Talos Regional Snapshot – 11 November 2022

Nov 12, 2022



US imposes sanctions on Gulf-based companies involved in Iranian oil smuggling
On 3 November, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on several individuals and companies involved in illicit oil smuggling activities to assist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah. According to the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the entities are based in the Gulf region and are involved in blending oil to conceal its Iranian origin and to evade international sanctions. The network reportedly used storage units in the Port of Sharjah, UAE, to blend oil of Iranian and Indian origin, and falsify documents prior to sales abroad. A spokesperson for the Treasury urged “market participants” to be vigilant of attempts by Iranian entities to generate funds from oil smuggling. Further details of the entities involves are provided in the official release.

Violent protests and threats against regional adversaries continue
Protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini continued this week, with protesters across the country continuing to demand widespread political change and clashes with security forces reported on a near-daily basis. According to human rights organizations, more than 320 people have now been killed and over 14 thousand arrested, as the government continues the crackdown. This week, video footage and images on social media showed clashes in Tehran and Isfahan, with security forces employing tear gas and live ammunition. An escalation was also reported as protesters commemorated the 40th-day remembrance of the 30 September crackdown in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, where some reports claim more than 100 people were killed. Senior IRGC members pledged to continue the crackdown despite an earlier ultimatum last week having limited effect on the intensity of the protests.

Iran reiterates veiled threat against Saudi Arabia
In a continuation of recent rhetoric, Iranian officials also renewed threats to regional adversaries accused of fomenting the unrest. This included long-standing accusations that the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and European countries are involved in supporting the protesters. In a veiled threat against Saudi Arabia, Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib also warned that Iran’s “strategic patience” may not continue given current hostilities associated with the ongoing unrest. Employing the traditionally arcane language used by officials, Khatib said “undoubtedly, if the will of the Islamic Republic of Iran is given to reciprocate and punish these countries, the glass palaces will collapse and these countries will not see stability.” The assessed reference to Saudi Arabia as a “glass palace” was used earlier this month by a senior IRGC official and the remarks are consistent with accusations that Saudi Arabia is involved in instigating the unrest. Notably, the rhetoric follows an earlier discussed threat warning by Saudi Arabia concerning an impending but so-far not materialized Iranian attack against the country. See full report for context (available to subscribers).

Relatedly, a report by Amwaj Media citing informed political sources, said Saudi Arabia informed Iran that it will discontinue the dialogue between the two countries. The communication was reportedly made through “special channels” on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Algeria and is related to the change in government in Baghdad. According to the report, Saudi Arabia objects to continuing the dialogue under new prime minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani. As previously discussed, the dialogue was in part facilitated by former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose cordial and personal ties with the Gulf states were assessed to have paved the way for the Iranian-Saudi discussions. By contrast, new Prime Minister al-Sudani is supported by the Iranian-aligned Coordination Framework which, despite assurances to the contrary by Iraqi officials, may have impacted the prospects for further discussion.

Iran claims to have built hypersonic ballistic missile
On 10 November, a senior official within the IRGC said Iran successfully tested a new hypersonic ballistic missile “capable of targeting and penetrating advance air defense systems.” Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh hailed the launch as a “huge leap” in the development of a new generation of missiles and added that technology capable of countering it would not be developed for years.

No corroborating evidence was presented to verify the claim which, if true, would mark a significant increase in Iran’s ballistic missile capability. So-called hypersonic missiles generally fly at speeds five times the speed of sound, with complex trajectory patterns difficult to intercept. Russia, China and the US are believed to be pursuing the technology however there is no credible evidence as yet that Iran possesses the capability to produce such missiles. Iran also has a track record of exaggerating its ballistic missile capabilities for political effect, with officials often making unsubstantiated claims regarding technological advances. Regardless, the UN expressed concerns about the statement this week, with further developments to be monitored closely.


US citizen killed by suspected Iranian-linked militias in Baghdad
On 7 November, unidentified gunmen shot and killed a US citizen after interdicting his vehicle in central Baghdad city.  The US and Iraqi governments announced the initiation of an investigation into the incident in order to determine the circumstances.  It is assessed that Iranian-backed militias were responsible for the action, which occurred during elevated US-Iran regional tensions. Further discussion and analysis is available in the full report (available to subscribers).

Suspected US airstrike targeted Iran-linked sites on the Iraq-Syria border
Suspected US-aligned responses to the assassination above included an airstrike against an Iran-linked fuel convoy on the Iraq-Syria border. Shortly before midnight on 8 November, a convoy of about 22 fuel trucks operated by Iranian-backed groups was targeted in the Hari area of eastern Syria, located opposite the al-Qaim border crossing point. Casualty figures differ but various sources of varying credibility discussed between 10 and 25 killed and wounded. Further details and context regarding the assassination in Baghdad and subsequent airstrikes are provided in the full report (available to subscribers).


Turkey and Syrian government accused of exacerbating cholera outbreak
On 7 November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Turkish government of exacerbating water shortages in northern Syria, which are partially responsible for the current cholera outbreak. HRW said Turkey failed to ensure an adequate and consistent supply of water from the Allouk water station, which is located in an area of northeastern Syria controlled by Turkish-backed forces as well as Turkish regular forces. Since the outbreak of cholera, more than 20 thousand cases have been reported which the UN attributes to the consumption of unsafe drinking water.

UN envoy urges lifting of unilateral sanctions on Syria
On 10 November, Alena Douhan, the UN’s special rapporteur on the impact of unilateral sanctions, urged countries to immediately lift sanctions on Syria, citing the “catastrophic effects” across “all walks of life”, including shortages of medicine and equipment that affects the lives of ordinary Syrians. In a statement issued after a 12-day visit to the country, Douhan warned that the sanctions prevent any efforts towards reconstruction and severely harm the human rights of civilians.

The special rapporteur position was established in 2014 based on a resolution introduced by Iran, and Douma is the second to hold the appointment. The position is nominally independent and not formally a member of the UN staff. Douma’s previous findings – including calls to lift sanctions on Venezuela and the Syrian government – have been rejected by the US and criticized by various human rights organizations, who also criticized the statement on 10 November. Douma’s political neutrality has also been questioned, amidst reports that she received payments from the Chinese, Russian, and Qatari governments. Despite a gradual shift towards normalization, the US and other western countries are highly unlikely to lift sanctions on the Assad government and will likely continue to condition any normalization with the country on President Assad’s removal.


Turkey commences gas payments to Russia in rubles
In a further sign of deepening energy cooperation between the two sides, Turkey’s Minister of Energy Fatih Donmez confirmed this week that Turkey began paying for some of its natural gas imports in Russian rubles. Speaking to a state-linked channel, Donmez also said the payments in the currency would increase in the coming months. Russian demands for rubles payments were reportedly discussed in a meeting between President Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in September, and Turkey’s move is conducive to Russian efforts to mitigate the effects of western sanctions. In the interview, Donmez also confirmed plans to establish a natural gas hub in Turkey and said the Russian-led proposal may be discussed in an upcoming conference in January or February.

Erdogan reiterates intent to pursue normalization with Israel despite elections results
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government officials in Turkey reiterated intent to pursue normalization with Israel despite the change in government. Speaking with a Turkish media outlet, Erdogan said relations with Israel will be based on “mutual understanding and common interests”, regardless of the outcome of the elections. Separately, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey is ready to maintain relations with the new Israeli government as long as the rights of the Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem are respected.

The election of a new government in Tel Aviv, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has understandably sparked questions surrounding the Israeli-Turkey rapprochement, which saw significant progress under the previous Israeli government. To recall, relations between the two sides deteriorated in large part due to disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Relations between Erdogan and Netanyahu were often marked by personal disputes and name-calling during a period when both sides severed ambassadorial ties. In his remarks, Erdogan refrained from naming Netanyahu by name and the rhetoric so far has been characteristically generic and indicative of intent to downplay personal relationships in favor of strategic interests. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to remain a subject of contention however, especially given the expected participation of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit and other right-wing parties in the Netanyahu-led government.


President Biden congratulates Prime Minister Netanyahu
Relatedly, President Joe Biden congratulated new Prime Minister Netanyahu on his election victory, with a statement reaffirming the “strength of the bilateral partnership” and the administration’s “unwavering support” for Israel. The statement was issued less than 24hrs before the US mid-term elections. For his part, Netanyahu’s office said the two discussed ways to secure more “normalization” agreements in the region and to counter “Iranian aggression”.

Netanyahu’s statement predictably focused on wider areas of strategic agreement given the Biden administration’s adoption of a more conditional approach to Israel as well as Netanyahu’s visibly closer relations to the Republican Party. The election of Netanyahu’s coalition is not expected to fundamentally alter the Israeli-US relationship, but as previously discussed, the US may seek to circumvent potential tensions with Netanyahu by engaging other officials, like President Herzog, who recently visited the White House.

Israeli airstrikes target Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire
On 4 November, the Israeli Airforce conducted several airstrikes, targeting sites purportedly used as rocket factories in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Defence Forces claimed the strikes targeted an underground facility used by Hamas, with satellite images published of a site located near the al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza. The airstrikes came in retaliation for rocket attacks launched from the Strip into southern Israeli territory earlier in the evening. No casualties were reported in the attacks which constitute the first cross-border violence since a localized ceasefire was agreed upon in August. The escalation coincided with the conclusion of the Israeli election and preliminary results indicating a victory for the Likud-led right-wing coalition.

Saudi Arabia

Gulf Cooperation Council holds annual meetings for interior and defense ministers
On 9 November, the interior ministers of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held their 39th annual meeting in Riyadh. The meeting was led by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud and attended by the interior ministers of Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. As usual, the meeting focused on ways to strengthen security cooperation between member states in order to counter common threats. This included a review of joint military exercises conducted this year (including the Arab Gulf Security 3) and the upcoming Arab Gulf Security 4 exercise which will be organized by Qatar.

Separately, the defense ministers of the member states also met as part of the GCC Joint Defence Council this week. The participants notably discussed raising the combat level of member states, citing “exceptional regional and international emergency circumstances.” Further details were not released and a formal decision to raise the combat level was not communicated. This notably follows a previously discussed Saudi intelligence report citing the threat of an impending Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia, however, it is not clear from the communication that the threat warning is what precipitated the discussion on combat levels.


UAE and Bahrain conduct joint military exercise
The armed forces of the UAE and Bahrain concluded a three-day military exercise – the Jelmoud 3 – this week. The drill involved the participation of the UAE Armed Forces and the Royal Guard, a unit of the Bahrain Defence forces, as well as Bahraini forces from the Ministry of Interior and National Security Agency. The Jelmoud 3 was officially referred to as an anti-terrorism exercise and underscores the close level of strategic and security cooperation between Bahrain and the UAE.


Houthi Movement conducts another attack on oil tanker
On 9 November, according to the Saudi-backed government, the Houthi Movement launched a UAV attack against the port of Qena, in Shabwa province, southern Yemen. A single explosive-laden UAV reportedly impacted near the Rudum terminal as an oil tanker was offloading fuel, however no casualties or damages were discussed.

The Houthi Movement claimed responsibility in a statement on Twitter, saying the operation foiled an attempt to loot Yemen’s oil and protect the oil wealth of the country to ensure public sector wages. The attack was condemned by Saudi Arabia and other members of the GCC. A joint statement by the US, France and the UK also called on the movement to “immediately cease” such attacks and accused the Houthis of engaging in “economic warfare” which will only “exacerbate the conflict and humanitarian crisis.”

The attack follows a similar operation conducted near Mukalla, Hadhramaut province, in October when two UAVs impacted near a Greek-flagged oil vessel. Casualties and damages were likewise not reported and given the movement’s demonstrated capability to conduct precision strikes, both operations were likely deliberately intended as a warning for threat messaging purposes.

The attacks coincide with continued efforts by the UN to forge an extended truce and related efforts by the movement to realize economic gains as part of the negotiations. Assessed motives also include demonstrating that they control seaports in the country and that oil-related transactions must be made with Houthi approval. According to Reuters, several foreign companies in the oil and maritime sectors raised security concerns in light of recent attacks, with some temporarily suspending operations because of political tensions and related limitations in oil storage capacities. The outlook for further attacks affecting oil sector targets and ports in the country is understandably elevated.

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