REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Putin and Khamenei reaffirm Russia-Iranian ties during visit
Like his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin met on 19 July with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei ahead of the tripartite meeting between Iran, Turkey, and Russia in Tehran. Both sides predictably reiterated mutual intent to enhance bilateral relations, with Khamenei expressing support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite deploring the outbreak of the war and the suffering of civilians, Khamenei said “if you had not taken the initiative, the other side would have caused a war”.
The remarks were preceded by claims from US officials that Iran is planning to export UAVs to Russia in support the war in Ukraine. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said separately that Russian officials have visited Iran on several occasions to review Iranian military technology in anticipation of a possible agreement. Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian rejected the allegations, however other Iranian officials, including senior members of the Iranian Army, said last week that Iran is ready to “export army and military technology” to “other countries”, without mentioning Russia.
Russia and Iran expand oil cooperation
In another sign of deepened economic cooperation, the National Iranian Oil Company and Russian state-owned Gazprom announced a preliminary agreement worth approximately $40 billion to expand cooperation. Under the agreement, Gazprom will assist in the development of the Kish and North Pars gas fields, as well as eight other oil fields in Iran. Separately, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov said the two sides are finalizing an extension of a Russia-Iran cooperation agreement – a document dating back to the early 2000s and the extension of which has been discussed repeatedly by both sides over the previous year.
Iran announces arrest of purported Israeli intelligence cell
On 23 July, Iranian state-linked sources claimed a group linked to the Israeli intelligence service Mossad was dismantled in a series of operations across the country. The report said the group entered Iran from a Kurdish-majority area located in an unspecified neighboring country – a likely reference to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A large number of explosives, weapons, and communications equipment were also reportedly seized, as the group purportedly plotted sabotage operations against sensitive sites, likely linked to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel refrained from directly commenting on the operation.
Iran, Russia, and Turkey discuss Astana peace process in Tehran
Meeting in Tehran on 19 July, the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran reaffirmed their commitment to the Astana peace process – a tripartite dialogue organized by the three countries in 2017 and complementary to the UN-led peace process. The meeting failed to produce any significant breakthrough, as expected, but a joint statement was issued in which the three sides pledged to continue the dialogue. See separate report.
Separately, in another assessed setback for the already stalled UN-led peace process, a planned round of negotiations between government and opposition representatives in Geneva on 25 July was canceled. UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen expressed regret that the talks were “not possible” after the Syrian Government suddenly opposed holding the talks in Switzerland. Pedersen indicated that the government no longer considers Geneva a “neutral venue” given Switzerland’s support for EU-led sanctions on Syria.
Khamenei urges Turkey to refrain from military operation in northern Syria
The Astana dialogue was largely overshadowed by bilateral meetings held in the lead-up to the tripartite meeting. In a face-to-face discussion with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly urged Turkey not to launch another incursion into northern Syria – the strongest statement from Iran yet on the possible operation that has been rumored for several months. For his part, Erdogan reiterated the need to expel ‘terrorist’ elements in the country as justification for continued Turkish military activities. See further context provided in the full report.
On the same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Tehran to meet with counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian. According to Iranian state-linked media, the two sides reviewed the outcome of the Astana talks, with both sides emphasizing the need to protect Syrian sovereignty and to expel US presence.
Three Syrian soldiers killed in Israeli airstrike
On 22 July, at least three Syrian Army soldiers were killed and seven injured by Israeli airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus. Other reports indicated a higher death toll. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the airstrikes targeted Iran-linked facilities used for the manufacturing and storage of weaponized UAVs and Syrian Army facilities south of Damascus. The operations were notably condemned by Iran, as another “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty. The previous week, the statement issued in connection with the Astana meeting in Tehran included a point condemning Israeli activities in Syria, further underscoring Russia’s increasingly public stance against Israeli operations.
Diplomatic tensions between Iraq and Turkey escalate following deadly artillery strike
On 20 July, nine civilians were killed when a suspected Turkish artillery strike impacted a tourist resort in Duhok province. The strike was widely condemned by the Government of Iraq (GoI) and this week a formal complaint was launched to the UN Security Council demanding an immediate end to Turkish military presence in the country. Turkey continues to deny involvement and attributes the incident to the PKK, resulting in a public diplomatic dispute between the two sides. The UNSC condemned the attack but stayed clear of taking sides and has refrained from directly blaming Turkey for the incident.
Associated tensions produced an increase in attacks against Turkish military and diplomatic sites in Iraq this week. This included most notably a mortar attack targeting the Turkish consulate in Mosul and UAV and rocket attacks targeting Turkish military bases. In Baghdad, protesters gathered outside the Turkish Embassy to denounce the 20 July strike, with related tensions remaining elevated.
Sadrist protesters breach International Zone and enter parliament building in Baghdad
On 27 July, following a large-scale demonstration on Tahrir Square, Sadrist followers breached the perimeter of the International Zone in central Baghdad and entered the Iraqi Parliament building. The breach occurred to denounce the nomination of former Minister of Labor Shi’a al-Sudani by the Iran-aligned Coordination Framework earlier in the week. The Sadrists view al-Sudani as a front figure for former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the nomination intensified the longstanding dispute between Sadr and Maliki, with events on 27 July marking a significant escalation. See full report.
Rocket attack targeting gas field in Sulaymaniyah
On 25 July, three 107mm rockets were launched towards the Khor Mor gas field – a field operated by UAE-based energy firms Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum. No casualties were inflicted but the impact caused bush fires in the vicinity. Dana Gas announced that operations would not be impacted at the field which was targeted on three occasions by suspected Iran-linked factions earlier in June. Later in the week, on 27 July, Peshmerga forces announced the discovery of a truck mounted with rockets in the vicinity. See the full report here.
President Biden visits region to reassure allies
On 16 July, US President Joe Biden arrived as scheduled in Israel for a three-day visit to the region, with later stops in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. A brief summary of the key takeaways and significant developments of the visit is provided here, but overall the visit did not result in any drastic or unexpected announcements.
The trip was widely expected to focus on Iran, including assessed US/Israeli-led efforts to promote greater security cooperation between regional stakeholders, including Israel and the Gulf States. Despite widespread agreement on the need to counter the Iranian nuclear program and other activities, the rhetoric employed during the trip illustrates significant differences between Israel, the US, and the Gulf States – differences that underscore divergent interests and the limitations in efforts to promote security cooperation against Tehran. See the full report here.
Bin Salman and Putin reaffirmed energy cooperation in phone call
On 21 July, days after President Biden’s departure from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss further Russian-Saudi cooperation on energy security. A brief statement issued by the Kremlin said the two sides discussed and underlined the importance of further cooperation within the OPEC+, and noted “with satisfaction” that the countries are fulfilling their obligations to maintain the necessary balance and stability in the global energy market.”
The timing of the phone call is significant following President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia which was, in part, seen as an effort to incentivize Riyadh to reduce its overall cooperation with Russia. No such assurances were publicly obtained, however, and the phone call on 21 July suggests the Saudi partnership with Russia was not significantly affected by Biden’s visit. See the full report.
Bin Salman in Greece and France. In his first visit to a EU country since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Bin Salman arrived in Greece on 26 July to meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and attend the signing of several bilateral investment and defense agreements. Bin Salman then proceeded to visit France where he met with President Emmanuel Macron on 28 July. Further to President Biden’s meeting, the trip is widely seen as an effort to restore bin Salman’s image in the West following the relative isolation that followed the Khashoggi killing.