Iran Claims To Bust US-Backed Network Fostering Anti-Regime Riots

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
September 7, 2023

Iran claimed on Thursday that its security forces had disrupted a U.S.-supported network of foreign agitators who were plotting riots meant to overthrow the country's hardline government, comments that are drawing speculation the regime is increasingly nervous about a fresh wave of popular protests that challenge its grip on power.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry, in cooperation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intelligence unit, busted "a foreign-affiliated network" that it says was planning to renew a protest movement that erupted across the Islamic Republic following the brutal murder of a young woman at the hands of Tehran's morality police. Iran claims the U.S. State Department funded and supported the anti-regime network.

But the claims, which were presented by Iran's state-controlled media without evidence, indicate the Iranian regime may be seeking to use the U.S. government as a scapegoat before the ongoing protest movement launches a new wave of demonstrations to bring down the hardline Islamic government, according to one former Pentagon adviser.

"Let's put aside the notion of any State Department involvement," said Michael Rubin, a veteran Middle East analyst who has consulted with the American government and works as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "Iran's ayatollahs have no better friend than [Secretary of State] Antony Blinken, [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan, and, if he's awake, Joe Biden. Most important, never forget: Iranians have agency [and] they don't need foreigners to teach them about freedom or protesting."

U.S. involvement in Iran's protest movement is unlikely under the Biden administration, Rubin said, and such claims are mainly disseminated to delegitimize the country's legitimate anti-regime activists.

Moreover, the exposure of a U.S.-funded network in Iran would most certainly stall any talks surrounding a new nuclear deal. Iran's government often claims the United States and Israel are fomenting chaos in the country as part of a bid to take down the hardline Islamic government, though it rarely presents evidence to support these claims.

"The members of the group operated with financial support from the U.S. State Department" and other pro-democracy advocacy groups based in America and elsewhere, Iran's Intelligence Ministry and IRGC said in a joint statement. Iran's security services also identified "a number of members of the network."

Those involved are charged with "networking women and planning riots" across the country to keep popular pressure on the hardline government. The alleged network also provided "training to elements inside and outside Iran by holding free online courses for civil and women activists," the statement additionally said.

The group's goal, Iran claims, is to "revive an environment of tension and riot."

The State Department declined to comment on the allegations or answer specific questions about the validity of Iran’s claims.

Iran's claims of a U.S. plot indicate the regime is on weak footing and looking for a scapegoat, according to Rubin, the former Pentagon adviser.

"That the regime is alleging a foreign plot today suggests Iran is far weaker than many Americans realize," Rubin said. "Perhaps a strong dose of maximum pressure might be the medicine Iranians need to get rid of the cancer the ayatollahs' regime represents."

Iran has issued similar claims of foreign meddling in the past several months and years.

The country claimed at the end of August that it had successfully thwarted a "complicated sabotage plot designed" by Israel and aimed at Iran's defense industry. These claims could carry weight, as Israel has repeatedly infiltrated the country and disrupted its nuclear program.

Iran also claimed in July and August that it apprehended members of a "Zionist-terrorist network in several provinces of the country" and arrested "14 terrorists."