Friday marked Quds Day in the Islamic Republic of Iran, an annual civic holiday dedicated to expressing support for Palestine and condemnation of the state of Israel. The occasion is typically celebrated by military parades in an effort to underscore the regime’s supposed readiness to confront Israeli forces and “destroy” the Jewish state on their own, but these were cancelled in advance due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
However, there was no comparable decline in the militant rhetoric generally associated with Quds Day, and officials such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made certain to deliver speeches decrying the Israeli government, its Western supporters, and regional powers that are more tolerant of these entities than is Iran.
Khamenei himself made international headlines with remarks that described Israel as a “cancerous tumor,” which would ultimately be removed by force of arms. His speech also reportedly marked the first confirmation of Iran’s sales of weapons to Palestinian militant organizations in the Gaza Strip, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The latter organization responded by praising Khamenei’s speech, with its leader Zeyad al-Nekhala saying, “We are ready for a long jihad and victory is granted.”
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad had both made statements in years past which pointed to their reliance on Iranian arms sales. Western intelligence similarly made knowledge of these relationships fairly commonplace. But Khamenei’s latest speech seemed to reflect a strategic shift in the Iranian regime, with more explicit emphasis on militant opposition to Israel and less interest in maintaining plausible deniability on the international stage.
Of course, Friday’s speeches and celebrations come in the wake of a long breakdown in relations between Iran and various foreign powers, especially those close to the United States. In May 2018, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and began expanding sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Since then, the White House has remained committed to a policy of “maximum pressure,” and while a number of European governments have publicly rejected that strategy, none have shown willingness to openly defy it by helping Iran to circumvent sanctions.
Tehran’s frustration with that situation culminated, early this year, with the authorities halting compliance with all restrictions put in place on their nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This in turn led to the deal’s European signatories initiating a dispute resolution process that could lead to the snapback of international sanctions. And while the European Union has proven hesitant to follow through on the process, the Trump administration has lately threatened to take the matter into its own hands, arguing that despite the 2018 withdrawal, the US is still listed as a participant with access to defined mechanisms.
Iranian regime figures routinely respond to perceived threats from the US by proclaiming that a range of American assets and allies are in range of missiles belonging to the Iranian Armed Forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The verbal reminders were supported with direct action in January when Tehran launched its first ever direct missile attack on American targets. In retaliation for the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the missile struck two Iraqi bases housing US personnel, but caused no fatalities. This fact allowed for the immediate cessation of hostilities, but did not inhibit the subsequent growth of Iran-US tensions.
The incident presumably also stoked the anxieties of Israeli leaders, who have focused much of their national defense strategy on resisting the presence of Iranian forces near Israel’s border, as well as discouraging the acquisition of military technology that might allow Iran to penetrate Israel’s missile defenses and strike the Jewish state from a distance.
Toward the latter end, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sake of resisting Iran’s Middle East expansionism, the Israeli Defense Forces have reportedly been stepping up air strikes on Iranian forces and militant proxies in Syria.
As the airstrikes coincide with a devastating Iranian coronavirus outbreak, economic collapse, and persistent unrest within Iranian society, there has been notable expert speculation that the Islamic Republic is reevaluating and reorganizing aspects of its presence in other regional countries. Iranian state media was forced to deny these rumors early this week, after Israel’s outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennet claimed that Iran had “begun the withdrawal process from Syria.”
And despite these denials, the US State Department’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said in a Foreign Policy interview on Thursday that American intelligence also pointed to a “tactical displacement of Iranian troops” in Syria. Hook went on to praise the effects of diplomatic isolation and economic pressure on the Iranian regime, arguing that these measures presented the best means of undermining that regime’s “desire to dominate all governments in the Middle East.”
Separately, the Associated Press reported upon signs that Iran was “slowly pulling out of Syria,” partly in response to airstrikes and partly in response to the domestic discontent that was already apparent late last year but has only grown in response to Tehran’s mishandling of the pandemic. Official government estimates state that over 7,000 Iranians have died from COVID-19 since February. But the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has presented evidence that Iran’s outbreak started even earlier than acknowledged, and has had an impact roughly six times greater than the official death toll and reached to more than 43,800 in 320 cities.
The NCRI has also made a point of highlighting a lack of government support for Iranian civilians during times when social distancing measures were in place. Consequently, Iranian officials began moving to reopen the economy on April 11, apparently on the understanding that much of the public would either starve or revolt if unable to work for a living. But of course, the danger of revolt will persist if the economic reopening contributes to further spikes in mortality. And even according to the regime’s own, likely understated figures, the rate of emergence for new cases of COVID-19 has been accelerating for more than two weeks.
Public unrest has been prevalent in the Islamic Republic for a number of years. It appeared to take a particularly confrontational turn at the end of 2017, when protests against economic mismanagement sparked a nationwide uprising, which soon took on a broader political message. Slogans from that uprising including “death to the dictator,” and explicit calls for the Iranian government to stop conducting costly paramilitary operations in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and to instead focus on the vital needs of the Iranian people.
These demands re-emerged on a national scale in November 2019, prompting a brutal response from regime authorities, which reportedly left 1,500 protesters dead. Despite this, public expressions of dissent have persisted in the intervening months, fueled by the regime’s stubborn resistance to changes in policy. Even as Western and Israeli intelligence suggests that that stubbornness is wavering with respect to projects in Syria, no one in Tehran is letting on. One lawmaker noted just this week that ongoing expenditures in Syria have exceeded 30 billion dollars.
Meanwhile, officials are making a point of highlighting their commitment to the maintenance of Iranian influence in other parts of the region, as well. The past week saw renewed efforts by Tehran to bolster ties with Baghdad, even as questions emerged about the extent to which Iranian interests would be defended by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the latest individual to be appointed as a compromise candidate to the position of Iraqi Prime Minister, on the understanding that his leadership would be equally acceptable to the Iranians and the Americans.
Press TV reported that Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami praised the new administration during a video call to his Iraqi counterpart, to whom he declared, “We are willing to offer all our potential to Iraq and become strategic partners and turn our bonds into a successful model of cooperation.”
But in the minds of Hatami, cooperation necessarily entails the ouster of American forces, not just from Iraq itself but also from the broader region. This was the message conveyed to student members of Iran’s civilian militia, the Basij, by Supreme Leader Khamenei nearly a week before Quds Day. “The Americans won’t stay in Iraq and Syria and will be expelled,” he declared in the videoconference last Sunday, without seriously elaborating on how that goal might be accomplished.
Iran has made a wide range of vague military threats to the US since the killing of Qassem Soleimani, but such threats are rarely taken serious by experts. Accordingly, the US has met those threats with warnings of its own, including a statement from the US Navy this week that underscored the danger inherent in Iranian boats’ provocative approaches of American warships.
In his remarks to Foreign Policy, Brian Hook expressed confidence in the effectiveness of this sort of military deterrence. He noted that that effectiveness was apparent from evidence that “the regime is weaker today than they were three years ago, and so are its proxies.” And notwithstanding Tehran’s persistent threats against Israel and other adversaries, the signs of a drawdown in Syria are prime examples of that evidence.