The Iranian government has been showing signs of discord in its senior ranks, with the attempted resignation of the popular foreign minister Javad Zarif over his exclusion from a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, the Iranian military has taken an increasingly aggressive posture in the Persian Gulf -- by testing new missiles -- and in the cyber realm, by authorizing hacks on sensitive Western targets.
ZARIF RESIGNS, KHAMENEI WELCOMES ASSAD
On February 25, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif resigned in an Instagram post otherwise concerned with International Women’s Day. Two days of tumult ensued, with multiple offices contesting whether or not Zarif had resigned and whether or not Rouhani had accepted it. The fog only cleared when President Rouhani publicly rejected the resignation and Zarif returned to his post.
Zarif’s abortive resignation was reportedly prompted by his exclusion from a meeting between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Adding an additional wrinkle, the Syrian flag was not displayed alongside the Iranian flag at the meeting between Khamenei and Assad — a signal of condescension, some observers noted, if not relegation of Syria to vassal status.
On February 24, the semi-official Fars News agency released footage of the Iranian navy testing a new “ship-killer” missile designed to leave a submarine encapsulated in a torpedo. The missile then separates from the torpedo, homing in on enemy ships. Military experts believe the demonstration was intended as a warning to Western naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
On the cyber front, evidence continues to mount of a long-standing Iranian offensive against Western targets. According to a recently released report by Los Angeles-based Resecurity, the February 8 hack of the Australian Parliament "is a part of a multi-year cyber-espionage campaign" by an Iranian-backed hacking group called “Iridium.” The hackers obtained thousands of records from both parliaments containing names, email addresses, birthdates and other information on lawmakers and their staff.
ISRAEL MAINTAINS WARY EYE ON IRANIAN PRESENCE IN SYRIA
Drawing on a series of interviews with Israeli military officers, The Daily Beast reported that Iran has been attempting for the last several months to smuggle suitcase-sized components of precision-guided missiles onto rockets in Lebanon and Syria. This comes on the heels of a long Israeli campaign to degrade Iranian capabilities in Syria. According to former IDF chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF dropped over 2,000 bombs on Iranian targets in Syria in 2018 alone.
This counter-offensive appears to have taken a toll. According to a recently published Israeli military intelligence assessment, repeated Israeli airstrikes have prompted the IRGC to redeploy a considerable portion of its assets out of Syria and into Iraq. As Prime Minister Netanyahu told VOA Persian last week, the Iranians “are still there,” but “they would have been in a much greater presence if we hadn’t done it. And in fact, the presence has shrunken somewhat.”