Talos Regional Snapshot – 10 June 2023

Jun 11, 2023



Iran unveils new high-speed missile
On 6 June, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unveiled what was described as a “hypersonic” missile capable of reaching speeds exceeding 15 times the speed of sound. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the IRGC’s aerospace program, said the new missile – named Fattah – has a range of 1,400 kilometers and that there is “no system” capable of countering the missile. Other officials, cited by state-linked television, further claimed that the missile is capable of “bypassing the most advanced anti-ballistic missile systems employed by the United States and the Zionist regime”. The missile was unveiled on Iranian state television in an event attended by President Ibrahim Raisi who, in his remarks, hailed Iran’s deterrent capabilities and said that Iran’s “power is an anchor of lasting security and peace for regional countries.”

If confirmed, the Fattah would be the first hypersonic missile developed by Iran, making it the third country after China and Russia (according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service) to develop missiles capable of flight speeds exceeding Mach-5 (or five times the speed of sound). Iranian officials have previously claimed to have developed this technology but absent successful test demonstrations the claims remain unverified. Successful tests have yet to be confidently verified and no video footage was released during this week’s ceremony, however Iranian officials claimed that effective exercises have been conducted.

The implications of adding Fattah in terms of assessing Iran’s overall ballistic missile capabilities, including the ability to penetrate advanced missile systems in the region, remain unclear. Equipped with an apparent moveable nozzle designed to enable a change of trajectory during mid-flight, the increased maneuverability of the Fattah-version is intended to complicate missile interceptions, however claims regarding the ability to bypass existing US and Israeli systems remain ultimately unverified. In May, Ukrainian Patriot anti-missile batteries successfully intercepted alleged hypersonic missiles developed by Russia and the maneuverability of the Fattah-version in comparison to Russian variants remains unknown. It should also be noted that the purported range of the new variant, 1,400 kilometers, while within range to strike US forces in Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States, is not sufficient to target Israel.

The announcement notably follows the revelation in late May of another new ballistic missile version – the Kheibar –  with a purported range of approximately 2,000 kilometers. Regardless of verified capabilities, the latest revelation is set to fuel concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and further complicate the outlook for renewed negotiations with the West over the nuclear program.

In an assessed response to these developments, the US Treasury announced on the same day the imposition of new sanctions targeting individuals and entities connected with the Iranian ballistic missile program. This included seven individuals and six entities based in Iran, China, and Hong Kong, all alleged to have conducted financial transactions and procured sensitive parts and technology (the full statement and list of entities are provided here).

Iranian and US officials deny reports of nuclear agreement
Senior US and Iranian officials both denied reports circulating this week that the two sides may be “nearing” an interim agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. According to a report by the Middle East Eye published on 8 June, “direct talks” were held in New York between US Envoy to Iran Robert Malley and Iran’s Ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Iravani. Citing anonymous sources with “direct knowledge of the talks”, the two officials have held several face-to-face meetings and reached a preliminary agreement to be presented to their superiors. The deal reportedly involves limited sanctions relief in exchange for a cap on Iran’s uranium enrichment above 60 percent and continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The report led to a temporary hike in oil prices, however on the same day, a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House denied the report as “false and misleading” while Iran’s mission to the UN issued a statement saying “our comment in the same as the White House comment”. A separate report by Reuters citing unnamed Iranian officials and an unspecified third source likewise denied the existence of an “interim agreement”, but appeared to confirm that meetings between Malley and Iravani have been taking place recently. The Iranian official cited by the news agency also said that “progress” has been achieved without providing further details. While reports of an interim agreement appear premature, the resumption of such talks between relatively senior officials is noteworthy following months of silence prevailing since the outbreak of anti-government demonstrations in Iran during the second half of 2022. While the EU and UK do not appear to be involved in these interactions, the meetings in New York follow recent prisoner exchanges between several European countries and Iran which have been interpreted by some observers as an effort by Iran to break months of disengagement with the West.

Iranian embassy reopens in Saudi Arabia
On 6 June, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced the reopening of its embassy in Riyadh. Earlier in the week, the ministry also said it would reopen its consulate in Jeddah as well as the Permanent Mission to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The decision was largely expected and in line with the China-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic relations signed in March, yet the official reopening of the embassy constitutes an important symbolic step in their restoration of ties. The embassy will be headed by Ambassador Alireza Enayati who is a former ambassador to Kuwait and who served as the secretary of Gulf Affairs within the Iranian Foreign Ministry prior to this new appointment.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry has not confirmed when it will reopen its embassy or confirmed who the envoy will be. To recall, relations between the two sides broke down fully after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed on 3 January 2016 in response to the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the Saudi side may plausibly be more reluctant and cautious to reopen its mission than Tehran, but a decision to reopen the embassy and reappoint an ambassador is widely expected to take place eventually.


US intelligence leaks cite Iranian intent to escalate attacks in Syria
According to a report published by the Washington Post (WP) on 1 June, US intelligence reports leaked on Discord cite Iranian plans to escalate efforts to expel US forces from Syria by intensifying attacks on sites hosting military personnel in the country. The documents cite preparations led by the IRGC to resume attacks, including by using more powerful explosively formed penetrators (EFP), against US military convoys, with at least one such attack attempted but intercepted by Syrian Defence Forces in northeast Syria in February. Iranian plans and preparations also include a “wide-ranging campaign by US opponents” to stoke resistance through popular movements, as part of a longer-term effort to expel US forces from the region.

Other documents available in the leak cited increased Russian and Iranian coordination to achieve this, as part of a wider geopolitical alignment between the two sides since the start of the war in Ukraine. In Syria, this includes the establishment of a joint coordination center in November 2022 aimed to facilitate the campaign against the US, however Russia’s direct involvement remains unclear.

The documents cited by the WP form part of a batch of highly classified documents that appeared on the social media app Discord in April and the dates of the reports cited remain unclear. The information aligns with broader Iranian intent to expel US forces from Syria and is consistent with the observed escalation in Iran-linked attacks against US forces in late March when one US contractor was killed. While the March escalation involved traditionally employed capabilities including rockets and UAVs, the purported plans to resume EFP attacks would undeniably constitute a more significant escalation considering their relative infrequency since the end of the anti-US insurgency in Iraq. With the exception of the disrupted plot mentioned above, no EFP attacks have been recorded in Syria this year and Iranian activities have not generally deviated from longer-term attack patterns, however associated dynamics will be monitored closely for more concrete indications of the information contained in the leaks.

Syrian opposition committee calls for resumption of peace negotiations
On 4 June, the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) – an alliance of Syrian opposition representatives spearheading UN-led negotiations with the Syrian government – concluded a two-day meeting in Geneva to discuss ways forward in the stalled peace process. A statement released after the meeting called for a resumption of the talks and for “brotherly and friendly countries to support the efforts of the UN.” UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen separately reiterated the need for “constructive engagement” and a solution in line with the UN Security Council resolution 2254. Commenting on Syria’s recent return to the Arab League, the SNC warned that the reinstatement “carries with it the danger” that Damascus will “refuse to proceed with a political solution.”

The reference to “brotherly and friendly” nations is an assessed appeal by the SNC to members of the Arab League to put pressure on the Assad government to return to the negotiations where the SNC has gradually lost leverage in recent years. Aside from military developments, the government’s normalization of ties with other regional stakeholders, including Turkey, marks another significant setback that has further eroded Damascus’ incentives to reengage seriously in the talks and current expectations for any significant breakthrough are arguably at a low point. The potential and willingness amongst Arab League members to press the government on the matter remain to be seen, but it was not a major subject for discussion during the most recent session attended by President Bashar al-Assad in May. More likely is that the UN-led process takes a backseat to other priorities amongst league members, most notably the need to contain the Syria-based Captagon narcotics trade which has expanded significantly in recent years and is assessed as a key reason for Syria’s re-entry into the league.


Turkey determined to continue counter-terrorism in the region
In its first meeting since the elections, the Turkish National Security Council convened on 8 June to discuss various issues and security-related priorities. No major new announcements or policy shifts were announced, and the council – chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – largely underlined its intent to extend current policies on key security issues. A statement issued after the meeting expressed determination to continue the fight against terrorist groups “including the PKK, YPG, IS and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ)”. On the issue of Syria, the statement added that that country’s territorial integrity, peace and stability are possible once all terrorist groups have been eliminated.

The statement is consistent with a recently observed intensification in Turkish counter-PKK operations across the region, including a resumption of airstrikes in federally-administered areas of northern Iraq (see below), and persistent disagreements with the Syrian government over the issue of “territorial integrity”. Despite rhetorical signs of progress and willingness by both sides to engage in negotiations, the Syrian government has not backtracked from its demand that all Turkish troops must leave Syria before a normalization of ties can be established.

Turkish currency decline continues after election of Erdogan
The Turkish Lira continued to decline this week, accelerating a trend of devaluation that followed the re-election of President Erdogan. On 7 June, the currency declined more than seven percent and hit a new record low of 0.042 against the USD and remains at that level as of writing. Overall, the value of the lira has declined approximately 20% since the start of the year, yet the government managed to temporarily ease the fall in the run-up to the general elections by using foreign currency reserves. The decline that followed the elections suggests the government eased these exchange rate control measures once it became clear it would win the elections, with the lira further declining as a result.

Deteriorating economic conditions and rising inflation had a surprisingly modest effect on the elections in May where nationalist sentiments trumped economic considerations. That said, the government is not in a position to disregard inflationary concerns and on 3 June Erdogan appointed Mehmet Simsek as the new Minister of Finance. A former banker, the appointment signaled intent to pursue more traditional means to combat inflation, with Erdogan even acknowledging that Turkey has “no option” but to return to a more “rational ground.” Whether the appointment precipitates an end to the government’s policy of cutting interests despite rising inflation remains to be seen, but Simsek is an exponent of more traditional macroeconomic policies than his predecessors.


Turkish UAV strike targets YBS in Sinjar district
For a third time in less than a month, a Turkish airstrike targeted members of the PKK-linked Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) in the Sinjar district. KRG Counter Terrorism (CTS) confirmed the attack, stating that a Turkish UAV targeted a military base belonging to YBS fighters inside Sinjar city, with two casualties resulting. Conflicting accounts from PKK-linked media and YBS reports also confirmed the attack, stating that a Turkish UAV targeted a house inhabited by YBS fighters near Hasan Mamman Shrine, but denied or did not confirm that any casualties resulted.

The operation this week confirms a trend of elevated Turkish airstrike activity, including in federally administered areas of Iraq as well as an intensification in operations targeting traditional areas of operations. While media coverage and official statements on this week’s incident were relatively subdued, the outlook for additional operations remains elevated over the near term as part of a broader effort by Turkey to crack down on PKK activities. Associated dynamics, including the potential for localized demonstrations, Shia militia responses and broader political reactions remain important to monitor. Further context is provided in the full report.

Reports of Iranian cross-border attacks denied
Threat atmospherics related to the possibility of Iranian cross-border strikes targeting Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups continued to make headlines this week, as unconfirmed and ultimately discounted reports of an IRGC artillery strike gained circulation on 2 June. Following previously discussed reports of the deployment of Iranian military equipment near the border, reports by Shia militia-linked Sabereen News stated that Iranian forces conducted an artillery attack against a site in an unspecified area of the KR-I.

The report was not independently confirmed and media reports citing local security officials later denied the veracity of the account. The same sources said the allegation disingenuously misreported the circulation of an Iranian reconnaissance UAV in the Sidakan district as an actual attack event. Officials likewise denied reports of Iranian cross-border activity and appeared to downplay associated threats. A leader of the PUK and border guard officials denied the existence of any unusual Iranian activity across the border in light of recent reports and videos circulating of Iranian artillery pieces and other equipment being deployed to the border. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report.

Saudi Arabia

US Secretary of State visited Saudi Arabia
In his second trip to Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in Jeddah on 6 June for what was later described as “candid” talks with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman on various issues. The official state department readout noted that Blinken praised Saudi Arabia’s role in counter-terrorism efforts and stressed the two sides’ commitment to “advance stability” and “prosperity” across the Middle East, but details were characteristically limited. Anonymous US officials said the meeting lasted approximately 40 minutes and that sensitive topics such as Israel, the conflict in Yemen, and human rights were discussed. With respect to the normalization process with Israel, the two reportedly agreed to continue discussions but, as cautioned by Blinken before the visit, there is no expectation of a breakthrough. In a subsequent phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the issue was not mentioned in the official readout.

The visit was variably seen as an effort by the US to shore the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, or alternatively to address disagreements amidst Riyadh’s visibly closer economic and political cooperation with Russia and China. With details of the meetings were limited beyond vague rhetoric, the aim and results of the visit remain unclear yet there are no indications of tensions or public disagreements. This is despite Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to further cut oil supplies beyond agreements made within the OPEC+ and the US’ visible failure to ensure Saudi cooperation on the matter which both affects US efforts to combat inflation and to isolate Russia.

The meeting also follows a visit by CIA Director William Burns in April where he reportedly conveyed US frustrations over being “blindsided” by the China-brokered Iran-Saudi agreement. The agreement itself may not be an object of concern for the US, but China’s growing diplomatic visibility and approach in the Gulf likely is. There were no indications that these and other more contentious energy-related issues were discussed during the trip, possibly indicating a deliberate attempt by the administration to counter perceptions of any strategic rifts in the relationship.


Kuwait parliament largely unchanged following elections
In the results announced on 7 June of the Kuwait parliamentary elections, 37 of 50 MPs in the assembly were elected to remain in their positions. This included 29 members of the so-called opposition, which as a result retained a majority, and 12 new deputies that have never served in parliament. Only one MP is a woman, down from two in the previous assembly. Voter participation remains unknown as official statistics have not been released, but the number of candidates prior was historically low and most observers believe the popular participation was equally limited.

The outcome of the elections is not expected to significantly change the dynamics between the government and parliament, which have been characterized by a political stalemate that intensified with the death of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah in 2020. The resulting difficulties in passing key fiscal and political reforms have led to repeated decrees to resolve parliament, culminating in the latest snap elections held on 7 June. The similarity between this and the previous parliament means the prospects for a meaningful breakthrough are limited, however this will also depend on the composition of the new government which is now set to be appointed over the coming weeks.

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