Iran Democracy Monitor No. 223

Related Categories: Arms Control and Proliferation; Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare; Islamic Extremism; Public Diplomacy and Information Operations; Terrorism; Iran

Even as the Biden administration works to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, the U.S. intelligence community is warning that the Iranian regime remains dedicated to developing clandestine networks within the United States, as well as to targeting American interests and citizens, both within the homeland and abroad. In its most recent annual threat assessment, published last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) assessed that "Iran will threaten U.S. persons directly or via proxy attacks, particularly in the Middle East." Iran, the intelligence report noted, "also remains committed to developing networks inside the United States – an objective it has pursued for more than a decade." Iran, the report notes, "has threatened to retaliate against former and current U.S. officials for the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, and has previously attempted to carry out lethal operations on U.S. soil." (ODNI, February 2022)

Iran, however, isn't focusing solely on revenge. Rather, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the Islamic Republic's objectives represent a broader and more fundamental challenge. "Iran will continue to threaten U.S. interests as it tries to erode U.S. influence in the Middle East, entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states, and minimize threats to regime stability," the study assesses. Moreover, it notes, this effort has been buoyed by recent leadership changes and ideological consolidation. "The election of President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 has invigorated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to try to make progress toward his long-term vision of molding Iran into a pan-Islamic power capable of defending global Muslim causes while tightening its theocratic rule at home." (ODNI, February 2022)

In its effort to secure a new nuclear agreement with Iran, the Biden administration is weighing a controversial measure: rescinding the IRGC's designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law. Removal of the designation is reportedly one of Iran's key demands - and one of the last sticking points in the negotiations over the country's reentry into the 2015 nuclear deal abrogated by the Trump administration. And while the White House has remained mum on the subject, multiple news sources have cited officials close to the negotiations in Vienna as saying that such a move is under consideration in exchange for an Iranian commitment to "deescalate" in the Middle East.

The news has met with incredulity and dismay from U.S. allies - most directly, Israel. On March 18th, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a joint statement publicly opposing the move. "The Revolutionary Guards are a terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of people, including Americans. We have a hard time believing that the United States will remove it from the definition of a terrorist organization," they wrote. "We believe that the United States will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists." (Agence France Presse, March 18, 2022; Axios, March 18, 2022; The Times of Israel, March 18, 2022)

For years, the Iranian regime has sought to limit and shape the online reality of its citizens. It has now taken a further step in this direction with the revival, last month, of a controversial parliamentary bill that - if enacted - would drastically curtail the ability of Iranians to access the World-Wide Web while simultaneously handing control and oversight of the internet to the country's military. The measure, formally known as the "Bill to Protect Users in Cyberspace," was first floated some three years ago, but pulled back by the majles in response to widespread popular criticism. Now, however, members of the Iranian parliament are gathering signatures to once more reopen discussion and debate regarding adoption of the measure. (Al Monitor, February 23, 2022)

The nascent rapprochement between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran is on the rocks. The diplomatic dialogue was initiated by the two countries in 2020, and four rounds of talks have already been concluded. A fifth round was slated to begin in the near future, but a news agency linked to Iran's Supreme National Security Council has announced that Tehran has unilaterally suspended the contacts. No reason has yet been provided for the diplomatic reversal. (Reuters, March 13, 2022; Al Jazeera, March 13, 2022)