Talos Regional Snapshot – 27 May 2023

May 27, 2023



Iran unveils ballistic missile test amidst continued Israel-Iran rhetoric
On 25 May, Iranian state-linked media sources reported that Iran successfully launched a new ballistic missile with a potential range of 2,000 kilometers. The Iranian Defence Ministry said the new “Kheibar” missile is equipped to carry a 1500kg explosive charge with advanced guidance and control systems capable of firing in less than 12 minutes. Unveiled on the 41st anniversary of the Battle of Khorramshahr during the Iran-Iraq war, the launch was broadcast on Iranian state television with Defence Minister Muhammed Resa Ashtiani saying more “achievements” will be unveiled in the near future. Responding to the test, the Spokesperson for the US State Department, Matthew Miller, called the program a “serious threat” and reiterated that Iran’s development of ballistic missiles remains an object of concern. Miller added that the US would continue to impose sanctions on Iran over the program.

The implications of the new missile in terms of Iran’s broader capabilities remain unclear, however the self-described range of 2,000 km exceeds those of previous versions. In February, Iran unveiled a missile with a range of 1,650km and earlier versions with a similar range have been successfully tested according to state-linked sources. That said, it should be noted that Iran in 2015 announced a self-imposed range limit on its ballistic missiles of no more than 2,000km and it is believed that the current arsenal likely contains variants capable of exceeding that range, depending on the weight of the explosive charge.

The ‘Kheibar version’ unveiled this week is reportedly an upgraded version of the Khoramshahr variant which is originally based on Soviet SSN6 and North Korean Musudan (BN25) missiles. Both have been tested at ranges exceeding 3,500km, indicating that the maximum range of the new missile may be significantly higher. Regardless, Iran’s decision to unveil a missile that tests the self-imposed 2,000-kilometer range is a significant statement and is set to escalate concerns over its ballistic program, especially in conjunction with renewed tensions over its nuclear program.

Israeli officials reiterate threats of military action
The missile launch came two days after the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Herzi Halevi reiterated the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. In a speech on 23 May, Halevi warned that Iran’s enrichment of uranium has advanced “further than before” and that “negative developments on the horizon could bring about military action.”

The remarks followed revelations this week regarding the construction of a new underground facility in the vicinity of the Natanz site. According to AP News, citing analysis of satellite imagery, the site is being built near the Zagros Mountain and is located so deep that the US or Israel may struggle to destroy the site if targeted in a military strike. The report in particular claims that the site is beyond the reach of the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (colloquially known as the “bunker buster”) which has a reported capability to strike targets as deep as 60 meters below the surface. Details of the new site near Natanz remain limited but, according to the AP News report, the site is located at least 80 meters underground. Iranian officials have generally refrained from commenting however construction of the facility likely commenced after the suspected-Israeli sabotage operation that targeted the Natanz Facility in 2020 and officials have previously hinted at the construction of a new site capable of withstanding external attacks.

The timing of this latest threat messaging sets conditions for a renewal in regional tensions following the relative lull in Iranian-Israeli hostilities that has prevailed so far during May. Besides rhetoric, there has been a relative absence of direct targeting of Iranian or Israeli assets in the region despite previous concerns of an escalation in response to Israel’s intensification of airstrikes on Iran-linked assets in Syria during the first quarter of this year. Concerns about the nuclear program are likewise expected to increase over the near term in light of the latest developments, raising the possibility of renewed covert operations conducted by Israel.

Iran appoints successor to Ali Shamkhani
On 22 May, the Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, was reportedly removed from his position after more than ten years of service and replaced by Rear Admiral Ali Akbar – a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The reasons for his dismissal remain unclear, with official reporting refraining from providing any details, however multiple Iranian sources claimed the removal followed accusations of corruption. A leak from a recent meeting between Shamkhani and other senior officials purportedly indicated internal friction between the Secretary and other members of the security establishment. The meeting contained, amongst other sentiments, accusations of Shamkhani’s involvement in questionable real estate and shipping affairs that would amount to a misuse of his public position.

The implications of Shamkani’s removal are potentially significant. As the Secretary of the National Security Council, Shamkhani played a key role in formulating and executing the foreign-and defense policies of Iran where the council holds significant constitutional powers. Shamkhani is widely regarded as having played a key role in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and, more recently, Iran’s outreach to the Gulf states that culminated in the Iran-Saudi diplomatic agreement in March. Domestically, Shamkhani was viewed as a relatively pragmatic and balancing figure within the council whose 12 members mostly comprise hardline, conservative figures with close ties to the clerical establishment and Ayatollah Khamenei. The new appointment of Akbar – a former deputy commander of the IRGC Navy – illustrates, by contrast, the increasingly dominant role played by the guards within the political and security establishment of the country. A relatively obscure figure, this may potentially tilt the security council in a more hardline direction following Shamkhani’s departure.


President Assad welcomed at Arab league summit
As discussed in the previous edition of this report, President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 18 May and, for the first time since 2011, attended a session of the Arab League. The President received what was widely seen as a warm welcome by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman who embraced the Syrian President and exchanged pleasantries in a manner that underscored Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of Assad despite US-led opposition. In their speeches at the session, Bin Salman expressed hope that Syria’s return would “end the crisis” and that Riyadh will not allow the region to “turn into a field of conflicts.” For his part, Assad said Syria’s “past, present and future is Arabism” and – in an apparent but veiled reference to Turkey – warned of the dangers of “expansionist Ottoman thought” influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Both statements were designed to capitalize on the aversion shared by Syria and several Arab states about the influence of the Brotherhood.

While most countries echoed Bin Salman’s sentiments, signs of lingering disagreements about Syria’s participation were made evident by the reported departure of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani prior to Assad’s address. The emir arrived in Jeddah in the morning on 19 May but left in the afternoon, shortly before the Syrian President took the stage. To recall, Qatar reiterated its opposition to Syria’s re-entry to the league earlier this month and emphasized that its position on Damascus remains unchanged.

Turkey accelerates return of refugees to Syria
Turkey is accelerating efforts to return Syrian refugees to opposition-held areas in the northwest. On 24 May, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced the launch of a construction project to build 240 thousand houses in the Jarabulus area – a district controlled by Turkish-backed forces near the border with Turkey. The project is reportedly financed partially by Qatar through its development fund. Soylu described the project as part of a “dignified, voluntary safe return” and said he expects the project to be finalized within three years.

The project was announced ahead of the deciding run-off in the presidential election on 28 May as both sides pledge to accelerate the return of Syrian refugees. Since the start of the conflict, some three million Syrian nationals have settled in Turkey, with the majority remaining on so-called “temporary protection” status that makes them subject to a potential forced return. During the elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has notably escalated his rhetoric over the refugees and related pledges to accelerate their return. Likewise, opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu pledged to return “all refugees” in case he wins and is planning, as part of this, to facilitate diplomatic rapprochement with the Assad government.


Turkey to hold second round in presidential election
On 28 May, the second round of the Turkish presidential elections is set to be held after both sides failed to obtain the 50% threshold required for an outright victory (for further analysis of the initial results, see the full Talos report). The week witnessed several significant developments as the two candidates compete to secure the support of other candidates. Sinan Ogan – the far-right candidate who received 5% of the votes in the first round – formally endorsed President Erdogan earlier this week.

For his part, Kemal Kilicdaroglu also secured the support of a far-right leader – Umit Ozdag of the Zafer Party – whose campaign was characterized by strong anti-immigrant and anti-Kurdish sentiments. Ozdag’s support for Kilicdaroglu caused consternation within the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party which expressed support for the opposition leader in the first round. The party held a two-day conference this week to review its support after Ozdag’s announcement and ultimately decided to support Kilicdaroglu nonetheless. Concerns remain however that Kilicdaroglu’s alliance with Ozag will alienate voters in the predominantly Kurdish southeast where some 80% supported Kilicdaroglu in the first round.

Polls continue to predict a close race yet a majority of unofficial polls released this week put Erdogan slightly in the lead ahead of 28 May. A large number of voters remain undecided however and the effects of this latest round of wrangling between candidate sympathies on voter preferences remain difficult to predict.


Second airstrike targets YBS site in Sinjar district
In a related development, Turkish activity against PKK-linked organizations and individuals is assessed to have escalated. For the second time in a week, a Turkish UAV strike targeted an HQ affiliated with the PKK-linked YBS in Sinjar district, western Nineveh province. The KRG Counter-terrorism service stated that three members were killed as a result, while the YBS confirmed the death of one of its members. The strike follows a previously discussed operation on 16 May that struck two sites affiliated with the YJS in the residential Khansour Complex. That strike represented the first conducted inside the district since early March. The 23 May strike thus corroborates elevated Turkish intent to conduct strikes inside federally administered areas and raises the outlook for additional operations over the near term. See full report for further context.

Tensions between residents and Iraqi military at Makhmour Refugee Camp, Nineveh
In a possibly related development, tensions between Iraqi Army elements, and by extension the Government of Iraq (GoI), and residents at the Makhmour Refugee Camp escalated this week amidst apparent efforts by the GoI to convert the camp into a civilian refugee center. While official statements of intent remain limited, the aim is plausibly to limit and thwart PKK activities at the camp as part of a broader effort by the GoI to crack down on the organization. Further context and details are provided in the full report.

Iran continues to pressure GoI over presence of armed groups
Iranian officials continued this week to put pressure on the Government of Iraq (GoI) to disarm and remove Kurdish opposition groups based in the KR-I. In an assessed escalation in rhetoric, Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Esmail Khatib, warned of a “decisive and crushing” response to any border insecurity, echoing the sentiments of the Commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Ground Forces, Mohammad Babkir, who threatened continued cross-border attacks if Iraq failed to “disarm and expel” Kurdish opposition groups. The intelligence minister also reiterated accusations that these groups contributed to smuggling materials used in a suspected Israeli-linked UAV strike on a military facility in January. The remarks follow the summoning of the Iraqi Ambassador to Tehran the previous week during which Iran submitted a formal note of protest, accusing Iraq of failing to implement a recent border security agreement between the two sides.

The assessed escalation in Iranian threat rhetoric is not unprecedented but remains an object of concern. The GoI’s perceived failure to accommodate and alleviate Iranian concerns through signed security agreements may incentivize renewed cross-border attacks as previous operations have been preceded by a similar increase in threat rhetoric from Tehran.

Saudi Arabia

Russian interior minister visits Saudi Arabia shortly after Zelensky visit
On 23 May, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev arrived in Saudi Arabia to meet with senior officials, including his Saudi counterpart Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud in Riyadh. Official readouts were characteristically limited and only noted that the two sides reviewed “ways to enhance security cooperation” and a “number of issues of common interests.”

The visit took place only two days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the Arab League summit session in an attempt to expand regional support for the war against Russia. Zelensky notably appealed for support from member states who “turns a blind eye to Russian aggression” and emphasized the suffering of the Muslim population of Ukraine under the Russian occupation. As cited by Financial Times, Zelensky said “most of those who suffer repression in occupied Crimea are Muslims” – a reference to the roughly 15% of the population of the peninsula who are Muslims. In a move to highlight Russia’s historic repression of its Muslim population, the president was also accompanied by Mustafa Dzhemilev – the President of the Affairs of the Crimean Tatar People and a symbolic leader of resistance to the Soviet Union’s repression of the (Muslim) Tatar people.

The timing of Kolokoltsev’s arrival appears as a Russian attempt to neutralize any effects of Zelensky’s visit yet Saudi Arabia’s engagement with both sides also highlight Saudi Arabia’s attempt to maintain a balanced position on the conflict. Since the start of the war, Riyadh has maintained regular contact with the Ukrainian government while refusing to join Western-backed sanctions against Moscow.

Canada and Saudi Arabia to restore ties
On 24 May, the foreign ministries of Canada and Saudi Arabia announced that the two countries agreed to restore diplomatic and ambassadorial ties after five years. The two sides severed ties in 2018 after the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh called for the immediate release of an arrested women’s rights activist and was expelled from the country as a result. The statements this week said the decision to restore ties followed a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Crown Prince bin Salman at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in December. The Canadian Foreign Ministry announced the appointment of Jean-Philippe Linteau as the new ambassador.

Iran names new ambassador to Saudi Arabia
In a separate but similar development, Iran named Alireza Enayati as its new ambassador to Saudi Arabia this week. Enayati previously served as the ambassador to Kuwait and most recently as the Director General of the Gulf Affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. No date for his installation was mentioned.


US establishes new task force in Persian Gulf
On 22 May, the Bahrain-based fifth US naval fleet announced the establishment of a new task force. Named Combined Task Force (CTF) 154 the force will focus on maritime awareness, maritime law, maritime interdiction, maritime rescue and assistance, and leadership development, as per a statement. The task force is the fifth operational staff established by the US Navy (after CTFs 150-153) and the first exercise of the task force was conducted this week in Bahrain and involved the participation of over 50 partnership nations.

Some media reports framed the establishment of the task force as linked to Iran’s recent activities in the Gulf region, including the recent seizures of two commercial maritime vessels near the Strait of Hormuz. In response, the US State and Defence Departments confirmed that its naval forces would increase its defensive posture in the region, including a series of unspecified moves to “increase coordination and interoperability” with regional partners. To what extent the announcement this week is related remains unclear.

Bahrain and Lebanon to resume diplomatic ties
In a development possibly related to Iran-Saudi reconciliation, the Bahrain Foreign Ministry announced this week that it would restore full diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since 2021. Like most other states in the Gulf Region, Bahrain severed ties with Beirut following remarks made by the former Lebanese Minister of Information, George Kordahi, that criticized Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

The decision this week follows increased interactions between Bahrain and Iranian officials that, combined with the Iran-Saudi conciliation, have fueled speculation of an impending restoration of ties. Considering the presence of Iran-backed factions inside Bahrain and lingering concerns about Iranian influence on these groups, this remains unlikely however the symbolic rapprochement with Lebanon this week is plausibly connected and may act as a first step towards improved ties.


Houthi Movement signs MoU with Chinese oil firm
On 21 May, the Houthi-linked Saba News channel reported that the informal Houthi Ministry of Oil signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Chinese oil firm Anton Oilfield Services Group and the Chinese Government. The MoU reportedly allows the company to conduct oil exploration services inside Houthi-controlled areas of the country. The Houthi Minister of Oil and Minerals, Ahmed Dares, said negotiations are ongoing with other “international oil companies” – presumably Russian and Chinese – to conclude similar agreements. In his statement, Dares also warned foreign companies against signing agreements with the Saudi-backed government, essentially reiterating statements made by the organization in connection with UAV strikes targeting oil tankers last year.

The MoU follows China’s key role in brokering the widely discuss Iran-Saudi agreement and is certainly in line with long-standing Chinese attempts to invest in the Yemeni oil and gas sector. These efforts precede the civil war but were largely abandoned as a result of the conflict, however the agreement signed this week is indicative of Beijing’s intent to utilize recent diplomatic progress on Iran-Saudi relations to pursue economic interests in Yemen. That said, any engagement by China with the Houthi Movement is set to create friction with Saudi Arabia and although the announcement on 21 May did not generate any significant reactions, related dynamics may prove difficult to balance.

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