Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 24 Feb 2024 04:49:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Iran’s “Axis of Resistance:” Different Groups, Similar Goals Sat, 24 Feb 2024 05:04:32 +0000 By Kian Sharifi

( RFE/RL ) – Iran’s so-called axis of resistance is a loose network of proxies, Tehran-backed militant groups, and an allied state actor.

The network is a key element of Tehran’s strategy of deterrence against perceived threats from the United States, regional rivals, and primarily Israel.

Active in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the axis gives Iran the ability to hit its enemies outside its own borders while allowing it to maintain a position of plausible deniability, experts say.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has played a key role in establishing some of the groups in the axis. Other members have been co-opted by Tehran over the years.


Iran has maintained that around dozen separate groups that comprise the axis act independently.

Tehran’s level of influence over each member varies. But the goals pursued by each group broadly align with Iran’s own strategic aims, which makes direct control unnecessary, according to experts.

Lebanon’s Hizballah

Hizballah was established in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion that year of Lebanon, which was embroiled in a devastating civil war.

The Shi’ite political and military organization was created by the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the country’s armed forces.

Danny Citrinowicz, a research fellow at the Iran Program at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Tehran’s aim was to unite Lebanon’s various Shi’ite political organizations and militias under one organization.

Since it was formed, Hizballah has received significant financial and political assistance from Iran, a Shi’a-majority country. That backing has made the group a major political and military force in Lebanon.


“Iran sees the organization as the main factor that will deter Israel or the U.S. from going to war against Iran and works tirelessly to build the organization’s power,” Citrinowicz said.

Hizballah has around 40,000 fighters, according to the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. The State Department said Iran has armed and trained Hizballah fighters and injected hundreds of millions of dollars in the group.

Photo by أخٌ‌في‌الله on Unsplash

The State Department in 2010 described Hizballah as “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.”

Citrinowicz said Iran may not dictate orders to the organization but Tehran “profoundly influences” its decision-making process.

He described Hizballah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, not as a proxy but “an Iranian partner managing Tehran’s Middle East strategy.”

Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah has developed close ties with other Iranian proxies and Tehran-backed militant groups, helping to train and arm their fighters.

Citrinowicz said Tehran “almost depends” on the Lebanese group to oversee its relations with other groups in the axis of resistance.


Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, has had a complex relationship with Iran.

Founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, Hamas is an offshoot of the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization established in Egypt in the 1920s.

Hamas’s political chief is Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in Qatar. Its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is commanded by Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to be based in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is estimated to have around 20,000 fighters.

For years, Iran provided limited material support to Hamas, a Sunni militant group. Tehran ramped up its financial and military support to the Palestinian group after it gained power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.


But Tehran reduced its support to Hamas after a major disagreement over the civil war in Syria. When the conflict broke out in 2011, Iran backed the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Hamas, however, supported the rebels seeking to oust Assad.

Nevertheless, experts said the sides overcame their differences because, ultimately, they seek the same goal: Israel’s destruction.

“[But] this does not mean that Iran is deeply aware of all the actions of Hamas,” Citrinowicz said.

After Hamas militants launched a multipronged attack on Israel in October that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, Iran denied it was involved in planning the assault. U.S. intelligence has indicated that Iranian leaders were surprised by Hamas’s attack.

Seyed Ali Alavi, a lecturer in Middle Eastern and Iranian Studies at SOAS University of London, said Iran’s support to Hamas is largely “confined to rhetorical and moral support and limited financial aid.” He said Qatar and Turkey, Hamas’s “organic” allies, have provided significantly more financial help to the Palestinian group.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

With around 1,000 members, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the smaller of the two main militant groups based in the Gaza Strip and the closest to Iran.

Founded in 1981, the Sunni militant group’s creation was inspired by Iran’s Islamic Revolution two years earlier. Given Tehran’s ambition of establishing a foothold in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Iran has provided the group with substantial financial backing and arms, experts say.

The PIJ, led by Ziyad al-Nakhalah, is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

“Today, there is no Palestinian terrorist organization that is closer to Iran than this organization,” Citrinowicz said. “In fact, it relies mainly on Iran.”

Citrinowicz said there is no doubt that Tehran’s “ability to influence [the PIJ] is very significant.”

Iraqi Shi’ite Militias

Iran supports a host of Shi’ite militias in neighboring Iraq, some of which were founded by the IRGC and “defer to Iranian instructions,” said Gregory Brew, a U.S.-based Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group.

But Tehran’s influence over the militias has waned since the U.S. assassination in 2020 of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was seen as the architect of the axis of resistance and held great influence over its members.

“The dynamic within these militias, particularly regarding their relationship with Iran, underwent a notable shift following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The U.S. drone strike that targeted Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of mostly Shi’ite Iran-backed armed groups that has been a part of the Iraqi Army since 2016.

Muhandis was also the leader of Kata’ib Hizballah, which was established in 2007 and is one of the most powerful members of the PMF. Other prominent groups in the umbrella include Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Seyyed al-Shuhada, and the Badr Organization. Kata’ib Hizballah has been designated as a terrorist entity by the United States.

Following the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Kata’ib Hizballah and other militias “began to assert more autonomy, at times acting in ways that could potentially compromise Iran’s interests,” said Azizi.

Many of the Iran-backed groups that form the PMF are also part of the so-called Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which rose to prominence in November 2023. The group has been responsible for launching scores of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since Israel launched its war against Hamas in Gaza.

“It’s important to note that while several militias within the PMF operate as Iran’s proxies, this is not a universal trait across the board,” Azizi said.

Azizi said the extent of Iran’s control over the PMF can fluctuate based on the political conditions in Iraq and the individual dynamics within each militia.

The strength of each group within the PMF varies widely, with some containing as few as 100 members and others, such as Kata’ib Hizballah, boasting around 10,000 fighters.

Syrian State And Pro-Government Militias

Besides Iran, Syria is the only state that is a member of the axis of resistance.

“The relationship between Iran and the Assad regime in Syria is a strategic alliance where Iran’s influence is substantial but not absolute, indicating a balance between dependency and partnership,” said Azizi.

The decades-long alliance stems from Damascus’s support for Tehran during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

When Assad’s rule was challenged during the Syrian civil war, the IRGC entered the fray in 2013 to ensure he held on to power.


Hundreds of IRGC commander and officers, who Iran refers to as “military advisers,” are believed to be present in Syria. Tehran has also built up a large network of militias, consisting mostly of Afghans and Pakistanis, in Syria.

Azizi said these militias have given Iran “a profound influence on the country’s affairs,” although not outright control over Syria.

“The Assad regime maintains its strategic independence, making decisions that serve its national interests and those of its allies,” he said.

The Fatemiyun Brigade, comprised of Afghan fighters, and the Zainabiyun Brigade, which is made up of Pakistani fighters, make up the bulk of Iran’s proxies in Syria.

“They are essentially units in the IRGC, under direct control,” said Brew.

The Afghan and Pakistani militias played a key role in fighting rebel groups opposed to Assad during the civil war. There have been reports that Iran has not only granted citizenship to Afghan fighters and their families but also facilitated Syrian citizenship for them.

The Fatemiyun Brigade, the larger of the two, is believed to have several thousand fighters in Syria. The Zainabiyun Brigade is estimated to have less than 1,000 fighters.

Yemen’s Huthi Rebels

The Huthis first emerged as a movement in the 1980s in response to the growing religious influence of neighboring Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom.

In 2015, the Shi’ite militia toppled the internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government of Yemen. That triggered a brutal, yearslong Saudi-led war against the rebels.

With an estimated 200,000 fighters, the Huthis control most of the northwest of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, and are in charge of much of the Red Sea coast.


The Huthis’ disdain for Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional foe, and Israel made it a natural ally of Tehran, experts say. But it was only around 2015 that Iran began providing the group with training through the Quds Force and Hizballah. Tehran has also supplied weapons to the group, though shipments are regularly intercepted by the United States.

“The Huthis…appear to have considerable autonomy and Tehran exercises only limited control, though there does appear to be [a] clear alignment of interests,” said Brew.

Since Israel launched its war in Gaza, the Huthis have attacked international commercial vessels in the Red Sea and fired ballistic missiles at several U.S. warships.

In response, the United States and its allies have launched air strikes against the Huthis’ military infrastructure. Washington has also re-designated the Huthis as a terrorist organization.

Copyright (c)2024 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1250 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 450, Washington DC 20036.


Little Room For Negotiation Between Iran And U.S. Amid Middle East Tensions Sun, 11 Feb 2024 05:04:43 +0000 By Michael Scollon

( RFE/RL ) – Like two heavyweight boxers, the United States and Iran circle the ring — flexing their muscles without stepping close enough to actually trade blows. It is clear that neither wants to fight, but they also have no interest in settling their stark differences.

That is how experts say Washington and Tehran have dealt with each other for more than four decades, only changing their stance when it is mutually beneficial.

Tensions have soared between the two foes, who have no formal diplomatic ties, amid the fallout from Israel’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip. But despite calls for de-escalation, observers say there is little room for détente.

“I’ve rarely seen a situation in which the tensions have been so high and the exit ramps are nearly nonexistent and there were no real channels of communication between the two sides,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group.

“And that makes the current situation even more dangerous, because there’s plenty of space for miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Vaez added.

Current tensions in the Middle East have had deadly consequences even as each side tries to avoid getting drawn into a direct military confrontation.

The United States has hit Iran-backed militants in response to attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region, including the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan last month, while underscoring that its aim is de-escalation.

Iran, which like the United States has said that it does not want war, has continued to back militant groups that make up its so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West, while calling for diplomacy to resolve the crisis.

Iranian Envoy To Kabul Sees Afghanistan As Part Of Tehran’s ‘Axis Of Resistance’

Tehran and Washington have carefully avoided direct conflict, but are in no position to work out their differences even if they wanted to, experts say.

Washington and Tehran have not had formal diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, leaving them to negotiate through back-channels or third states when needed.

But political and ideological pressures at home — amplified ahead of a parliamentary vote in Iran in March and a presidential election in the United States in November — has meant that neither side is looking to back away any time soon from the stark red lines the two have drawn.

Avenues For Diplomacy

“There are ways that communication can be had between the two countries, and they do so,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the U.S.-based Middle East Institute. “But they tend to do it on select files, or moments of crisis.”

Vatanka said those lines of communication include Iran’s envoy to the United Nations who resides in New York and the Swiss Embassy in Tehran which handles American interests in the Islamic republic. There are also third-party mediators, including Qatar, Oman, and Iraq, he said.

The U.S.-Iran prisoner swap worked out in September, which followed years of secret negotiations involving Gulf states and Switzerland, is the most recent example.

Under that deal, four Americans held hostage in Iran were released in exchange for Washington unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue held up in South Korea.

As part of the agreement, according to Vaez, “Iran committed to rein in groups that were targeting U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria” and Washington received a commitment that Tehran would not supply ballistic missiles to Russia for use in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

Shortly after Iran-backed Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, carried out its deadly assault on Israel on October 7, the unfrozen Iranian funds came under intense scrutiny. Republicans in the United States who are gearing up for the presidential election in November have been particularly vocal in criticizing the deal worked out by the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.

In response, Washington worked out an agreement with Qatar, where the unfrozen Iranian funds were moved and to be released only for humanitarian purposes, to prevent Tehran from accessing them at all. But the deal has remained a hot-button issue.

The Gaza war and the ensuing resumption of attacks on U.S. forces and interests by Iran-backed groups have attracted even more political discord.

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After Israel’s large-scale offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, Iran-backed militant groups have carried out attacks in solidarity with Hamas. The Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen have targeted maritime shipping and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias in Iraq killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack.

That, in turn, has led to U.S. and U.K. attacks on Huthi targets in Yemen, and by the United States against Iran-backed militias and Iranian-linked sites in Syria and Iraq.

U.S. forces launch strikes against Huthi targets in Yemen earlier this month.
U.S. forces launch strikes against Huthi targets in Yemen earlier this month.

Iran, for its part, has said that the axis of resistance, which it denies directing, would continue to carry out strikes until a permanent cease-fire is worked out to stop what it calls a genocide in Gaza. And in what was widely seen as a show of its capability to strike back in the event Iran itself is attacked, it has launched ballistic missile strikes against “enemy” targets in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, the latter of which showcased that Israel was within striking distance.

The recent spike in violence came after the United States had experienced “the longest period of quiet in the Middle East” from March until the Hamas assault on October 7, Vaez said.

That relative peace came about not because of displays of power, but because Iran and the United States were negotiating, Vaez said.

“It wasn’t because the U.S. had flexed its military muscle and deterred Iran, it was because it was engaged in diplomatic understandings with Iran that came to fruition and culminated in a detainee deal,” Vaez said.

Tehran and the United States, currently trading threats of ever-stronger responses, “are seeking to pressure each other into greater flexibility,” said Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“Both would like to get back to the truce they enjoyed prior to the October 7 attacks” by Hamas against Israel, Parsi said in written comments. “But whether the political will is available for real de-escalation remains unclear.”

“President Biden has been unmovable in his opposition to a cease-fire in Gaza thus far,” Parsi said, referring to mounting calls for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. “And without such a cease-fire, real de-escalation remains very unlikely.”

Military Message

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 6, halfway through his latest trip to the Middle East to reduce regional tensions, that a proposal for a temporary cease-fire put together with the help of Qatar and Egypt and presented to Hamas and Israel, was “possible and, indeed, essential.”

While details of the proposal have not been made public, Blinken said that the goal is to use any pause in fighting to address humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Gaza and “to continue to pave a diplomatic path forward to a just and lasting peace and security for the region.”


Asked by RFE/RL whether Washington is employing any diplomatic means, either directly or indirectly, to decrease tensions with Iran, a U.S. State Department spokesperson pointed to recent strikes carried out against Iranian-backed groups in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

“Our military response to the killing of three U.S. service members by Iran-aligned militia groups and our continued action to degrade the Huthis’ ability to threaten international shipping sends the clearest message of all: the United States will defend our personnel and our interests,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said in written comments on February 7.

“When we are attacked, we will respond strongly, and we will respond at a time and place of our choosing,” the spokesman said.

Prior to the deadly attack on the U.S. base in Jordan, there had been reports of Washington using third states to send a nonmilitary notice to Iran.

Shortly after the Hamas assault on Israel in October, the U.S. Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said that a congressional delegation to China had asked Beijing to exert its influence with Tehran to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from spreading.

In early January, the Lebanese news publication Al-Ahed News quoted Iran’s ambassador to Syria as saying that a delegation from an unidentified Gulf state had carried a message from the United States seeking to reduce the risk of an expanded regional conflict.

The U.S. State Department spokesperson said that beyond the recent U.S. strikes, “our message to Iran, in public and in private, has been a singular one: cease your support for terrorist groups and militant proxies and partners.”

Washington welcomes “any efforts by other countries to play a constructive role in trying to prevent these Iran-enabled attacks from taking place,” the spokesperson added, but referred to White House national-security spokesman John Kirby’s February 6 comment that “I know of no private messaging to Iran since the death of our soldiers in Jordan over a week ago.”

Lack Of Vision

The limits of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, according to Vatanka, “is not a lack of the ability to communicate, the problem is a lack of vision” to repair relations.

For political reasons and for a long time, Vantanka added, neither side has been interested in mending the bad blood that has existed between the two countries going back to 1979.

“Right now, the White House cannot afford to talk to Iran at a time when so many of Biden’s critics are saying he’s too soft on the Iranian regime,” Vatanka said. “On the other hand, you’ve got an Iranian supreme leader who is 84 years old. He’s really keen on two things: not to have a war with the Americans, because he doesn’t think that’s going to go well for Iran or his regime. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to see the Americans return to Tehran anytime soon. Certainly not when he’s alive.”

This, Vatanka explained, is because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini “does not think the Americans want anything other than the fundamental objective of bringing about the end of the Islamic republic.”

The other major voice in Iranian foreign policy — the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — also see anti-Americanism as a worthwhile instrument to further their ideological and political aims at home and abroad, according to Vatanka.

“They think anti-Americanism is the ticket to mobilize the Islamic world around their flag and around their leadership,” Vatanka said.

More moderate voices when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy, Vatanka said, are labeled as traitors and weak and “are today essentially marginalized.”


Iran says It’s ‘Not Looking for a War,’ But is Ready for one Sun, 04 Feb 2024 05:02:39 +0000 By Michael Scollon

( RFE/RL ) – Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said during a trip to an impoverished southern region that Tehran is not looking for military conflict but would respond forcefully to any country that threatens the Islamic republic.

“We will not start any war, but if anyone wants to bully us, they will receive a strong response,” Raisi said in a televised speech on February 2 in Hormozgan Province, located along the Gulf of Oman.

Raisi’s comments were the latest from officials this week that signaled Iran’s openness to a diplomatic resolution to rising tensions with the United States but which also projected the Islamic republic as a powerful country unafraid to hit back if attacked.

The twinned messaging, including by Iran’s foreign minister and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), came before the United States carried out air strikes late on February 2 on dozens of Iranian-linked sites in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for the killing of three U.S. troops stationed at a base in Jordan in a January 28 drone attack, which also wounded more than 40 people.

While the Pentagon did not initially say who was responsible for the attack, Washington later blamed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iranian-backed militias that includes Kataib Hizbollah. The groups are part of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West whose members have attacked Israeli and U.S. targets in opposition to Israel’s ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.

Amid earlier speculation that the U.S. response to the attack on its base in Jordan could include strikes on Iran itself, the U.S. outlet CBS News on February 1 quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that Washington had approved plans to strike targets — including Iranian personnel and facilities — in Syria and Iraq. U.S. forces have come under attack by Iranian-backed militants in those countries where IRGC forces are also present.

At the start of his visit to Hormozgan, Raisi attended an exhibition of the naval and technological capabilities of the IRGC, the elite branch of the Iranian military that has launched recent missile strikes that were seen as a warning to Israel and the United States.

The exhibition, held under the slogan “We Can,” showed enemies that they would “never be able” to harm Iran, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

“The enemy does not have the ability to act against the Islamic republic,” Raisi was quoted as saying. “Because they know our forces are powerful and capable.”

During a later public address in Hormozgan, Raisi said that Iran’s military might was not a threat to any country but was a powerful security guarantor that its allies in the region could depend on.

Raisi described the weapons he had seen at the IRGC exhibition as evidence of Iran’s status as a “deterrent power.”

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The United States has repeatedly said that it seeks to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East and is not pursuing a war with Iran.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that message during a press briefing on January 31 in which he also said Washington had obligations to protect U.S. troops and facilities in the region.

“We will have to do — we will do what we need to do — to make sure that that those responsible are held properly accountable,” Kirby said, repeating that Washington believed the Iran-backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq “planned, resourced, and facilitated” the deadly attack on U.S. troops in Jordan.

He also said that Kaitab Hizballah, which this week announced that it was suspending attacks against the United States, was “not the only group that has been attacking our troops and our facilities in Iraq and Syria.”

When asked whether Iran, which has no official diplomatic ties with the United States, had conveyed a message that Tehran was not interested in escalating tensions, Kirby said: “I don’t have any private communications with Iran.”

On February 2, Raisi said that the United States had first suggested that a “military option was on the table” but that “now they say they have no intention of a conflict with Iran.”

The comments echoed those made earlier by high-ranking Iranian officials and military leaders who weighed in on the prospect of an impending U.S. strike.

The messaging came amid reports that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had advised an emergency meeting of the Supreme National Security Council this week to avoid a war with the United States and distance Iran from partners and proxies who killed Americans, but to prepare to strike back if Iran was hit itself.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who has broadly called for diplomacy to reduce tensions in the Middle East, was quoted by the reformist Shargh daily as telling a government meeting that “America should stop the language of threats…and focus on a political solution.”

“Iran’s response in the face of threats will be decisive and immediate,” he added.

IRGC commander Hossein Salami on January 31 shrugged off what Iranian state media referred to as the “threatening rhetoric against Iran,” saying the United States and Iran “know each other.”

“We will not let any threat remain unanswered,” Salami said at a gathering in Tehran. “We are not looking for a war, but are not afraid of war either.”


Iranian Economy Buoyed By ‘Dark Fleet’ Oil Shipments To China Mon, 22 Jan 2024 05:06:09 +0000 By Michael Scollon | –

( RFE/RL ) – More than 6,000 kilometers from Tehran, in treacherous waters off the shores of Singapore, a “dark fleet” of oil tankers waits to offload the precious cargo that helps keep Iran’s economy afloat — a dependency that could also sink it.

The fleet has grown steadily over the past five years, delivering Iranian crude to China as the countries work in concert to circumvent international sanctions that target Tehran’s lucrative oil exports. But while the clandestine trade has buoyed Iran’s budget, it also comes at tremendous cost and risk to Tehran.

Iran gives China a hefty discount to take its banned oil, taking 12 to 15 percent off the price of each barrel to make it worthwhile for Beijing to take on the liability of skirting sanctions, according to research by the data analysis unit of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Additional costs add up as well: ship-to-ship operations to offload the oil, middlemen, hidden-money transfers, and rebranding the oil to mask its Iranian origin and make it appear to come from a third country, said Dalga Khatinoglu, an expert on Iranian energy issues.

Altogether, said Khatinoglu, who contributes to Radio Farda’s data analysis unit, Iran’s budget figures and official statements indicate that 30 percent of the country’s potential oil revenue was wasted last year.

And with the draft budget for the next fiscal year currently being debated by the Iranian parliament, there are no guarantees that Tehran’s bet on quenching China’s thirst for oil will continue to be a panacea.

With Iran almost entirely dependent on Beijing to take its oil and on other entities to facilitate the trade, Tehran has managed to inject desperately needed revenue into its economy. But Iran has also put itself at risk of seeing its main revenue stream dry up.

“There’s definitely an extent to which Tehran has become more dependent on the likes of China or those who would be willing to deal with Iran in spite of Western sanctions,” said Spencer Vuksic, a director of the consultancy firm Castellum, which closely tracks international sanctions regimes.

Vuksic said Iran is “definitely put in a weak position by having to depend on a single external partner who’s willing to deal with and engage with Tehran.”

Oily Deficit

Iran has trumpeted its foreign trade, claiming in December that oil revenue had contributed to a positive trade balance for the first eight months of the year.

But the oil and gas sector, by far the largest part of the Iranian economy, will not be enough to save the current budget of around $45 billion that was approved last year.

The Iranian fiscal year, which follows the Persian calendar and will end in March, is expected to result in a major deficit. In presenting the draft budget to parliament in December, President Ebrahim Raisi acknowledged a $10 billion deficit.

But the shortfall could be much higher — up to $13.5 billion, the largest in Iran’s history — by the end of the fiscal year, according to Radio Farda. This is because data shows that just half of the expected oil revenues were realized, in part due to lower than expected oil prices and additional costs and discounts related to Tehran’s oil trade with China.

Whereas the budget expectations were based on oil being sold at $85 per barrel, the price of crude dipped below $75 per barrel in December and has fluctuated wildly recently amid concerns that tensions in the Middle East could disrupt shipping and production.

“Iran Dark Tanker,” Digital, Dream / Illustrator 3.0.

And while Iran expected to export 1.5 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2023, it exported only 1.2 million bpd in the first eight months of last year, according to Radio Farda.

Altogether, Radio Farda estimates that Iran lost some $15 million per day in potential revenue through its trade with China, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the Iranian budget.

For the upcoming budget of about $49 billion, expectations for domestic and foreign oil revenue have dipped by 3 percent, according to Khatinoglu, even as the projected budget itself has risen by about 18 percent.

Accounting for the fluctuation of global oil prices, which fell far short of the average estimated for the current year, the peg has been lowered to $71 per barrel. Tehran is also expecting lower oil-export volumes — which only briefly met forecasts of 1.5 million bpd, the highest levels seen since 2018 — with only 1.35 million bpd forecast.

Iran is reportedly expected to plug the gap left by the lower oil revenue by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses, while Khatinoglu says Tehran will try to boost revenue by raising domestic energy prices.

Shipping Competition

Adding to the uncertainty of Iran’s finances is the potential for weaker Chinese demand for its oil and competition from Russia which, like Tehran, sends banned oil to Beijing.

And international sanctions are continuously evolving to punish countries and entities that foster Iran’s illegal oil trade, threatening to capsize the dark fleet that helps sustain Tehran’s so-called resistance economy.

On the other hand, the mercurial nature of oil price fluctuations and demand could work to Iran’s advantage. With Venezuelan oil no longer under sanctions, Russia is left as the only competitor for clandestine oil sales to China.

And Iran’s capacity to export oil is greater than ever, allowing it to more easily sell its oil to Beijing when demand is high.

This is largely due to the considerable expansion of the global “dark fleet” of oil since crippling U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports were restored after the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal that has been agreed with six world powers.

The deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. After the deal went into effect in January 2016, Iran more than doubled its legal oil exports in a few months, eventually reaching a high of 1.54 million bpd in 2018.

But with the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and subsequent reintroduction of sanctions that year, Iranian oil exports plummeted. And after the exceptions granted to a handful of countries — including China — that were allowed to continue to import Iranian oil expired in 2019, Iranian oil exports slowed to a trickle.

This was partly because Iran was not equipped to export its oil and had no immediate customers willing to defy the sanctions. But that changed with the fine-tuning of Iran’s efforts to defy sanctions, the fivefold rise in the number of dark-fleet tankers, and China’s willingness to take the risk of doing business with Tehran — although Beijing has not acknowledged unregistered imports of Iranian oil.

Today the dark fleet of often aging ships — nearly half of them VLCCs (very large crude carriers) — has risen to up to 1,000 vessels, according to Vortexa, which tracks international shipping. Many smaller ships are involved in Russian oil exports, which account for about 80 percent of all opaque tanker activity. But Iran had access to nearly 200 tankers, many of them supertankers, as of early 2023, according to Vortexa.

More than 20 ships, 13 of them VLCCs, joined the Iranian fleet in 2023, Vortexa reported in June, contributing to record-high Iranian oil exports under sanctions.

Vortexa attributed the rise to increased Chinese demand, the addition of the new tankers to shuttle Iranian oil after many had switched to shipping Russian oil, and the decline of Iranian inventories drawn down to boost exports amid heightened competition with Russia for the Chinese market.

While Chinese demand for Iranian oil slowed in October, Vortexa noted in a subsequent report, Washington’s removal of oil sanctions on Venezuela that month opened the possibility of higher demand for Iranian oil.

Uncertain Waters

In an October report, the global trade intelligence firm Kpler explained that tankers illegally shipping Iranian oil commonly “go dark” upon entering the Persian Gulf by turning off their transponders, technically known as the automatic identification system (AIS). After visiting Iran’s main oil terminal on Kharg Island or other ports, they then reemerge after a few days indicating they are carrying a full load.

From there, the ships offload the oil with ship-to-ship transfers that take place in unauthorized zones, mostly in the Singapore Straits. Eventually the oil, rebranded as coming from Malaysia or Middle Eastern countries, enters China, where it is processed by more than 40 independent “teapot” refiners that have little exposure to international sanctions or the global financial system.

Sanctions Revisited

The challenge for those trying to halt the illicit trade in Iranian oil as a way to hold Tehran accountable for its secretive nuclear activities and dire human rights record, is how to make the negatives of dealing with Iran greater than the financial benefits.

That has put the illicit seaborne trade of oil — both Iranian and Russian, owing to the ongoing war in Ukraine — under greater scrutiny by the international community.

“There’s continuous refining of the sanctions programs to include and expand sanctions against those involved in evasion, and that includes sanctioning so-called dark fleets,” said Castellum’s Vuksic, noting that the number of targeted sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities rose by more than 1,000 last year.

The big question is enforcement, an issue that is being debated in the United States and other countries and is leading to increased calls for countries like Panama to de-flag illegal tankers and for countries to clamp down on dark-fleet ships anchored off their shores.

“My expectation is that governments, including the United States, will take action against these dark fleets, especially the facilitators and the [ship] owners when they’re identified,” Vuksic told RFE/RL.

Other factors, including concerns about the impact of a broader Middle East conflict potentially involving Iran, could also hurt or help Iran’s financial standing.

As Kpler noted while reporting that Chinese imports of Iranian oil had dropped significantly in October, the changing global landscape can have a big effect on the independent Shandong-base refineries that purchase Iranian oil.

“Middle East tensions/threat of stricter enforcement of U.S. sanctions may have turned Shandong refiners more risk-adverse,” the global trade intelligence firm wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

In the past week, supply fears also exposed the volatility of global crude prices, potentially to Iran’s benefit.

Oil prices rose sharply on January 2 on news that Iran had sent a frigate to the Red Sea and was rejecting calls to end support for attacks by Tehran-backed Huthi rebels that have disrupted shipping in the important trade route.

Prices surged again following the deadly January 3 bombing attack in Iran, for which the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility.

But the week ended with questions about the future of Iran’s cut-rate deal with the only country willing to help prop up its economy, with Reuters reporting that China’s oil trade with Iran had stalled after Tehran withheld supplies and demanded higher prices.

U.S. Warns Of Wider Mideast Conflict As Iran Cautions Israel Ahead Of Gaza Invasion Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:04:17 +0000 ( RFE/RL) – The United States has warned that conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas could expand into the wider Middle East, engulfing the oil-rich region in fighting.

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on October 15 that there was a risk that militant group Hizballah or Iran could get directly involved in Israel’s war with Hamas.

“There is a risk of an escalation of this conflict, the opening of a second front in the north, and of course of Iran’s involvement,” he told CBS’s Face The Nation.

Sullivan said he was foremost concerned about Lebanon-based Hizballah attacking Israel from the north.

There have been minor skirmishes over the past week between Hizballah, an Iranian-backed militant group, and Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned Israel against invading the Gaza Strip, saying Tehran would not “remain a spectator” in such a situation

Israeli forces have been pounding the Gaza Strip for days as they prepare for a ground invasion to wipe out Hamas, which rules the enclave.

Israel declared war on Hamas on October 8, a day after its militants invaded southern Israel, killing more than 1,000 people in the deadliest attack in the country’s history.

Israel has said it can fight on two fronts should Hizballah attack.

Sullivan said the Biden administration will push Congress this week to pass an emergency spending bill that includes billions of dollars in military aid for Israel.

He said the administration also ordered a second aircraft-carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean near Israel to deter Hizballah or Iran from joining the conflict.

While the United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, Sullivan said the White House has means of communicating privately with Iran.

“We have availed ourselves of those means over the past few days to make clear privately that which we have said publicly,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke directly with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, on October 15 to also warn Tehran from “extension of the conflict, especially to Lebanon.”

In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been on a whirlwind tour through Middle East capitals as the Biden administration seeks to contain the conflict, find a resolution, and help Gaza refugees.

Blinken will return to Israel on October 16 following visits to Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

“There’s a determination in every country I went to, to make sure that this conflict doesn’t spread,” Blinken said on October 15 as he prepared to leave Cairo. “They are using their own influence, their own relationships, to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

The Middle East accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s oil production and expansion of the conflict could drive prices above $100 a barrel at a time when the world is struggling to contain inflation.


Copyright (c)2023 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

‘Their Freedoms Have Been Taken Away’: Afghanistan Sees Surge In Female Suicides Under Taliban Rule Tue, 03 Oct 2023 04:02:10 +0000 By Ahmad Hanayish and
Abubakar Siddique

(RFE/RL ) Shabana had a bright future ahead of her. She was studying to become a doctor and preparing to get married.

But the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 turned her life upside down. The militant group’s ban on women attending university forced her to abandon her studies. Then her fiance, who is based abroad, broke off their engagement.

Shabana, who was in her 20s, last month committed suicide in her hometown of Charikar, the provincial capital of the northern province of Parwan.

She is among the growing number of women and girls who have taken their own lives in Afghanistan, one of the few countries in the world where experts estimate that more women are committing suicide than men.

The surge in the number of female suicides in the country has been linked by experts to the Taliban’s severe restrictions on women. The hard-line Islamist group has banned women from education and most forms of employment, effectively denied them any public role in society, and imposed strict limitations on their mobility and appearance.

Although there are no official figures, Afghan mental-health professionals and foreign organizations have noted a disturbing surge in female suicides in the past two years.

“Today, women and girls make up most of the patients suffering from mental conditions in Afghanistan,” said Mujeeb Khpalwak, a psychiatrist based in Kabul.

“If we look at the women who were previously working or studying, 90 percent suffer from mental health issues now,” Khpalwak added. “They face tremendous economic uncertainty after losing their work and are very anxious about their future.”

Many Afghan women say they have been turned into virtual prisoners in their homes since the Taliban takeover. The vast majority of women are unemployed. And most say they are gripped by hopelessness.

Violence against women, meanwhile, has increased under the Taliban. The militants have scrapped legal assistance programs and special courts that were designed to combat violence against women and girls.

Forced and early marriages of teenage girls have also spiked across Afghanistan, with parents marrying off their adolescent daughters to avoid forced marriages to Taliban fighters.

Maryam Saeedi, an Afghan women’s rights activist, says some women see suicide as the only way to escape their plight. “They commit suicide to end their problems, which is dangerous,” she told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Maryam, a resident of Kabul, says her 16-year-old sister has suffered from extreme depression since the Taliban banned girls above the sixth grade from going to school. “My sister’s mental health has suffered tremendously,” she told Radio Azadi. “It is tough for girls to cope after all their freedoms have been taken away.”

The Taliban has said that 360 people committed suicide in the country last year, without offering any details. Unofficial figures suggest that the number of female suicides has surged since 2021, when the Western-backed Afghan government collapsed.

The World Health Organization revealed in 2018 that around 2 million Afghans — out of a population of around 40 million — suffered from mental distress.

“These numbers are likely much higher today,” Action Against Hunger, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, said in a statement on September 5. It added that Afghanistan was grappling with an “unprecedented but unseen mental-health crisis.”

Khpalwak, the psychiatrist, says that the country lacks the resources to address what he called a mental-health epidemic.

“The number of mental-health patients is rapidly rising, but the treatment available to them is not enough,” he said. “Women psychiatrists cannot work because of the restrictions on their work. There is an urgent need to address the growing mental-health crisis.”

Faiza Ibrahimi of RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi contributed reporting to this story


Copyright (c)2023 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


How Mahsa Amini’s Death became a Rallying Call for Thousands of Iranians Sun, 17 Sep 2023 04:06:35 +0000 By Michael Scollon and
Fereshteh Ghazi

A combo photo shows Mahsa Amini (left) in the hospital on September 16, 2022, and her father and grandmother right after her death.
A combo photo shows Mahsa Amini (left) in the hospital on September 16, 2022, and her father and grandmother right after her death.
( RFE/RL ) – Sharmin Habibi recalls the circumstances of her husband’s killing at the hands of Iran’s security forces. But she could be talking about any number of the protesters who died across the country during a brutal state crackdown on dissent over the past year.

“I was told that they did not kill him, that he must have had an enemy, that no officer had opened fire, and no bullets were fired,” Habibi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda while speaking about the death of her husband, Fereydun Mahmudi.

More than 500 demonstrators have paid the ultimate price for expressing their outrage at the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in police custody in Tehran on September 16, 2022, after being detained for allegedly violating the country’s controversial hijab law.

The 32-year-old Mahmudi was among the first to die — and the first in Amini’s hometown of Saghez, in the northwestern Kurdistan Province — for his support of what began as a local call for an investigation into the 22-year-old woman’s suspicious death.

Protesters continued to rally in Saghez on the 40th day after Mahsa Amini's death.
Protesters continued to rally in Saghez on the 40th day after Mahsa Amini’s death.

When the authorities responded with force and made clear they would not tolerate any dissent, the protests quickly spread as tens of thousands of people poured onto streets across the country.

The monthslong protests began as a rebuke against the brutal enforcement of the hijab, a key pillar of the Islamic republic. But they soon snowballed into one of the most sustained antiestablishment demonstrations against Iran’s theocracy, with some protesters calling for an end to clerical rule and demanding their social and political freedoms.

The most sustained protests and the deadliest crackdowns during the demonstrations occurred in regions that are home to ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Azeris, and Baluch, which have long-standing grievances against the state.

Women, Life, Freedom

Just hours after Amini was taken into custody by Iran’s morality police on September 13, 2022, she was lying in a coma in what would be her death bed in a Tehran hospital.

How she went from a visit to the Iranian capital with her family to a grave in Saghez within a week was the question that sparked months of unrest.

Mahsa Amini
Mahsa Amini

Based on eyewitness accounts, her family maintained that Amini had been beaten by the morality police while being driven to a Tehran detention facility. The family also refuted officials’ claims that she had fallen into a coma after a dispute with guards due to a preexisting health condition. During her brief stay at the Kasra Hospital in northern Tehran, images of her bleeding from one of her ears cast further doubts on the official narrative.

Upon hearing news of Amini’s death, dozens of people gathered in the vicinity of the hospital, pinning the blame for what they called a murder squarely on the clerical establishment that had just weeks before vowed to punish violators of the hijab law.


Gatherers, including women who had removed their hijab, chanted: “We will kill the one who killed our sister” and “Down with the dictator,” in reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Security forces, wary that the loose-knit protest would spread, quickly stepped in to block off streets and beat back participants with batons and warning shots.

The Secret Is Out

On the day of Amini’s death, Kurdish political parties called for a general strike to be held in Kurdistan Province on September 19 to protest what they called a “state crime.”

But by the time Amini’s body arrived in Saghez for burial on September 17, public anger in the province — where residents have long accused the authorities of suppressing and discriminating against the Kurdish ethnic minority — was already at a fever pitch.

Backed by a large crowd that assembled before dawn in front of the small city’s cemetery, Amini’s family prevented security forces from burying her in secret, and announced that they would hold their own funeral late that evening.


“They tried to pressure us to bury Mahsa [in secret], which I said I would not allow under any circumstances and that the people and families and even her mother should be present,” said Amini’s father, Ahmad Amini. “At my insistence, the [funeral] plan was changed.”

He also fiercely denied claims by Iranian officials that his daughter had had brain surgery at the age of five that may have contributed to her death, saying she was “perfectly healthy” and lamented that his request that a coroner examine bruises on her body was refused.


“My concern is that the authorities are spreading lies about my daughter every day,” Ahmad Amini said.

More arrests and violence ensued after some mourners attempted to march toward the local governor’s office.

“After the burial, the atmosphere in the city was highly securitized,” Bakhtiar Khoshnam, head of the Mukrian news agency in Saghez, told Radio Farda. “The situation in Saghez resembled undeclared and unofficial martial law.”

A Rallying Cry

Ahead of the anniversary of Amini’s death, Habibi explained her husband’s motivations to join the general strike that had been called in Saghez.

“Why was he so upset? [Amini’s] father said many times that there were no problems with her hijab, so why did they bring this calamity on this young girl?” Habibi told Radio Farda. “I said, ‘I know you are upset. It is very difficult for me, too.'”

She begged Mahmudi not to go to the streets on September 19. But she said he could not get over the belief that he had to do something.

The wife of Fereydoun Mahmoudi, who was one of the victims of the protests in Iran, holds his picture.
The wife of Fereydoun Mahmoudi, who was one of the victims of the protests in Iran, holds his picture.

“I was sure he was going because he was very sad for Amini. He prayed and said goodbye to my son, but he didn’t say anything to me,” Habibi said.

“That night, when he did not come home, his cousin called and I told him that Fereydun had not returned,” she added. “He said that many people had been arrested and I collected our documents to head [to the police station] with my son.”

It was an experience that was repeated countless times across the country over the course of the year.

The local police initially denied Mahmudi had been arrested, before reversing course and telling her that he had, all the while pressing Habibi for information about who her husband had been in contact with.

“It was 3 or 4 in the morning when we found out that he had been shot” near a mosque, Habibi said. Mahmudi had been beaten, both of his hands had been broken, and his body was riddled with bullets, she said.

Local officials then denied security forces had killed him or that any shots had been fired. But Habibi said she was also warned against holding a funeral for Mahmudi, because they “didn’t want a crowd” like the one that had turned out for Amini’s burial.

Despite the threat of repercussions, Mahmudi’s went ahead with the funeral, laying him to rest just 200 meters from Amini’s grave.


Copyright (c)2023 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

‘Era Of Repression’: Iran Purges Ranks Of University Professors Ahead Of Veil Protest Anniversary Thu, 14 Sep 2023 04:04:53 +0000 ]]> Iran crackdown on Unveiled Women: Mahsa Amini’s Uncle Arrested Ahead Of Anniversary Of Her Death Thu, 07 Sep 2023 04:04:06 +0000 By RFE/RL’s Radio Farda | –

( RFE/ RL ) – Relatives of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman whose death nearly a year ago sparked mass protests in Iran, have confirmed reports that one of her uncles has been arrested ahead of the anniversary of her death.

A brother of Amini’s, Ashkan Amini, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that Safa Aeli was arrested in their hometown of Saghez, in the northwestern Kurdistan Province, on September 5.

It is not known what the reasons are for the arrest or what entity carried it out, although social media posts indicated that security forces in Saghez were involved.

RFE/RL was unable to determine Aeli’s whereabouts.

The arrest took place as the anniversary of Amini’s September 16, 2022, death approaches.

Amini was arrested in Tehran on September 13, 2022, while visiting the Iranian capital with her family. She was detained by Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab, or head scarf. Within hours of her detention, she was hospitalized in a coma and died on September 16.

Her family has denied that Amini suffered from a preexisting health condition that may have contributed to her death, as claimed by the Iranian authorities, and her father has cited eyewitnesses as saying she was beaten while en route to a detention facility.

Amini’s death sparked protests in Saghez that spread around the country and ultimately posed one of the biggest threats to Iran’s clerical establishment since the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979.

At least 500 people were killed around the country after the Iranian authorities clamped down on the demonstrations with brutal force.

Ahead of the anniversary of her death, the authorities have stepped up pressure against family members of those killed, including through arrests, summons for questioning, and warnings against them holding memorial events in honor of Amini or their loved ones.


Featured Image: “A combo photo shows Mahsa Amini (left) in the hospital on September 16, 2022, and her father and grandmother right after her death.”

Copyright (c)2023 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.