Talos Regional Snapshot – 15 July 2023

Jul 16, 2023



Iran summons Russian ambassador following Russia-CGG statement
In a rare diplomatic spat, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador Alex Dedov on 12 July following the release of a joint statement by Russia and the GCC states that implicitly expressed support for the UAE in a long-standing territorial dispute with Iran. The statement – released at the conclusion of the Russia-CGG summit held on 10 July (see below) – called for a “peaceful resolution to the issue of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa,” three islands in the Persian Gulf seized by Iran in 1971 following the withdrawal of British forces and which Tehran considers to be an inseparable part of its territory. The UAE disputes Iran’s claim and has called for a resolution through international mediation.

In response to the communique, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted “We never stand upon ceremony with any side over Iran’s independence, sovereignty and integrity.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani also said the Russia-GCC statement challenged Iran’s effort to improve relations with its neighbors while reiterating Iran’s claim on the islands. While unlikely to escalate beyond rhetoric, the issue has surfaced as a source of diplomatic tensions in the past and Iran’s pushback against Russia is noteworthy considering the current close state of the Iran-Russia relationship. Last year, the Chinese ambassador to Iran was likewise summoned by the Iranian Foreign Ministry after Chinese officials embraced calls for a “negotiated” settlement to the territorial dispute.

Despite the visible reduction in tensions between Iran and the GCC countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this highlights the enduring challenges involved in China and Russia’s attempts to balance and forge closer ties with the two sides simultaneously. Combined with the recently discussed maritime dispute over the Arash/Durrah oilfield between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dispute over the islands may also pose a challenge to the broader engagement between Iran and the UAE, which has accelerated in light of the Iran-Saudi agreement in March.

ODNI assessment says Iran not pursuing nuclear weapons
On 10 July, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released its annual assessment of Iranian nuclear weapons capability, concluding that Iran is not “currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.” The report noted however that Iran has undertaken “research and development activities” that would bring it closer to developing a nuclear device should it decide to do so, and that activities pursued by Tehran continue to violate the 2015 JCPOA. The report also highlights Iran’s ballistic missile program and “space launch vehicles” as objects of concern by posing a direct threat to other countries in the region and by shortening the potential timeline required to produce an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The findings outlined in the two-page unclassified summary of the report made available through open sources were consistent with previous US and Israeli intelligence assessments on the Iranian nuclear program. While the advancements in enrichment levels, research and technology made by Iran since the JCPOA was abandoned in 2018 have shortened the potential timeline required to produce nuclear weapons, both Israel and US intelligence continue to assert that Iran has not taken a political decision to weaponize. As such, the report itself is unlikely to alter existing threat perceptions of Iran, but by again establishing the correlation between the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent acceleration of the nuclear program, it may be seen to validate the Biden administration’s efforts to resume the negotiations.

US Envoy for Iran suspended pending investigation
In a related development and a possible setback for efforts to resume nuclear negotiations with Iran, US Special Envoy Robert Malley was suspended in late June, pending an investigation into his handling of classified material. Initial reports claimed Malley took a leave of absence for personal reasons, however State Department officials later confirmed that Malley’s security clearance was revoked earlier in the year and that he is subject to an internal investigation. Further details regarding Malley’s possible wrongdoings were not disclosed and no timeline for the investigation has been revealed.

Having played a key role in efforts to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, the timing of Malley’s suspension is potentially significant considering reports in May and June indicating attempts to resume the discussions. Malley’s role in the most recent meetings remains unclear, however in his role as Special Envoy, Malley was officially in charge of leading the Biden administration’s Iran policy. This role is currently held by Malley’s deputy Abram Paley who can be expected to lead any negotiations with Iran during Malley’s absence.

Two security force members killed in southeastern Iran
In a rare attack targeting members of the Iranian security forces, four gunmen armed with explosive vests targeted a police station in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province in southeast Iran. Two police officers and all four assailants were killed in the attack on 8 July which was repulsed by security forces following a gunfight. Two of the assailants reportedly detonated their devices during the confrontation. A Sunni extremist group named Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) – with tenuous links to Al Qaeda – claimed responsibility for the assault and in a statement, the group claimed retaliation for the death of protesters in Zahedan on 30 September 2022. To recall, large-scale violent protests broke out in the city on that date as part of countrywide demonstrations sparked by the death of Masha Amini and according to human rights groups Iranian security forces killed at least 60 protesters in Zahedan alone on 30 September. The claim of responsibility by Jaish al-Adl identified the police station targeted on 8 July as a key hub for the crackdown.

While attacks against security forces in the wider Sistan-Baluchistan province are not uncommon, the incident in the provincial capital forms a more noteworthy outlier which is set to increase security concerns about Sunni separatism in the restive province. Like in Khuzestan province in the southwest, Sunni-militant elements are active in Sista-Baluchistan and remain ideologically driven by a mix of Sunni extremism and separatism which, combined with the widespread protests in 2022, served to fuel anti-government hostilities. The latest incident sets conditions for a more intense security crackdown by security forces which may understandably contribute to further instability. State-linked and conservative media channels implicitly blamed the incident this week on Sunni religious leaders – including most notably Mowlana Abdolhamid – who has been accused of fueling resentment against the government. Although the cleric condemned the attack, the IRGC-linked Tasmin News said Abdolhamid was “responsible for having prepared the ground for today’s terrorist operation”, indicating a renewed crackdown on the cleric and followers in the city may be forthcoming in light of the incident.


Syrian Government approves border crossing extension following mandate expiry
On 13 July, the Syrian government informed the UN of its decision to approve the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for humanitarian aid deliveries into opposition-held areas for another six months. The notification was made two days after the UN Security Council failed to extend the authorization of the border crossing that expired earlier in the week and which, according to UN and human rights officials, directly affects the livelihoods of some 2.7 million people residing in northwest Syria. The extension fell through after Russia vetoed a resolution backed by the US, UK and France that called for the crossing point to be opened for nine months. A rival resolution proposed by Russia that stipulated a six-month extension likewise failed to secure enough votes.

The decision by Syria on 13 July came as a surprise since Damascus, like Russia, opposes aid deliveries coordinated without government oversight and into opposition-held areas. That said, the implications of Syria’s approval remain somewhat unclear as it conditioned the six-month extension on the UN fully “cooperating and coordinating” operations with the Syrian government. UN officials said they were studying what effects this may have on humanitarian operations as this potentially means convoys will be subject to government inspections or require permits to cross Bab al-Hawa. Human rights organizations have repeatedly expressed frustrations over the slow pace of operations across the border crossing because of logistical and political hurdles, with the latest move potentially further impacting deliveries.

Members of Turkish-backed group killed in northern Syria
In a further sign of escalating hostilities involving Turkish-backed forces and PKK-linked elements in northern Syria, at least five members of Failaq al-Sham – a Sunni Islamist alliance backed by Turkey – were killed in an attack conducted by members of the Afrin Liberation Forces south of Afrin in northeast Syria. The Afrin Liberation Forces are affiliated with the YPG/PKK and have claimed multiple operations against Turkish-backed forces in the surrounding area. Separate reports claimed unspecified “Kurdish fighters” conducted rocket attacks against Turkish forces based near Azaz on the same day, with no casualties or damages discussed.

While tit-for-tat attacks against the frontlines in the vicinity of Afrin – a town controlled by Turkish-backed forces but with disputed surroundings – remain common, the death of five members of the Failaq al-Sham stands out as a high casualty figure. More broadly, the hostilities noted this week follow weeks of elevated activity levels involving Turkey and PKK-linked factions in northern Syria and Iraq where – as discussed in the most recent Talos Quarterly Analysis Report – a clear statistical uptick in Turkish security operations against the PKK was noted following the presidential elections in Turkey.

In late June, SDF officials likewise confirmed that Turkey escalated operations in northern Syria, with the attack this week near Afrin plausibly part of a campaign of retaliation. While rhetoric surrounding a possible Turkish operation has been significantly reduced, a further escalation in Turkey-PKK dynamics and related proxy factions in northern Syria and Iraq may understandably revitalize concerns of a Turkish incursion.

US CENTCOM confirms death of IS leader in eastern Syria
On 9 July the US Central Command stated that on 7 July, the US Central Command conducted a strike in Syria that resulted in the death of Usamah al-Muhajir, an IS leader in eastern Syria. There are no indications that any civilians were killed in this strike, and the coalition is assessing reports of a civilian injury. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, stated that “We have made it clear that we remain committed to the defeat of ISIS throughout the region” adding that the strike will disrupt and degrade IS ability to plan and conduct terror attacks. The statement asserts that CENTCOM’s operations against IS, alongside partner forces in Iraq and Syria, will continue in order to achieve the group’s enduring defeat. The strike on Friday was conducted by the same MQ-9s that had, earlier in the day, been harassed by Russian aircraft in an encounter that had lasted almost two hours.


Turkey formally supports Sweden’s NATO membership
Following months of deliberations and negotiations, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would formally support Sweden’s bid to join NATO. The announcement followed a meeting between Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Vilnius mediated by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Later in the week, Erdogan said the membership bid would be placed before the Turkish parliament but that final ratification is unlikely before October when the new session commences after the summer recess. The President added however that the government’s target is to “finalize this matter as swiftly as possible.”

Turkey’s decision to drop its previous rejections reportedly followed an agreement signed by the two sides to enhance security and “counter-terrorism cooperation”, widely seen as involving a pledge by Sweden to facilitate the extradition of PKK-linked individuals from Sweden. A draft “roadmap” agreement containing some 17 articles on various issues was reportedly reviewed by the two leaders in Vilnius, with the agreement reportedly also including Stockholm’s pledge to facilitate and support Turkey’s long-term bid to become a member of the EU.

The decision this week marks a significant breakthrough and is somewhat surprising considering recent diplomatic tensions over Sweden’s refusal to extradite PKK-linked members and the burning of the Quran in Stockholm which caused significant anger in the region. That said, the timeline of the parliamentary ratification process remains a source of caution as this nominally allows Erdogan an opportunity to continue putting pressure on Sweden to make additional concessions until the decision has been made final.

US to proceed with F-16 sale to Turkey
In a related development, the Biden administration announced that it would proceed with the sale of the F-16 fighter jet to Turkey. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made the announcement a day after the meeting in Vilnius between Erdogan and Kristersson and said the move would be discussed in consultation with Congress. The day before, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke on the phone with Turkish counterpart Yasar Guler with Austin expressing support for Turkey’s “military modernization” according to an official readout.

The link between the F-16 sales and Sweden’s NATO membership remains unconfirmed, as officials on both sides have repeatedly denied that the two issues are connected. However the timing of the Biden administration’s statement inevitably raises speculation that the sale has been conditioned on Turkey dropping its objections to Sweden’s membership. Further talks and deliberations on the sale are expected in the near term, however the outcome remains far from guaranteed as members of Congress retain reservations about approving the sale to Turkey. This week both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees said the Biden administration and the Turkish government have “to do more” to obtain congressional approval, with meetings expected in Washington over the coming days.


Prime Minister Sudani announced agreement over gas imports
Protests over electricity shortages sparked by a decline in Iranian gas imports were reported across Iraq. The Ministry of Electricity announced that Iraq lost approximately 5000 megawatts of power due to a complete stop to gas supplies to southern Iraq, and a significant reduction in supplies to the central region, including Baghdad. The supply cuts were made after Iraq failed to pay outstanding debts – a failure partially explained by US-enforced restrictions on payments to Iran that prevented the transfer of funds from the Iraqi Trade Bank to Iran. In response, Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani convened an emergency meeting on 10 July to discuss and resolve the issue, and the next day the prime minister announced that an agreement was reached with Iran that would allow imports to resume. In a statement to the public, al-Sudani said Iran would be provided with black oil in exchange for gas as part of the agreement, which essentially circumvents the transfer issue by paying Iran in oil. That said, Sudani also confirmed that Iraq had settled all outstanding debts for Iranian gas, amounting to $11 billion and that Iraq had transferred $1.8 billion to Iran to settle gas payment obligations. Further details are provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report.

Iran reiterates threats over Kurdish opposition groups
The Iranian government continued this week to put pressure on the GoI regarding the implementation of border security agreements and the presence of Kurdish-Iranian opposition factions – an issue that has been making repeated headlines in recent months. Senior Iranian military officials warned on 11 July, that the Iranian military would resume cross-border operations against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups if Baghdad fails to meet a September deadline for securing the border and disarming these groups. The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Muhammed Bagheri said “If the deadline passes and they remain armed or carry out any operation, our operations against those groups will definitely reoccur more severely.” The deadline referred to by Bagheri reportedly occurs on 22 September and allegedly forms part of a security agreement signed between the two sides in March. This detail has not been confirmed by the GoI, although the government has repeatedly pledged to secure the border and stressed that it will not allow its territory to be used for attacks against neighboring countries. further details are provided in the weekly report.


Hezbollah members injured in explosion near Israeli border
On 12 July, three members of Lebanese Hezbollah were injured in an explosion near the village of Bustan, Tyre province, located near the border with Israel. The Israeli Army released a statement saying security forces engaged several suspects attempting to sabotage a security fence and detonated a “non-lethal” device that forced the suspects to retreat. Hezbollah confirmed the incident in a statement that said three members were taken to a hospital for treatment, but without attributing the incident to Israel. Members of the UN Peacekeeping force UNIFIL said it was aware of an incident along the so-called Blue Line in the area and described the incident as “disturbing” while encouraging all sides to exercise restraint.

The incident took place on the 17th anniversary of the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war and is preceded by an increase in tensions between Israel and Lebanon in recent weeks. Last week, at least two rockets were launched from Lebanon into Israeli territory, prompting Israeli forces to retaliate with cross-border strikes, however no casualties were discussed. Both sides also accuse each other of making territorial infringements, with Israel accused by Lebanese officials of practically “annexing” the border town of Ghajar by building a security wall around the settlement. For their part, Israel filed a complaint to the UN regarding Hezbollah’s erection of tents close to the Israeli border. So far, these tensions have not translated into wider hostilities but are understandably compounded by recent Israeli operations in the Jenin camp and the associated uptick in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities which typically translates into increased tensions with Lebanon as well. Related developments are worth monitoring, as an uptick in Israeli-Lebanese border disputes inevitably raises concerns about broader regional repercussions involving Iran and Israel.

Saudi Arabia

Russia hosts GCC-Russia summit
On 10 July, Russia hosted the sixth edition of the Russia-GCC Summit – an annual initiative dedicated to promoting strategic dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the Gulf states. Attended by the foreign ministers of the GCC member states, the summit predictably stressed ways to enhance cooperation in various areas. Details were limited but the discussions reportedly revolved around various regional topics including energy cooperation, the situation in Sudan and the Iran-Saudi rapprochement, which Lavrov praised as a positive development. Meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Farhan Bin Faisal, both sides notably stressed that the Russian-CGG relationship is “not aimed at anyone” but based on mutual respect and the pursuit of common interests.

While largely characterized by diplomatic platitudes, the last noted remark reveals a degree of caution and awareness on both sides that the relationship with GCC-Russian relationship remains potentially challenging considering Russia’s simultaneous engagement with Iran, and US pushback against Saudi-Russian cooperation. In response, both sides continue to stress that any partnership and cooperation is transactional, and not intended to compete with other strategic relationships. While the Iran-Saudi agreement certainly facilitates Russia’s engagement with both sides, the above-discussed Iranian reactions to the disputed islands underscore that a degree of mistrust remains that may prove challenging should the Russian-GCC relationship continue to advance. So far, this cooperation remains predominantly characterized by economic and energy considerations, and Iran’s reactions this week signal that support around political and security-related issues between Russia and the GCC states may prove more challenging.


UN Envoy calls for “bold steps” in security council briefing
Addressing the situation in Yemen in his annual briefing to the UN Security Council, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg said the parties need to make further, bold steps towards peace, beginning with putting an end to “military provocations” and agreeing to a nationwide ceasefire. While affirming that the prolonged lull in hostilities witnessed since the start of the nationwide truce in April 2022 continues despite the expiration of the agreement in October, Grundberg also expressed concerns over continued flareups in fighting and armed clashes in Dhale’, Taiz, Hudaydah and Marib. Citing recent military parades in Ibb and troop movements in Marib, the envoy emphasized the need to stop “rhetoric that raises the specter of further escalation.”

While reiterating that the UN continues to promote serious dialogue, the briefing offered no detailed update on the status of the peace negotiations after hopes raised earlier this year of a significant breakthrough. To recall, shortly after the Iran-Saudi agreement was announced, the main factions reportedly agreed to restart the discussions with a view to achieving a sustainable, nationwide ceasefire. Grundberg and other officials optimistically described the momentum at the time as the most significant opportunity for a durable peace since the start of the conflict. Further progress did not materialize however and the current state of the talks remains difficult to assess absent further details. At the same time, no significant military operations have erupted and all sides appear committed to at least maintaining existing frontlines. This, as Grundberg noted, is a positive development yet without a durable agreement the situation remains highly volatile and localized hostilities continue to raise concerns of a sudden escalation in larger-scale conflict activity.

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