Talos Regional Snapshot – 19 August 2023

Aug 20, 2023



ISKP blamed for fatal attack on Shia shrine in Shiraz
On 13 August, a lone gunman entered and opened fire inside the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz, Fars province, killing two individuals and injuring several others. The victims included Shia pilgrims and staff members employed at the site, with several reportedly still recovering in hospitals. Initial reports claimed two assailants were involved and that at least four people were killed, however this was confidently discounted by later reporting. Security forces reacted swiftly and managed to arrest the perpetrator who local officials identified as Rahmatollah Nowruzof – a Tajik national whose affiliations remain unclear. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, however the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other officials blamed the attack on the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – a branch of IS active in South and Central Asia.

The nationality of the perpetrator is consistent with ISKP which is predominantly active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and the group notably claimed responsibility for a previous attack targeting the same shrine in October 2022, when 15 individuals were killed. The attack on 13 August – involving a lone assailant – was comparatively unsophisticated yet the group’s apparent capability to expose security flaws and target Iran’s third most important Shia shrine twice in less than 12 months is certainly noteworthy considering its religious significance. In response, at least ten individuals were arrested by Iranian security forces across the country, including several foreign nationals whose identities and origins were not specified.

US Navy urges vessels to exercise caution near Iranian waters
US-Iranian hostilities in the region remain largely centered on naval tensions in the Gulf as the US Navy this week released a warning urging commercial vessels to exercise caution and to stay clear of Iranian territorial waters following Iran’s repeated seizures of commercial vessels. The warning specifically urged “regional mariners of appropriate precautions to minimize the risk of seizure based on regional tensions” and “to transit as far away from Iranian territorial waters as possible.”

To recall, the warning follows the US’ deployments of additional combat capabilities to the Gulf in July and early August to counter and deter further Iranian activities. Beyond a brief confrontation between US and Iranian naval assets in June, these tensions have not translated into broader hostilities yet the statement this week underscores a persistent threat to commercial maritime traffic in the area where approximately one-fifth of the world’s crude oil products are transported.

Secretary of State Blinken says US policy remains unchanged despite prisoner swap
In a related development, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated that the Biden administration’s policy on Iran has not changed despite the recent agreement to release five US citizens detained in Iran in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets. At a press briefing on 15 August, Blinken emphasized that sanctions against Tehran will remain in place and pointed to the recent military deployments to the region as evidence of the US’ intent to maintain pressure on Iran. Addressing concerns that the unfrozen funds will be used to finance Iranian hostilities in the region, Blinken added that the US maintains “significant oversight and visibility” over how the six billion USD released in South Korea will be used.

The prisoner releases last week raised expectations of a reduction in regional tensions yet the implications of the agreement remain subject to interpretation. As discussed below, there was an observable uptick this week in Iran-linked threat messaging, involving false attack claims in eastern Syria and threats to renew attacks against US-linked sites in response to the alleged deployments of US forces to Iraq. That said, with the exception of an apparently inaccurate IED strike in Baghdad, there were no confirmed attacks against US-linked targets and the activity was largely limited to posturing and threat rhetoric. On 17 August, a report by Qatar-based al-Araby news agency also claimed Quds Forces Commander Ismail Khaani issued a directive to Iraq-based militia factions to suspend attacks, including low-level IED attacks, against US and coalition-linked targets. The veracity of the report could not be confidently established but this is plausibly linked to an agreement between the US and Iran to reduce tensions in connection with the prisoner release.

Iran reportedly slows uranium enrichment as officials pledge commitment to diplomacy
In a likely related development, a report by the Wall Street Journal on 11 August claimed the pace of the Iranian nuclear program has slowed. Citing anonymous sources, the report specified that the “pace at which it is accumulating near-weapons-grade uranium” has slowed and that some of the built-up stockpile has been diluted. The report added that the stockpile of uranium enriched at 60% continues to grow but at a much slower rate since May in comparison to the previous months.

Speaking at the above-mentioned press briefing, Secretary of State Blinken said it could not verify the report yet welcomed any moves by Iran to slow its nuclear program. The claim has also not been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is expected to release its latest update on Iran’s enrichment process in September. The last update, released in May, raised concerns over the accelerating pace of the enrichment, notably high-grade materials (60%), as well as the size of the total stockpile which at the time was estimated to exceed 114,1 kilograms. The reported deceleration since May coincides with the start of negotiations between the US and Iran, and is plausibly suggestive of Iranian intent to facilitate the negotiations.

While the progress of these negotiations remains unclear, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reiterated this week that Iran remains committed to resolving any disputes over the nuclear program through diplomacy and that it “always wanted a return of all parties to full compliance of the 2015 nuclear deal.”  While such rhetoric is not unprecedented, the timing is noteworthy considering the reported slowdown of the nuclear program and the prisoner release which may create conditions for a more significant diplomatic engagement between the two sides over the coming weeks.

Significant increase in candidate registrations ahead of parliament elections
The Iranian Ministry of Interior announced that more than 49 thousand individuals registered their candidacy ahead of the parliamentary elections slated for March 2024. The number is more than three times higher than the number of registrations for the 2020 elections when only 16 thousand candidates registered. While this is predominantly assessed to be attributed to changes in the online registration system that makes it easier for individuals to register, the numbers are surprisingly high considering expectations of a low turnout.

Details of the candidates and their political affiliations have yet to be released, yet they reportedly include 250 of the 290 MPs in the current parliament.  Over the coming weeks, each candidate will be screened and subject to an extensive vetting process expected to conclude by the end of October, when those remaining will be allowed to formally apply to stand in the elections.


Iran-linked sources make false claims of rocket attacks in eastern Syria
On 13 August, a Syria-based Iranian militia group named the Popular Resistance in the Eastern Region claimed to have conducted rocket attacks targeting US forces at separate bases in eastern Syria. These included Mission Support Site Conoco in Deir Ez Zour province and Patrol Base Shadadi in southern Hasaka. The attack claims were initially published on Telegram and social media and later republished by responsive Iranian, Syrian, and Russian news sources however the incidents were not corroborated by more credible channels. Reliable local sources and US official sources later denied that any attacks targeted the named locations, with the claims confidently dismissed as propaganda.

Like Iraq-based counterparts like Ahrar al-Iraq Brigades and Ashab al-Khaf (AAK), the Popular Resistance in the Eastern Region occasionally makes unverified attack claims to project relevant threat messaging and spread misinformation. The level of coordination involved in these misinformation campaigns remains difficult to assess, yet the threat messaging this week corresponded with a similar uptick in threat atmospherics in Iraq where AAK and Iran-linked telegram sources discussed possible attacks against US-linked sites. This included discounted accounts of US troop deployments to Ain al-Assad Airbase and near the Iraq-Syria border which appeared corroborated by video footage purportedly showing large convoys of US forces in these areas.

US sources likewise dismissed these claims as inaccurate but the sudden rise in tensions contributed to concerns of renewed hostilities following a prolonged lull in significant attack activity in both Iraq and Syria. Further context and details surrounding these tensions are available to subscribers in the full report.

Jordanian Army intercepts explosive-laden UAV from Syria
On 16 August, the Jordanian border guards announced the interception of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) laden with explosives as it attempted to enter Jordanian airspace from Syria. A statement by the Jordanian Army said the UAV carried “TNT-type explosives” with no casualties or damages discussed in connection with the interception. The location of the downing was not specified and the statement did not attribute responsibility, yet like previous interceptions, the capture is likely linked to broader efforts by Jordanian security forces to disrupt the cross-border narcotics trade from Syrian territory. Earlier this week, border guards intercepted another UAV carrying narcotics near the border and there has been a notable rise in similar incidents recorded in recent months.

While the majority of these interceptions target aircraft carrying narcotics, the involvement of explosive materials in this latest operation is noteworthy and underscores an intensification in the cross-border trade of illicit material. The explosives were not reportedly set to detonate but likely transported as part of a smuggling operation involving organized criminal elements which have become more capable due to the growing captagon trade.  This remains diplomatically significant as countries in the region demand stronger action from Syria to combat these activities on its territory, however the repeated interceptions this week underscore that the government falls short of its commitment to combat the illicit trade.

Explosions affect weapons storage and warehouses near Damascus
Two separate but unidentified explosions were reported this week near Damascus, both affecting storage facilities used by Iran-linked groups and Syria government forces. The first explosion affected a warehouse operated by an unspecified militia faction in western Damascus on 13 August. Details regarding casualties and damages were limited. Two days later, on 15 August, a similar explosion took place inside a weapons storage facility in al-Ruhaiba, northeast of Damascus, reportedly utilized by Lebanese Hezbollah. Several casualties were reported as a result, however further details were likewise limited.

The causes of both explosions remain unclear and Syrian media outlets did not comment on the incidents which were initially suspected of involving Israeli airstrikes. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and other sources denied that any airstrikes took place however, the close proximity of the two detonations does not appear coincidental. Considering the target, a sabotage operation conducted by Israel or an opposition faction is assessed as plausible but remains unconfirmed and speculative absent further clarification. Any additional updates will be provided as available.


Turkish military retains high operational tempo against PKK
The tempo of Turkish military operations against the PKK in Iraq and Syria remains elevated following a gradual intensification in attack activity seen since the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This week, two additional UAV strikes targeted PKK-linked targets in eastern Sulaymaniyah province in Iraq, targeting a vehicle and an agricultural area in the Penjwin district. The first attack resulted in three fatalities conflictingly described as civilians and PKK members, while no casualties resulted from the second strike. The strikes follow a noticeable increase in similar activity last week as discussed in this report.

In Syria, two UAV strikes were also reported on 14 and 15 August in the Tal Tamr district of Hasakah province, likewise targeting two vehicles transiting in broad daylight. As of 19 August, a total of 36 Turkish precision strikes have been recorded in Syria since the beginning of 2023, with a noticeable increase observed in the past two months that corresponds to similar activity patterns in Iraq. Broader regional and political reactions however have been relatively muted. Speaking to a Kurdish media outlet this week, a US State Department Spokesperson said the US “remains concerned about violence in northern Syria” yet without specifically mentioning or denouncing Turkish activities. Likewise, reactions from the Government of Iraq remain muted as officials did not comment on the operations this week. Regardless, the assessed intensification forms a standing consideration for client operations in northern Iraq and Syria operating in areas associated with PKK/YPG presence. Further context regarding the activity is provided in this report (available to subscribers).

Turkey warned Russia over Black Sea incident
On 17 August, the office of President Erdogan said it warned Russia to avoid further escalation in the Black Sea after a Turkish-owned cargo vessel was targeted by Russian naval assets on 13 August. The Russian navy reportedly opened fire on the vessel – named the Sukru Okan -before boarding the ship to conduct an “inspection” of the cargo area. The vessel was reportedly en route to the Ukrainian port of Izmail and the incident was linked to Russia’s decision to withdraw from the much-publicized grain deal brokered by Turkey.

The Turkish government initially refrained from addressing the incident, citing that the Sukri Okan was sailing under the flag of Palau – a small country in the Pacific often used by shipping companies to facilitate international port access – despite being Turkish-owned. The government said the matter should be addressed by the government of Palau however this explanation faced pushback in Turkey and the government eventually opted to release a statement to publicly address the incident.

The expiration of the grain deal, and any related effort by the Russian navy to enforce the blockade on Ukrainian ports, increases the outlook for tensions between Turkey and Russia considering Turkey’s role as an export hub in the Black Sea. The incident on 13 August has not been replicated since however, and on 17 August another cargo ship arrived safely in Turkish waters after departing the port of Odessa. Regardless, the issue is set to test Russia-Turkey relations, especially in light of Turkey’s recent decision to support Sweden’s membership application to NATO.


Iraqi government lifts ban on telegram following pushback
On 13 August, the Ministry of Communications announced that it would lift the ban on the popular messaging platform Telegram. The statement said the decision was lifted after the government received assurances that the application’s parent company agreed to adhere to various security guidelines, including those pertaining to “entities leaking data”, and to establish official communications channels with the government.

The initial ban was implemented over Telegram’s alleged breaches of security protocols, its handling of user data, and its refusal to cooperate with the Iraqi government over the issues. With more than 16 million active users across the country, the ban sparked significant reactions which were almost immediately politicized considering the application’s widespread use amongst political factions, including Iran-linked militia groups. The decision to lift the ban was likely motivated in part by a desire to avoid any split with Iranian-backed factions, yet the government consistently refrained from politicizing the issue. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report (available to subscribers).

IS claim responsibility for IED attack ahead of Arba’een
IS activity across Iraq remains broadly subdued ahead of the Arba’een commemoration. That said, following reports of increased security measures undertaken by Iraqi Security Forces to secure routes between Baghdad and Diyala provinces, IS elements successfully conducted an IED attack against an Iraqi Army patrol in Diyala province, injuring two soldiers. The attack was followed by a localized security response and was likely timed to demonstrate IS capabilities to target roads ahead of the pilgrimage.

An intensification in security operations can be anticipated in the coming weeks ahead of the commemoration when large numbers of pilgrims are set to arrive in the country. While the festivities are expected to culminate on 5 and 6 September, pilgrims are already arriving in large numbers and this week, security forces in several provinces announced the implementation of security plans to safeguard those participating. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report (available to subscribers).


US imposed sanctions on environmental group tied to Hezbollah
On 16 August, the US Treasury Department announced the imposition of sanctions on Green Without Border – a Lebanese environmental organization – and its leader Zouher Nahli over its links with Hezbollah. The statement said the organization provided support and cover for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, including along the so-called “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon, under the “guise of environmental activism.” See the full statement and further details here.

Saudi Arabia

Iranian Foreign Minister visits Saudi Arabia
In a landmark visit, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian arrived in Saudi Arabia on 17 August for the first time since the two sides formally resumed diplomatic relations in March. The visit is also the first by Iran’s most senior diplomat since 2015 when former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited the kingdom following the death of King Abdullah.

After meeting with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, the two held a press conference marked by positive rhetoric as both sides stressed that relations “are on the right track” and that the meeting had been “successful.” Amirabdollahian also said that President Ibrahim Raisi hopes to embark on an official visit to the kingdom in the near future. For his part, Prince Faisal stressed that Saudi Arabia hopes to reactive previous economic and security agreements with Tehran, and thanked Iran for supporting Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo. On 18 August, the Iranian foreign minister also met with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman in Jeddah. Details were limited but an official readout cited by Iranian state-linked sources said the talks lasted 90 minutes and were described by both sides as “very good.”

Amirabdollahian’s visit this week reciprocated Prince Faisal’s visit to Iran in June and marks the latest step in the normalization process after both sides reopened embassies in their respective countries over the summer. The meeting with Crown Prince Bin Salman was not announced beforehand yet marks the first official meeting between Bin Salman and a senior Iranian official since he assumed the position in 2017. Although symbolic, the visit consolidates gradual progress in the relationship despite recent concerns that an emerging dispute between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Durrah/Arash field in the Gulf may challenge the rapprochement. The issue was not publicly mentioned this week and there are no signs, thus far, that the territorial dispute is impacting the progress of Iran-Saudi relations.

Saudi Arabia names non-resident Ambassador to Palestine
In a symbolically significant move, the Saudi Foreign Ministry named its first-ever non-resident ambassador to the Palestinian territories this week. Nayef al-Sudairi will also serve as Consul General to Jerusalem and presented his credentials to the Palestinian Authority on 12 August. In a statement, al-Sudairi called the appointment an “important step” that underscores Saudi Arabia’s desire “to strengthen relations with the brothers of the State of Palestine and give it a formal boost in all areas.”

The timing of the announcement is noteworthy considering US-led efforts to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Last week, a report by the Wall Street Journal suggested an “outline” of a normalization agreement has been agreed yet White House officials subsequently denied that the negotiations were that far advanced. Regardless, multiple reports indicate the negotiations are ongoing and revolve around Saudi demands for concessions towards the Palestinians and security assistance.

The appointment this week by Saudi Arabia may well have been coordinated with Israel but may also be seen as a challenge to Tel Aviv’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Aside from underscoring diplomatic support for Palestine, the presentation of credentials to the Palestinian Authority – as opposed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry – can be seen as affirming Palestine’s claim to Jerusalem. Regardless, the move will test Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent suggestion that the Palestinian issue is not a significant part of the ongoing negotiations with Riyadh over the normalization process, and may generate pushback from more right-wing elements of the conservative Israeli government.


US Envoy to Yemen embarks on regional tour
On 14 August, the US State Department announced that its Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking embarked on a regional tour to meet with “Yemeni, Saudi, Emirati, Omani and International partners” to discuss ways to further the UN-led peace process. The statement specifically emphasized efforts to reach a “durable ceasefire” as the focal point of discussions.

While no significant breakthrough is anticipated during Lenderking’s tour, the meetings follow a relative lack of diplomatic engagements related to Yemen over the summer and although significant hostilities between the main warring factions remain largely absent, no formal progress on the negotiations towards reaching a permanent settlement have been noted.  As of 19 August, no significant achievements were noted during the visit as expected however any significant results will likely be provided at the conclusion of the visit next week.

UN confirms release of staff kidnapped by al-Qaeda
On 11 August, the United Nations announced that five staff members kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Yemen had been released. The victims included four Yemeni and one Bangladeshi national who were abducted by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 11 February 2022 in Abyan province. UN Secretary-General confirmed that all members were in “good health” despite challenges experienced during the 18 months of isolation. The statement also called for those involved in the abduction to be held accountable.

All staff members formed part of the UN’s Department of Security and Safety and were abducted when returning to Aden City after a field trip to a village in the province. The circumstances of their release remain unclear as the UN refrained from providing additional information. The group reportedly demanded a $3 million ransom for their release and reports citing Yemen security officials and tribal sources said the ransom payment was eventually made following months of negotiations. For their part, a spokesperson for the UN denied that any ransom was made and reiterated its long-standing policy of never paying ransoms to deny any incentives to target UN-linked staff.

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