Talos Regional Snapshot – 13 April 2023

Apr 18, 2023



Iranian and Saudi Foreign Ministers met in Beijing to activate agreement
In a widely anticipated meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Beijing on 6 April – the first meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries since 2016. The meeting took place under Chinese mediation to activate the tripartite agreement signed in March, with a statement by Amir Abdollahian saying the two sides have now officially restored diplomatic relations.

The official Saudi Press Agency said the meeting also outlined how they could benefit from the agreement by expanding cooperation in various areas, including economic growth, regional security and natural resources. Later in the week, a Saudi delegation reportedly arrived in Tehran to discuss the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Iran. Iranian state-linked sources also reported that a delegation of Iranian officials will visit Riyadh to prepare for the reopening of the Iranian Embassy.

CIA Director reportedly expresses US frustrations over Iran-Saudi agreement
In a related development, the Director of the CIA, Bill Burns, arrived in Saudi Arabia this week for an unannounced visit to discuss recent regional developments, including Saudi Arabia’s reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, Burns “expressed Washington’s frustrations” over Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria. In a meeting with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman,  Burns reportedly claimed the US felt “blindsided” by the agreements, however further details were not provided.

While information surrounding the content of the meeting remains limited and no official comment has been made by either side, the position expressed by Burns somewhat contradicts previous statements by US officials claiming that Saudi officials regularly kept their US counterparts informed of the negotiations with Iran. This week, Deputy State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said the US “encourages direct dialogue and diplomacy, including between Iran and its neighboring regional governments”, especially if it contributes to a reduction in regional tensions and if it leads to “concrete action by Iran to curb its destabilizing activities.” The administration has likewise denied viewing China’s role in brokering the agreement as a challenge to US interests, yet Burns’s alleged remarks this week suggest possible discrepancies. The visit also follows the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production levels which is seen as another sign of US-Saudi divisions (see Saudi Arabia section below).

US dispatches submarine to the region amidst tensions with Iran
On 8 April, a Spokesperson for the US Navy announced the deployment of an Ohio-class cruise missile submarine (USS Florida) to the region. The statement said the deployment was made to “help ensure regional maritime security and stability” and that the submarine is capable of carrying “154 tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles”. Further details regarding the mission were not specified however the move follows an observable increase in US-Iran tensions, prompted by the killing of a US contractor and wounding of US service personnel in Syria in late March.

The deployment also coincided with an uptick in Iran-Israeli tensions driven by the killing of two officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Israeli precision strikes in Syria and the interception of a UAV of Iranian origin launched from Syria that crossed into Israeli territory.  According to the New York Times, citing unnamed officials, US and Israeli intelligence officials also confirmed elevated Iranian intent to conduct UAV strikes on Israeli maritime vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The same report claimed the 5th Fleet issued a warning to “all ships” advising them to proceed with caution in the region.

The subsequent dispatch of the submarine and the rare public announcement regarding its location forms a plausible response to these developments, aimed to shore up US conventional deterrence capabilities in the region. In a related move earlier this month, the US CENTCOM decided to extend the deployment of the George H.W. Bush carrier striker group, which includes the USS Leyte Gulf, the USS Delbert D. Black, and the USNS Arctic, in the region.


Significant escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence
As widely reported, a significant escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence took place this week, with recent attacks described by media reports as comprising the most significant escalation since Israel fought Iranian-backed Hezbollah in 2006. The latest round of hostilities was initially sparked by a raid conducted by Israeli police forces on the al-Aqsa Mosque on 4 April that reportedly injured at least 37 Palestinians. Conducted during the holy month of Ramadan, Hamas and other Palestinian factions responded with a large-scale rocket attack on 6 April when at least 34 rockets were launched from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. The majority of the strikes were intercepted or fell short of the border, however at least three Israelis were injured as a result. The next day, Israeli fighter jets conducted airstrikes against Hamas military sites in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, prompting additional rocket attacks in response.

Syria-based Palestinian faction claimed rocket attack against Israeli territory
Several rockets were subsequently launched from northwestern Syria into Israeli territory on 9 April, with at least one impacting an open area in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights without causing any casualties. At least one other rocket was intercepted, with fragments impacting Jordanian territory near the Syrian-Israeli border. The Al-Quds Brigade – a predominantly Palestinian militia group based in Syria and loyal to the Syrian Government – claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement that claimed three rockets were launched in retaliation for the Israeli operation near the al-Aqsa Mosque.  In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conducted retaliatory strikes on 9 April, targeting sites operated by Syrian Government Forces, including a compound used by the 4th Army Division in a Syria-controlled area of the Golan Heights.

The rocket attacks from Syrian territory on 9 April are rare but not unprecedented, with similar incidents in the past predominantly linked to Israeli-Syrian or Iran-linked tensions. Despite the above-discussed escalation in Iran-Israel hostilities in Syria – and the potential for Israeli-Palestinian hostilities to impact broader regional dynamics given Iranian support for Palestinian militia factions – the events this week are assessed to be primarily linked to Israeli-Palestinian violence as opposed to other regional hostilities. Further to the statement by Al-Quds Brigades, Iranian state-linked media and Syrian officials both framed the strikes on Israel as retaliation for the events in Jerusalem in an assessed effort to prevent the current uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence affecting the broader region.

Similarly, initial reports that Lebanese Hezbollah was involved in the rocket attacks were rebuked as officials of the organization denied any involvement in the strikes on Israel on 6 April. While a broader escalation should not be discounted, this is assessed as consistent with efforts by both Iran and Israel to compartmentalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from other strategic issues. That said, associated dynamics are worth monitoring as the possible involvement of Lebanese Hezbollah in any future attacks would realistically signal an expansion in Iranian efforts to target Israel.


Ineffective rocket attack targeting coalition forces in eastern Syria
Despite the assessed escalation in Iran-linked tensions, hostilities remain broadly consistent with long-standing patterns and were marked this week by the continued targeting of coalition forces in eastern Syria. On 10 April, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that one rocket impacted in the vicinity of Mission Support Site Conoco, in Deir Ez Zour province, eastern Syria. The statement described the attack as ineffective and added that no casualties or damages were inflicted at the base. The same statement said another rocket that presumably failed to launch, was found at the attack’s point of origin. Reports earlier in the day conflictingly stated that a rocket or UAV strike targeted the base, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claiming coalition forces successfully intercepted a UAV in the vicinity of the base.

Other, unconfirmed social media reports later in the evening claimed coalition forces conducted retaliatory airstrikes in eastern Deir Ez Zour province, targeting sites affiliated with Iranian-backed militia groups. The outcomes of the strikes were not discussed and the reports have not been independently verified or confirmed, yet are assessed as plausible in light of these tensions.


Turkish and Syrian Foreign Ministers met in Moscow
Russian-led efforts to promote reconciliation between Syria and Turkey continued this week as senior officials, including the assistant foreign ministers, of the two countries met alongside Iranian and Russian counterparts in Moscow. No significant outcomes were reported from the two-day discussions which follow similar meetings in March and form part of efforts by Russia and Iran to promote rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.

Despite generally optimistic rhetoric in recent months, official statements surrounding the meetings this week suggested that significant tensions remain, with the Syrian deputy foreign minister thanking Russia and Iran (but not Turkey) for “confronting terrorism” while denouncing efforts by other countries to “take advantage” of the war and “illegally send forces to Syria” – an implicit but clear reference to Turkey. The statement is consistent with the Syrian government’s position which has conditioned normalization with Turkey on a full withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory.

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Syrian and Turkish officials to “show flexibility” and leave behind “confrontational rhetoric and past offenses” in order to find common ground. Reports later in the week suggested the foreign ministers of all four countries may hold meetings in early May to continue the talks, however this remains to be confirmed.


Turkish UAV strike conducted near Sulaymaniyah International Airport
On the evening of 7 April two UAV strikes were reported in the vicinity of the Sulaymaniyah International Airport. Multiple open and closed sources have since confirmed that the attack struck in the vicinity of a convoy carrying several US military personnel and the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) General Mazloum Abdi. No casualties or damage resulted and the SDF commander reportedly returned to Syria following the incident.  Airport operations were largely unaffected, with airport officials confirming no damage to the airport resulted.

The attack is widely speculated to have been authored by Turkey as a means of highlighting the continued presence and facilitation of perceived PKK-linked elements in Sulaymaniyah, and more specifically their continued use of the Sulaymaniyah Airport in line with claims made by Turkish officials over the preceding weeks. The airport remains the target of a three-month restriction for Turkish airspace as Turkish officials seek to exert pressure on regional and international political and security elements currently coordinating with SDF in Syria. Further context is provided in the full report

Security sources discounted reports of UAV strike near Harir Airbase
The direct impact of previously discussed US-Iran tensions in the region in Iraq remains limited, with Iranian-linked militia activity reduced to threat messaging and hostile rhetoric. This includes threats issued by Iran-linked factions via social media threatening to target US interests as well as false claims of attacks against US-linked sites.

On 10 April, various Iran-linked sources circulated reports of a UAV interception near Harir Airbase in Erbil province. According to Sabereen News and a single-source Iran-linked media report, the C-RAM system was reportedly activated with video footage released by Sabereen News depicting smoke rising in the location of the alleged interception. Multiple security and government sources, including the Governor of Shaqlawa district, later denied the veracity of the reports and confirmed that no UAV interceptions took place in the vicinity. Regardless, associated dynamics will be monitored closely, and the potential for a sudden uptick in attacks inside Iraqi territory despite the relative lull prevailing since the start of the year should not be discounted.

Oil exports via Turkey yet to resume as Ankara delays operations
Despite the temporary agreement signed between KRG and Baghdad on 4 April to resume oil exports via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, oil exports have yet to be resumed with oilfields in the KR-I and Kirkuk still awaiting decisions to restart production. The reasons for the delay remain unclear as multiple sources have identified diverse contributing factors. According to Bloomberg News, the reason for the continued delay pertains to Turkish demands that payments must be negotiated with Iraq prior to any restart. Reuters and Turkish state-linked media outlets indicated separately that Turkey also wants a resolution to the implementation of the International Court of Arbitration case which underpinned the decision to cease operations in late March. To recall, the court ruled that Turkey violated a 1973 pipeline agreement with Iraq by importing oil without Baghdad’s consent, however Turkish officials also said the court accepted four out of five Turkish demands and that the chamber ordered Iraq to “compensate” Turkey for several violations. Turkish officials, cited anonymously by the Daily Sabah, specified that Turkey “wants to negotiate a settlement” Iraq has been ordered to pay before exports can be resumed.

Meanwhile, the Iraq Oil Report reported on 10 April that the GoI has yet to give Turkey notice to restart oil flows as technical details for how to implement the agreement with the KRG are still being worked out. The same report claims Turkey has an obligation, under the 1973 treaty, to restart pipeline operations upon the order of the Iraqi Ministry of Oil. Further details regarding the current state of negotiations remain limited in open sources however initial indications and rhetoric from KRG and Baghdad that oil operations would be resumed immediately after the 4 April agreement were evidently premature and there are no current indications of when operations may be resumed.

Saudi Arabia

OPEC+ announced oil production cuts
In a move set to create further tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US, the OPEC+ alliance announced that it would cut daily oil production by 1.66 million barrels. The decision came as a surprise after senior officials within the organization, including the Saudi Energy Minister, previously indicated that production levels would be left unchanged. The decision was described as a “precautionary” measure given uncertain demand outlook and was again motivated by the need to ensure market stability.

Like previous production cuts, the decision underscores growing divisions between Saudi Arabia and the US, with the Biden administration describing the move as “unwise”. To recall, US officials reacted angrily last year when Riyadh reportedly backtracked on a promise not to lower production during a visit by President Biden which was widely seen as an attempt to persuade the Saudi government to cooperate on energy prices at a time of rising inflation and US-led efforts to isolate Russia. While surprising, the production cut this week underscores Saudi Arabia’s continued pursuit of an independent energy policy that seems to increasingly disregard US interests and favor Russia which stands to benefit from continuing high oil prices. As previously discussed, (see Iran section) the decision also coincides with reports of US frustrations over the tripartite agreement brokered with Iran and China, and a recent move by Saudi Arabia to invest in the Chinese Petrochemicals industry.

The US-Saudi strategic partnership remains important for both sides and, as illustrated by Riyadh’s purchase of 121 Boeing Aircraft in March, ties have far from deteriorated despite negative headlines surrounding the OPEC+ production cuts. Saudi officials maintain that its energy policies are separate from other strategic interests however it remains to be seen how long Saudi Arabia can continue this balancing act without potentially disrupting its wider strategic relationship with the US.

Russian vessels made rare port call in Jeddah
In a related symbolic move, two Russian vessels, including frigate Admiral Gorshkov and oil products tanker Kama, docked the port of Jeddah before departing 24 hours later. The Russian Embassy described the docking as the first port call by a Russian warship in Saudi Arabia in more than ten years and that the visit was “long-arranged.” The visit was followed by a meeting between Russian and Saudi officials, including the Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sergei Kozlov, Rear Admiral Mansour bin Saud Al-Juaid, assistant commander of the Saudi Western Fleet, and the Russian Northern Fleet’s missile ship division Commander, Captain Oleg Gladky. The two ships reportedly arrived from South Africa and were bound for Syria. While symbolic, the timing of this rare visit is noteworthy in light of the above-discussed tensions between US and Saudi Arabia yet should not in isolation be seen as an indication of growing Saudi-Russian security cooperation.


Iran appoints ambassador to UAE
On 5 April, Iran appointed its first ambassador to the UAE in more than eight years in a move seen to be indicative of a broader warming of ties between Iran and the Gulf states following the Iran-Saudi agreement. The appointment of Reza Ameri, a former ambassador to Eritrea, Algeria and Sudan, followed high-level talks held between the two sides in March, led by the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkani during a visit to Abu Dhabi. The appointment also coincides with reports circulating in recent weeks regarding a similar upgrade in diplomatic ties between Bahrain and Iran which remains likely given the UAE’s visible rapprochement with Tehran.


Saudi and Houthi officials meet in Yemen to further peace process
In a potential breakthrough in the Yemen peace process, a delegation of Saudi officials arrived in Sanaa on 9 April to meet with representatives from the Houthi Movement. The Saudi delegation, led by the ambassador to Yemen Muhammed bin Saeed al-Jaber, was accompanied by a delegation from Oman while the Houthi side included the head of the supreme political council Mahdi al-Mashat.

Initial details of the meetings were limited however both sides described the meeting as an attempt to find a permanent peace solution to the conflict – a significantly more ambitious aim than previous talks which have focused on achieving temporary ceasefires and more limited objectives. Mohammed al-Bukhait, a Houthi official, said in an interview that the talks are focusing on first restoring a nationwide truce and then securing a permanent withdrawal of foreign forces that may pave the way for a wider political settlement. Later reports indicated that the sides are close to agreeing on an eight-month truce, yet an official announcement to this end has yet to be made.

The UN Special Envoy described the meetings this week as the “closest” Yemen has been to lasting peace while officials on both sides expressed optimism that the talks would produce a positive outcome. Following a previously stalled process, the surprisingly sudden shift in developments is undeniably attributed to the Iran-Saudi agreement which reportedly included guarantees by Iran that it would cease providing material support for the Houthi Movement in exchange for Saudi efforts to push forward the peace process and negotiate with the Houthis. While a positive indicator, the complexity of the conflict and the multitude of actors involved, means any settlement will undeniably be difficult to implement in practice. Regardless, the start of the negotiations this week represents the first tangible sign of how the Iran-Saudi agreement may contribute to a reduction in regional tensions.

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