Talos Regional Snapshot – 24 June 2023

Jun 24, 2023



Saudi Foreign Minister hails positive talks during visit to Tehran
In a visit marked by positive rhetoric from both sides, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince bin Faisal bin Farhan al Saud arrived in Tehran on 17 June to meet with his counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian and other senior Iranian officials, including President Ibrahim Raisi. Striking a conciliatory tone, Amirabdollahian praised the re-establishment of ties between the two countries and said Iran has “never equated security with militarism”. For his part, Prince Faisal stressed that “mutual respect and non-interference” will be key components to their bilateral relationship moving forward. The Saudi Foreign Minister also said work is ongoing to reopen diplomatic missions in the country, amidst speculations that a date for the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran would be announced during the visit.

The visit is the first by a Saudi foreign minister to Iran since diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 and constitutes a significant, symbolic step despite several meetings held between the two since diplomatic ties were restored in March. The content of the discussions was characteristically limited but revolved around mutual pledges to expand cooperation in several areas, including trade, maritime security, and even “reducing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” – as per an official readout. The last point is understandably sensitive amidst established concerns in Saudi Arabia about the progress of Iran’s nuclear weapons and may hint at Saudi involvement in promoting the discussed resumption of negotiations between Iran and the West.

The outcome of any such efforts by Saudi Arabia remains to be seen but would certainly be consistent with a more dialogue-based approach adopted by Riyadh to resolve regional issues since the departure of the Trump administration. Optimistic rhetoric aside, it will likely take time for both sides to overcome years of distrust and rapprochement remains in its early stages. A more likely area of cooperation is economic, with both sides expressing hopes that the détente will yield financial and trade benefits. Earlier in the week, Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid al-Fatih expressed optimism that Saudi companies will establish ties with Iran while Tehran recently said it wants to achieve an annual bilateral trade worth $1 billion with Saudi Arabia. This is initially assessed as optimistic considering US sanctions, yet underscored the level of ambition currently underpinning current rapprochement efforts.

Iranian and EU officials met in Qatar to discuss nuclear negotiations
Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Khan – who also acts as the lead negotiator in discussions with the West – met with EU mediator Enrique Mora this week in Qatar to discuss “negotiations on sanctions lifting”, as per a statement by Khan. Mora also confirmed the meeting and described the talks as “intense” but said the discussions included a “way forward on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” Further details of the content of the meetings were not provided, as the discussions remain subject to limited reporting considering political sensitivities. That said, various media sources citing informed but anonymous officials described the talks as “positive” and optimistically noted progress was achieved on several issues.

Notably, Khan also confirmed this week that prior to his meeting with Mora, he held discussions with French, German and British officials in the UAE last week. This highlights the increasing involvement of the EU and UK in current discussions, yet there are no indications of significant Russian and Chinese involvement.

The involvement of Russia and China – the two other signatures of the JCPOA – is likely necessary for diplomatic efforts to progress to a more advanced stage. To recall, the last round of negotiations largely involved a form of shuttle diplomacy whereby European, Russian and Chinese officials mediated between Iranian and US diplomats as the Iranian side refused to engage directly with US counterparts. Considering current tensions with Russia, a similar diplomatic exercise may be difficult to replicate should formal negotiations resume. That said, recent reports of meetings between US and Iranian counterparts indicate more direct diplomatic talks may be forthcoming, which would likely facilitate a process US officials repeatedly described as frustrating and that may have contributed to the inability to reach a final conclusion.

Foreign Minister Abdollahian visits Qatar and Oman
Signs of progress on the JCPOA-related talks were also illustrated by Foreign Minister Abdollahian’s visit this week to Qatar and Oman – two countries that played a key role in facilitating previous discussions. In Qatar, the foreign minister reportedly met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and other senior officials, with readouts suggesting the two generically discussed “regional developments” and “bilateral relations” with few additional details. Information surrounding Amirabdollahian’s visit to Oman was likewise vague, yet the timing is noticeable given Oman’s recent role in hosting Iranian and US officials to discuss the JCPOA. Iranian media reports later claimed the visit secured an Omani-led agreement to unfreeze Iranian funds currently held in South Korea. So far, the agreement has not been confirmed officially but would constitute a significant part of a broader initiative to ease sanctions on Iran.

Regardless of the limited content of the meetings, the tour this week is indicative of serious Iranian intent to promote the talks and a new agreement with the West appears to be increasingly aligned with broader Iranian interests to boost the economy. According to the World Bank, medium-term GDP growth is expected to be moderate and the economy, boosted by high oil prices, has adapted relatively well to international sanctions, however, the removal of sanctions would yield a projected growth outlook that is “significantly stronger” than current estimates. Considering various macroeconomic concerns that continue to affect the economy, including inflation, oil price vulnerability, and volatile domestic demand, sanctions relief would undeniably provide a significant boost for the government which may incentivize current re-engagement efforts.

That said, the government continues to downplay the need for international sanctions relief and President Raisi reiterated this week the need to build an Iranian economy that is “immune” to international sanctions. Such rhetoric is understandably framed for domestic consumption primarily, but is also intended to project a position of leverage in any talks with the West.

IRGC soldier reportedly killed during clashes with PJAK near KR-I border
Clashes between Iranian security forces and Kurdish opposition groups continued to be reported intermittently this week in Iran’s northwestern region. On 16 June, a soldier from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was reportedly killed during a skirmish with the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) in Mariwan, Kurdistan province, near the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I). This clash was part of a series of broader conflicts between PJAK and Iranian forces in Kurdistan province, resulting in the mountainous Kosalan region near Mariwan being declared a restricted military area. Hengaw, a human rights monitor, reported that Iran recently established a new military base in the area, though further confirmation is not available. Since its foundation in 2003, PJAK has fought numerous battles with the IRGC in western Iran, resulting in a purported 300 PJAK fatalities, according to data provided by senior PJAK member Ahvand Chiako.

To recall, Iranian forces launched a security operation in the region the previous week targeting separatist elements near the border with the KR-I. This followed reports in May regarding Iranian troop deployments that fueled speculation and concerns of renewed cross-border strikes targeting separatist elements based in Iraq. Further developments since the death of the IRGC member on 16 June have been limited yet these tensions remain important to monitor, with limited strikes near the international border, or more targeted responses against PJAK personnel or facilities inside Iraqi territory assessed as possible.


UAV strike targets PKK members in northeast Syria
The Turkish military continued this week to conduct airstrikes against PKK-linked targets in northern Syria, following on from the elevated activity levels discussed the previous week. Most notably, a UAV strike in northeastern Syria highlighted continued Turkish intent to conduct precision strikes against PKK targets. The operation was conducted in the vicinity of Qamishli, Hasakah province, on 20 June and targeted a vehicle transiting between the villages of Bayandour and Tal Sha’er. Initial reports identified at least four fatalities and one wounded, however members of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – also known as Rojava – confirmed that two members of the administration were killed. The strike followed recent claims by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) regarding an observed increase in Turkish airstrike activity in northern Syria following President Erdogan’s re-election. A continuation of similar operations is to be expected over the near term in SDF-controlled areas.

Astana talks end without progress on Syria-Turkey normalization
The airstrike in northern Syria also coincided with the start of the so-called Astana talks in Kazakhstan on the same day – a quadripartite forum involving officials from Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia – where the subject of Turkish force presence on Syrian territory formed a focal point of the discussions. To recall, officials on both sides have gradually signaled intent to normalize ties under Russian mediation, however the meeting this week on 19 June marked a noticeable setback as Syrian officials adopted a hardline stance on the issue of Turkish troop presence.

Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan made it clear that ties with Ankara could not be restored unless Turkey “fully withdraws” its forces from Syrian territory. The statement is consistent with the position adopted by Damascus since the start of Turkey’s cross-border operations, yet is incompatible with President Erdogan’s simultaneous pledge to maintain troops until all “terrorist elements” have been removed. Russian, Iranian, and Turkish officials struck a more optimistic note and said “progress on normalization was achieved” during the talks, however further details regarding the progress were not provided.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Kazakh government announced a day after the summit that it will stop holding the talks in the future, adding that the process “fulfilled” its mission. A statement by the Foreign Ministry pointed to the “creation of de-escalation zones, ending the bloodshed and reducing the number of casualties” as goals achieved during the format which started in 2016 and included 20 sessions in total. The Astana-led forum was initially seen as an initiative led by Russia and Turkey to manage differences over Syria and was conducted in parallel to the largely failed UN-led Geneva negotiations, with some viewing the talks as a direct rival to the so-called Geneva track.

The decision announced on 21 June took participants by surprise, and Russian officials said the move was completely unexpected. Similar talks involving Iran, Russia, Syria and Turkey are expected to continue however, with a view to deconflict interests, yet the new venue of forthcoming talks remains to be confirmed.


Putin to visit Turkey as NATO enlargement is delayed
Russian news agencies citing a spokesperson for the Kremlin reported this week that President Vladimir Putin will “soon” visit Turkey and meet with his counterpart Erdogan. No date for the visit was specified but the trip would be President Putin’s first to a NATO country since the invasion of Ukraine and the first meeting with Erdogan since his re-election in May. The visit also comes as Turkey continues to stall Sweden’s admittance into NATO, with President Erdogan last week suggesting that the Swedish government should not expect to join the alliance “any time soon.” The upcoming visit underscores Erdogan’s intent to continue to balance relations between Russia and NATO, and utilize Turkey’s leverage as a NATO member to extract concessions from both sides.

The planned meeting is also noteworthy in light of the previously discussed death of a Russian soldier in Syria and associated attempts to find a more permanent political solution to the situation in northern Syria, where Russia continues to act as a primary mediator. Turkey continues to deny reports that the soldier was killed in a Turkish artillery strike while the Russian side has refrained from commenting on the incident with a view to downplaying any negative fallout.


Iraqi and Turkish officials resume talks on oil exports
A delegation of Turkish energy officials met with Iraqi and KRG counterparts this week to discuss the resumption of oil exports via the Turkish Ceyhan pipeline which remain suspended following the Paris Court of Arbitration ruling in March. The meeting was subject to limited reporting and the content of the meeting was not publicly revealed, however the sides evidently failed to reach an agreement to restart exports. Informed sources cited by media reports noted lingering disagreements regarding the implication of the court ruling, including on the issue of paying Iraqi claims of outstanding revenues and other “technical issues” that required negotiations at a higher political level.

The talks on 19 June are the first significant negotiations taking place between the GoI and Turkey following the Turkish general elections and, while disagreements remain, will raise hopes of a breakthrough. A day after the meeting, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani arrived in Ankara to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and while details were generic, the meeting is widely expected to have focused on the issue. The resumption of exports is likely to remain a matter of priority for the GoI in light of the latest talks.

Cabinet approves date for provincial elections
On 20 June, the office of Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani announced that the cabinet set 18 December as the date to hold provincial elections. Parliament earlier set the date for 6 November, however the new timeline is necessary to allow additional time for preparations. The local elections will be the first held since 2013 and encompass 15 out of 18 provinces, excluding the KR-I provinces.

The day before the cabinet announcement, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) also stated that the timeline for political parties to register participation in the elections will be between 1 and 30 July. On the same day, rumors circulated that the Sadrist Movement may return to the political scene after its withdrawal from parliament last year, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s self-imposed political exile prior to the government formation. Media reports citing an anonymous but senior source within the movement claimed on 19 June that it is considering participation in the provincial elections, however this was subsequently denied by other members. Speculations on the matter are expected to continue over the near term as the deadline for registration nears.

Clashes between two Komala factions in Sulaymaniyah
On 22 June, reports emerged of a conflict between two out of three factions of the Komala Party – an Iran-based social-democratic Kurdish group designated as a terrorist entity by Iran – in the Sulaymaniyah province. The violence erupted at the party headquarters in Zargwez village, south of Sulaymaniyah city, and involved two separate factions of the party following internal disagreements. Further details are provided in this report.

Saudi Arabia

US negotiating Israeli and Saudi demands over normalization
According to a report by the New York Times, the Biden administration has accelerated efforts over the past few months to promote the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia – a subject mentioned intermittently since the 2020 Abrams Accords but without signs of a breakthrough. According to the report, the US is engaged in complex negotiations between the two sides and the article, citing various unnamed officials and sources, shed additional light on the demands involved in order for an agreement to be reached.

Demands from the Saudi side reportedly revolve around various security guarantees from the US, including a guarantee of defense in the event of a military attack and reduced restrictions on US arms sales. More importantly, Riyadh seeks a partnership that would allow it to pursue a nuclear program. While intended for civilian purposes, the program would essentially afford Saudi Arabia the capability to develop a nuclear deterrent should Iran develop nuclear weapons. The last point directly contradicts a simultaneous Israeli demand that the US must not allow a Saudi nuclear program in line with its long-standing policy of preventing a nuclear arms race in the region.

Notably, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be relatively insignificant, as Saudi Arabia appears willing to compromise on its long-standing policy that conditions normalization with Israel on the creation of a Palestinian state. The hard-line government in Tel Aviv has essentially ruled out a two-state solution yet the Biden administration is reportedly insisting that some measures are made towards the Palestinians in the event of normalization. That said, considering the zero-sum nature of the demands expressed over the nuclear program, a diplomatic rapprochement appears unlikely. An agreement would nominally benefit both sides – especially Israel considering the current turmoil facing the country – yet the negotiations remain complex.

Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman must also contend with a negative public opinion which, while lacking institutional power to affect governance, is not insignificant considering the strong anti-Israeli sentiments prevailing in Saudi Arabia, like much of the Gulf. While the UAE’s normalization appears to have proceeded without significant popular pushback, weekly protests are still being reported in Bahrain where segments of society remain strongly opposed to the Israeli government. The current flareup in Israeli-Palestinian tensions remains a factor in this context and may inject a level of caution in Riyadh as the negotiations continue.

Crown Prince Bin Salman in France to promote World Expo bid
Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman arrived in France on 16 June to meet with President Emmanuel Macron and other senior French leaders. The meeting with Macron focused on several issues, including the war in Ukraine and the situation in Lebanon, however multiple sources identified the visit as an effort to promote Riyadh’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo. Spending a week in France, Bin Salman also met with several influential business leaders and attended the Summit for a New Global Financing Part in Paris – an event hosted by President Macron.

Beyond promoting Saudi Arabia’s bid for the World Expo, the visit is also seen as an attempt by Bin Salman to re-establish ties with Western leaders following the years of relative isolation that followed the killing of Saudi-US journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its continued energy cooperation with Russia despite the war in Ukraine. Addressing criticism waged by human rights groups over the visit, the French government noted Saudi Arabia’s evolving position on human rights issues while Macron framed the visit as an effort to promote dialogue around regional issues.

Notably, the two sides stressed the need to find a solution to the “institutional political vacuum in Lebanon” where France retains significant political influence. While no significant breakthrough was achieved on this matter, the visit is plausibly indicative of growing French-Saudi cooperation over Lebanon.


UAE and Qatar to reopen embassies
On 19 June, Qatar and UAE announced the reopening of their embassies and consulates, while the foreign ministers of the two countries spoke on the phone to congratulate the full restoration of diplomatic relations. The statements did not specify whether the missions are open to the public and no new ambassadors were named, however the statements were expected following announcements earlier this year that the two sides would restore ties. Saudi Arabia and the US both welcomed the move as a sign of strength and a positive step in terms of promoting “regional stability”.

To recall, relations were severed during the (predominantly Saudi-led) boycott of Qatar in 2017 that ended in early 2021 however, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were slow to fully re-engage with Qatar amidst continued foreign policy disagreements and other disputes. This year, Bahrain – closely aligned with the UAE on foreign policy – also proceeded to restore ties despite lingering concerns about Qatar’s relationship with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and an existing maritime dispute still pending resolution.


Kuwait appoints new government
On 18 June, the Emir of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah announced the formation of a new government led by Prime Minister Ahmed al-Sabah – the Emir’s son who was reinstated in the position. The government is Kuwait’s fifth in less than a year and follows snap elections held on 6 June in another attempt to break the political stalemate between the government and parliament. As discussed, MPs aligned with the loosely defined opposition retained a majority of seats in parliament and while the government contains a few new additions – notably Oil Minister Saad al-Barak who replaces Bader al-Mulla – it is not expected to fundamentally shift the political dynamics in the country which are expected to remain characterized by opposition between the government and parliament.


China and Qatar signs new LNG agreement
QatarEnergy and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) announced a new large gas supply agreement on 20 June. The 27-year deal includes the purchase of four million metric tons of liquified natural gas (LNG) each year and affords CNPC a stake in the eastern expansion of the North Field LNG project. Both sides hailed the agreement as a step to enhance relations and expand energy cooperation over the coming decades.

A nearly identical deal was signed by the two sides in November 2022 that likewise extends over a 27-year period, and involves the sale of four million metric tons of LNG annually. Despite holding talks with European counterparts, the two agreements consolidates China’s dominant position in the Qatari-led LNG market amidst efforts in Europe to find alternative energy sources and relieve its dependence on Russian exports. Further to the Iran-Saudi agreement signed in March under Chinese mediation, the deal also underscores China’s growing economic footprint in the region.

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