Talos Regional Snapshot – 13 January 2022

Jan 14, 2023



Iran orders tougher implementation of hijab law despite protests
On 10 January, the Iranian Judiciary issued several directives ordering the morality police and other law enforcement agencies to act “decisively” against women who fail to comply with laws mandating the mandatory wearing of headscarves. The statement said police will immediately arrest and detain women who remove their hijabs in public, with violators risking up to two months of detention. The judiciary also unveiled a series of new penalties to punish violators, including a range of bans on work and political participation as well as the threat of seizing financial assets.

The directives represent a firm response from the Iranian government to the recent protests following signs in December that the authorities were willing to relax some restrictions. Since the start of the new year however, officials have struck a much less conciliatory tone, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei this week expressing support for the actions undertaken by the security forces and the judiciary in cracking down on the unrest. In his speech on 9 January, Khamenei also said the “riots” have failed and denied that protests were directed against the Iranian government by blaming “foreign governments” for instigating the unrest.

Belgian NGO worker sentenced in Iran
Relatedly, on 10 January, Iranian state-linked media channels reported the sentencing of Belgian national Olivier Vandecasteele to a 40-year prison sentence and 74 lashes for purportedly spying, laundering money and cooperating with the US against Iran. Vandecasteele was detained in February of 2022 and previously worked as the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council and later Relief International before he returned to Belgium in 2021. According to Vandecasteele’s family, he was detained during a short visit to Iran in February 2022 and has been on a hunger strike to protest his detention.

Like other EU countries, Belgium strongly denounced the sentencing and claimed the charges were entirely fabricated. No details on the charges and the alleged activities conducted by Vandecasteele were provided, but the timing of the sentence appears politically motivated. In December, Belgium urged its citizens to leave Iran, warning of arbitrary arrests or unfair trials.

Protests outside French Embassy in Tehran
The diplomatic fallout over the publication of a caricature of Ayatollah Khamenei by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo continued this week. On 8 January, pro-government protesters gathered outside the French Embassy in Tehran to denounce the cartoon and burn the French flag. No violence was directed against the embassy itself however amidst police presence. A separate but similar protest was reported in the city of Qom.

Further to previous condemnations by Iranian officials, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami said in a speech this week that “Muslims” will “sooner or later take revenge” against France over the cartoons. Referring to the attempted assassination of British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, Salami warned that similar acts of violence may target the staff of Charlie Hebdo. On 10 January, Lebanese Hezbollah also condemned the caricature and called on the French government to punish the magazine. While related tensions have not translated into acts of violence, the associated risk of hostilities affecting French interests remains a consideration over the near term.


UN Security Council extends cross-border mandate
On 9 January, the UN Security Council voted to unanimously extend a mandate to allow humanitarian aid operations in northwest Syria. The mandate was due to expire on 10 January, with concerns in effect that Russia would oppose the extension since it essentially allows deliveries into opposition-held areas. However, Russia surprisingly approved the measure which allows operations to continue until July 2023. Russia’s UN Ambassador called the decision “difficult” and said it does not change Moscow’s long-term position on the legitimacy of the mandate which, it claims, violates Syria’s territorial integrity.

Protests against Turkey-Syria normalization
Protests were reported in various opposition-controlled areas of northern Syria this week to denounce the ongoing normalization of ties between Syria and Turkey. To recall, earlier this month, the defense ministers of Turkey, Syria and Russia met in Moscow to discuss the situation in the country – the first official engagement between Syrian and Turkish officials since the start of the conflict. Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that he may meet President Bashar al-Assad in the near future, however any arrangements are yet to be confirmed.

This week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the Turkish government would not agree to any decision or meeting that would harm the Syrian opposition, but also warned these groups against any “provocation”. The protests recorded this week in Idlib and Aleppo provinces were plausibly seen as a response to Akar’s statement and underscored concerns amongst Turkish-backed opposition factions about the implications of normalization. Accordingly, protests and reactions are likely to continue as the mending of ties proceeds.


Court suspends funding for pro-Kurdish party
On 5 January, the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled in favor of suspending bank accounts affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) over its alleged ties to terrorism. The accounts were suspended pending an investigation and another court decision regarding whether to close the party over its alleged ties to the PKK. The investigation follows government-led allegations that the HDP has “organic ties” with the PKK – a claim denied by the party, but which forms the basis of a pending judicial case filed in March 2021.

Crucially, the suspension of the accounts comes ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2023 which preliminary polls indicate will be close. The HDP is the third largest party in parliament and the decision this week may understandably impact its electoral chances ahead of the campaign. Alongside the arrest and sentencing of Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, the case against the HDP is undeniably perceived as another politically motivated effort by the government to target the opposition, and one likely to generate strong political reactions inside and outside Turkey.


IED attack against coalition-contracted convoy in northern Baghdad province
On 12 January, according to Sabreen News and unnamed security sources, an IED detonated against a Coalition Forces-contracted private logistics convoy traveling on Highway 1 near Taji, northern Baghdad province.  According to unnamed security sources, no casualties or damages resulted, and the convoy continued without further incident.  Official security sources refrained from publicly commenting on the attack.  The International Resistance Faction, an established front group for Iranian-backed militias, claimed responsibility for the attack.

This incident corresponded with elevated anti-US threats tied to the 3 January anniversary of the deaths of former IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and PMF deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The 12 January incident formed the only recorded militant act in Iraq linked to this occasion and amounted to a harassment attack against an Iraqi organization that was merely linked to Coalition Forces. Further context is provided in the full report.

Kurdistan Regional Government Security Forces disrupted IS plot to conduct attacks in Erbil city
The KRG Counter-Terrorism Directorate announced that four IS members were arrested in December 2022, charged with plotting terrorism activities in Erbil city. Further details of the arrest operation were characteristically not specified but there are no indications that a viable attack was in an advanced planning stage. Absent further details the arrests are not assessed to indicate elevated IS capability to conduct attacks inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Further details are provided in the quick update.


US officials to visit Israel in the coming weeks
According to various sources, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will embark on separate trips to Israel, and possibly other countries in the Middle East, in the coming weeks. Speaking to the media this week, Sullivan confirmed the visit which is the first since a new government was elected in Tel Aviv. Sullivan added that the visit will focus on regional security issues, including Iran, but refrained from specifying a date for the visit. Unconfirmed Israeli sources indicated the visit may take place on 19 January, with Blinken set to arrive a few days later.

The visits will serve as an important indicator of Israeli-US relations in light of President Joe Biden’s historically problematic relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The inclusion of hardline, conservative elements in the new Israeli government and recent tensions associated with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque, adds a potential challenge to the US administration that needs careful navigation. The US recently said it expects Israel to respect the “status quo” of the al-Aqsa Mosque but the government has refrained from criticizing the move too strongly.

Saudi Arabia

Covid-19 restrictions to be lifted for 2023 Hajj pilgrimage
On 9 January, the Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Tawfiq bin Fawzan al-Rabiah, said restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic would be fully lifted over the 2023 Hajj pilgrimage season. The number of visitors, which was severely affected by the restrictions imposed in 2020, 2021, and 2022, is therefore expected to return to pre-pandemic levels. The pilgrimage season is expected to commence on 26 June 2023.

Exceptions granted for foreign companies without country HQs
Saudi Arabia will reportedly grant exceptions that allow some foreign companies that do not have their regional HQs in the country to operate in the region. In 2021, the Kingdom introduced rules that require foreign companies to move their regional HQs to the country or else be exempted from government contracts. According to the announcement this week, exceptions will apply to companies with foreign operations that do not exceed one million Saudi Riyals and companies competing for government contracts that have no other bidders. The introduction of the rules created tension with the UAE and was perceived as an effort to attract companies with regional HQs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

OIC warned Israel over al-Aqsa ‘provocation’
The regional fallout of Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s controversial visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem on 3 January continues. Further to statements issued by several regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, condemning the visit, the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held an extraordinary meeting on 10 January to discuss the visit.

The meeting was reportedly held at the request of the Palestinian authorities and Jordan, and a joint statement issued by the OIC strongly condemned the visit as a “provocation of Muslim sentiments and a flagrant violation of relevant international resolutions.” The statement also warned Israel against further provocations and called for sanctions to be imposed on Ben-Gvir. Last week, the UN General Security Council reaffirmed its support for the “status quo” of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Bahrain & Kuwait

Protests denouncing normalization with Israel
Protests showing support for Palestine and denouncing recent activities by the Israeli government were recorded this week in Kuwait and Bahrain. On 7 January, according to various social media sources, dozens of protesters gathered in Kuwait City to show support for the people of Palestine. Protesters also denounced Israeli activity in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem following recent tensions. Similarly, in Bahrain, according to social media sources, dozens of protesters gathered in an unspecified area of Manama to denounce normalization with Israel. Video footage depicted a medium-sized and peaceful protest march with attendants waving Bahraini flags and shouting slogans against Israel in a continuation of protests reported in the capital in recent weeks.


QatarEnergy signs petrochemical investment deal with Chevron
On 9 January, QatarEnergy announced the signing of an agreement with Chevron regarding the construction of a petrochemical facility in Qatar. The $6 billion complex will be located in the Ras Laffan Industrial City and was described by QatarEnergy as the largest petrochemical investment in its history. The agreement follows deals signed with Chinese Petrochina and Germany in December 2022 and further underscores Qatar’s growing geopolitical role following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and associated efforts in the West to find alternative partners to import gas.


Parliament session suspended as ministers walkout over bill dispute 
On 10 January, a session in the Kuwait National Assembly was suspended after a dispute over a draft bill escalated, resulting in several ministers walking out in protest. The dispute centers around a resolution, supported by a majority of MPs, that calls on the government to provide debt relief to a large number of Kuwaiti citizens. The government reportedly requested additional time to review the bill and called for the session to be postponed.

For their part, a majority of MPs accused the government of deliberately stalling the resolution and of adopting tactics used by the previous government that led to months of political stalemate. Despite elections held in September, the dispute underscores enduring tensions between the government and the National Assembly which risk resulting in a continued impasse. This may further hamper progress on the economic and political reforms introduced by the government in December.


Negev steering committee meets in Abu Dhabi
The steering committee of the Negev Forum – an Israeli-led but US-backed initiative established in 2022 to promote cooperation between Israel and several Arab states – held a two-day meeting in Abu Dhabi this week. The meetings were attended by officials from the US, Israel, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt, with Jordan reportedly declining an invitation to participate. More than 150 officials from these countries participated in the meetings this week

The forum is largely seen as a continuation of the Arab Israeli rapprochement commenced by the Trump administration and consists of several working groups tasked to explore areas of joint interests and possible cooperation, including in the fields of healthcare, energy, tourism, trade and several other, less-sensitive areas. Security and intelligence-related cooperation has also been discussed as part of the forum, and have been broadly aimed at efforts to counter Iran and other areas of mutual interests. A meeting last year between defense officials reportedly discussed plans to integrate regional air defense systems as part of the discussions, however such efforts have so far not materialized. Concerns regarding the composition of the new Israeli government linger however given the inclusion of hardline, orthodox elements that may reduce the prospects for further cooperation as part of the forum. Regardless, US officials praised progress in this week’s discussions and expressed hope that Jordanian and Palestinian officials would attend future meetings to discuss their concerns.

President of South Korea to visit UAE ahead of World Future Energy Summit
On 10 January, state-linked media channels reported that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will visit the UAE in the coming week. The president is scheduled to arrive on 14 January and will attend the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. The visit follows several investment deals made by South Korean companies into the UAE energy sector during 2022 broadly aimed at promoting green energy.


US Navy seized vessel transporting weapons en route to Yemen
On 10 January, a spokesperson for the US Navy said a vessel transporting arms to Yemen was seized in the Gulf of Oman. The seizure was reportedly made on 6 January and the ship, described as a small fishing vessel, carried over 2,100 assault rifles, including Russian Molot AKS20Us and Chinese-made T-56s, suspected to have been sent from Iran. Spokesperson Timothy Hawkins said the vessel was seized on a route traditionally used by Iran to ship weapons and ammunition to Yemen, and that the crew of the ship were Yemeni nationals who were relocated to a government-controlled area of Yemen for prosecution.

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