Talos Regional Snapshot – 24 September 2023

Sep 23, 2023



Iranian parliament passes legislation on anniversary of Amini’s death
The anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini passed on 16 September with several protests and incidents recorded across the country to commemorate the anniversary. According to opposition-linked media and social media channels, demonstrations of various sizes and intensity were held across several cities, including Tehran, Mashad, Arak, Kahijan, and Senandaj. A heavy security presence was reported in urban areas with several reports of unclear veracity claiming a large number of arrests were conducted preventively as forces attempted to disrupt the commemorative gatherings. Images circulating on social media also depicted security forces deploying tear gas and firing warning shots to disperse gatherings in several cities, including Masjad and Karaj, as well as in the Kurdistan Province in the northwest.

The scope of the protests remains difficult to verify as state-linked sources – which retain considerable control over the flow of information in Iran – refrained from reporting any gatherings in an attempt to downplay any repercussions. Any significant reignition of the sort of unrest witnessed during the fall of 2022 was not observed however and is not anticipated, despite the persistence of public frustrations and anger over Amini’s death and the government’s subsequent response to the unrest.

In a related sign of the government’s intent to maintain its crackdown, the Iranian Parliament passed a piece of legislation to toughen penalties for women who violate the Islamic dress code.  The bill – entitled “Support the Family by Promoting the Culture of Chastity and Hijab” – was passed on 20 September with a vote of 152-34 and is now set for approval by the Guardian Council. Initially proposed in April, the bill stipulates prison sentences for violating the code to five to ten years – up from 10 days to two months under the current legislation. Women accused of “nudity”, “chastity”, or “improper dressing” may also face other severe punishments such as 60 lashes or severe fines under the bill which also calls for gender segregation in public places such as hospitals, government offices, parks and universities. The Guardian Council will likely approve the bill which has been strongly criticized by human rights groups as well as the United Nations. Several western countries have also condemned the law which, when ratified, will likely generate another round of international criticism and plausibly raise political pushback toward any negotiations with Iran.

US imposes additional sanctions on Iran over human rights and UAV exports
Relatedly, the US announced the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran on two separate occasions, prompting another round of mutual accusations between the two sides. On 15 September, a day before the anniversary of Amini’s death, President Joe Biden declared that the administration would target a number of individuals and organizations in connection with her death and the subsequent crackdown. Later in the day, the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control released a list of 29 individuals and entities targeted in the new sanctions, including members of the security forces, media organizations (including Tasmin and Fars News) as well as the head of Iran’s Prison Organization. President Biden said the new regime would target some of Iran’s “most egregious human rights abusers” on the anniversary of Amini’s death, with the targets all playing a significant role in the violent crackdowns that targeted the protests that broke in connection with her passing.

Later in the week, on 19 September, the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control announced another set of sanctions targeting seven individuals and four companies connected to Iran’s UAV program. The companies include one Iranian company, a Russian entity and two Turkish individuals accused of facilitating Iran’s export of UAVs to Russia. The restrictions form an extension to a previous round of sanctions announced in March 2023 when a total of 39 commercial and private entities were subjected over their role in facilitating exports to Russia. A spokesperson for the US State Department, Matthew Miller, reiterated that the US will “continue to use every tool” to disrupt Iran’s efforts to support Russia’s war in Ukraine and that it will work with allies and partners to “hold Iran accountable for its actions.”

The sanctions were as expected met with negative reactions in Tehran, with Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian denouncing the decisions as a “joke”. Prior to the announcement on 19 September, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi again denied that the country is supplying UAVs to Russia for use in Ukraine and reportedly informed members of the press that Iran is “opposed to the war in Ukraine.”  Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting held this week, Raisi added that Iran has offered to mediate in the conflict and reiterated its longstanding position that it is taking a “neutral” position despite the evident expansion in strategic ties with Russia. Two days later, Raisi also urged the US should ease sanctions on Iran if it wants to pursue dialogue over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reiterated that Tehran “has not left the table of negotiations.”

Despite Iran’s repeated denial of providing UAVs to support the war in Ukraine, evidence of Russia’s employment of Iran-manufactured UAVs in the conflict has been well-documented and US officials additionally point to Iranian plans to construct a UAV-manufacturing facility on Russian soil. As discussed in a previous edition of this report, the supply of combat UAVs to Russia appears to form part of a barter agreement between the two sides that involves Russia’s supply of combat fighter jets in exchange – a deal partially implemented recently with the arrival of Russian Yak-130 jets in September.

Nuclear tensions increase after Iranian ban on inspectors
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strongly criticized Iran for imposing travel restrictions on several senior inspectors – restrictions which effectively prevent them from taking part in monitoring the nuclear program. In a statement on 16 September, IAEA Director-General Raphael Grossi deplored the decision to remove one-third of the agency’s “core group” designated to Iran, describing it as an “unnecessary blow to an already strained relationship” between Iran and the agency. Speaking at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on 18 September, Grossi said he wrote a letter to President Raisi asking for a meeting to discuss the issue but that there was no reply. On the same day, the US, France, Germany and the UK also urged Iran to reverse the decision, and warned that failure to cooperate would carry “severe consequences.”

Responding to the accusations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani offered a vague response by citing article 9 of the so-called “Safeguards Agreement” between the IAEA and Iran. The article broadly outlines a set of principles regarding the “rights to governance” which essentially allows Iran to revoke inspector designations but Kanaani, while clarifying the legal grounds of the decision, did not specify why the decision was made to bar the inspectors. In the same remarks however Kanaani criticized the US and European allies for “politicizing” the IAEA and using the institution for “its own political purposes” while emphasizing that Iran maintains a “constructive” engagement with the agency.

While Iranian motives remain speculative, the move is plausibly a response to Germany, the UK, and France’s decision earlier that week to maintain sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program. The move, while expected, was announced during the quarterly meeting of the IAEA, during which the issue of Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA formed a subject of discussion. To recall, Grossi recently implored Iran to re-install monitoring and surveillance equipment at key sites across the country to allow the agency to better monitor the progress of the nuclear program and also requested additional clarification regarding the discovery of Uranium particles found at two undeclared sites. The latest move to bar the inspectors will understandably further set back IAEA-led efforts to verify the progress of the program which has already been severely hampered and is set to raise diplomatic tensions over the nuclear program over the near term. Apart from pushback from Western countries, the issue is also set to emerge as an area of concern for the Gulf states, with the Gulf Cooperation Council joining the West in calling on Iran to immediately cooperate with the IAEA (see Saudi Arabia section below).


Iraq – Iran agreement deadline passes without major incident
According to multiple sources, including the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the process to remove Iranian opposition groups from the KR-I’s border region with Iran is now complete. The announcements come shortly after the previously agreed-upon timeline of 19 September for the completion of the operation and the subsequent departure of armed groups from the border area. The High Committee for the Implementation of the Joint Security Agreement announced that the operation is “completely implemented” thereby “fulfilling Iraq’s commitment to the agreement.”

Since the passing of the deadline, no significant actions have taken place and Iranian officials appear initially satisfied with the removal of opposition groups thus far. Senior officials within the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that “Iranian opposition groups were moved from the Iraqi-Iranian border to inside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region” and that these groups are now present within five unspecified camps. Ten separate headquarters associated with Iranian opposition groups were vacated, according to Jabar Awda, a member of the Coordination Framework, most of which maintained armed wings. Sources did not clarify the locations of the five camps to which opposition groups were moved, though previous reporting from earlier in the week indicates two possible locations that may have been considered by officials, including one near Harir Airbase and another near the Makhmour Refugee Camp. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report.

Turkish UAV strike targeted Arbat Agricultural Airport in Sulaymaniyah province
In a significant escalation in Turkish military activity this week, a UAV strike targeted the Arbat Agricultural Airport in Sulaymaniyah province on 18 September. The Sulaymaniyah-based Counter-Terrorism Directorate confirmed that three of their members were killed and three others wounded as a result and that an investigation was launched to determine the circumstances of the incident.

The attack prompted strong political reactions in the KRG and Baghdad. PUK officials, including Bafel Talabani, condemned the attack and called it a “conspiracy aimed at disturbing the peace and stability of the Kurdistan Region.” Talabani also called on the GoI to protect the airspace and territorial integrity of the KRG. Erbil’s reactions were initially muted, but on 19 September the KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani condemned the “event” in Sulaymaniyah and called for an investigation into the incident. On 20 September, following days of silence, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the incident and, without mentioning its involvement, claimed members of the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG) were training at the airport at the time of the strike. The statement essentially reiterated accusations by Turkey that the PUK is actively assisting and collaborating with PKK-linked elements. It also “confirmed once again the accuracy of the measures we have taken regarding Sulaymaniyah, the people of which are almost taken hostage by the terrorist organization.”  See further details and context provided in the full report (available to subscribers).


Syria and China sign strategic partnership agreement
On 21 September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in China for his first state visit to that country since the start of the Syrian civil war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Assad was scheduled to meet with President Xi Jinping and would attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games – a multi-sport event organized in the city of Hangzhou – alongside other regional leaders. In his meeting with President Jinping on 22 September, the two sides unveiled the formation of a strategic partnership with the two sides reaffirming their mutual support and friendship after years of “friendly cooperation.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated separately that the meeting would bring Syria-Chian relations to a “new level.”

Details regarding the strategic partnership were initially limited and as of writing there are no reports of any written agreements or documents being signed during the visit however additional details may well be released over the coming days. Any institutional engagement between the countries is expected to focus on the Syrian reconstruction, where China has taken an economically significant role by making Syrian part of the so-called Road and Belt Initiative yet significant investments have yet to be made. Over the course of the civil war, China also joined Russia in providing diplomatic support for Syria by vetoing more than ten resolutions proposed in the UN Security Council since the outbreak of the war.

More broadly, the strategic partnership is suggestive of China’s more proactive role in the Middle East and may set conditions for a more overt Chinese presence in Syria over the coming years. For Damascus, the visit underscores its diplomatic re-engagement with significant stakeholders following years of isolation, with the visit plausibly facilitated by Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League and China’s simultaneous engagement with Saudi Arabia and Iran this year.

Israeli operations continue in Syria
In a continuation of activity seen in recent weeks, Israeli operations were again recorded this week in Syria. On 21 September, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) announced that tanks opened fire on two “structures” utilized by the Syrian army near the Golan Heights which the IDF claimed were positioned in violation of a 1974 ceasefire agreement. Neither the Israeli nor the Syrian military provided any further details regarding the use of the structures, however Syrian state-linked sources added that there were no casualties. There were also no apparent responses from the Syrian military following the tank strikes which took place in an area marked as a demilitarized separation zone in the 1974 agreement concluded at the end of the so-called 1973 Yum Kippur War. Both the position of the structures and the tank strikes technically violate the ceasefire agreement, but the absence of Syrian responses indicates a limited risk of escalation and the event appears to have passed without broader repercussions.

Separately, Israeli UAV strikes reportedly targeted two members of a Palestinian faction in Damascus on the same day. According to Syrian and Israeli sources, the precision strike was conducted on the afternoon of 22 September in the Beit Jin suburb of Damascus and killed two individuals riding a motorcycle. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the targets were members of Islamic Jihad – a Palestinian group backed by Iran – however the group released a statement the same day denying that any of its members were killed. Further corroboration is required, but Israeli strikes targeting members of Palestinian factions based in Damascus are reported on a relatively frequent basis and the operation follows airstrikes conducted in the Latakia and Homs provinces the previous week in what formed an assessed escalation in Israeli activity.


Erdogan confirms energy cooperation plans with Israel
Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed to expand energy cooperation soon. Cited by media sources after the meeting, Erdogan notably said the two sides discussed commencing “drilling operations” as well as the construction of “energy transfer networks” between Israel and Europe via Turkey. The president also confirmed that mutual visits would take place in the near future and that energy cooperation would increase after that.

The meeting is the first since Netanyahu’s re-election as prime minister earlier this year and follows the re-establishment of ambassadorial ties in 2021 which were previously severed due to tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu’s return and his government’s hardline position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raised concerns that it would negatively affect relations with Turkey, however the meeting this week underscores that relations have not been affected thus far. The prospects for energy cooperation, including the transportation of Israeli gas via Turkey, have been discussed intermittently in recent years and it remains to be seen if current talks will translate into more tangible progress on the issue.

The plans have in the past generated pushback from Iran-linked factions and are assessed to have contributed to an uptick in Turkey-Iranian tensions in areas where strategic interests converge, such as Iraq and Syria. Related dynamics are therefore important to monitor, as Turkey’s expanding energy relations with Israel may impact its cooperation on the matter with Iran from where a significant portion of Turkey’s gas is imported.


No casualties when gunmen opened fire against US Embassy in Beirut
On 20 September, an unknown assailant opened fire outside the US Embassy compound in Beirut. A spokesperson for the embassy confirmed the shooting but said no casualties or damages were inflicted. The Lebanese security forces responded and launched an investigation, however no motivation or cause for the shooting has been identified as of writing. Prime Minister Najib Mikati addressed the incident and called for a thorough investigation while reassuring US officials that Lebanon is committed to protecting diplomatic entities in the country.

The US Embassy in Beirut has been targeted in the past, most notably in a suicide attack in 1983 that killed approximately 60 individuals and was attributed to Hezbollah. Shortly after that, the mission was relocated from central Beirut to the predominantly Christian suburb of Aukar where it is now located and no significant security incidents have been recorded near the embassy in recent years. The incident is the second to affect diplomatic missions in Lebanon this year after a Molotov cocktail was tossed outside the Swedish Embassy in August. The incident did not cause any casualties and was likely perpetrated by a lone assailant in response to the Quran burnings in Sweden over the summer. Any further details regarding the shooting on 20 September will be provided as available.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince says kingdom will develop nuclear weapon if Iran does so
Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman warned this week that Saudi Arabia would “have to get” a nuclear weapons capability if Iran develops one. Speaking during an hour-long interview with Fox News that touched upon a wide range of regional security topics, the remark was made in response to a question regarding what Saudi Arabia would do in the event Iran develops a nuclear weapon. While largely anticipated, the comment is the first public recognition by Saudi officials that Riyadh would follow Iran in developing the capability as a countermeasure and thus corroborates long-standing proliferation concerns about the regional implications of the Iranian nuclear program. The remarks coincided with the above-noted concerns expressed by the IAEA over Iran’s lack of cooperation with the agency, which was also criticized by the Gulf States this week. In a joint statement released on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) urged Iran to “fully cooperate” with the IAEA and expressed concerns over the decision to bar nuclear inspectors from the country (see above).

Although the Iran-Saudi normalization agreement has produced a reduction in tensions – reflected most notably in the language used by both sides when addressing areas of disagreement – the nuclear program remains a potential source of tensions, which may escalate should the Iranian program start to accelerate. That said, despite continuing monitoring and surveillance limitations, the IAEA concluded in its latest quarterly update that the Iranian program is slowing down based on the level of stockpiled uranium assessed between May and August. This slowdown reduces the outlook for related regional tensions but Bin Salman’s remarks and the GCC statement this week underscore persistent concerns in the region regarding the progress of the program.

US approves $500 million sale to Saudi military as Israeli normalization rhetoric continues
On 21 September, the Biden administration reportedly approved a proposed sale to fund spare and repair parts for the Saudi military worth approximately $500 million. The administration notified the US Congress on the same day, with sources stating that the proposal would enable the military to repair and upgrade its fleet of Abrams and M-60 tanks as well as armored vehicles. The sale was also announced days after the Saudi and US militaries conducted a large-scale military exercise in Riyadh. US military officials described the Red Sands 23.2 as the largest counter-UAV exercise ever, with two additional, similar drills anticipated later this year to boost coordinated US-Saudi capabilities to counter the threat of UAVs and other unmanned aerial systems.

The timing of the sale and the exercise is noteworthy considering remarks made this week by both Israeli and Saudi officials regarding the discussed normalization process. In his interview the day before, Crown Prince Bin Salman said the two sides get “closer every day” and that the negotiations were “serious”. The next day, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said a “framework” for normalization could be in place by next year. The subsequent sale is plausibly linked considering reports that Saudi Arabia, as part of a normalization deal, is demanding US security guarantees and additional military aid. While the proposed sale this week is relatively minor, it may serve as a symbolic gesture to further the process. The exercise this week is also of symbolic importance as a sign of strength in the US-Saudi strategic partnership amidst concerns over Riyadh’s growing ties with Russia and China. Both the US and Saudi governments downplay any negative fallout and refute perceptions of these engagements as a zero-sum game, however the military drills do serve as important gestures of the US’ continued military commitment to the region.


Saudi Arabia and Houthis praise talks in Riyadh but with limited results
The meetings between a delegation of Houthi representatives and Saudi government officials concluded this week without any significant progress but amidst positive rhetoric from both sides. The Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement on 20 September that welcomed “the positive results of the serious discussions regarding reaching a road map to support the peace path” and encouraged efforts to reach a “comprehensive and lasting political solution under the supervision of the UN”. For their part, lead Houthi negotiator Muhammed Abdul-Salam said the two sides held “extensive meetings” to discuss “options and ways” to overcome existing disagreements. Salam added that these “options” will be submitted to the Saudi leadership for further discussions, indicating that additional talks are forthcoming.

While tangible results remain elusive, the meeting is undeniably a significant breakthrough following months of uncertainty and considering the limited, direct engagement between the Houthi and the Saudi sides in recent years. Previous negotiations have almost exclusively been conducted through intermediaries however in a notable deviation this week the delegation met face to face with the Saudi Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman. Other regional stakeholders praised the discussions as well, with a joint CGG-US statement praising Saudi Arabia for the initiative and encouraging Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue. Related repercussions will be monitored closely, but the meetings this week will of course raise expectations for a more significant breakthrough in the Yemen peace process during the coming weeks.

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