Iranians Using Black Market VPNs To Bypass Restrictions

Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, poses in 2018.

Surveys show that about 64 percent of [Iranian] users use VPNs.”

While Iran has long sought to constrain internet access and limit the information ordinary Iranians can access, Iranians’ use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass restrictions and regime censorship is flagrantly increasing. According to the excerpted article from Iran’s main financial newspaper Donya-e Eqtesad, almost two-thirds of Iranians now use a VPN. Among those affiliated with universities and scientific institutions, that number increases to more than 90 percent, suggesting that rhetoric about indigenous scientific prowess and a national intranet aside, Iranian researchers find no substitute for the information they gather from abroad.[i] It also suggests that Iranians do not accept the government’s previous efforts to greenlight specific VPNs.[ii] Iranians grumble that the regime’s efforts to filter and censor the internet is rendering free VPNs worthless and is driving up the cost of paid services that must constantly augment their products to stay ahead of regime censorship attempts.[iii] Notably, the article also reveals that the amount Iranians spend on VPNs exceeds the combined revenue of the top two Iranian cell phone companies. Open discussion about nominally illegal technologies in Iran reflects the widespread rejection of regime precepts by the broader Iranian population.[iv] Such a widespread embrace of VPNs by both the general population and the educated elites suggests that Iranians are primed for change. While the government’s monopoly of force can perpetuate internet restrictions regardless of popular will, the desperation by Iranians to escape the Islamic Republic’s ideological bubble indicates that it would be naïve to accept regime claims of popular legitimacy.


“بازار سیاه وی‌پی‌ان”(Black Market VPN),” Donya-e Eqtesad (Iranian financial newspaper, 13 February 2024.بخش-بازار-دیجیتال-19/4045965-بازار-سیاه-وی-پی-ان

…. The number of users who buy VPNs is constantly increasing. Meanwhile, studies show that the price of filter breakers is getting more expensive by the day, and the volatility of the black market is also the result of inflation. People are forced to pay exorbitant prices for their natural right, i.e. free access to the Internet, to the extent that according to some statistics, in the past year, the annual gross for filter breakers reached 300 trillion rials [$7.14 billion]… greater than the revenue of the country’s two largest mobile providers.

In July-August this year, the Majlis Industry Commission published a report on the state of the Internet, in which it presented interesting statistics about the extent of people’s use of VPNs. According to this report, credible surveys show that about 64 percent of users use VPNs, and anonymous bandwidth share on the international network was less than five percent last year but now stands at 25 percent. During the presentation of the report of the Majlis’ Industries and Mines Commission, Gholamreza Nouri Ghezeljeh, the head of the independent faction in the Majlis [parliament] pointed to the statistics of 64 percent of people using filter breakers and said that some scientific centers reported up to 96 percent of the use of such workarounds to filters in scientific centers…. The frequent blocking of free VPNs has forced users to buy paid VPNs. Marzieh Adham, a communications scientist and cyberspace activist, told Donya-ye Eqtesad, “The reason for the price of VPNs is that the VPNs that are designed are constantly blocked and need to be recreated and made available to users.”


[i] For an earlier discussion of Iranian efforts to create a national intranet, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Progress on National Intranet,” OE Watch, July 2019.

[ii] For an earlier discussion of Iranian efforts to create state-sanctioned VPNs, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran Established Official VPN Operators,” OE Watch, December 2019.

[iii] For broader discussion of Iranian efforts to censor the internet, see: Michael Rubin, “Evolution of Iranian Surveillance Strategies Toward the Internet and Social Media,” The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, December 2019.

[iv] The current VPN battle parallels the efforts by ordinary Iranians to access satellite television in the 1990s. Iranians openly put satellite receivers on the roofs of their houses and apartment buildings. When efforts to bribe officials to look the other way failed, Iranians illegally imported ever-smaller satellite receivers they acquired in Dubai or Istanbul that they could better hide. After decades, the government effectively acknowledged defeat and stopped meaningful efforts to prevent Iranians from watching television programming from the outside world.

Image Information:

Image: Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, poses in 2018.
Attribution: Allameh Tabataba’i News Agency

Iran Conducts Joint Exercises To Bolster Air Force

Iran’s Yasin training jet unveiled on 11 March 2023.

The Air Force has had a very good year in the field of defense diplomacy.”

Iran’s Air Force traditionally lags behind its other military branches, but Iranian authorities are seeking to close the gap.[i] With the end of many sanctions and growing confidence, the Iranian Air Force is engaging in “defense diplomacy” with friendly regimes to improve pilot training and overall capability. While the excerpted article from a pro-regime website does not mention specific partners, there are few possibilities. Iran collaborates with the so-called “Axis of Resistance” consisting of pro-Iranian regimes or proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iranian soldiers have participated in exercises in Russia and former Soviet states in Central Asia, many of which might also open doors to Iranian pilot training.[ii] Any willingness by other countries to welcome Iranian pilots for training courses or exchanges could enhance Iranian familiarity with aircraft and platforms it might encounter in conflict and enable Iranian Air Force personnel to surreptitiously learn about potential new technologies. For example,  the Iraqi Air Force flies U.S.-produced F-16s that are a generation more advanced than jet fighters in Iran’s arsenal. Exchanges with Russia or China could foreshadow investment in their military markets. Air Force Commander Hamid Vahedi’s comments about “maintenance and repair of parts and airplanes” suggest that the Iranian Air Force might use new partnerships to acquire spare parts or upgrade avionics. While Iranian leaders often embraced the rhetoric of self-sufficiency to suggest isolation and sanctions did not hurt them, the scramble for new relationships suggests the Iranian Air Force seeks to emerge from its isolation and play a greater role in Iran’s regional military calculations.


“بآمادگی نیروی هوایی ارتش برای انجام رزمایش با کشورهای همسو”(The Air Force is Prepared to Conduct Exercises with Allied Countries),” (website affiliated with conservative populist politician Ahmad Tavakkoli), 15 February 2024.

Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, commander of Iranian Army’s Air Force, in a meeting of foreign military attaches in Tehran [coinciding with the 45th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution], said, “The Air Force has always been effective and decisive in every field that it has entered. The commander of the Army Air Force spoke of [recent achievements, including] “production and utilization of Yasin [RG1] training light fighter bomber and purchase and acquisition of the Fajr-3 training aircraft of the Pak-130 training aircraft; production and operation of a variety of drones including Kaman-12 [RG2] and Saman-22; performing long-range operations outside Iran’s flight information region (FIR); manufacturing of various simulators, laser-guided bombs, anti-radar rockets, as well as the establishment of new science centers including those focused on artificial intelligence…. He added, “The Air Force has had a very good year in the field of defense diplomacy, with a number of positive steps and productive instances of delegation exchanges, meetings and visits, training courses, and the dispatch of observers to exercises in other countries….” He added, “The Islamic Republic of Iran [Army] Air Force is prepared to cooperate and interact as much as possible with aligned countries in various fields, including carrying out joint exercises, educational cooperation, especially the exchange of students and professors between aviation universities in various fields, cooperation in the affairs of maintenance and repair of parts and airplanes.”


[i] For a moment the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sought to develop a strike fighter, but it was unable to compete technologically with the U.S.-produced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and upgraded F-16s, Russia’s Sukhoi-35s, or their Chinese corollaries. Instead, Iran sought to jerry-rig and cannibalize its existing fleet to keep the dwindling number of its 1970s-era aircraft viable. For discussion of the state of the Iranian Air Force see: Michael Rubin, “Iranian F-14 Crash Highlights Iran’s Need for New Fighter Contract,” OE Watch, 08-2022.

[ii] For earlier Iranian participation in Russian war games, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Revolutionary Guards Take Part in Russian Military Games,” OE Watch, September 2016.; For Iranian participation in Chinese war games, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: IRGC Training in China,” OE Watch, September 2017.

Image Information:

Image: Iran’s Yasin training jet unveiled on 11 March 2023.
Attribution: Iranian Students’ News Agency

Iran Rationalizes Russia’s Pro-Arab Position on Disputed Islands

Iranian graphic depicting the strategic location and Iranian control over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands.

“Russia seems to take for granted its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Despite official warmth, Iran has reason to be suspicious of Russia, given Russia’s historic willingness to interfere in Iranian politics and/or infringe on Iranian sovereignty.[i] The excerpted opinion piece from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated news outlet, highlights that one of the most sensitive sovereignty issues for Iran today revolves around three islands—Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands—occupied by Iranian forces in 1971 to prevent the UK from transferring their control to the UAE. While international law sides with the UAE, Iran has been unwilling to return the islands due to their strategic importance overseeing the shipping lanes on the Persian Gulf side of the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, Abu Musa has become home to a major IRGC base.[ii] The excerpted article seeks to rationalize Russia’s decision to side with the UAE over Iran on questions about the islands’ sovereignty. It argues the UAE is an important outlet for the Russian economy in an era of isolation and sanctions. Russian officials may also believe Tehran has become so dependent on Moscow that Iran has little choice but to accept Russia’s pro-UAE position on the matter. Regardless, short of civil war distracting Iran during any transition following Khamenei’s death, there is little possibility that the UAE could liberate its occupied territories or that Russia could compel Iran to abandon the three islands. Still, Iranians have long memories and are unlikely to forgive the Kremlin for what they see as a betrayal. Iran may tilt more toward China in the future or simply bide its time and lick it wounds. But, when Iranians feel the moment is right, they will use the Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tonbs episode to justify a future betrayal of Russia.


“Cherayi Mawzehgiri Russiyeh dar Khasus Jazair She Ganeh” (What Explains Russia’s Position with Regard to the Three Islands?),” (nominally independent web portal close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), 31 December 2023.

Russia is a country that does not make treaty of friendship with anyone but rather pursues only its own interests. To put it simply, from the Russian perspective, there are no strategic enemies or strategic friends. Russians… do not see everything as zero sum game. For example, Russia is now at odds with the West, but it has also maintained cooperation on some issues, openly or covertly.

With this brief preamble, we return to recent Russian behavior with regard to the three islands. First, we need to look at things globally. Everyone knows well that America’s power in the world, if not weak is waning. On the other hand, China, with its strong economic backing and lack of arrogance in the style of the West – now has a positive image in the world. By mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China somehow announced its presence in the region, though it had been in place for many years as an emerging power in the world that is transforming from bipolar to multipolar….Perhaps one of the main reasons for Russia’s recent stance is the oil dollars of Arab countries, which have caught the eye of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russia under sanctions. Moscow is under severe pressure due to Western sanctions, so it seems that with full cooperation with Arabs on the issue of the three Persian Gulf islands, it intends on one hand to influence the circle of America’s Arab allies and on the other hand, take a realistic view of its national and financial interests…. Russia seems to take for granted its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the West has no place in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kremlin officials have sided with Arab countries without worrying about Iranian reactions.


[i] For an earlier discussion of Iran’s the history and development of Iran-Russia relations, see: Michael Rubin, “Iranian Influence Extends to the Mediterranean,” OE Watch, September 2018.

[ii] For background on the island dispute, see: Michael Rubin, “Revolutionary Guard Chief Exacerbates UAE-Iran Island Dispute,” OE Watch, June 2012,

Image Information:

Image: Iranian graphic depicting the strategic location and Iranian control over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands.

Iran Hints It Will Supply Air Defense Weaponry to Palestinians

Iraj Masjedi, a Qods Force commander and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq, meets with Qassem Soleimani, the late leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force.

“A day will come when… [Palestinians] will obtain air defense weapons.”

The advisor to the commander of the Qods Force, Iraj Masjedi, used the 3 January anniversary of the 2020 death of former Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani to deride both the United States and Israel. The anniversary has become an annual commemoration in Iran.[i] Multiple Iranian politicians and military officers give speeches lionizing Soleimani and condemning the United States. While the Iranian population is inured to such bombast, the speech by Masjedi was noteworthy for its specificity about providing anti-air defenses to the Palestinians. In practice, support for Palestinians means support for Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas, both of which act as proxies for Iran.[ii] “A day will come when they [the Palestinians] will not allow bombardments by the Zionists and they will obtain air defense weapons,” he promised. Masjedi’s resume enhances the importance of his words. He was a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general, Soleimani’s top advisor, and a former Ambassador to Iraq who today serves as a supreme advisor to the IRGC-Qods Force. If Iran can smuggle anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza, Hamas could target Israeli aircraft engaging in the Gaza fight and endanger commercial traffic servicing Ben Gurion Airport, with approach and departure routes over the West Bank.


“Sardar Masjedi: Filistiniha beh Salah Pedafandi Dast Miyaband” (General Masjedi: Palestinians to Get Defensive Weapons),” (nominally independent web portal close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), 8 January 2024.

The supreme advisor to the commander of the Qods Force [Iraj Masjedi] said that the strength of the Islamic Resistance is increasing daily. He said, “The Palestinians are fighting with rockets today, but a day will come when they will not allow bombardments by the Zionists and they will obtain air defense weapons,” he added.

Referring to America’s evils in the region, Masjedi said, “What is the commander of CENTCOM doing in Israel?” American planes are regularly sending weapons and bombs to Israel. The United States claim to stand for human rights when in fact they are the parents of terrorism.

The Americans have the largest army in the world but I tell you, they do not base one division of it in the United States itself, and instead it is spread out in the world. What are U.S. bases doing in the region? By what right are they based all over the world? Armies are responsible for maintaining their own territorial security. Where in the world do the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Islamic Republic of Iran Army have military bases? In this situation, the Americans tell others that Iran is interfering in the world, but this is very shameful.

He also referred to the weakness of the Israeli army in confronting the Palestinian resistance, saying that the Israelis have a special force called the Golani Brigade, which is considered to be a special force to deal with the Palestinians, but this brigade was so badly hit by the resistance forces that it was ordered to withdraw and the other five brigades of the Israel Defense Forces were forced to withdraw.The Supreme Advisor to the commander of the Qods Force also emphasized that the regional resistance forces with the support of the Iranian resistance force will break the hands of the enemies.


[i] Against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, this year’s commemorations of Soleimani’s death stretched on for a week with senior political and military  officials including, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, making statements testifying to Soleimani’s embodiment of the revolutionary values Iran seeks to espouse.

[ii] Iran initially embraced late Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, the Iranian regime began to shift its support to Hamas following Arafat’s decision to begin negotiating with Israel at the end of the Reagan administration and largely broke with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority it dominated following the Oslo Accords. For an earlier discussion of Iran’s concept of strategic boundaries extending to its west, see: Michael Rubin, “Khamenei Speaks On Necessity Of Palestinian ‘Resistance,’” OE Watch, 06-2022.

Image Information:

Image: Iraj Masjedi, a Qods Force commander and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq, meets with Qassem Soleimani, the late leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force. Source:

Spotlight on Vatanpour, Iran’s “Most Active” Airbase

Shahid [Martyr] Vatanpour Air Base, Isfahan

“If the army helicopters were not present, the costs in blood and treasure…would have been far greater.”

When the Iranian Air Force makes news, it is often for bad reasons, such as when its aging jets crash.[i] The excerpted article from Iranian news outlet features the Shahid Vatanpour Army Air Base south of Isfahan, providing some previously under-reported detail on the fact that it is a logistics and training base.[ii] The article also provides insight into activity and flight hours flown at Vatanpour and other air bases. For instance, the 168-fold difference in hours flown between Vatanpour and the Tehran Army Air Base is striking (366,477 vs. 2,177 hours). As a training base, it makes sense that there would be many flight hours logged at Vatanpour. However, delegation may be part of the enormous number of hours flown out of the base with Vatanpour being more central, less congested, and better suited as a logistical hub. Additionally, the metrics may be somewhat skewed because Iran stations certain F-14s at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport rather than at the Army Air Base, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operates airliners for military transport and logistics under the guise of passenger and cargo planes.

The aircraft themselves also tell a story. The short number of flight hours for the Chinooks stationed at Vatanpour may reflect, both the small number of Chinooks that remain in service and their poor condition.[iii] The inventory of Bell Helicopters has likewise shrunk, though the smaller platform and easier access to spare parts enables greater flight time.[iv] The excerpted article itself may serve another purpose as well. While the IRGC can rely on its many business interests to increase its official budget by more than an order of magnitude,[v] the regular Army has no such recourse. Even with the end of many international sanctions, funding remains limited. By highlighting the importance of Vatanpour, the IRGC may be seeking to protect the base should the Army’s top brass be considering an Iranian equivalent of a base realignment commission.


“Paygah-e Isfahan: Fa’altarin Paygah-e Havaniroz Artesh” (Isfahan Base: The Army’s Most Active Air Force Base),” (official news agency of Iran’s defense ministry), 14 January 2024.

The Army Ground Forces are among the most influential forces that comprise the armed forces of our country. Within the ground forces is the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation, colloquially known as “Havaniruz,” that has performed many missions in its existence, especially since the victory of the Islamic Revolution when it participated prominently in battle, security, and relief operations. In many cases, if the army helicopters were not present, the costs in blood and treasure we may have paid would have been far greater. The pilots of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation carry out both helicopter and fixed wing missions. The Chinook pilots have the least numbers of flights, and the [Bell] 209 [Cobra], [Bell] 205, [Bell] 206, and [Bell] 214 pilots the most flight hours. The fixed-wing pilots also fly with [Dassault] Falcons, [Fokker F-27] Friendships and [Rockwell 690] Turbo Commander jets from Iran Army airbases in Tehran, Mashhad, Abyek [Qazvin], Masjid Suleiman, Khuzestan, Kerman, Kermanshah and the general support group and Vatanpour training center in Isfahan…. In the fixed-wing sector, Falcon jet pilots have the lowest number of flights and Turbo Commander pilots have the highest number of flights.In addition, the pilots assigned to the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Air Force base in Tehran recorded the least flight time with 2,177 hours, while the pilots assigned to the Shahid Vatanpour base in Isfahan recorded the highest amount, with 366,477 hours.


[i] For previous discussion of Iranian fighter jet crashes, see: Michael Rubin, “Iranian F-14 Crash Highlights Iran’s Need for New Fighter Contract” OE Watch, 08-2022.

[ii] The Iranian air forces are often subordinate to other branches of the Iranian military. Within both the regular Army and in the IRGC, the ground forces and navy are more prominent. In 2008, the Air Defense Force split from the Army’s Air Force to become its own distinct military branch focused on anti-aircraft capabilities. The IRGC, meanwhile, folds the role of its air force into the strategic missile and space forces, both of which outshine Iran’s aging jetfighters and other military aircraft. While Tehran spotlights its satellite launches and precision missiles, the bulk of its manned air force dates from prerevolutionary days with most aircraft more than a half century old.

[iii] Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Chinooks numbered more than 100. They were once a workhorse for the Iranian Army. Famously, less than a year before the Islamic Revolution, four Iranian Chinooks strayed into Soviet airspace during a training mission, leading to the downing of two, with eight fatalities. Today, the Iranian Army Air Force may have at most two in service, the rest destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War, through attrition, or cannibalized for spare parts.

[iv] For background into Iran’s efforts to keep its helicopter fleet flying, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Reconstruction and Overhaul of Helicopters” OE Watch, March 2021.

[v] For background about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic interests, see: Michael Rubin, “The IRGC Wins Multibillion Dollar Economic Projects” OE Watch, August 2018.

Image Information:

Image: Shahid [Martyr] Vatanpour Air Base, Isfahan

Iran Seeks To Assert Global Leadership in Determining International Cyber Policy

Mostafa Izadi, the Iranian Armed Forces’ commander for cyber threats, speaks at a conference in Gilan, 8-9 November 2023. Izadi is now making the case for Iran’s leadership in cyber and AI technology.

“If we can dominate the field, we can influence the whole world.”

Iran has sought leadership roles at the UN and other international organizations on issues relating to human rights and crime prevention, and now it seeks to shape international cyber policy. The Iranian regime has looked at internet and cyber access as its Achilles’ heel through which Western powers could influence and corrupt Iranian youth. However, Iranian officials appear ready to go on the offensive as regime confidence grows following the suppression of the 2022-2023 “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement and the expiration of some sanctions associated with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.[i]

According to the excerpted article from the government-affiliated Iranian Students’ News Agency,Mostafa Izadi, a previous IRGC ground forces general who heads a new headquarters to address cyber threats, argued that Iran should lead cyber policy to increase its influence in the world rather than seek to isolate itself from the internet.[ii] His comments may signal the abandonment of Iran’s effort to cut itself off from the world, and a belief that it should instead seek to sway audiences abroad.[iii] Izadi cites the information operations accompanying the 7 October 2023 Hamas attack on Israel to underline the power of the internet when harnessed in Iran’s favor. Subsequent demonstrations in favor of Hamas against Israel and the West not only in the Global South but also in Europe and the West seem to have given Izadi confidence. Izadi’s argument conforms to a historical pattern in which Iranian leaders, after trying and failing to suppress new communication technologies, instead seek to co-opt them. Today Iran translates Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s website into ten languages ranging from Hindi to Russian to Spanish while state-owned and operated English-language PressTV pushes Iranian propaganda globally. Izadi’s discussion of artificial intelligence (AI) is also worth noting. While AI is a topic within regime rhetoric, Izadi’s discussion of its role in the fight for hearts and minds and his new role focusing on countering cyber and new threats suggests that the IRGC now actively seeks to utilize AI to counter liberalism and advance Iran’s line at home and abroad.


“Izadi: Hakmiyat bar Fezaye Sybari Ya’ani Tasirgozari bar kol Jihad” (Izadi: Sovereignty over cyber space means influencing the whole world),” Iranian Students’ News Agency (an ostensibly private news agency close to Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus), 9 November 2023.

The commander for cyber and new threats at the central headquarters for Khatam al-Anbiya of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, referring to the creation of new intellectual space in the field of cyber governance, said, “To fight the enemy’s artificial intelligence and cognitive warfare, it is necessary to address the needs of the day.” Major-General Mostafa Izadi, commander of the new command for cyber and new threats, said at the conclusion at the conclusion of the national conference on emerging maritime opportunities and threats in Gilan, stated that the country’s scientific progress in various fields has led to the strengthening of the holy system of the Islamic Republic, and stated, “Physical, informational and artificial intelligence issues have entered a new space in the world, and America has launched a cognitive war to penetrate different countries.”

Referring to the creation of a new intellectual space in the field of cyber governance, he said, “Governance in cyber space presents an opportunity for our country to achieve great success across a variety of fields….” Emphasizing the need to pay attention to the enemy’s cognitive warfare across politics, the economy, and culture, he stated, “But piety is the secret to our success.”Izadi added, “Today, our country is facing a hybrid war, and cyber, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and cyberspace have created a special situation that affects time, place and borders. If we can dominate the field, we can influence the whole world.


[i] The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, is the agreement reached in summer 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the European Union restricting Iran’s nuclear program. For more information on the JCPOA see: “What is the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated 27 October 2023.

[ii] The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and security forces initially sought to regulate the internet in Iran, banning VPNs, slowing access, and demanding all social media operators maintain servers inside Iran. For an overview of Iranian strategies toward the internet, see: Michael Rubin, “Evolution of Iranian Surveillance Strategies Toward the Internet and Social Media” in Munir Khasru and Riasat Noor, eds. The Digital Age, Cyber Space, and Social Media: The Challenges of Security & Radicalization. Dhaka: Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, 2019.

[iii] The IRGC later offered to operate a national intranet, firewalling Iran from the outside world. For background on the national intranet project, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran- Armed Forces Ready to Take Over National Intranet Project” OE Watch, October 2019.

Image Information:

Image: Mostafa Izadi, the Iranian Armed Forces’ commander for cyber threats, speaks at a conference in Gilan, 8-9 November 2023. Izadi is now making the case for Iran’s leadership in cyber and AI technology.
Attribution: Fars News Agency

Iran’s Supreme Leader Announces Maritime Development Strategy

Iran’s rugged but underdeveloped Makran coast littoral is pictured. Iran’s Supreme Leader has recently articulated a maritime development plan.

“It is necessary to make use of the coasts, offshore areas, and the seas effectively.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently announced a new, multi-decade approach to develop Iran’s coasts. While it is unclear if and how fast Iran might reconfigure or reorient its economy towards a maritime development strategy, the ambition of the maritime plan and its announcement by Khamenei set it apart from previous Iranian economic strategies and proposals.[i]

As per the excerpted article from the official web portal of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Khamenei called for a whole-of-government approach in his nine-point directive, with the formation of new bodies and government reorganization to accomplish the ambitious plan. Khamenei does not describe where Iran will acquire the billions of dollars needed to actualize this plan. Regardless, he provides the clearest indication to date that Iran seeks to develop the Makran Coast beyond the port of Chabahar, and that Khamenei envisions greater ties to Pakistan and Azerbaijan, two traditional rivals.[ii] Khamenei’s statement also provides diplomatic endorsement for ambitious north-south and east-west commercial corridor schemes involving trade across Iran to Russia through Azerbaijan and from China through Pakistan.[iii] Though his call to defend maritime resources from exploitation from other countries may signal a subtle warning about China, a country with whom Iran has developed warm diplomatic relations.[iv] Among Indian Ocean littoral states, China has a record of overfishing and illegally exploiting other country’s maritime resources. While Khamenei signals that Iran seeks to become a regional hub for commerce, his emphasis that any development should conform to Islamic-Iranian values might undercut the attractiveness of foreign investment, especially among Iran’s non-Persian, non-Islamic neighbors. Still, Iran’s attempts to reorient its economy bear watching and, if even partly successful, this regional economic integration can have great impact on the operational environment.


“Ablagh-e Siyasatha-ye Kali Tawse’ah-e Darya Mahavar” (Communicating Sea-Oriented Development Policies),” (official web portal of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), 7 November 2023.

The oceans are divine gifts with rich reserves and resources for the development of science and technology, for achieving job growth and increased wealth, for the provision of vital needs, and for increasing the country’s strength. Since Iran has a privileged geographical position and is located between two seas with thousands of kilometers of beaches as well as islands, many of which remain untouched, it is necessary to make use of the coasts, offshore areas, and the seas effectively…. Accordingly, we have determined General Sea-based Development Policies as follows:

 1. The establishment of an integrated policy for sea-based affairs, for the division of work at the national level, and for an active, efficient management of the sea in order to make maximum use of the sea’s capacities to attain a fitting global position and to reach a top position in the region.

2. The development of sea-based-economic activities and the creation of advancied sea-based development centers to speed growth on the coasts, islands, and hinterlands in such a way that sea-based economy will always be at least twice the country’s economic growth rate over the next ten years.

3. The facilitation and development of domestic and foreign investments and partnerships by creating the necessary legal, economic, and security frameworks.

4. The formulation of a comprehensive sea-based development plan that includes zoning of the sea, the coast, and the backshore… with emphasis on an Iranian-Islamic identity….

5. Maximum, optimal utilization of the capacities, resources, and reserves of the marine ecosystem by preventing the destruction of the marine environment, especially by other countries.

6. The provision and advancement of committed, efficient human capital and management….

7. The expansion of economic and commercial cooperation…with neighboring and other countries….

8. Increasing the country’s share in sea-based transport and transit by establishing and strengthening a combined transport network.9. Supporting native and local investors in development projects… and also backing small and medium enterprises in local communities in various areas including fishing, agriculture, industry, and tourism.


[i] Across the Middle East, populations settled and cities grew alongside coastlines and rivers. See: Baghdad, Beirut, Benghazi, Cairo, Casablanca, Tel Aviv, Tunis, and Tripoli for example. Iran has been the exception. Cities developed across the Iranian plateau, separated from the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea and Indian Ocean by mountain ranges or inhospitable badlands. While the 20th century oil boom brought some development to the Persian Gulf coast, nine of Iran’s top ten cities by population are landlocked, with Ahvaz connected to the Persian Gulf by the Karun, Iran’s only navigable river.

[ii] For previous discussion of Chabahar development, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Construction Begins on the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway” OE Watch, December 2020.

[iii] For background into Iran’s developing ties with Azerbaijan, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran Agrees To Gas Swap with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan” OE Watch, 01-2022.

[iv] For background about Iran-China economic ties, see: Michael Rubin, “Iranian Trade With China Is Up, but So Is Political Risk” OE Watch, 08-2022.

Image Information:

Image: Iran’s rugged but underdeveloped Makran coast littoral is pictured. Iran’s Supreme Leader has recently articulated a maritime development plan.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Seeks Dominant Role in Maritime Development

Maj.-Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaks about Iran’s new maritime strategy on the sidelines of a conference in Gilan on 8 November 2023.

“This scientific work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Navy will be important for other organizations involved in the maritime sector.”

In November 2023, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced a new maritime development plan to jumpstart Iran’s “sea-based economy.” The next day, according to the excerpted article from the Iranian Ministry of Defense’s Holy Defense News Agency, former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and senior advisor to the Supreme Leader, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, expressed at a maritime conference the value of Iran’s coastline and sea resources. His comments reflect how the IRGC will likely seek a central, organizing role in the implementation of the maritime scheme.[i] Safavi understands that government contracts to build ports, lay highways and railroads, and erect apartment blocks will funnel tens of billions of dollars into IRGC coffers. The participation of both civilian and military universities at the conference highlights academia’s close cooperation with the IRGC, which includes collaboration on Iran’s ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle programs.[ii] Safavi also noted that the IRGC Navy (IRCGN) would play an increased role in offshore scientific missions, conducting operations in the strategic Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, where Iran’s oil and gas interests lie. The regular Iranian Navy, in contrast, focused on blue water operations in the northern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, and further afield. For the IRGCN to take the lead on scientific missions gives it a reason to encroach on the regular Navy’s traditional area of operation in a way that may complicate the operational environment for other navies in the region. After all, the regular Iranian Navy tends to maintain professional relations, even with ships from countries with which Iran has no diplomatic relations.


“Major-General Safavi: ‘Eghtesad-e Daryamahavar’ az bistarha-ye Tahaval-e Navin-e Eghtesad ast” (Commander Safavi: The ‘Sea-Oriented Economy’ is One of the Foundations of the New Evolution of Iran’s Economy),” Holy Defense News Agency (official news agency of the Iranian Ministry of Defense), 8 November 2023.

Major General Sayyid Yahya Safavi, senior advisor to the Supreme Leader, stated shortly before noon on Wednesday [8 November 2023], on the sidelines of the national conference on “Emerging Maritime Opportunities and Threats,” told journalists, “This conference has been organized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy with the cooperation of several civilian and military universities and will continue for two days in Gilan. It is the culmination of a year of scientific study and research. About 300 papers were submitted from public universities and both military and governmental organizations, of which 30 were selected.

General Safavi, with reference to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic’s emphasis on maritime policies, stated, “Iran is blessed with a coastline of 2,700 kilometers [1,680miles] in the south and along the Caspian Sea. There are 20 islands, and these islands provide a great opportunity for economic development, paying attention to the maritime economy, resolving economic bottlenecks, and solving the problems of the water crisis and producing renewable energy….”

The advisor to the Supreme Leader added, “We hope that by announcing the policies with a ten to 20-year plan, we can better focus on augmenting the private sector, encourage academic study, and adjust foreign policy to better attract investment in Iran. By having a codified plan to use the scientific capacities of the country, we can solve people’s problems according to the values and natural blessings of our country.Emphasizing the necessity of maximizing capacity of the North-South and East-West transit corridors through Iran, he added, “Producing renewable energy and bringing fresh water from the shores of the Oman Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea to the central plateau of Iran are other goals that will be pursued. This scientific work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Navy will be important for other organizations involved in the maritime sector.”


[i] IRGC firms dominate Iran’s construction industry, road building, and port operations. For discussion about the IRGC’s economic work, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran’s Proposal To Build Railroads and Housing in Syria Could Enrich IRGC” OE Watch, 11-2022.

[ii] For background on other aspects of IRGC-university partnerships, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: Preparing for Zafar III Satellite Launch” OE Watch, July 2019.

Image Information:

Image: Maj.-Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaks about Iran’s new maritime strategy on the sidelines of a conference in Gilan on 8 November 2023.

Iran Demands Disarmament Of Kurdish Dissidents In Iraq

Mohammad Bagheri, chief-of-staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, speaks by phone with Türkiye’s Minister of Defense Yaşar Güler with regard to events in the Gaza Strip, 20 October 2023.

“The main agreement was not their displacement but rather their complete disarmament.”

Kurdish separatist groups in Iran and neighboring countries have been a scourge to Iran for decades.[i] However, over the past two years, the Iranian government has become much more assertive in demanding that Iraqi Kurdish authorities dismantle Iranian Kurdish bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan.[ii] In a series of recent meetings, Iranian officials have demanded that Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish authorities completely disarm and relocate Iranian Kurdish separatist groups away from the Iranian border. In the excerpted article from the Mehr News Agency, Mohammad Bagheri, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general who serves as the Iranian military’s chief-of-staff, argues  for  a complete elimination of Kurdish safe havens inside Iraq. Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish authorities suggest that Turkey’s establishment of a de facto buffer zone against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along the Iraq-Turkish frontier, combined with Turkey’s frequent bombing of alleged PKK targets in both Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish territory, motivated Iran to request similar privileges along Iraq’s eastern frontier. It is unclear if Iraq will act on Iran’s demands, but the possible creation of dual Turkish and Iranian buffer zones raises the prospect of the two countries fighting by proxy inside Iraq.


“Bagheri: Iraq Bayad Tajziyeh Taliban ra Tabegh Tavafegh ba Iran Haleh Saleh Konad” (Bagheri: Iraq Should Disarm the Separatists According to its Agreement with Iran),” Mehr News Agency (semi-official news agency owned by Iranian government’s Islamic Development Organization), 7 October 2023.

[Mohammad] Bagheri [chief-of-staff of the Iranian Armed Forces] continued, “The countries of Southwest Asia, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, are exceptional and unique due to having strategic and political geography, sitting astride the world’s communication highway and the strategic strait [of Hormuz]. They have rich mineral resources and fossil fuel resources, are home to the great heavenly religions, including the existence of the Qibla [in Mecca] and the shrine of the holy Imams of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and various other factors.”

He emphasized that the rich resources of the West Asian region and the special place of this region have always been coveted by the powers; our region is constantly witnessing foreign interference and discord among nations and governments.

He said, “We see that the enemies are always trying to create differences between countries in the region between ethnicities, tribes and religions and by weakening the legal sovereignty of countries, they constantly engage the region so that they can justify their aggressive presence due to the they create. A clear example of this was the creation of the Islamic State, which even to the leaders of the oppressive American state admitted was created by them….”He said, “The problem of the borders of Iran and our neighbors and the insecurities we have on our borders is an investigative and extremely important issue.” Referring to the movements of terrorists from across the borders of Sistan and Baluchestan [with Pakistan] and the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Region, Bagheri said, “What does it mean for Iranian separatist groups to be based in Iraqi Kurdistan and carry out all kinds of terrorist acts in our country? And we have to keep a lot of forces at the border. Iraqi officials also confirm that this issue must be resolved definitively. Last month, an agreement was reached between the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and the national security advisor of Iraq to complete disarmament within six months. In recent weeks, the Iraqi government and all the dear officials who are trying there have made some efforts. They have moved these groups from bases near our border, The main agreement was not their displacement of separatist forces but rather their complete disarmament.


[i] Iranian Kurdish insurgency predates Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Kurdish tribal revolts spanned the Ottoman-Persian frontier in the late 19th century. In the wake of both World War I and World War II, Iranian Kurds sought to assert local autonomy to fill the vacuum left by weak central government. This culminated in the 1946 establishment of the Mahabad Republic. In the years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, Kurds again rose in revolt, upset not only by traditional Persian ethnic condescension, but also by the Shi’ite Islamist regime’s new layer of sectarian discrimination against the largely Sunni minority. For background into these Kurdish tribal revolts, movements, and secessionist groups, see: Michael Rubin, Kurdistan Rising? Washington: AEI Press, 2016.

[ii] For previous discussion of Iranian impatience with Iraqi Kurdistan providing a safe-haven for Iranian Kurdish dissidents, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran Vows Action Against Iraqi Kurdistan-Based Insurgents,” OE Watch, November 2021.

Image Information:

Image: Mohammad Bagheri, chief-of-staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, speaks by phone with Türkiye’s Minister of Defense Yaşar Güler with regard to events in the Gaza Strip, 20 October 2023.
Attribution: Islamic Republic News Agency

Iran Equips Drones With Heat-Seeking Missiles

Launch of a Karrar drone modified to carry the Majid heat-seeking missile on 21 October 2023.

“The Karrar UAV is equipped with a heat-seeking missile.”

Iran’s growing drone fleet is a pillar of its weapons arsenal and military strategy. In recent years, the Iranian military as a whole has expanded both the number of drone models and capabilities at its disposal.[i] In the excerpted article from the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, Brigadier General Alireza Sabahi-Fard, commander of the regular Iranian Army’s Air Force, announced the successful upgrade of the Karrar platform[ii] to carry short-range heat-seeking missiles that he claimed had been used successfully to shoot down other UAVs in tests.[iii] General Sabahi-Fard noted that the modified Majid surface-to-air missile is now used on its Karrar [RG1] drone platform. While the Majid missile’s five-mile range is not impressive, the Karrar/Majid combination gives Iran a relatively inexpensive counter-drone capability as Iran looks for less expensive alternatives to surface-to-air missiles to engage enemy drones. Finally, General Sabahi-Fard highlighted Iran’s increasing role as a drone-exporting power, implying that Iran will continue to encourage the proliferation of its drones for both economic profit and to tilt the battlespace and operational environment to its advantage.


“Tajiz-e Karrar beh Mushak-e Majid ba Bared 8 Kilometr baraye ahdaf-e havaye” (Equipping Karrar [drone] with Majid [missile] with an 8 kilometer range for aerial targets),” Tasnim News Agency (news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), 22 October 2023.

[Brigadier General Alireza] Sabahi-Fard continued, “The Rasul [Prophet] UAV project has followed nine stages of field and operational tests and extensive and sensitive flights, which is one of the most important points in conducting various flight tests, deep and effective cooperation of all sectors.

The commander of the Army Air Defense Force added, “In this plan, using UAVs upgraded to carry indigenous air-to-air missiles with the ability to track and engage against any hostile aerial targets in the operational range has been achieved….Sabahi-Fard said that in this project, the Karrar UAV is equipped with a heat-seeking missile with a range of eight kilometers, adding, “After over a year and a half of extensive research and field tests to determine which missiles to install on the Karrar UAV, we finally the Majid’ surface-to-air missile after we made technical changes in in order to enable it to fire from the air.”


[i] For background on Iranian drone developments and strategies, see: Michael Rubin, “A Short History of the Iranian Drone Program,” American Enterprise Institute, August 2020.

[ii] In 2009 the Iranian Defense Ministry unveiled the Karrar (Striker) prototype. Within a year, it was mass-producing the model that it claimed to have a 600-mile range. Press accounts at the time said that Iranian forces could configure the Karrar to either launch two C-705 cruise missiles or carry 500-pound guided bombs. Shortly after, Hezbollah used a Karrar as a kamikaze drone. For previous discussion of the Karrar UAV, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran’s Combat Drones Fitted with Missiles” OE Watch, September 2012.

[iii] For previous mention of Alireza Sabahi-Fard, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran Unveils New Bahman Radar System,” OE Watch, April 2021.

Image Information:

Image: Launch of a Karrar drone modified to carry the Majid heat-seeking missile on 21 October 2023.