Talos Regional Snapshot – 05 September 2022

Sep 6, 2022



Iran accelerates enrichment at Natanz as nuclear negotiations remain stalled.
On 30 August, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the second of three cascades of advanced IR-6 centrifuges recently installed at the Natanz nuclear facility is now operational.  The cascade includes 174 centrifuges and is now enriching uranium at up to five percent fissile purity, representing a continued acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program.

Meanwhile, efforts to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) continue to stall and despite recent reports that a deal is imminent, key differences persist. On 1 September, Iran reportedly submitted its latest response to a US proposal sent last week regarding amendments to what EU officials initially described as a “final text” of the JCPOA.

To recall, since the EU-led proposal was submitted in August, the two sides have been engaged in a tit-for-tat negotiation process to resolve remaining differences, prolonging a process previously believed to be close to a conclusion. The US will now review the latest Iranian proposal, however officials cited anonymously called Tehran’s remarks “not constructive.” Other officials likewise refrained from offering any timelines or expectations for when or if the agreement will be restored.

Ayatollah Khamenei reiterates support for current government on anniversary
In public remarks published on 30 August, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressed support for President Raisi and the current administration, one year after assuming office. Khamenei praised the government for “awakening hope and trust amongst the people” and that the administration was “busy solving problems and improving services” across the country.

The statement contained few additional details and refrained from discussing specific issues. It should also be recalled that Raisi was elected with strong support from Khamenei and the clerical establishment, in an election that essentially guaranteed his victory. Regardless, the remarks are a significant statement of Khamenei’s continued support for Raisi amidst a litany of domestic and foreign policy challenges over the year. It is also worth noting that Khamenei has had public disputes with each of his presidents since assuming the leadership position, including with those he initially supported.

Iran delivers combat UAVs to Russia
In a sign of deepening defense cooperation between Iran and Russia, various reports said Iran delivered its first order of Mohajer-6 and Shahid-series combat UAVs to Moscow in August. According to reports citing anonymous Iranian and US officials this week, the order includes ‘hundreds’ of devices suspected to be used by Russian forces in Ukraine and follows reports that Russian operators received training in Iran. Iranian officials have repeatedly denied providing military equipment to aid either side in the conflict but acknowledged that the provision of combat UAVs was part of an agreement that preceded the Russian invasion.


Iran-linked attacks against US forces continue
Iranian-backed militia groups continue to conduct rocket and UAV strikes against US-affiliated sites in eastern Syria. Further to the previously discussed attacks on 15 August,  US CENTCOM confirmed coordinated rocket attacks targeting US forces at the Mission Support Site Conoco, Hasakah province, and Mission Support Site Green Village, Deir Ez Zour province, on 24 August. Three US service members sustained minor injuries as a result. The statement added that US attack helicopters conducted retaliatory strikes against suspected Iranian-backed groups, with two or three militants killed as a result. This observable increase in tit-for-tat hostilities coincides with the previously discussed protracted negotiations to restore the JCPOA. See further details in the full report.

Israeli missiles target Aleppo airport and Damascus
Separately, according to Syrian state-linked sources, Israeli long-range missiles targeted Aleppo International Airport on 31 August. No casualties or damages were initially discussed, however separate reports by opposition-linked sources said at least four missiles impacted the runway and facilities located nearby. The surrounding area contains sites affiliated with Iranian-linked factions that formed a plausible target of the operation. There were no larger disruptions to operations at the airport which mainly serves flights by Syrian Air and Cham Wings to regional destinations, including several Gulf states.

On the same day, Syrian state media sources said air defense systems intercepted an “Israeli” missile attack south of Damascus. No casualties or damages were discussed. Israeli officials refrained, as usual, from commenting on the strikes however Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad offered a rare public rebuke and accused Israel of fueling regional instability and said they will “pay a price sooner or later.”

Russia redeploys SR-300 from Syria to Ukraine
Following earlier reports of a redeployment of Russian troops from Syria to Ukraine, various reports indicate Russia withdrew some batteries of the S-300 missile defense system in recent months. According to satellite images obtained by Israeli company ImageSat International (ISI), at least one battery was confirmed to have been removed from a site in Basyaf as of 25 August. Separate images indicate the hardware has been transported to the port of Novorossiysk east of Crimea. Anecdotal and less reliable reporting indicates at least one other air defense battery was redeployed from Syria to boost Russian air defenses near Ukraine, potentially indicating a gradual reduction in Russia’s presence in Syria as the war in Ukraine continues.


Sadrist protests in Baghdad escalate into violent clashes with PMF and ISF
Between 29 and 30 August, at least 30 people were killed in Baghdad and areas of southern Iraq during clashes between Sadrist-linked Saraya al-Salam forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and various Iranian-linked factions. The escalation was precipitated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement on 29 August that he will “retire” from politics amidst the ongoing protracted struggle against the Iran-backed Coordination Framework.

The retirement statement also formed an assessed response to Ayatollah Kadhim Husayni al-Haeri’s resignation and associated call on Sadrist followers to emulate Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Sadr’s statement was widely seen as a call to arms, with significant unrest breaking out within hours of the remark. The violence escalated when Sadrist protesters stormed the Presidential Palace and sites inside the Green Zone affiliated with the presence of Iranian-backed elements. The situation was restored following al-Sadr’s call for a withdrawal on 30 August, yet tensions remain elevated and the outlook for continued unrest persists over the near term. See the full Talos report.

Rocket attacks target US Embassy and adjacent sites during unrest
With the 29/30 August unrest primarily related to domestic issues, the direct impact on foreign government missions and other international actors in the Green Zone was moderate all things considered, but certainly not insignificant. On 29 August, at least four rockets were launched toward the US Embassy, impacting near an apartment complex with limited reports of casualties. Anecdotal reports circulated of a temporary staff relocation by some embassies however the US government refuted reports of broader evacuation efforts. See full Talos report.

Earlier in the week, on 26 August, a motorcade from the Australian Embassy was targeted by a small IED detonation on the Baghdad Airport Road. One car sustained minor damage yet no casualties were discussed in connection with the incident, which is the first IED to affect a foreign government actor in the country since 2020. See full report.

Rocket attack on KR-I gas field foiled
In related activity, Peshmerga forces foiled an attempted rocket attack against the Khormor gas field in Sulaymaniyah on 28 August. Three 107mm rocket launchers were reportedly discovered nearby, assessed to target the field which is operated by the UAE-based Dana Gas, and was targeted multiple times earlier this year. Further context is provided in the full report.


US warns about sanctions for Turkish companies
The US Treasury Department sent a letter this week to the Turkish Industry and Business Association, warning that sanctions may be imposed on Turkish companies who conduct business with Russian counterparts or institutions under US sanctions. The warning is not unprecedented given the widespread sanctions imposed on Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, yet the timing is significant following President Erdogan’s meeting with President Putin in August, and associated indications of expanding Turkey-Russia economic ties. In response to the letter on Twitter, Turkish Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati urged Turkish businesses not to worry about the prospects of sanctions. Citing Turkey’s position as a regional financial center, Nebati said Turkey can balance its relations with both sides, seemingly rebuking the US warning.


Israel and Japan to strengthen defense cooperation
Following a meeting with Japanese counterpart Yasukazu Hamada in Tokyo, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz signed an agreement to expand cooperation in defense, security, and technology. Under the agreement, the two sides reportedly pledged to extend ties in various fields such as information sharing and military cooperation to counter common threats, including protecting maritime commercial lanes in the Middle East and the Pacific.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia imposes sanctions on Houthi-linked individuals
On 31 August, Saudi Arabia announced the imposition of sanctions on five individuals with links to the Houthi Movement. According to a statement published by state-linked media sources, the individuals are variably accused of being involved in the development of ballistic missile and UAV capabilities and weapons smuggling under Iranian guidance. The direct implications of the sanctions are assessed to be limited and are primarily intended to corroborate long-standing Saudi accusations regarding Iranian involvement in arms smuggling and ballistic missile development. Earlier in August, Yemeni government forces arrested members of a cell allegedly involved in orchestrating the delivery of weapons and equipment from Iran to Houthi-controlled areas.


US military delegation visited UAE
In an assessed effort to reinforce the strategic partnership, a delegation involving senior members of the US Navy visited the UAE on 27 August to discuss and review military cooperation in various fields. The delegation was reportedly led by Commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper. Details of the meeting were understandably limited, yet the visit follows the US’ authorization of a UAE request to purchase Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system missiles and related communications equipment on 23 August.


Kuwait to hold parliamentary elections in September
Kuwait state-linked sources announced this week that parliamentary elections will be held in the country on 29 September. On 29 August, Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal al-Sabah issued a decree calling on eligible voters to elect members to the 50-seat legislative assembly which was dissolved earlier in August following a protracted political stalemate between the assembly and the government. The stand-off has, amongst other issues, delayed the approval of a state budget for the next fiscal year, raising pressure on the Crown Prince – who is the de-facto ruler – to call for new elections.


Yemen truce holds despite violence
The UN-led truce in Yemen, which commenced in early April, continues to hold despite a recent uptick in activity that may affect overall stability. To recall, on 23 August, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) announced the start of a “military campaign” in Abyan province while, a week earlier, UAE-backed Giant Brigades seized control over the provincial capital of Shabwa province.

In a separate development this week, ten soldiers loyal to the Saudi-backed government were reportedly killed in the vicinity of Taiz city by the Houthi Movement. Saudi-linked sources described the attack as part of a Houthi ‘offensive’ near the city, which remains under Houthi siege despite UN-led efforts to open surrounding roads. The UN and US condemned the attack, with UN Envoy Hans Grundberg calling on all sides to abide by the agreement. US Envoy Tim Lenderking condemned the attack while urging all sides to de-escalate.

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