REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Iran executes British-Iranian citizen
On 14 January, media channels linked to the Iranian Judiciary announced the execution of Ali Reza Akbari – a dual British-Iranian national and a former, senior member of the Iranian Ministry of Defense. The date of the execution was not provided however a statement issued by the Iranian Judiciary accused Akbari of acting as a source for the British Secret Intelligence Service and referred to him as “one of the most important agents” of the “enemy spy service.” Video footage depicting the confessions of Akbari was also released by Iranian state-linked media, however a leaked audio tape was also published by the BCC in which Akbari claims the confessions were coerced, and made under torture and psychological stress.
The executions are understandably set to further create tensions with the West, with several countries repeatedly warning Iran against carrying out the death sentence. In response, the UK Foreign Minister vowed “reprisals” and recalled Ambassador Simon Shercliff. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also said they are “reviewing further action with our international partners.”
German citizen arrested for photographing oil facilities
Tensions between Iran and Germany are likewise set to increase following the arrest this week of a German national in the country. On 17 January, state-linked sources claimed the individual was arrested for taking pictures of the Omidiyeh oil facility in the Khuzestan province. The name of the detainee and further details were not provided, however the arrest was reported a day after Germany summoned the Iranian ambassador in Berlin in response to Iran’s crackdown on anti-government protesters. The arrest also follows continued allegations that the German embassy in Tehran has been involved in “coordinating” protests. A statement by the German Foreign Ministry said it is attempting to clarify the situation.
Iran to receive Russian fighter jets
On 15 January, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security Committee confirmed that Iran ordered Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Speaking to the state-linked Tasmin News Agency, Shahriar Heydari said the aircraft will arrive in March as part of an order that also includes missile defense systems and helicopters. Further details were not provided but separate reports by Iranian state media claimed the fighter jets will be stored at Tactical Airbase 8, located near the city of Isfahan. The arrival of the fighter jets is another significant sign of Russia and Iran’s deepening strategic cooperation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The purchase follows multiple meetings between Russian and Iranian officials discussing arms exports since the lifting of the Iranian arms embargo in October 2021.
Iranian oil exports increased in December
Despite international sanctions, Iranian oil exports increased in November and December, with preliminary data for January 2023 indicating relatively high export levels continuing. According to Reuters, citing figures provided by energy consultant SVB Energy International LLC (SVBEI), crude exports averaged 1.137 million barrels/day in December – an increase of 42 thousand barrels per day from November. According to Petro-Logistics, another energy consultancy, the figures cited are the highest reported since December 2019. While reliable estimates remain difficult given international sanctions, the figures remain somewhat short of the target of 1.4 million barrels per day set out in the Iranian national budget. China remains the primary recipient of Iranian exports, with the reopening of the economy following the reversal of the “zero covid” policy set to further increase demand in the near term. Higher exports are also assessed to be driven by Iran’s increasing cooperation with Venezuela over the previous year.
President Assad said talks with Turkey aim to produce “tangible results”
In his first public remarks regarding Syria’s recent engagement with Turkey, President Bashar al-Assad said the negotiations should be aimed at producing “tangible results sought by Syria”. Speaking during a visit by Russian presidential envoy Alexander Levrentiev, Assad added that any talks with Turkey should be coordinated by Russia and based on the principle of “ending” the occupation and Turkey’s support for “terrorism” – a reference to Turkey’s ongoing support for Free Syrian Army factions in northern Syria.
Separately, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad similarly said normalization with Turkey can only be achieved if Turkey ends its military presence in the country. In remarks made after meeting with Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian, Medad said “we cannot talk about resuming normal ties with Turkey without removing the occupation.” For his part, Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian expressed support for the reconciliation and dialogue taking place between Syria and Turkey.
The statements by Assad and Mekdad essentially reiterate Syria’s long-standing view that Turkey must end its military presence prior to any normalization. However the remarks are not assessed to preclude further dialogue and underscore Syria’s apparent preference for a diplomatic solution to Turkey’s presence in the north. According to various reports citing unnamed officials, recent negotiations focused on Syria’s demands for Turkey to withdraw troops from several areas in the north and end support for three factions of the Free Syrian Army. The demands have reportedly been discussed by lower-level officials, with Syria expecting progress before agreeing to more high-level engagements.
Iran and Syria agree to extend economic agreement during foreign minister visit
Following his meeting with President Assad in Damascus, Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian said the two countries agreed to extend an existing economic partnership agreement. With more than a dozen economic agreements signed in recent years – broadly aimed at extending credit and providing economic support for Syria – the statement did not specify which agreement the two sides agreed to extend but said further developments will take place in the coming days. The two sides also pledged to extend energy cooperation, an assessed reference to Iran’s continued provision of fuel and oil supplies, while Assad said he plans to invite President Ibrahim Raisi to Damascus in the coming months.
Turkey expects F-16 approval during visit to Washington
In his first official visit to Washington since the Biden administration took office, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with counterpart Anthony Blinken in a meeting predictably focused on Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 fighter jets, NATO expansion and the situation in Syria. Speaking after the meeting on 18 January, Cavusoglu said he urged the administration to be “decisive” regarding the F-16 sale and that he expects Turkey’s purchase to be approved in line with NATO strategic interests.
Prior to the meeting, the foreign minister also said that admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO should not be a precondition for the F-16 agreement, however, any references to the issue of NATO expansion issue were omitted from public remarks made after meeting Blinken. In a visible effort to downplay strategic differences, Blinken praised the US-Turkey partnership and lauded Ankara’s role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine yet there were no concrete indications that other key differences were resolved during the meeting.
By purchasing Russian S-400 air defense systems in 2017, Turkey was placed under US sanctions and automatically removed from the F-35 program yet this has not prevented Ankara from attempting to resupply its fleet of F-16 jets. To recall, the Biden administration expressed support for the sale yet is facing strong opposition from (primarily Democratic) members of Congress over Turkey’s refusal to admit the Nordic countries to the alliance, and over the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan government. Standing threats of an incursion into northern Syria and Turkey’s increasing energy ties with Russia, including recent discussions to form an “energy hub” for Russian gas imports, form other long-standing considerations likely to cause opposition in Congress. However by dropping opposition to Sweden and Finland, Congress may conceivably approve the agreement given the current primacy of efforts to isolate Russia above other geopolitical priorities.
Stampede and celebrations as Iraq wins Arab Gulf Cup
Widespread celebrations were reported across Iraq following the national football team’s 3-2 victory over Oman in the 25th edition of the Arab Gulf Cup final. The event was preceded by a stampede outside Basra International Stadium that killed at least four individuals and injured dozens, with hospital sources reporting citing at least 60 and as many as 80 injured. Riot Police were also deployed to control the crowd and reportedly beat some spectators as the stampede unfolded, resulting in additional injuries according to media reports. The incident understandably proved a negative conclusion to a tournament otherwise held to demonstrate Iraq’s readiness to host a major international sports event and one that largely unfolded without significant security-related incidents.
IRGC General visited Baghdad after Prime Minister support for US troop presence
On 15 January, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani was cited saying he supports an “indefinite” US troop presence if required to defeat IS – a statement contradicting longstanding demands by Iranian-backed factions for the immediate removal of US troops. The interview met strong reactions from Iranian-backed factions, including the leader of Huquq Movement, the political wing of Kata’ib Hezbollah, who called on the Prime Minister to explain his comment. Others criticized the prime minister for apparently contradicting the parliament’s resolution passed after the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani that called for the expulsion of US troops.
A day after the interview, IRGC Quds Force Commander Ismail Qaani arrived in Baghdad, with the official reason reportedly being to attend a mourning ceremony for the grandmother of Ammar al-Hakim. According to footage disseminated on social media, Qaani visited the site of the assassination of Soleimani on the Baghdad Airport Road and later met with leaders of the Iranian-aligned Coordination Framework. Details were characteristically limited but the timing of the visit is noteworthy following the interview.
US redeploying munitions stored in Israel to Ukraine
On 18 January, according to a report by the New York Times citing US and Israeli officials, the US decided to move ammunition stored in Israel to Ukraine for use in the conflict against Russia. The munitions reportedly serve as emergency supplies for Israel in the event of war in the region and the decision was made as the US is struggling to maintain adequate provision to the Ukrainian armed forces given the rate of artillery fire being used in the conflict. The munitions reportedly include around 300 thousand 155-millimeter artillery shells and, according to Israeli officials, the transfer was made “a few weeks ago.”
The decision was reportedly approved by former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid despite lingering concerns in Israel about how it would affect relations with Russia. Since the start of the conflict, Israel has adopted a cautious position and refrained from providing arms to Ukraine citing the need to preserve ties with Moscow. The US does not formally need Israeli approval to make the transfer, but the report is understandably set to test the Israeli-Russian relationship under new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who enjoys good personal ties with President Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu discussed Saudi normalization with Sullivan
As previously reported, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel this week, meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian officials during a brief visit. The meeting with new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly focused on expanding the Abraham Accords, with Netanyahu’s office claiming the two discussed “the next steps” in the accords “with an emphasis on a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.” Other topics included Iran and the Israeli-Palestine conflict, with details characteristically limited.
While Saudi Arabia continues to adopt a more conciliatory approach towards Israel, the official position on normalization remains unchanged in Riyadh and Saudi officials continue to stress progress on Palestinian statehood as a precondition to establishing formal ties. On 18 January, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud again urged Israel to “engage seriously” in the conflict and, like other countries in the region, the Kingdom recently condemned the controversial visit by National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque. The new Israeli government will most likely continue to pursue an expansion of ties under the Abraham Accords and the Negev Forum, however, plans to expand settlement policies by the new government in Tel Aviv are understandably likely to complicate regional relations.
Iran says dialogue with Saudi Arabia continues
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian this week said dialogue with Saudi Arabia continues and confirmed that he met with counterpart Faisal al-Saud in Jordan the previous month to discuss normalization. Speaking after a meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, Amirabdollahian also reiterated Iranian hopes that relations may soon be restored. Saudi Arabia did not directly respond to the remarks and officials have been characteristically silent on the Iran-Saudi dialogue which, according to various reports, was discontinued last year amidst the political turmoil in Iraq. However, in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Foreign Minister al-Saud stressed that the Kingdom remains committed to resolving tensions with Iran and said they “reached out” to resolve differences. It was not immediately clear if the remarks refer to the previous meetings or an ongoing attempt to restart the negotiations.
Turkey to supply TB2 combat UAVs to Kuwait
On 18 January, Turkish defense manufacturer Baykar confirmed an agreement to supply TB2 combat UAVs to Kuwait. A statement by the company said a contract worth $370 million was signed with the Kuwait Defense Ministry in a bidding process that has been ongoing since 2019. The number of UAVs provided was not specified nor did the statement stipulate a timeline for delivery, however, separate sources claimed the order includes 18 aircraft.
The aircraft requires 100 MAM-L smart micro munitions and is capable of delivering payloads of up to 55kg, with a range of approximately 150km. Demand for the TB2 increased significantly following their deployment and successful use in conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh, Libya, Syria, and, most recently, Ukraine, with more than 28 countries now having purchased the capability according to Baykar.
South Korea to strengthen military and economic ties with UAE
On 15 January, President of South Korea Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in Abu Dhabi for a visit broadly aimed to strengthen strategic and economic ties with the UAE. Meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the president reached a preliminary agreement to sell advanced mid-range air defense systems – the M-SAM – to the UAE in a deal worth $3.5 billion. South Korea also pledged to invest in green energy projects and promote business, with negotiations reportedly initiated regarding a new trade agreement.
The visit underscores strengthening ties between the two countries, notably in the field of security and defense. Further to the purchase of air-defense technologies, this includes the deployment of special forces to train Emirati troops. Defense cooperation has been partially spurred by cooperation against Iran after a South Korean oil tanker was seized by the IRGC Navy in the Persian Gulf.
UN Envoy praises efforts to renew truce as negotiations continue
UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, expressed cautious optimism this week regarding negotiations and diplomatic activity aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen. Speaking at the UN Security Council, Grundberg said “we are witnessing a potential step change in the trajectory of this eight-year conflict” while calling on both sides (the Houthi Movement and the Saudi-backed government) to take “responsible action” to further the talks. In his briefing, the envoy added that the military situation in the country remains “stable”, with no major escalation and only limited frontline activity since the expiration of the six-month truce in October.
The remarks follow signs of increased diplomatic activity at the start of the year, marked by US Envoy Tim Lenderking’s visit to the region and continued negotiations involving the Houthi Movement and the Saudi-backed government, mediated by Oman. Another meeting involving representatives of the movement was reportedly concluded this week in Oman, with no significant progress made amidst limited details. Separately, Saudi and Yemeni officials confirmed this week that back-channel negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have been ongoing since September when it became apparent that the truce agreed upon in April would not be extended. So far, the absence of major military activity is a positive sign, yet it remains to be seen if conditions exist for any significant breakthrough in the negotiations.