Talos Regional Snapshot – 26 November 2022

Nov 27, 2022



Iran accelerates enrichment at Fordow facility
On 22 November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran began enriching uranium at 60% purity at the Fordow nuclear facility. The step was initially announced by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Muhammed Eslami who also confirmed plans to install additional IR6 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility. The IAEA also warned that Iran is planning to significantly increase the production of low-enriched uranium at Fordow and to expand the Natanz facility with an additional building.

The AEOI and Iranian officials framed the latest steps as retaliation for a resolution adopted last week by the IAEA that called for Iran’s cooperation regarding the discovery of nuclear particles at three undeclared sites in the country. A previous Iranian demand to drop the investigation was denied by the US and other western countries earlier this year, contributing to the subsequent stalemate in negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The IAEA expressed concerns about the move which was also condemned in a joint statement by Germany, France and the UK as a “challenge to the global non-proliferation system.” A senior White House official said the US is monitoring the situation and remains “deeply concerned” about the development. While Iran reported breaching the 60% enrichment level threshold earlier this year, the acceleration of activities at the Fordow facility remains a concern as the facility is located underground and therefore plausibly protected from a preventive strike.

US Navy investigation concludes strike on vessel involved Iranian UAV
On 22 November, the US Navy said an investigation into last week’s UAV strike on an Israeli-linked vessel off the coast of Oman, involved an Iranian-made Shahed-136 variant. The investigation was reportedly based on a thorough examination of the debris from the attack and confirmed initial suspicions of the involvement of the Shahed-136 which is the same UAV employed by Russia in Ukraine. Iran continues to deny any involvement.

In a related development, CENTCOM Commander Michael Kurilla reiterated plans to deploy Task Force 59, comprising “more than 100 unmanned surface and subsurface vessels”, over the coming year in the Persian Gulf in order to safeguard maritime traffic. The task force was established in September 2021 in response to a series of Iranian-linked strikes against maritime vessels in the gulf region, and Kurilla’s remarks came in response to concerns about a resumption of Iranian strikes against commercial maritime interests.

For their part, Iranian officials continue to praise advancements in the country’s UAV capabilities and other domestic military technological achievements. Shahram Irani, Commander of the Iranian Navy, said the navy will soon unveil “new” domestically built attack helicopters and UAVs with an operational range of more than two thousand kilometers. Irani added that Iran plans to hold a military exercise in the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean “in the coming days”, yet it remains to be seen if the exercise will reveal additional UAV capabilities.

Iran escalates response to protesters in Kurdistan province
In a significant escalation, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deployed helicopters, military vehicles and troops to suppress protesters in the Kurdistan province this week, with social media images and other reports indicating at least four people were killed in subsequent clashes. According to video footage circulating on social media, armed troops deployed heavy weapons to confront protesters in the city of Mahabad, days after senior IRGC commanders and conservative commentators called for a harsher response to the protests. A subsequent escalation was reported as the unrest spread to other cities in the province, with human rights groups claiming a dozen casualties resulted. The IRGC confirmed an increase in troop presence in the province while state-linked sources claimed the IRGC engaged “terrorist elements.”

Iran conducts cross-border strikes against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I)
Relatedly, beginning on 21 November, the IRGC conducted multiple strikes against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups in different areas of the KR-I as part of responses to the civil unrest in Iran.  These actions occurred one week after a similar set of strikes on 14 November.  Casualties were likewise very moderate, with only one fatality reported and, with the exception of a strike affecting an area north of Erbil city, most of the areas affected were previously targeted.  Consistent with previous statements, Iranian officials alleged that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Government of Iraq (GoI) failed to implement purported commitments pertaining to the prevention of relevant threats against Iran and that the GoI had been warned about the operations prior to the 21 November strikes. Further context is provided in the full report.


GoI to deploy security forces along borders with Turkey and Iran
In response to the Turkish and Iranian cross-border operations, Prime Minister Muhammed al-Sudani chaired a meeting within the National Security Council (NSC) this week to discuss ways to prevent future operations. Earlier in the week, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and the KRG both condemned the operations as unacceptable violations of Iraq’s territorial integrity, however the statements initially refrained from discussing any countermeasures. A statement issued after the NSC meeting said a four-point agreement was reached which included plans to reinforce Iraq border forces and secure necessary financial, logistical, and personnel support for these forces.

The outcome of the 23 November meeting was consistent with several other recent statements from GoI and KRG officials discussing aspirations to enhance border security measures and air defense capabilities in response to the recent operations. It remains to be seen if these emerging initiatives will progress from planning to decisive implementation. Further context is provided in the full report.

Iraq says efforts to promote Iran-Saudi dialogue continue
On 23 November Foreign Ministry officials announced that Iraq continues to promote dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Spokesperson Ahmed al-Sahhaf said Iraq is working to promote a “strategic partnership” between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce regional tensions, and that negotiations are currently ongoing under Iraqi “supervision”.

The Iranian-Saudi dialogue commenced in early 2021 and was largely facilitated by the previous government under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. In October, various reports indicated the Saudi government discontinued the talks following the change in government in Baghdad, allegedly citing Prime Minister Sudani’s close ties to Iran. Other contributing factors assessed to complicate dialogue are the protests in Iran and related accusations in Tehran of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in instigating the unrest. Iraqi officials have repeatedly denied that the change in government would affect the talks, however, there has been a visible lack of progress since the fifth and later dialogue was held.


Turkish airstrikes target al-Hol camp and other areas of northern Syria in response to 13 November IED attack
On the evening of 23 November, according to media reports citing officials of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), at least two Turkish airstrikes targeted security forces guarding the al-Hol camp in Hasakah province, northeastern Syria. The camp hosts several thousand IS members and families, and is controlled by the SDF, which includes the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and other PKK-affiliated groups. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) described scenes of chaos in the aftermath of the strikes as internal security forces struggled to contain prisoners attempting to flee the camp. The spokesperson for the SDF Farhad Sami said some IS members were able to escape and that a search operation was launched in response to track down the fugitives. A statement by the SDF later claimed eight members of the security forces were killed in the airstrike.

Earlier in the week, the Turkish military launched Operation Claw-Sword, which comprised airstrikes against the PKK and YPG affiliates in areas of northern Syria and northern Sulaymaniyah province.  Dozens of casualties were initially reported, including a number of Syrian civilians and Syrian military personnel. The Turkish government claimed that the operation was conducted in retaliation to the 13 November IED attack in Istanbul.  While the operation was said to encompass both Iraq and Syria, the strikes in Iraq were relatively moderate, with Syria comprising the primary focus during the initial strikes and follow-on activity. Further details and context is provided in the full report. 

The airstrikes this week coincided with renewed threat rhetoric from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding a more significant ground incursion in northern Syria. Prior to the al-Hol operation, the president reportedly told members of the AK Party that a ground operation will be launched and that the current airstrikes are “just the beginning.” The President added that the operation will be launched “when it is most convenient” and that it would target the regions of Kobani, Manbij and Tel Rifaat – all areas associated with strong YPG presence. Associated developments will be monitored closely, but similarly veiled threats of an impending operation have been expressed repeatedly by Erdogan since spring. The US urged de-escalation and multiple reports indicate Russian efforts to discourage a ground incursion.


IRGC officer killed by roadside IED near Damascus while Israeli airstrikes target Iran-linked facilities
On 22 November, according to Iranian state-linked media and other sources, a member of the IRGC aerospace division was killed when a roadside IED detonated south of Damascus. The officer’s guard was also killed in the explosion which took place in the suburb of Zayyida Einad. A statement by the IRGC accused Israel of being behind the assassination and said the “Zionist regime” will receive a “strong response.”

Separately, according to Syrian state-linked sources, Israeli airstrikes targeted several positions in central and coastal areas of Syria on the morning of 19 November. The statement added that the strikes were conducted by fighter jets and that four Syrian army soldiers were killed and one wounded as a result. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and other opposition-linked sources added that the strikes targeted military facilities associated with Iranian-backed militias in the provinces of Homs and Hama, with several weapons and ammunition storage depots destroyed as a result. The airstrikes also targeted a Syrian Army air defense battery in Latakia province. As usual, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) did not comment on the airstrikes or the assassination in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and UAE deny discussion of oil production cuts
Saudi and UAE officials denied reports circulating this week that a potential production cut was discussed within the OPEC+. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal on 21 November, the alliance is considering an increase in production levels by 500 thousand barrels/day ahead of the next meeting scheduled for 4 December, however, the UAE Energy Minister Suhail Mohamed al-Mazrouei denied that Abu Dhabi is involved any such discussions. Likewise, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman was quoted by the Saudi News Agency saying “OPEC+ does not discuss any decisions ahead of meetings.” The initial report by the Wall Street Journal prompted an initial increase in oil prices by five dollars/barrel however the price was quickly restored after the Saudi and UAE statements.


Qatar and China sign 27-year gas agreement
On 21 November, the Qatar News Agency reported that state-owned QatarEnergy signed a 27-year gas export agreement with Chines counterpart Sinopec. The agreement stipulates the provision of four million tons of liquified natural gas per year until 2049. The value of the agreement was not specified by either side however the deal is a significant statement of Chinese intent to expand economic and energy ties in the Gulf region. In August, Sinopec signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Aramco and in October, Chinese officials met with Saudi and UAE counterparts to discuss ways to further strengthen energy cooperation. European countries have likewise expressed interest in forging closer energy ties with Qatar as part of an effort to reduce dependence on Russian imports, however no major agreements have yet been signed. The deal may increase pressure on European countries to sign a similar agreement.


Houthi UAV strike targets oil terminal in southern Yemen for the third time since truce expiration
On 23 November, an explosive-laden UAV targeted the al-Dhabba Ash Shihr oil terminal in Hadhramaut province, southern Yemen. According to media reports citing workers employed at the terminal, the strike impacted the entrance of the terminal and took place as an oil tanker entered the terminal to load crude oil. The vessel was later identified as the “Pratika” – a Panama-flagged tanker that reportedly arrived from Singapore and was set to deliver to the EU. The vessel left the port in response to the attack however there were no reports of casualties or damage to the vessel. Any damage to the oil terminal were likewise not discussed but cannot be ruled out. Further context is provided in the full report.

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