Talos Regional Snapshot – 08 October 2022

Oct 10, 2022



Ayatollah Khamenei blames ‘riots’ on ‘Iran’s enemies’ as protests continue
In his first public remarks regarding the nationwide protests that broke out in mid-September, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the “riots” as plots instigated by the US and Israel. Speaking at a graduation ceremony for police cadets on 3 October, Khamenei said “these riots and this insecurity were a design by the US and the occupying, fake Zionist regime and those who are paid by them.” Khamenei further asserted that the death of Mahsa Amini was merely a pretext for destabilizing the country and “preventing Iran’s progress”. While describing Amini’s death as ‘tragic’, the leader also expressed his full support for the security forces, implicitly approving a continued crackdown on the demonstrators.

Khamenei’s comments were essentially repeated by President Ibrahim Raisi who, in a speech on 4 October, appealed for national unity yet likewise attributed the ‘riots’ to a plot by Iran’s enemies. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also summoned the UK envoy to Tehran over what is described as ‘interventionist comments’ by the UK Foreign Ministry with respect to the ongoing unrest. A statement by the ministry said London’s remarks were based on “fake and provocative interpretations” which “shows it has played a role” in the ‘riots’. To recall, Iranian state-linked media also recently accused the German embassy in Tehran of “coordinating” the protests as the government increasingly attempts to deflect any responsibility for the domestic grievances underpinning the unrest.

Meanwhile, fatal clashes between security forces and protesters continued to be reported this week across the country as demonstrations persist on a daily basis. On 2 October, student protests notably erupted at several universities, with clashes with riot police reported near the Sharif University in Tehran. Official sources continue to downplay casualty numbers at less than 50 but Iran Human Rights (IHR) – a non-profit organization – said 131 individuals have been killed thus far since the start of the protests.

The scope of the demonstrations remains difficult to ascertain given significant internet disruptions and other reporting challenges, but daily, large-scale and frequently violent gatherings have been recorded in the capital of Tehran, and provincial capitals of Isfahan, Rasht, and Shiraz. Citizens from several western countries, including Germany, Poland, Italy, Sweden, France, and the Netherlands, have also been arrested, sparking further diplomatic tensions amidst calls in the west for their release.

Targeting of Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups continues while separatist elements target IRGC in southeastern Iran
Related to the above, Iranian cross-border operations continued this week in northeastern Erbil province, targeting Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups accused of involvement in the recent unrest. Following the significant escalation observed on 28 September, when 18 individuals, including a US citizen, were killed, the strikes reverted to more routine activity affecting areas near the Iranian border. An overview of recent activity is available in the Talos Weekly Analysis report, (available to subscribers).

In a separate but related development, dozens of individuals were killed in clashes between Iranian security forces and what some sources described as separatist elements in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, southeastern Iran, on 30 September. The clashes commenced when, according to Iranian official sources, “armed extremist” elements targeted a police station in the provincial capital Zahedan, prompting a significant security response and a prolonged gunfight. Other sources offered a conflicting account, saying a protest outside the police station escalated to violence as security forces opened fire on the demonstrators.

Sistan-Balochistan, which borders Pakistan, is predominantly populated by the ethnic Baluch minority who generally adhere to Sunni Islam. Unrest and separatist violence are relatively common in the province where a low-intensity insurgency has been ongoing since 2004. Like Kurdish and Arab opposition groups based in the northwest and southwest respectively, Iran maintains that Baloch Sunni groups are supported by foreign states, including Pakistan, the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Such accusations are likely to be amplified should separatist violence in conjunction with the ongoing unrest increase.

US imposes additional sanctions to limit Iranian oil exports
On 29 September, the Biden Administration announced the imposition of additional sanctions targeting companies involved in facilitating Iranian oil exports. In a statement to the media, a Treasury Department spokesperson said the US will continue to “enforce its sanctions on the sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals products” as long as Tehran “refuses a mutual return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” The new sanctions target several companies based in India, UAE, China, and Hong Kong, for their involvement in facilitating the sale of illicit oil products.


Syrian Government Forces to launch major operation in eastern Syria
According to various reports, Syrian Government Forces are set to commence a large-scale military operation in eastern Syria, targeting IS presence in desert areas of Homs and Raqqa provinces. The operation is planned and closely coordinated with Russian and Iranian forces in response to an observable increase in IS activity in these areas. This includes multiple recorded ambushes against Syrian government forces transiting the area. Last week, a large number of Russian airstrikes targeted IS locations near Jabal al-Bishri, west of Deir Ez Zour, and the upcoming operation is expected to be one of the largest anti-IS operations conducted over the previous 12 months.

Syria and Iran remove trade tariffs
On 2 October, the Iranian government announced a complete removal of tariffs on Syrian goods specified under a Free Trade Agreement signed in 2010. The tariffs were previously set at four percent under the agreement which has yet to be fully implemented as both sides are still negotiating final details. The move represents a symbolic effort to boost trade relations which, despite strong military and strategic ties, are relatively minor in comparison to those of other countries in the region.


EU pursues two-state solution during meeting with Israeli officials
In their first high-level meeting in more than a decade, an Israeli delegation led by Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern met with EU officials in Brussels to discuss various aspects of the Israeli-EU relationship. The meeting came within the framework of the so-called Association Agreement signed by the two sides in 1995, under which officials pledged to hold annual meetings. Israel canceled the meetings in 2013 in response to the EU’s opposition to Israeli settlement policies, however current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the resumption of the meetings.

In his remarks, EU Foreign Policy head Josep Borrel reiterated concerns over the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and enduring tensions associated with the “unilateral expansion policies.” For his part, Lapid praised the recent progress made on Israeli-EU ties but without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel dismantles IS cell plotting attacks in Nazareth
On 2 October, the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) announced the dismantling of a cell of IS sympathizers in Nazareth. A statement by the agency said six individuals were arrested “several weeks ago” on suspicion of IS involvement and that subsequent interrogations revealed plans to conduct terrorist activities in the country. The plot reportedly involved attacks on a Muslim school in Nazareth for “teaching Islam in the way of the infidels”, but the statement did not specify whether any attacks were imminent. Earlier this year, during Ramadan, four civilians were killed in a lone-wolf attack perpetrated by an IS sympathizer. Days later, two Israeli police officers were killed in an operation also claimed by IS but likely involving supporters operating largely on their own.


Interior Minister says PKK-attack was US-based
In a meeting with other AK Party officials on 1 October, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the PKK-claimed attack on a police station in Mersin province was “America-based”. According to Turkish media sources, Soylu cited a purported US request for the serial numbers of the weapons involved in the attack, which was perpetrated by two members of the PKK. The minister further claimed the assailants arrived in Turkey from YPG-controlled territory in northern Syria.

Soylu’s controversial claim is consistent with long-standing Turkish concerns that weapons provided by the US to the YPG will be used in attacks on Turkish soil by PKK affiliates. Outside Soylu’s remarks, there is no evidence that the weapons used in the attack were provided by the US, nor that US weapons supplies are directly facilitating PKK activity on Turkish soil. Regardless, such rhetoric and concerns are often repeated by Turkish officials for political reasons and are expected to continue in the event of further PKK-linked attacks.

Turkey rejects Russian annexations in eastern Ukraine
On 1 October, the Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected Russia’s annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. The statement described Russia’s move as a “grave violation” of international law that cannot be accepted. The ministry also reiterated that Turkey did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Despite cordial ties with Russia and continued economic cooperation, the statement highlights Turkey’s continued effort to balance relations between the West and Russia.


Rocket attacks in Basra city linked to spike in militia tensions
Beginning on 1 October, a series of incidents were recorded in Basra province in connection with the spike in political tensions between the Sadrist Movement and Iranian-aligned Coordination Framework. This was more specifically linked to the 1 October violent protests and other militant activity perpetrated by Saraya al-Salam militia members and other Sadr supporters in Baghdad and other environments. In contrast with the relatively short-lived violence in Baghdad, activity in Basra comprised a more protracted series of incidents involving Saraya al-Salam and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).  The attacks noted in early October arguably formed the most significant uptick in a militant activity involving militia actors in and around Basra city in the recent past. For additional context, see the full report (available to subscribers).

Turkish UAV strikes against YBS locations continue in northern Iraq
On 6 October, according to security sources and government sources, a suspected Turkish UAV conducted an airstrike against a YBS base near an IDP camp in the Sardasht area, located on Mount Sinjar in the Sinjar district, western Nineveh province. The Kurdistan Region’s Counter Terrorism Directorate (CTD) stated that the airstrike resulted in an unspecified number of casualties without elaboration. PKKlinked media reporting asserted that the airstrike targeted the Sardasht IDP Camp and its surroundings. The YBS declined to provide further details, neither confirming nor denying resulting casualties, with an unclear number of YBS casualties likely resulting. For additional context, see the full report (available to subscribers).

Saudi Arabia

OPEC+ announce production cuts
On 5 October, OPEC+ announced a decision to cut oil production by two million barrels per day as of November. The group, led by Saudi Arabia, said the decision was made to “stabilize” markets, citing concerns about the falling price of oil in recent months. The White House described the move as “disappointing” and criticized the decision amidst the continued fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The move is widely seen as another act of defiance by Saudi Arabia in light of US pressure on the organization to raise production levels and alleviate energy prices. The decision also underscores the endurance of Russia-Saudi energy cooperation which remains intact despite efforts by the Biden administration to incentivize Saudi cooperation against Russia. The decision notably came three days after Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan spoke with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to “strengthen” regional and bilateral cooperation.

Iranian Pilgrim detained in Saudi Arabia released
On 5 October, an Iranian national detained by Saudi authorities during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca was released this week. Iranian state-linked media confirmed that Khalil Dardmand arrived in Iran following a three-month long detention which strained relations between the two sides.

The political ramifications of the detention were amplified as Dardmand was arrested for posting a Tweet of himself holding a picture of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani beside the Kaaba (a holy building at the center of the Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Mecca). The arrest was criticized by Iran and is one of the reasons the Saudi-Iranian dialogue did not resume as planned over the summer. According to various reports, Dardmand’s release this week was precipitated by extensive mediation by Oman.


Kuwait appoints new cabinet after elections
Following the parliamentary elections held in September, Kuwait appointed a new cabinet on 5 October, including new oil and defense ministers. Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf al-Sabah was reappointed Prime Minister by Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah who later gave his formal approval to the remaining positions. A full list of the cabinet is available here.


Bahrain withdraws from UN Human Rights Council election
Bahrain reportedly withdrew its candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council, allegedly over accusations regarding human rights allegations. As reported by Reuters, the UN website shows Bahrain withdrew from the elections on 26 September, with no official explanation provided. The withdrawal coincided however with the circulation of an internal memo by a London-based human rights organization that expressed concerns over Bahrain’s candidacy citing arbitrary detentions and alleged repression of dissidence.


Qatar set to open consulate in the KRG
On 4 October, the Government of Iraq approved Qatar’s request to establish a consulate in Erbil. The issue was recently discussed between Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq Khalid al-Sality and KRG officials, precipitating a high-level meeting by the Council of Ministers in Baghdad to consider the request during its regular session on 4 October. A statement from Baghdad also said Iraq “reserves the right to open a consulate in Qatar in the future”.

No date for the opening of the consulate in Erbil was set, but the timing is noteworthy given Qatar’s established role as a regional mediator and recent Iranian cross-border strikes targeting Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups in northeastern Erbil. Despite close ties with Saudi Arabia and the US, Qatar retains cordial ties with Iran and is often employed by both sides for conflict mediation purposes in the region. Qatar may likewise and similarly be pushed to facilitate dialogue between the KRG and Iran amidst current tensions. It should not be noted however that discussions to establish the consulate preceded recent Iranian activity, and that the KRG-Iranian diplomatic ties remain strong despite Iran’s recent actions.


Nationwide truce expired after six months
On 2 October, the nationwide truce between the main warring parties in Yemen expired amidst unsuccessful efforts by the UN to extend and expand the scope of the agreement. The truce was initially agreed to in April and then extended on several occasions, raising hopes for a permanent ceasefire agreement. The truce entailed the longest period of reduced hostilities since the start of the civil war and the UN understandably expressed disappointment that a further extension was not achieved.

In his remarks on 2 October, UN Envoy Hans Grundberg said he regretted the truce expiration but thanked the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government in Yemen for engaging positively in the discussions. The remarks did not mention the Houthi Movement, implicitly suggesting the movement was less inclined to extend the agreement. A Houthi Spokesperson previously said the talks reached a “dead end” after the movement’s requests for a further lifting on air and seaport restrictions in Sanaa and Hodeidah were not met. The Houthi Movement was also accused of increasing hostilities around Taiz and refusing to implement aspects of the truce that called for the opening of roads around the besieged city.

The expiration of the truce understandably sets conditions for an increase in violence following months of relative calm when hostilities, while not completely absent, were greatly reduced. More importantly, the truce expiration may reignite Houthi cross-border and long-range attacks against strategic targets on the Saudi mainland and, to a lesser extent, the UAE. Conversely, Saudi-coalition-led airstrike activities are likely to be resumed against Houthi targets inside the country.

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