Talos Regional Snapshot – 2 September 2023

Sep 1, 2023



Iran claims Israeli plot against missile program foiled
On 31 August, Iranian state-linked television claimed a large-scale Israeli plot targeting the Iranian Defense and Aerospace Industry was foiled in the country. The alleged plot reportedly involved the introduction of “faulty and equipped parts” to be used in the manufacturing of ballistic missiles and that a network operating under orders from the Israeli intelligence service Mossad was behind the attempt. By selling the faulty parts, the report claimed, the network “intended to convert the produced missiles into explosive devices.” Video footage disseminated by state television indicated the defective components consisted of electrical circular connectors used, amongst other things, for the manufacturing of missiles and UAVs. By introducing explosive components into the manufacturing process, these connectors were reportedly timed to detonate at a certain time.

Like similar accusations waged in the past, the veracity of the latest allegation remains difficult to confidently verify and Israeli and US officials have, as usual, refrained from commenting on the alleged plot. Considering long-standing Israeli-linked efforts to sabotage Iranian activities, the report is assessed as plausible in light of the assessed acceleration in Israeli-linked sabotage operations targeting the Iranian defense and nuclear industries in recent years. While large-scale sabotage operations have been largely absent during 2023, at least two major explosions were reported during 2022, affecting storage and research facilities utilized by the Ministry of Defense. In 2021, a large-scale sabotage operation involving explosives believed to have been planted by Israeli operatives also targeted the Natanz Nuclear Facility.

While details of successful plots are rarely revealed by Iranian officials, the decision to publicize the latest attempt was likely made to portray the disruption as a success and to showcase the shortcomings of Israeli efforts to sabotage Iranian infrastructure. Commenting on the attack plot this week, Iranian officials accordingly praised the “vigilance” of those involved in discovering the plot and described the attempt as a sign of Israeli “frustrations” over Iranian advancements.

Iran unveils dismantling of ”Israeli-linked” terrorist network
In a separate but related development to the above, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence revealed on 30 August that several members of a “terrorist network”, operating on Israeli orders, were arrested in separate operations across the country. The arrests were reportedly on separate occasions in July and August and involved a total of seven individuals according to state-linked sources. The statement by the ministry said a large number of explosive devices were confiscated during the arrest operations and that the plans were to carry out attacks in at least six Iranian provinces during the anniversary of the start of the 2022 protests that followed the death of Masha Amini. The ministry added that the plot was being coordinated from several foreign countries, including Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, where several of those detained previously resided.

The alleged plot is separate from the one discussed above, yet is undeniably part of the same ongoing war of accusations between Israel and Iran, with Israel often accused of fueling domestic terrorism inside Iran. Notably, the announcement follows the previously discussed terrorist attack on the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz in August – the second in less than a year – and the announcement is likely timed to restore confidence in the internal security forces following the repeated security breaches affecting one of the most important shrines in the country. The statement stopped short of directly accusing the other named countries of being involved in the plot but it implicitly suggests a degree of compliance in facilitating the plans by allowing terrorist elements to coordinate their activities on their territories. By linking the plot to the 2022 protests, this also fits the broader Iranian narrative regarding the West’s purported support for the “riots” and “terrorism” that affected Iran during the nationwide protests in 2022.

The affiliations of those involved were not specified however, aside from Sunni extremist terrorism, various separatist separatist movements in the country have been implicated, and indeed responsible, for terrorism activities. This includes armed elements in the Sistan-Baluchistan province near the border with Pakistan and the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). It should be noted that both Denmark and the Netherlands have had members of the ASMLA – a separatist group operating in the Khuzestan province – residing in their countries and it is possible, while unconfirmed, that the group is implicated in the latest plot.

Iranian oil production assessed to have increased despite sanctions
According to a report by Reuters, citing a consultancy firm, Iranian oil production increased during the month of August to an estimated 3.15 million barrels per day (bpd). Citing data over tanker shipments estimated by multiple independent sources that monitor Iranian oil shipments, the estimated production levels are the highest since 2018 – or before the US reimposed sanctions after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The high figures are attributed to successful efforts by Iran to evade sanctions, possibly as a result of a relaxation of enforcement mechanisms as the US and Iran restarted negotiations to restore the JCPOA over the summer. Iranian exports have also improved due to increasing demand in China which continues to import oil in violation of US sanctions. Earlier this month, Bloomberg News reported that the level of Chinese imports of sanctioned oil is at the highest level in at least a decade and the latest estimates corroborate these figures.

In a related development, Iranian and Chinese officials confirmed the finalization of an agreement under which China will import Iranian oil in exchange for expanding the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran. Saeed Chalandari, the CEO of Imam Khomeini Airport, confirmed the deal in a press conference on 27 August and added that the agreement stipulates the export of oil worth 2.5 million euros.


Israeli airstrikes damage Aleppo International Airport
On 28 August, suspected Israeli airstrikes targeted Aleppo International Airport, damaging the airport runway. The airport was put out of service as a result, with flights diverted to Damascus and Latakia Airports. Airport operations later resumed on the evening of 29 August. The Syrian Defence Ministry confirmed the attack and said the strike was conducted by Israeli aircraft however Israeli officials characteristically refrained from commenting on the incident. Separate sources also stated that an arms depot facility utilized by Iranian-linked militia groups was targeted in the strikes yet no casualties or damages were discussed.

While a majority of Israeli airstrikes in Syria continue to target military installations and storage facilities, a shift in targeting patterns towards civilian airports was noted during 2022, with several strikes targeting and damaging both Aleppo and Damascus International Airports. The strike on 28 August marked the fifth time in under 12 months that Aleppo Airport has been put out of service as a result of Israeli operations, with the most recent attack recorded in May 2023. With the exception of one strike affecting the terminal area in Damascus in 2022, these precision strikes have primarily damaged runways in a bid to disrupt flight traffic but without inflicting civilian casualties. Overall, this forms an assessed response to Iran’s increasing use of air transportation – including civilian airliners – to transport military equipment to Syria. Responding to the latest operation, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian who was visiting Syria strongly condemned the attack and warned that the “criminal practices by the Zionist entity” will not remain “without retaliation.” Usually, this activity does not generate any significant responses and such rhetoric by Iranian officials is not unusual, however the outlook for related hostilities in the region will be monitored.

US urges de-escalation after clashes in northeastern Syria
Internal clashes within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke out this week between the Deir Ez Zour Military Council and other members of the SDF in northeastern Syria. The initial clashes broke out on 27 August after the SDF internal security forces reportedly detained a senior commander, Abu Khawla, and several other members of the Council over their alleged involvement in “multiple crimes and violations.” The SDF later announced that Khawla had been removed from the position as commander of the Council.

In response to the initial detention, members of the Council and affiliated Arab tribal fighters engaged in clashes with the SDF, and later claimed to have retained control over several villages near the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border. The SDF launched a security operation in the province – named “Operation Security Reinforcement” – nominally to safeguard the area against IS but in practice seen as an attempt to reinstate order in areas controlled by the Council. At least 40 individuals on both sides have been killed as a result of the clashes during the week, with tensions remaining elevated as of writing. A curfew was also announced by the SDF in Deir Ez Zour and parts of Hasakah province in response. Coalition Forces released a statement urging both sides to de-escalate while US military officials warned that the instability may aid the resurgence of IS and urged an immediate end to the hostilities.

The SDF did not confirm the initial detention of Khawla and details surrounding the “crimes and violations” remain limited. The hostilities however follow long-standing signs of tension between Kurdish and Arab components of the SDF, including the Deir Ez Zour council which since its formation in 2016 has been responsible for ensuring security within the Arab-majority areas of Deir Ez Zour province controlled by the SDF. More recently, Khawla and the Council have reportedly extended ties with the Syrian government, Russian, and Iran-linked elements present in Deir Ez Zour, with SDF-linked sources this week accusing the Council of engaging in “anti-revolutionary activities.”

The escalation and growing divisions within the SDF form an understandable challenge to efforts by coalition forces to maintain stability in northeastern Syria and may negatively affect counter-terrorism operations against IS at a time when the insurgent group appears to grow in capability. More importantly, the divisions may be opportunistically exploited by threat actors to create further instability and undermine US/Coalition presence. This week, several opposition-linked sources reported the influx of Iran-linked and Syrian government-supported militia groups to the province, including members of the Baqir Brigade and the National Defense Forces in a bid to support Arab tribal factions against the SDF. These reports remain unverified outside of opposition-linked channels but would, if true, suggest a deliberate effort to stoke instability and undermine coalition-led de-escalation efforts in the area.

Suspected Jordanian airstrike conducted in southern Syria
On 31 August, a suspected Jordanian airstrike targeted a facility believed to be used for narcotics manufacturing and distribution in the Sweida province in southern Syria. Pro-government channels claimed the strike targeted a farm near the Jordanian border but without discussing any casualties or the extent of the damages. Jordanian security forces did not comment on the strike however this follows an intensification in Jordan’s efforts to combat the growing narcotics trade along the Syria-Jordan border.

The operation is the second suspected Jordanian airstrike conducted inside Syrian territory this year following the targeting and killing of a known narcotics dealer in Sweida in May. Since then, Jordanian border forces have stepped up surveillance patrols along the border and intercepted multiple UAVs carrying narcotics from Syrian territory. These efforts have been combined with enhanced diplomatic pressure on the Syrian government to combat the narcotics trade which Jordan, like other regional countries, partially attribute to the presence of Iranian-backed militia groups. The issue has yet to escalate on a diplomatic level and so far Syrian government reactions to the cross-border strikes have been muted. In the medium term, Damascus’s inability to crack down on this activity may emerge as a source of regional tensions and may jeopardize Syria’s process of re-engagement with other countries, marked earlier this year by its reentry into the Arab League.


Turkey’s central bank raises interest rates
In a sign of a shift in Turkey’s economic policies, the Turkish Central Bank announced a 7.5 percent increase in interest rates to combat inflation. The rise was higher than expected and underscores Turkey’s move away from the unorthodox policies previously adopted by the central bank, under pressure from President Erdogan, to cut interest rates despite growing inflation. The new policies were adopted following Erdogan’s election victory in June when the president replaced the former minister of finance and head of the central bank. While the effects of recent interest rate changes will take time to affect consumer price levels, the new policies have strengthened the Turkish currency and investor sentiments have widely improved in recent months.


Rocket attack targets Khor Mor gas field in Sulaymaniyah without casualties
On the evening of 30 August, two assessed 122mm rockets were launched toward the Khor Mor gas field in Sulaymaniyah province, impacting near the field without casualties or damages. No group claimed responsibility, but Iran-linked militia factions are as usual suspected of involvement in the attack. The incident is the first to target the field since January and follows a prolonged lull in significant militia activity in Iraq. While motives remain speculative, the attack is plausibly linked to ongoing negotiations between Baghdad and the KRG over the Oil and Gas Law, and the recent start of plans to expand the KRG oil sector. While the involvement of two rockets is assessed as relatively unsophisticated in comparison to previous attacks against the field, further operations targeting the field should not be discounted and associated threat dynamics remain important to monitor. Further details and context are available to subscribers in the full report.

French soldier killed during engagement with IS in eastern Salah ad Din
On 29 August, the French presidency confirmed the death of a French soldier during an engagement with IS elements in eastern Salah ad Din province. Four other French soldiers were also injured during the operation which targeted the site of an airstrike conducted in the Aith area of eastern Salah ad Din on 27 August. The death marks the third French fatality in Iraq in little more than a week and the first combat-related death since 2017. Further details and context are provided to subscribers in the full report.

Iran highlights deadline to expel Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups
Iranian officials reiterated this week the approaching 19 September deadline to dislodge and remove Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups based in the KR-I. In his weekly press conference on 28 August, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kan’ani, said the GoI agreed to disarm these groups in “the next few weeks”, as per the agreement reached back in March of this year. Cited by Iranian state media, the spokesperson added that there will be no extension to the deadline and that it demands that these groups vacate the military barracks and are transferred to “camps established by the Iraqi government.” Echoing previous sentiments, Kan’ani reiterated that Iran will take matters into its own hands if the deadline passes without implementation. Further details and context are provided to subscribers in the Iraq Weekly Analysis Report.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia considering Chinese nuclear proposal
On 25 August, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia is considering a Chinese proposal to build a nuclear power plant in eastern Saudi Arabia. Citing Saudi officials, the report claims the bid was made by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) – the state-owned enterprise that oversees China’s civilian and military nuclear capabilities. The proposed site of the plan is reportedly located in the Eastern Province of the country, near the borders with Qatar and the UAE.  Saudi and Chinese officials have so far not publicly commented on the report, however, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasized that China is continuing to pursue relations with Saudi Arabia in various fields, including “civil nuclear energy, while strictly abiding by international non-proliferation obligations.

The report is noteworthy following recent indications that the US support for a Saudi nuclear program is part of a possible normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration remains understandably reluctant to grant such a request considering broader proliferation concerns yet officials have tentatively agreed to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia providing it does not include the enrichment of uranium or plutonium in reactors. While a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China is likely willing to provide assistance under less stringent conditions and by floating the possibility of seeking Chinese assistance instead, Riyadh may be attempting to put pressure on the US to relax certain restrictions for offering assistance as part of the parallel negotiations over normalization with Israel.

HRW report accuses Saudi Arabia of violence against migrants
On 21 August, a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed Saudi security forces engaged in “targeted killings” of “hundreds” of Ethiopian migrants attempting to cross the border from Yemen. Citing interviews and witness testimonies from 38 migrants, as well as hundreds of videos and footage, the report documented several cases of Saudi forces firing small arms and explosives at unarmed migrants, including women and children, between March 2022 and June 2023. HRW added that “the pattern of abuses has changed from an apparent practice of occasional shootings and mass detentions to widespread and systematic killings”, with the number of victims amounting to “hundreds and possibly even in the thousands.” Responding to the allegations, a Saudi government source denounced the report as inaccurate and based on “unreliable sources”, however Saudi government officials did not publicly comment on the claims. For their part, the US State Department said it raised concerns with the Saudi government and urged authorities to conduct a “thorough and transparent investigation.”

Allegations of migrant abuses involving Saudi security forces are not unprecedented. In October 2022, a panel of UN experts similarly identified a “systemic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings” targeting migrants and urged the government to take action in an open letter. The Saudi representative to the UN similarly refuted the allegations while claiming a lack of sufficient evidence to support the claim. The latest claims are therefore not unprecedented and unlikely to generate any significant political pushback. The timing however is potentially significant ahead of the expected meeting between US President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman in New Delhi at the G-20 summit later this month.

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