Talos Regional Snapshot – 3 June 2023

Jun 3, 2023



Iran clarifies highly enriched uranium particles
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran resolved two outstanding requests pertaining to the discovery of uranium particles enriched at near-weapons grade level. According to AP News, a confidential report by the agency said it evaluated the data and assessed that “the information provided (by Iran) was not inconsistent with Iran’s explanation.” The report added that the agency had no further questions on the matter at this stage.

To recall, the issue addressed relates to the discovery of “man-made uranium” particles enriched at 83.7% in the vicinity of the Fordo research facility earlier this year. This is close to the 90-percent enrichment level required for weapons-grade material and understandably sparked concerns about Iranian intent as well as a significant acceleration in the nuclear program. Concerns were amplified by Iran’s simultaneous reluctance to fully cooperate with the IAEA, however officials in Tehran attributed the discovery to unintentional “fluctuations” in enrichment levels that form a natural part of the process. The relatively low levels of uranium discovered seemed consistent with this explanation, yet the IAEA has since requested more data to clarify the matter.

The report this week will temporarily reduce pressure on Iran and is possibly indicative of Iranian intent to restart negotiations with the West. Regardless, concerns about the nuclear program are expected to continue as the IAEA’s monitoring capabilities remain restricted. In a limited but positive sign, the agency also confirmed this week that some monitoring cameras have been re-installed at a facility in Isfahan that is used for the production of advanced centrifuges. The same report described the amount of equipment currently in place as a “fraction” of the level required to confidently assess the progress of the nuclear program. As discussed in recent weeks, the discovery of an underground research facility near Natanz also reinvigorated concerns about the program as well as US or Israeli capabilities to damage the facility through preventive strikes.

Iran and Belgium exchange prisoners
In a likely related development that may also signal Iranian intent to restart negotiations, Iran continues to exchange prisoners with countries in the West. Further to the previously discussed swap involving two French nationals, Iranian state-linked sources confirmed that Iran and Belgium exchanged detainees on 26 May under Omani mediation. Belgian national Olivier Vandecasteele, an aid worker detained in Iran in February 2022 and sentenced to prison for alleged espionage in January 2023, was released in exchange for Assadollah Asadi – a diplomat convicted in Belgium for his role in a terrorist plot to attack the Mujahedeen-a-Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group based in France. Belgian intelligence identified Asadi as a member of the Iranian intelligence and security ministry. Both countries have repeatedly insisted that both detainees were innocent of the charges.

US imposed new sanctions on IRGC-linked individuals
On 1 June, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on several individuals and entities affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and in “assassination plots in the United States and abroad”. These included five current and former members of the IRGC based in Turkey and Syria, as well as a Turkey-based airline operated by Hossein Hafez Amini – one of the individuals sanctioned. The statement by the Treasury added that the “Rey Airline” – a small airline based in Istanbul – was being used to facilitate the IRGC’s kidnapping and assassinations of dissidents in Turkey without providing further details.


Financial transaction firms targeted by US sanctions
In a related development, the US announced sanctions on two Syrian financial transaction firms accused of circumventing existing sanctions and facilitating Syrian government activities. The two firms, al-Fadel Exchange and al-Adham Exchange Company were targeted under the Ceaser’s Act for assisting the government in “maintaining access to the international financial system.” The statement also said it facilitated the financial operations of Iran-linked entities, including Hezbollah and the IRGC. Both companies are headquartered in Damascus and reportedly ensured transactions worth “millions of dollars” since 2021 to accounts at the Central Bank of Syria.

Israeli airstrikes conducted near Damascus
On 28 May, several Israeli airstrikes were reportedly conducted in the vicinity of Damascus, targeting sites reportedly manned by Syrian Government Forces and Lebanese Hezbollah. Syrian state-linked sources said the operations were launched from the direction of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and that the strikes were intercepted by missile defense systems. Other opposition-linked sources said multiple sites, including facilities located near Damascus International Airport, were damaged as a result. The targeted locations reportedly included an air defense base and a weapons storage facility. No casualties were discussed and operations at the airport continued as normal.

The operations this week follow a recent reduction in Israeli airstrike activity inside Syria, as well as a relative lull in US-Iranian hostilities prevailing since a flareup in March that resulted in the death of a US contractor in Hasakah province. The most recent, significant operation in Syria took place on 2 May when several strikes targeted Damascus International Airport. Last week, Israeli officials confirmed that a reconnaissance UAV was exposed to gunfire inside Syrian airspace near the Israel/Syria border and that Israeli forces responded with machinegun fire across the border, however the incident did not generate any significant escalation. While Israel typically refrains from commenting on their operations, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the number of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria has increased since the new government in Tel Aviv took office in late 2022.


President Erdogan won presidential elections in Turkey
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured victory in Turkey’s first-ever runoff presidential vote, earning 52.14% of the votes. The results were confirmed by Turkey’s electoral council and two news agencies. The runner-up, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), attained 47.86% of the votes. This runoff was held after the initial round on May 14, where Erdogan gained 49.5% and Kilicdaroglu won 44.8% of the votes. In terms of voter support, the results largely mirrored those of the initial round, with the incumbent securing high levels of support in the traditionally conservative central provinces and rural areas of the north. By contrast, Kilicdaroglu won support in larger cities including Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir as well as the predominantly Kurdish areas in the east, and the western coastal provinces.

While polls prior to the general elections on 14 May showed Kilicdaroglu close to and even surpassing Erdogan, the second-round results came in as less of a surprise considering the president’s strong performance in the first round. The opposition’s expectations that the poor state of the economy and the government’s perceived inadequate response to the February earthquake fell short, as nationalist sentiments trumped economic considerations to afford Erdogan a clear victory. Opposition elements and government critics expressed concerns however that Turkey’s authoritarian shift under Erdogan will intensify over the coming five years, and that economic conditions will continue to worsen. The day after the elections, the Turkish lira dropped sharply to a record low and is set to compound inflationary woes over the near term.

The results themselves were not subject to any significant controversy amidst claims of voter fraud that followed the first round. That said, international election observers reiterated concerns about the government’s unfair advantages, and while free, the elections were not deemed fully fair. In its preliminary findings, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed to “biased media coverage” and a “lack of a level playing field” as giving the incumbent an “unjustified advantage”. The report also said the electoral administration “lacked transparency” and that communication problems addressed in the first round persisted.

Biden expressed hope for NATO progress after Erdogan victory
International and regional reactions to Erdogan’s victory were largely expected, as regional stakeholders and partners position themselves for a continuation of Turkey’s foreign policy under the president. Key issues that have been partially suspended over the electoral campaign are now expected to resurface. A day after the election victory, President Joe Biden called Erdogan to congratulate him and to reiterate calls to admit Sweden into NATO. Biden said separately that the issue will be discussed between the two sides “next week”. Attending a separate event later in the week, Biden said Sweden will “soon” join the alliance, seemingly refuting concerns that Erdogan’s re-election will impede further NATO expansion.

Notes of congratulations also arrived from several regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt whose leaders expressed intent to pursue closer ties with the Turkish government over the coming term. While customary, the messages underscore the reversal of previously antagonistic relations that characterized Turkey’s ties with these countries during earlier terms, with current positive relations with the Gulf states expected to continue over the coming years.


Iran and GoI officials continue to discuss border security
This week, a delegation led by National Security Advisor Qassim al-Araji arrived in Tehran to discuss border security with Iranian counterparts. As previously discussed, this follows increasingly firm – even threatening – rhetoric from both government and military officials in Tehran over the continued presence of Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups on Iraqi territory, and Baghdad’s alleged inability to implement a border security agreement reached between the two sides in March. Al-Araji’s delegation arrived in Tehran on 29 May where, according to Iranian state-linked sources, Araji met with his counterpart Ali Akbar Ahmadian who recently replaced Ali Shamkhani as the new Secretary General of the National Supreme Council. Ahmadian reportedly reiterated Iran’s expectation that Iraq “guarantees the security of the border” and take steps to expel “counter-revolutionary elements” in accordance with a recent security agreement. The same sources cited al-Araji underlining Iraq’s commitment to the deal however no new promises or results were discussed.

In a related development, concerns over an impending resumption of Iranian cross-border operations into eastern KR-I persist. This week, Iranian opposition-linked sources circulated footage of Iranian military transports near the Iraq-Iran border, in what was reported as “preparations” for Iranian cross-border operations on Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups. The footage was not independently corroborated yet displayed vehicle convoys transporting artillery pieces and other equipment in an unspecified area. The footage initially circulated on 30 May yet as of 2 June, no such operations have materialized, possibly indicating a deliberate attempt by Tehran to maintain pressure on the GoI in conjunction with ongoing diplomatic efforts.

Federal Supreme Court nullifies KRG Parliament extension
On 30 May, the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad ruled that the decision to extend the term of the KRG Parliament for another year is “unconstitutional”. The ruling declared that the fifth term of the parliament ended with the “legal period specified for it” (i.e. four years) and thus invalidated a vote held in October by MPs in the KRG Parliament to extend its term for another year. The statement further declared all decisions made by parliament following the end of the term as invalid from a “constitutional point of view.” Reactions to the court ruling initially differed however both the KDP and PUK said they would accept and comply with the decision. The KDP reiterated the need to hold regional elections as scheduled, with a spokesperson for the party calling on all parties to cooperate towards that end. The leader of the PUK bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, Harem Agha, also said the party would abide by the ruling. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report.

Saudi Arabia

Two Bahraini nationals executed for involvement in attack plot
On 29 May, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of two individuals from Bahrain accused of forming part of an unspecified militant group and for their part in a 2015 plot to conduct terrorist activities in the country. Saudi authorities said the two defendants were arrested in possession of a large amount of explosives to be used in an attack on Saudi territory. The individuals were also wanted by Bahrain authorities for their participation in anti-government protests in that country. The trial has been criticized by human rights groups amidst allegations that their confessions were obtained through torture and that the two lacked adequate legal representation during the process.

The affiliations of the two men were not publicly revealed, however according to Human Rights Watch both were members of the Shia community. Combined with their alleged involvement in anti-government protests, the “militant group” likely refers to one of several Shia factions – some linked to Iran – involved in the low-level insurgency that followed the 2011 Bahraini uprisings. Small protests were reported in Iraq and Bahrain in response to the executions and the al-Wefaq Society in Bahrain – a formally dissolved Shia party with links to Iran – commemorated the convicts and strongly condemned the sentences. Iranian reactions were notably subdued considering Tehran’s normally strong denunciations of Saudi executions of Shia nationals. Tehran’s lack of response is most likely attributed to the Iran-Saudi agreement and a related pledge between the countries to avoid public criticism of their domestic affairs.


UAE confirms withdrawal from US-led maritime task force
On 31 May, the UAE Foreign Ministry confirmed that it stopped participating in operations by the US-led maritime task force – Combined Maritime Forces – in March but that it remains a partner in the 38-nation force. The statement was issued in response to media reports circulating this week that claimed the UAE withdrew out of a sense of frustration over the perceived lack of a US response to recent oil tanker seizures. This includes Iran’s interception of two oil tankers off the coast of the UAE in April which according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous US and Gulf sources, allegedly fueled UAE frustrations over the US-led response. The statement by the UAE this week described the report as a “mischaracterization” and emphasized that the withdrawal from the task force took place prior to these incidents. At the same time, the statement did not clarify why it stopped participating in task force operations, leaving the decision open to speculation.


Italy lifts Yemen-linked arms embargo on Saudi arms sales
On 31 May, the Italian Cabinet voted to lift an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The embargo was imposed in 2019 to prevent the use of Italian weapons in the conflict in Yemen however the cabinet said the embargo is no longer necessary in light of the “changed situation” on the ground. In April, Italy lifted a similar embargo imposed on the UAE with the same motivation. The statement praised Saudi Arabia’s role in promoting recent peace efforts which UN and US officials describe as the most significant since the start of the conflict.

Operation to salvage oil tanker starts off Yemen cost
The UN announced that an operation to salvage a decaying oil tanker, the Safer, off the coast of Ras Isa commenced this week. The UN has repeatedly warned about the decaying state of the vessel for several years and described the risk of an oil spill as an impending environmental disaster. The vessel is reportedly loaded with approximately 1.14 million barrels of oil and fell under the control of the Houthi Movement in March 2015 with the outbreak of the Yemen conflict.

Since then, efforts to salvage the cargo and the vessel have been postponed due to conflict conditions and funding efforts, however, the 2022 truce and subsequent decrease in hostilities, combined with a successful fundraising campaign, allowed the UN to commence the operation this week. On 30 May, a technical support ship arrived at the vessel to start offloading the oil and UN officials were seen on board the ship alongside Houthi officials who are facilitating the operations.

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