely to transport military resources.[29] The flight landed shortly after the airport reopened the runway, demonstrating coordination between Iran and operators at the airport.[30] Likely Israeli forces conducted an airstrike on the airport on March 6, temporarily closing the runway until this point.[31] CTP previously assessed that the likely Israeli airstrike may have prevented an Iranian weapons shipment from being transported through Aleppo International Airport.[32]

[1] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85052599

[2] https://www.irna dot ir/news/850525998

[3] https://www farsnews dot ir/kordestan/news/14011219000251F


[5] https://www.mashreghnews dot ir/news/159482

[6] https://abdolhamid dot net/persian/2023/03/03/13485/

[7] https://abdolhamid dot net/persian/2023/03/10/13509/


[9] https://abdolhamid dot net/persian/2023/03/10/13509/


[11] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85052793

[12] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85052828

[13] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85052826

[14] http://www.nournews dot ir/fa/news/135172

[15] www.mfa dot ir/portal/NewsView/713714

[16] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85052725; https://www.isna dot ir/news/1401121913467


[18] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85047871


[20] https://www.ina dot iq/178726--.html

[21] https://iq.parliament dot iq/blog/2023/03/01

[22] https://www.alaraby dot; https://www.ina dot iq/179919--.html

[23] https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D9%86%D8%A7-%D8%A8-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B2%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%85%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B8%D8%A9-%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A9-%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B4%D8%A7-%D8%B1; https://shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA%D9%83-%D8%BA%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D9%81%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D9%85%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B0-%D8%BA%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%8A-%D9%84%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B8

[24]; https://www.ina dot iq/180230--.html


[26] https://www.shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%80%D9%86/%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%86%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%BA%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AA%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%B4%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%82-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%88%D8%B9%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%AA%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%A8-%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%87;;

https://www.shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%80%D9%86/%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%86%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%BA%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AA%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%B4%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%82-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%88%D8%B9%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%AA%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%A8-%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%87;;