Iran Summary – January 2023

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Anna Schaftel – JINSA Programs & Outreach Associate

January 2023 Summary: Russia and Iran further deepened ties by linking banking systems and exploring cooperation in energy and transportation. Biden administration officials insisted Iran nuclear talks were “not on the agenda,” even as they said “diplomacy is still on the table” and met privately with Tehran’s UN ambassador. Large, organized demonstrations in Iran appeared to have “tapered off” due to brutal crackdowns. The Iranian regime continued conducting cyberattacks, targeting journalists and government, defense, and think tank employees in Britain, and reportedly attempted to undermine nascent relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Russia Ties: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin held two phone calls in January. Reports indicate Tehran and Moscow were working together to mitigate the effects of western sanctions on their economies by linking their banking systems.

  • On January 11, Putin and Raisi discussed “mutually beneficial projects in the energy, transport and logistics sectors” in a phone call.
  • On January 15, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency reported Iran expects to receive Russian Sukhoi Su-35 4th-generation fighter jets from Moscow as soon as March of this year.
  • On January 19, Putin and Raisi had another phone call, discussing the “situation in Syria… and cooperation in transport and energy.”
  • On January 30, Reuters reported that Iran and Russia “connected their interbank communication and transfer systems to help boost trade and financial transactions,” including by circumventing Western-led sanctions on each country.

Domestic/Human Rights: Though demonstrations continued throughout January, the number of “organized protests have largely tapered off” in response to the regime’s mass arrests and executions of protestors.

  • On January 10, the regime sentenced Faezeh Hashemi, a former Iranian lawmaker and daughter of Iran’s former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to five years in prison for “propaganda against the establishment” and “insulting the sanctities.”
  • On January 10, BBC reported that Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgium air worker who was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) last year, had been sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes. Belgium condemned the charges as “fabricated.”
  • On January 14, Iranian state media reported that British-Iranian dual national Alireza Akbari had been executed. Akbari had been detained by the regime since 2019 and previously alleged that he had been tortured “for more than 3,500 hours” in Iranian custody.
  • Human Right Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported on January 15 that the regime had killed at least 522 people and arrested nearly 20,000 since the protests began. Of those killed, at least 70 were minors.
    • In response to the regime’s violent crackdown and its supply of drones to Russia, the United States, EU, and Australia levied new sanctions against Iran in January.
  • On January 16, Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American dual citizen detained by Iran in 2015 for allegedly “colluding with an enemy state,” began a week-long hunger strike so “President Biden will recognize just how desperate the situation of the U.S. hostages here has become.”
  • On January 17, oil and gas workers began a new wave of strikes in seven cities across Iran.
  • On January 25, IranWire reported that Iran had sentenced a pregnant Kurdish woman to death for allegedly “setting fire to a portrait of Ruhollah Khomeini.”
  • On January 26, France’s foreign ministry demanded the immediate release of Bernard Phelan, a 64-year-old French-Irish citizen detained by Iranian authorities in October 2022. France accused Iran of denying Phelan urgent medical care even as his health deteriorated.
  • On January 30, Iranians held protests across the country to mark Sadeh, a Persian festival that has its root in Zoroastrianism and has long been “frowned upon by the Islamic regime.”
  • On January 31, an Iranian couple was sentenced to 10 years in prison for filming a video of themselves dancing in public.

Nuclear: Biden administration officials continued to deny that a renewed nuclear deal with Iran was on its agenda. Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chief Rafael Grossi warned the regime had “amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.”

  • On January 18, Iran International reported that U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Rob Malley, had met with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Saeed Iravani, in New York. The State Department did not disclose what was discussed in the meetings.
  • On January 25, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi warned that Iran had amassed enough material for “several nuclear weapons.”
  • On January 26, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley told the BBC that “diplomacy never ends” with Iran, seemingly contradicting recent statements by him and other Biden administration officials that talks to revive the JCPOA nuclear deal are “not on the agenda due to Iran’s position.”

Regional Aggression: Iran-backed proxies twice attacked U.S. coalition forces in Syria, with no apparent U.S. response. The French and U.S. Navies interdicted separate, massive shipments of weapons being smuggled from Iran to Yemen. A gunman stormed the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran, killing its head of security.

  • On January 4, two rockets targeted U.S. coalition forces in northeast Syria, causing no casualties. Though they did not claim responsibility, Iran and its proxies “frequently launch munitions from the area where these projectiles reportedly originated.”
  • On January 6, the USS Chinook interdicted thousands of assault rifles en route to Yemen in the Gulf of Oman, “part of a continued pattern of destabilizing activity from Iran.”
  • On January 13, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziyad al-Nakhalah in Lebanon, saying, “Iran will continue supporting the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and Palestine.”
  • On January 15, a French warship seized a “boatload of Iranian-supplied weapons and ammunition bound for militants in Yemen” off the Yemeni coast, including “more than 3,000 assault rifles, a half million rounds of ammunition and 20 antitank guided missiles.”
  • The Pakistani military said that on January 18, “terrorists used Iranian soil to target a convoy of [Pakistani] security forces patrolling along the border,” in an attack that killed four Pakistani soldiers. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
  • On January 20, three drones targeted the U.S. garrison at al-Tanf, Syria, “a frequent focus of Iranian-backed attacks.” Two of the drones were shot down, but the third injured two members of the U.S. partner force, the Syrian Free Army.
  • On January 27, a gunman stormed the Azerbaijan Embassy in Tehran, killing its head of security and wounding two guards. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said it planned to evacuate the embassy and blamed Iran’s “recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign” for the attack.
  • On January 28, reports indicated Israel carried out a drone attack on a munitions factory in Isfahan. Iran claimed the strike caused only “minor damage,” while other reports listed four explosions “which appeared to specifically target a facility developing advanced weapons.”

Cyber: Throughout January, Iran-aligned hacker groups harassed dissidents abroad, targeted foreign government officials and civilians, and undermined Israel-Saudi normalization efforts.

  • On January 8, BBC reported that the families of the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a civilian airliner shot down over Tehran by the IRGC in 2020, were facing “harassment” and “have had their social media or email addresses hacked” by Iran.
  • On January 15, Iran International reported that a private cybersecurity company, Bitfender, based out of Romania, had “revealed information about an Iranian spyware that steals people’s sensitive information through a VPN software.”
  • On January 17, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said Albania is “still under [cyber] attack, practically day after day” by the Iranian regime, following multiple cyberattacks in 2022.
  • On January 19, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre alerted that Iranian-linked hackers “are increasingly targeting … those in government, defense, think tanks and the media.”
  • On January 28, Iran International reported that Iran-linked hackers were attempting to “disrupt relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

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