REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
CENTCOM claims Iran is behind UAV strike against Israeli-owned oil tanker
On 15 November, according to a statement by the US Central Command, an Israeli-linked oil tanker was targeted in a UAV attack involving a one-way Shahed series variant off the coast of Oman at approximately 22:00 local time. The strike targeted the Liberia-flagged Pacific Zircon, which is owned by Eastern Pacific Shipping, a Singapore-based company owned by an Israeli businessman Idan Ofer. No casualties were reported however the tanker sustained material damage as a result. Footage obtained and disseminated by CNN showed a large hole in the hull of the vessel as well as remains of the device, yet the report added that the authenticity of the images has not been verified.
The CENTCOM statement attributed the attack to Iran and said the incident demonstrates Tehran’s “malign activities” in the region. The statement added that one Royal Navy and two US Navy vessels responded to the incident. The Iranian government denied involvement while Iranian state-linked media notably played down the incident. Further context is provided in the full report.
Iran confirms release of Greek oil tankers
On 16 November, Iran confirmed the release of two Greek-flagged oil vessels seized in Iranian waters in May. A statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry also said an Iranian tanker held in Greece had been released as part of an agreement reached between the two sides. A Memorandum of Understanding was also signed under which the two countries generically pledged to cooperate and improve maritime security.
The episode commenced in April when Greek maritime authorities seized a Russian-flagged tanker, named Lana, transporting Iranian oil in violation of US sanctions. A month later, Iranian authorities retaliated by taking control of the two vessels – Prudent Warrior and Delta Poseidon – in the Persian Gulf. Negotiations have since been ongoing however an agreement has been elusive and arguably made more complicated by the failure to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and EU sanctions over the crackdown on protests.
Several killed in separate gun attacks in Iran
On 16 November, at least five people were killed when gunmen opened fire inside a bazaar in the city of Izeh, Khuzestan province, in southwestern Iran. A reported 15 individuals, including members of the security forces and civilians, were also injured in the attack. Later that day, a separate attack was reported in the Isfahan province where two members of the Basij Forces were killed and two others were injured.
Attribution for the attack remains unclear and no group has claimed responsibility. State-linked sources described the incidents as “terrorist attacks” yet an investigation has been launched to determine the motivation. The apparently coordinated incidents follow an earlier IS-claimed attack in October when gunmen targeted a Shia shrine in the city of Shiraz. Of note, Khuzestan is an Arab-dominated province with a history of separatist violence, including a terrorist attack in 2018 that targeted a military parade. Both IS and a local Arab separatist element claimed responsibility for the attack, however attribution remains unclear. The Iranian government maintains a long-term accusation that Saudi Arabia is involved in supporting separatist and armed elements in the province, with the attack on 16 November plausibly raising the outlook for renewed tensions between the two sides. Earlier this month, Iraqi sources indicated Saudi Arabia canceled further talks with Iran whereas Tehran continues to accuse Riyadh and other regional adversaries of instigating the current wave of unrest.
Nationwide strikes reported as protests continue
The deadly attacks on 16 November coincided with nationwide strikes commemorating the 2019 anti-government protests which started in November, and in which more than 200 people were killed following demonstrations initially prompted by a spike in fuel prices. A large number of businesses in Tehran and other cities were closed this week as a result of the strikes which are connected to the ongoing protests over the death of Masha Amini.
The extent of the strikes remains difficult to ascertain amidst government efforts to downplay its impact and control the flow of information, yet social media footage showed a large number of shops and street markets closed in several large cities including Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashad, and Sanandaj. Reports of clashes between protesters and security forces were also reported in a continuation of developments witnessed in recent weeks. According to Iranian human rights activists, 344 individuals have now been killed and more than 15,800 people detained since the start of the demonstrations on 16 September.
Protesters also seem undeterred by the issuing of death penalties for individuals involved in the unrest. This week, three more individuals were given capital punishments, bringing the total number to five. More than two thousand individuals have now been charged in connection with the unrest.
France denies arrests as Iran asserts ‘evidence’ of foreign interference
The Iranian government also continues to accuse foreign actors of involvement and on 16 November state-linked sources said seven individuals linked to France’s intelligence services were detained. Officials separately announced the arrest of an individual with alleged links to Israeli intelligence, however both claims remain unfounded with no further details provided. The French Foreign Ministry “categorically denied” Iran’s statement, however Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said seven French nationals had been detained since 16 September.
Earlier in the week, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani claimed the detentions of foreign nationals provided “evidence and information” of foreign interference, and later in the week, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said “various security services, Israel, and some Western politicians” have made “plans for a civil war, destruction and disintegration of Iran.” In a separate but related development, the German Ambassador to Iran was summoned this week over comments made by the German Foreign Minister which reiterated Germany’s support for the protesters.
US and France say JCPOA talks remain on hold amidst protests
So far, the anti-western rhetoric related to the protests has not translated to an observable increase in the targeting of western interests by Iranian-linked groups, yet associated diplomatic tensions are understandably set to complicate any efforts to move forward on the elusive JCPOA negotiations. With the passage of the mid-term elections, there were cautious indications that the Biden administration would look to resume the talks and the Democratic Party’s retention of the Senate may afford Biden more latitude in restarting the talks.
However, this week, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley reiterated that the talks are not a priority amidst enduring protests and Iran’s sale of military equipment to Russia. “If these negotiations are not happening, it’s because of Iran’s position and everything that has happened since September”. Likewise, European counterparts – which previously played a mediating role between US and Iran. – remain equally pessimistic, with President Emmanuel Macron this week echoing Malley’s skepticism over restarting negotiations given the current protests.
IRGC resumes attacks on Kurdish Iranian groups in KR-I
On the morning of 14 November, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted strikes against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups in different areas of the KR-I. These actions followed a protracted series of cross-border strikes between 24 September and 6 October, including a deadly set of strikes on 28 September. Each of the areas affected by the latest strikes was previously targeted, with casualties moderate. No impacts were recorded in close proximity to major population centers. Additional Iranian strikes are possible over the near-term, particularly in rural environments near the Iranian border in northeastern Erbil province. Further context is provided in the full report.
Prime Minister al-Sudani dismisses ICAA and BIAP directors after second airport fire
On 17 November, a fire was reported inside the VIP lounge area of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) – less than 48hrs after Civil Defense teams extinguished a fire inside the terminal area. No casualties were reported, however the fire caused material damage and three passengers required medical treatment for breathing difficulties. The Iraq Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) said an investigation was launched to determine its cause, with no suspicion of foul play initially reported. Local sources suggest possible links to criminality and unidentified militia efforts to coerce airport officials for commercial awards. New Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani also visited the airport during the day and a statement released by his office later said the head of the airport and the director of ICAA had both been fired over the incidents. Aside from temporary flight delays, there were no significant flight disruptions noted.
Iraqi Security Forces kill IS IED official in Anbar
On 17 November, according to the Commander-in-Chief’s spokesman Maj. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, and other sources, a Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) unit conducted an operation in the Humayra area, located south of Ramadi city in eastern Anbar province. CTS personnel shot and killed an IS member armed with light weapons and an explosive belt, after the insurgent conducted a failed attempt to detonate the device. The IS member, identified as Hussein Muhammad Jasim al-Esawi “Abu Esa”, was described as the “booby-trapping” (IED) official for the Ramadi Sector of the IS Anbar Governorate. See full report.
Israeli airstrikes target airbase in Homs province
On 13 November, according to Syrian state-linked sources, Israeli missile strikes targeted a Syria Army airbase in Homs province, killing two soldiers and injuring three others. The statement added that the missiles were launched over Lebanese airspace prior to impact and that some missiles were successfully intercepted. Other sources added that the strikes targeted Iranian-linked facilities in the vicinity of the Sharyat Airbase and that extensive material damage was inflicted as a result.
Rocket attack targeting coalition forces in eastern Syria
On the evening of 17 November, according to a statement by CENTCOM, rockets were launched against the Green Village military base in eastern Deir Ez Zour province. The statement said no casualties or damages were inflicted as a result, and that an investigation into the incident was launched, however no attribution was mentioned. The incident was initially reported by Sabereen News and other social media, before being confirmed by CENTCOM.
As usual, Iranian-backed militias are suspected of involvement and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack follows the mobilization of militia groups in the area. Last week unidentified but suspected coalition airstrikes targeted fuel tanks operated by Iran-backed groups near the Hari area, located opposite al-Qaim border crossing, in an assessed retaliation to the kidnap and assassination of a US citizen in central Baghdad. The rocket attack on 17 November forms a more routine event and is consistent with a pattern of infrequent harassment attacks affecting US military presence in eastern Syria.
Erdogan open to revisit ties with Syria after elections
Rumours of a possible normalization of ties between Turkey and Syria continue. Addressing reporters on his way back from the G20 summit in Bali, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was willing to reconsider ties with the Assad government after the 2023 elections. Asked about the possibility of a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan added that there was no “eternal resentment” in politics.
The statement follows multiple signs by Turkish officials of a possible rapprochement towards Assad and the adoption of a more conditional approach towards Turkish-backed opposition groups in northern Syria. In a notable deviation from the previous policy, Foreign Ministry Mevlut Cavusoglu notably expressed support for “reconciliation” between the opposition and Assad earlier this year, and Turkish media reports have since cited speculative reports of a possible meeting between Erdogan and Assad.
PKK Turkish officials claim PKK responsible for deadly IED attack in Istanbul
On 13 November, six people were killed and more than 81 wounded when an IED detonated in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government immediately blamed the PKK and claimed to have arrested a member who confessed to the incident. The Interior Ministry also said the suspect was operating on orders traced to a YPG stronghold in the Aleppo province. The PKK, however, denies any involvement and as of 16 November, no group has claimed responsibility. Regardless, the incident is set to raise calls for a renewed cross-border operation in northern Syria as officials pledged retaliation and implied an operation against the PKK in northern Syria may take place after current operations in Iraq are concluded. In the near term, heightened security is expected to remain across Turkey, including at airports and near other high-profile sites. See full report.
President Biden and Erdogan pledge cooperation in meeting
Allegations of PKK involvement in the Istanbul attack are also set to further challenge the US-Turkey relationship given the US’ continued support for the YPG.The Turkish Interior Minister notably accused the US of being ‘complicit’ in the attack and rejected a statement by the US Embassy in Ankara condemning the attack. Later this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his counterpart Joe Biden in Bali in a meeting marked by a tone of conciliation and in which both sides pledged cooperation in various areas. Biden notably praised Erdogan’s role in facilitating the Ukraine-Russia grain deal to alleviate global food shortages and stressed their common commitment to countering terrorism.
In a press statement after the meeting, Erdogan also said that the issue of Turkey’s purchase of the F-16 Fighter Jets is expected to be resolved “soon” and that Biden informed him the issue was in the hands of the Turkish government. Further details were not provided by the president, but a similar remark was made by the Turkish Presidential Spokesperson earlier this month. Notably, the official White House readout did not mention that the F-16 issue was discussed between the two sides. In October, the US Senate introduced additional amendments that may further restrict the possibility of proceeding with the sales.
Israel signs agreements with French and Italian energy companies after deal with Lebanon
On 14 November, the Israeli Ministry of Energy announced that it signed agreements with French company TotalEnergies and Italy-based ENI to start natural gas explorations within waters covered by the Israeli-Lebanon maritime deal. To recall, both countries signed the agreement in October under US mediation to settle a long-standing maritime border dispute affecting waters where the offshore Block 9 gas field is located. TotalEnergy is reported to have a 60% interest in the block while ENI holds 40%. The Energy Ministry statement added that a more “detailed agreement” will be signed if commercial quality discoveries are made.
US citizen released from detention
On 10 November, US officials confirmed that a US citizen detained in Saudi Arabia had been released. The woman, named Carly Morris, was reportedly detained on 7 November over statements on social media discussing her efforts to leave the country with her daughter who is a Saudi-US citizen. A US-based human rights advocacy group claims Morris was wrongfully detained by the authorities after being in contact with news organizations and human rights organizations over the course of her three-year stay in the kingdom. The same reports claim Morris has been prevented from leaving due to strict male guardship laws. The detention follows the recent imprisonment of another US-Saudi citizen over tweets posted on social media criticizing the kingdom in August and is set to put pressure on the Biden administration to raise the issue of human rights with Riyadh. Having previously referred to Saudia Arabia as a pariah, Biden notably toned down the human rights rhetoric following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and amidst associated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to incentivize Saudi cooperation on energy issues.
Cyberattack targeted Bahrain on election day
On 12 November, a cyberattack targeted and disabled several government websites in Bahrain, hours prior to local and parliamentary elections held on the same day. Several websites, including the website of the Bahrain Parliament, the state-linked Bahrain News Agency and the election website, were blocked for extended periods as a result. A group calling itself al-Toufan reportedly posted a message on the websites denouncing the elections and said the attack was conducted “due to the persecution carried out by the Bahraini authorities” while calling on people to boycott the polls.
The election proceeded amidst a ban on opposition candidates, and various human rights organizations denounced the polls as a ‘sham election’, with the outcome all but guaranteed. Iranian-linked media also denounced the elections amidst continued accusations of government repression of the Shia minority. For their part, the Bahrain government rejects the criticism and in turn accuses Iran of fomenting unrest in the country. Previous cyber-attacks have been blamed on Iran and include the hacking of the Bahrain National Oil Company earlier this year which authorities attributed to an “Iran-sponsored” group.
2022 Fifa World Cup set to commence in Qatar, with associated impact on travel
On 20 November, the 2022 Fifa World Cup is set to commence in Qatar, with a 19:00 kick-off between the hosts and Ecuador. As widely reported, the tournament remains controversial amidst long-standing accusations of bribery, corruption and human rights issues involved in organizing what is by far the largest sports event in the world. The tournament will last until 19 December and, besides political controversies, is expected to impact travel in the region, including neighboring countries where large numbers of fans are expected to stay. While the direct threat against Qatar is assessed as limited, an elevated security posture can be expected as a precaution amidst elevated regional tensions which alongside the influx of fans may impact travel considerations over the coming weeks.
US Navy intercepts Iranian vessel bound for Yemen
On 16 November, the US Navy announced that an Iranian vessel bound for Yemen and loaded with more than 70 tons of aluminum perchlorate was intercepted last week in the Gulf of Oman. The chemical is often used for the production of explosives and fuel for rockets. Navy officials said the vessel was interdicted along a route typically used for Iranian shipments to Yemen and that the amount seized was sufficient to build “more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles.” More than 100 tons of urea fertilizer – another component in the manufacturing of explosive devices – was also found during the week-long search of the vessel.
Clashes between Houthi Movement and government forces near Taiz
According to Saudi-linked sources, clashes between the Houthi Movement and Saudi-backed government forces escalated this week near the city of Taiz, further limiting the outlook for a restoration of the truce that expired in October. According to local military officials, the Houthi Movement conducted a large-scale attack involving missile strikes and a ground offensive against a military base northwest of the city, prompting an extensive engagement between the two sides. There were no indications that the base was seized however the attack comprises one of the most significant escalations since the truce expiration.