REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Nationwide protests continue for fourth consecutive week
Nationwide protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini continued this week, with gatherings recorded in at least 19 cities despite internet disruptions and police crackdowns. The scope and intensity of the demonstrations remain difficult to verify amidst standing reporting challenges, however large-scale gatherings and violent confrontations continue to be reported on a near-daily basis across the country.
An uptick in violence was notably reported in the Kurdish-majority city of Sanandaj where Riot Police opened fire indiscriminately and killed several protesters on 8 and 11 October. Multiple deaths involving teenage girls, and even children below the age of 10 who were participating in the protests, are also reported to have intensified the demonstrations further this week. According to Iran Human Rights – a Norway-based human rights group – more than 185 people have now died in the unrest, including 19 under the age of 18.
Government denies use of lethal force as protests spread to oil and gas sector
In another noteworthy development this week, the protests spread to the oil and gas sector, as workers employed at several refineries initiated labor strikes in solidarity with the demonstrations. The number of refineries affected and any impact on production was not specified, however social media reports showed workers at the Abadan and Kangan refineries, as well as the Bushehr Petrochemical Project, joining the protests.
State-linked sources and government officials continue to deny that government forces use deadly violence while downplaying the overall scope of the protests. The fatality rates cited by official sources remain significantly below those provided by other sources. Moreover, an official report published this week by Iran’s Forensic Organization, and cited by the coroner leading the official investigation, said Amini’s death was “not caused by blows to the head and vital organs”. Instead, the report reiterated the government’s version that she died from an “underlying illness” – a claim disputed by Amini’s family who said their daughter was healthy at the time of her death. The official report also appears to have contributed to the assessed escalation observed this week.
IRGC announced ‘truce’ in cross-border strikes in northeastern Iraq
Relatedly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) released a statement via state-linked media channels announcing a conditional suspension of cross-border strikes against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups in northeastern Erbil province. To recall, near-daily strikes have been recorded in the region as the government accuses separatist groups of instigating the unrest. The truce announced on 9 October was made on the condition that these groups are prevented from conducting operations against Iran in the future. Further context is provided in the full report.
US says JCPOA “not a focus” right now amidst protests
Addressing recent developments in Iran on 12 October, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said the administration’s focus is on “shining a spotlight” and “supporting” anti-government protests in Iran. Asked about the efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Price added that the agreement is “not a focus right now” and that a deal “does not appear imminent” at this point – corroborating perceptions widely held since the last round of negotiations that a revival is unlikely. With the Iranian government embroiled in the current unrest, the upcoming mid-term elections are also assessed as another factor delaying intent to resume the talks on the US side.
Meanwhile, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the Iranian nuclear program continues to accelerate. The report, cited by international media, warned that Iran recently installed seven additional cascades of advanced IR-4 and IR-2 centrifuges at the Natanz Nuclear Facility which may significantly accelerate the enrichment of uranium. Tehran also informed the IAEA that it intends to install another three cascades in the near future.
Failed rocket attack targets coalition forces in eastern Syria
On 8 October, the US Central Command confirmed that a single rocket impacted inside a US compound in Hasakah province, northeastern Syria. The statement said a 107mm rocket impacted inside the Rumalyn Landing Zone with no casualties or damages inflicted. Additional rockets were also reportedly found at a nearby launch site, however, attribution for the attack was not specified and, unlike previous statements, it did not explicitly blame Iranian-backed groups for the attacks. It should be noted that the attack took place in an area associated with IS presence and follows recent operations against IS militants across the country (see below).
US UAV strike targets IS member in northeastern Syria
On 10 October, a US UAV strike targeted and killed a senior IS member in the village of Hamam al-Turkman, near Tel Abyad, Raqqa province. The strike targeted a local IS leader named Ammar Ali al-Yahia who was killed in the operation. The targeted area is reportedly controlled by Turkish-based opposition groups and the strike follows two separate operations conducted the previous week, including a raid on the ground, that killed three IS members.
IS attacks against Syrian government forces continue despite security operations
The above-discussed counter-terrorism operations coincide with an assessed intensification in Russian and Syrian government operations targeting IS elements in rural areas of Homs, Deir Ez Zour, and Raqqah province. This in turn follows the repeated targeting of Syrian government forces transiting deserted areas in eastern Syria, with a significant increase in casualties noted as a result.
On 13 October, according to local sources, at least eighteen Syrian government soldiers were killed in another ambush east of Damascus. There was no initial claim of responsibility, however IS militants are strongly suspected in the operation which again targeted a bus transporting soldiers. The incident and casualty figures have not been discussed by official sources but would, if confirmed, constitute one of the deadliest, single IS-linked attacks in the country over the previous year. A further intensification in counter-terrorism operations can be expected accordingly, likely focusing on rural areas in historically active environments.
Israel and Lebanon reach agreement on gas dispute
On 11 October, President Joe Biden announced a “historic breakthrough” in the Israeli-Lebanese territorial dispute over gas exploration, as the two sides reportedly reached an agreement to settle the long-standing dispute over maritime borders. As widely reported, tensions increased earlier this year as Israel announced plans to commence gas exploration in the Karish gas field which Lebanon claims is located within Lebanese waters. As of 13 October, both sides have yet to formally sign the agreement which stipulates a new line of division along the Qana natural gas field and allows Lebanon to produce gas from the field, while paying royalties should extraction occur on the Israeli side. The agreement also includes guarantees that no revenue generated from gas production in the region would reach Hezbollah.
Israeli and Lebanese officials both hailed the agreement as a positive step to avoid conflict, however, there have been no reactions from Hezbollah. The group previously opposed negotiations with Israeli and, in response, conducted symbolic UAV strikes against gas exploration assets near the Karish field in July. By allowing Lebanon a stake in the region’s gas production amidst the current financial crisis, the agreement optimistically aims to reduce incentives from Lebanon-based groups, notably Hezbollah, to target or sabotage production in the area.
EU criticizes Turkey-Russia ties days before Erdogan-Putin meeting
The European Commission this week released annual country reports on the seven current candidates for EU membership, including Turkey. In the report released on 12 October, the commission strongly criticized Turkey’s relationship with Russia, including its continued economic cooperation with Moscow and refusal to implement travel bans on Russian elites. The report cited Turkey’s continued policy of welcoming Russian oligarchs to the country and the recent expansion in Russia-Turkey financial and trade cooperation.
The report was released a day prior to President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Kazakhstan, where both leaders attended the 6th summit of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia. In the meeting, Putin reportedly proposed that Moscow should increase gas exports to Europe via Turkey in light of the damage caused to the Nord Stream Pipelines. Putin said Turkey offered the most “reliable route” and that this would make Turkey a “new energy hub” in the region. Erdogan did not officially respond to the proposal, but both Turkish and Russian sources claim the two sides are willing to explore the idea.
Parliament session in Baghdad to elect new President
In a significant breakthrough, the Iraqi Parliament voted to elect Abdul Latif Rashid (KDP) as the new President of Iraq. A former Minister of Water Resources, Rashid surpassed incumbent President Barham Salih in a vote characterized by deep divisions between the main Kurdish parties, as well as between the Sadrist Movement and the Iranian-aligned Coordination Framework (CF). The election of the president is a key precursor to the election of a prime minister as the CF retains intent to nominate Maliki-aligned Mohammed Shia al-Sudani despite Sadr’s rejection. Further context is provided in the full report (available to subscribers.)
Rocket attack affecting Green Zone prior to the vote
The session transpired on 13 October despite a rocket attack targeting the Green Zone earlier in the day, when nine rockets were launched toward the area. At least three civilians and two security force personnel were wounded as a result, with impacts recorded near the Prime Minister’s Office, Guest House, and near the Parliament building. The Sadrist Movement is strongly suspected of involvement in what amounted to an ultimately unsuccessful effort to disrupt the parliamentary proceedings. Further details and context are provided in the full report (available to subscribers).
Rocket attack targets Khor Mor gas field in Sulaymaniyah
Political tensions in Baghdad also affected security dynamics elsewhere in the country. A day prior to the parliament session, several rockets were launched against the Khor Mor gas field in Sulaymaniyah province on 12 October, resulting in a bushfire but no casualties or significant damage. The gas field is operated by UAE-based Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum, and the attack occurred with the assessed intent to put pressure on KRG-based parties ahead of the vote. Further context is provided in the full report (available to subscribers).
President Biden warns Saudi Arabia of consequences following OPEC+ cuts
Responding to the Saudi-led OPEC+ decision to cut daily oil production by two million barrels, President Joe Biden said there would be “consequences” and that the administration will soon take action amidst rising energy prices. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price also said the administration is “reevaluating” the relationship with Riyadh as it continues to directly undermine US-led efforts to sanction and isolate Russia. Without specifying, Price said it is time to “make sure” the relationship is “serving our national security interests.” The remarks follow calls by various members of Congress for a “freeze” on cooperation with Saudi Arabia, however the administration has not specified what measures may be taken in response to the OPEC+ decision last week.
For their part, Saudi Arabia defended the decision to cut production rates. A statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the criticism was “not based on facts” and that the decision was adopted through consensus to curb market volatility and stabilize supply and demand. Rejecting US claims that the decision served Russia’s interests, the statement added that the production cut was “purely economic”.
UAE Crown Prince met President Putin in Russia
In a sign of bilateral cooperation, on 11 October, UAE Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg to review various aspects of the Russia-UAE relationship. The meeting predictably focused on economic cooperation, with Putin praising the UAE’s support for the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production and its role in recent mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine. For his part, bin Zayed praised the growth in bilateral relations and expressed support for continued dialogue between Russia and Ukraine in the interest of advancing peace.
In a statement prior to the meeting, the UAE Foreign Ministry said the visit would focus on ways to reach “effective political solutions” to the Ukraine crisis, with no references to the energy considerations. By focusing on the UAE’s mediating role, Bin Zayed understandably attempts to downplay the negative fallout of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s economic and energy cooperation with Russia. Regardless, the timing of the meeting is sensitive and is set to raise continued criticism in the West, and notably the US, of the UAE’s position.
US approves sales of weapons to Kuwait
On 6 October, the US State Department approved a potential sale of advanced missile systems to Kuwait, in an agreement potentially worth three million USD. This includes surface-to-air systems and various equipment including radar, missiles, and logistics and engineering support developed by Raytheon Technologies. The proposed sale follows a specific request from Kuwait and a statement by the Department of Defense said it will “improve Kuwait’s capability to meet current and future threats” with systems operated by “US forces and other Gulf countries.”
President Putin and Qatari Emir discuss energy issues in Kazakhstan
Speaking on the sidelines of the above-mentioned regional summit in Kazakhstan on 13 October, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani and President Putin reportedly discussed the conflict in Ukraine and its impact on global energy markets. An official readout from the Emir’s office said Qatar supports all international efforts to find “an immediate and peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis”, with further details not specified.
The meeting is potentially significant in light of visible tensions between Qatar and Russia, as the former attempts to position itself as an alternative provider of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to Europe. This includes ambitious plans to significantly expand production at the North Field South and recent agreements made with European counterparts to export gas to the continent to alleviate dependence on Russian imports. With respect to the Ukraine war, Qatar has adopted a neutral position yet its ties with Europe have undeniably moved closer since the outbreak of the conflict, risking long-term tension with Russia.
Oman and Iran commence military exercise
On 12 October, according to Iranian state-linked sources, Oman and Iran participated in a joint naval exercise in the northern Indian Ocean. The exercises involved at least four Iranian vessels from the IRGC and Iranian Navy, with the Chief of Staff from both countries also participating. Iranian state-linked sources added that the purpose of the exercise was to strengthen military cooperation and the overall security in waters bordering the two countries. While not unprecedented, the exercise underscores Oman’s quest to balance ties between Iran and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council despite regional tensions.
Peace efforts continue despite expiration of truce
UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said renewal of the truce that expired on 2 October remains possible. In a statement on 13 October, Grundberg called on all warring parties to engage in a new dialogue and said he “personally believes that there is still a possibility for the parties to come to an agreement.” The remarks followed visits by the envoy to Abu Dhabi and Muscat as he continues to engage with representatives of the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi Movement.
Similar sentiments were expressed this week by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan who said the Saudi government, the Coalition, and the Yemeni government are all in favor of extending the truce. However, Farhan criticized the Houthi Movement for introducing new conditions and negotiating in bad faith. Similar remarks were made by US Envoy Tim Lenderking who accused the movement of lacking flexibility in negotiations to extend and expand the truce agreement.