Talos Regional Snapshot – 8 February 2022

Feb 8, 2023



Supreme Leader ‘pardons’ thousands of detainees
According to Iranian state-linked media sources, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved a conditional amnesty affecting tens of thousands of prisoners, including some individuals detained in connection with the recent protest activity. A brief report published the official news agency IRNA said Khamenei agreed “to amnesty and reduced punishment for tens of thousands of convicts, including the detainees of recent riots” but added that the decree does not encompass individuals accused of “espionage” or having “direct contact with agents of foreign intelligence services”. Prisoners accused of murder or destruction of public, governmental, or military facilities would also not be affected by the decree.

No reason or motivation for the decree was specified, and the immediate implications of the amnesty remain to be seen. That said, the decision follows recent symbolic steps undertaken by the Supreme Leader that may be intended to reduce popular discontent fueled by the government’s violent crackdown on the protests. This includes a meeting with a group of schoolgirls in Tehran on 3 February that was widely publicized by state-linked media and other statements celebrating the role of women in Iranian and Islamic history.

More importantly, these steps also follow recent statements by Iranian officials, including members of parliament and the judiciary, expressing concerns over popular dissatisfaction emanating from the protests. However, critics of the government have largely dismissed Khamenei’s steps as face-saving measures which should not be seen as evidence of any substantial change in the government’s approach to the unrest. Absent further clarification, the decree announced this week is also not assessed as a sign of reconciliation as the government continues to view the protests as ‘riots’ instigated by foreign enemies.

Iranian UN Envoy blamed Israel for UAV strike on munitions facility
In a letter submitted to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Iran’s Envoy to the UN, Amir Saeid Iravani, blamed Israel for the UAV strike targeting a suspected military munition facility in Isfahan on 28 January. The letter claimed, “early investigations suggested that the Israeli regime was responsible for this attempted act of aggression”. While Israeli involvement was immediately suspected, Iranian officials initially refrained from directly accusing Israel and the letter comprises the first public attribution from Tehran. To recall, a newspaper linked to the Iranian National Security Council also blamed Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups for facilitating the attack and operating on orders from Israeli intelligence.

Relatedly, satellite images published on 2 February showed limited damage to the roof of the building targeted on 28 February. According to an analysis made by AP News, the structure appears to have been protected by “slat armor” that likely reduced the impact of the explosives. The outcome of the UAV strike, which reportedly involved at least three short-range “quadcopters”, remains subject to conflicting reports as western officials discussed a “successful strike” whereas Iranian sources claim the attack was successfully intercepted.

Iran denies plans to build UAV-factory in Russia
On 5 February, a report by the Wall Street Journal said Russia and Iran are proceeding with plans to build a UAV-manufacturing facility in Russia. The report, citing anonymous officials from an unspecified country, claims the planned facility will have the capacity to manufacture more than six thousand Iran-designed combat UAVs and that the site of the facility was inspected during a recent visit by Iranian officials to Russia in January. Aside from boosting military cooperation between the two sides, the facility will serve to enhance Russia’s capabilities in the war in Ukraine by producing UAVs capable of overpowering Ukraine’s air defense systems.

On 7 February, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Nasser Kanaani dismissed the report as “completely untrue” and attributed the claims to western propaganda. Speaking with Tehran Times – an English-speaking newspaper affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry – Kanaani reiterated that Iran “is not interfering in the Ukraine war” and is not siding with any party.”


Turkey declares state of emergency following earthquake           
On 7 February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency in ten provinces of the country most affected by the powerful earthquake that struck on 6 February. The announcement came shortly after official sources in Turkey and Syria reported a death toll exceeding five thousand people (which has since increased to 9 700), and a warning from the World Health Organization that the final death toll may exceed 27 thousand. The earthquake, which registered a magnitude of 7.8, is the most powerful to affect the country since a tremor in 1939 that killed more than 30 thousand people. For further details regarding the 6 February earthquake, see the Talos Featured article.

Erdogan said the state of emergency was made to ensure “that operations are carried out rapidly” and that it would last for an initial period of three months. The state may be extended, but the preliminary period will end shortly prior to the national elections slated to be held on 14 May. The activation of emergency powers allows the government to rule by decree and bypass parliament and regional authorities when enacting laws. While the political implications of the earthquake remain to be seen, the decision is politically sensitive amidst widespread accusations that the government has misused previous emergency powers for political gain, including in the aftermath of the 2016 attempted military coup.

Government criticizes western diplomatic missions following security threats
The Turkish government strongly criticized steps taken by several diplomatic missions in response to the security threats stemming from the burning of the Quran in Sweden and the Netherlands in January. To recall, the provocative event, initially organized by a Swedish-Danish far-right activist in Sweden and then replicated in the Netherlands, provoked widespread condemnation and protests in several countries in the region. This week, 15 suspected IS members were also arrested in Istanbul for plotting attacks against the diplomatic missions of Sweden and the Netherlands, in an assessed retaliation.

Citing security concerns, several governments, including Germany, France, and the Netherlands, temporarily closed their diplomatic missions in Istanbul last week, while the US, Italy, and Sweden issued warnings regarding possible attacks against diplomatic missions in Turkey. On 2 February, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of nine countries to criticize their responses, with senior government officials – including Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu – accusing the missions of “waging a phycological war” against Turkey and serving the agenda of “terrorists.” President Erdogan also said countries affected would “pay” for their actions if the closures persist.

Turkish police arrests 15 IS suspects for plotting attacks against diplomatic targets
In a related development, on 4 February, Istanbul police reportedly arrested 15 IS members accused of plotting attacks against foreign consulates and non-Muslim places of worship. A statement by the Istanbul police cited by state-linked media sources said the detainees received instructions to target the consulates of Sweden and the Netherlands, “as well as the Christian and Jewish places of worship”.

The statement added that the suspects had documented links with, and were operating on instructions from, the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), an IS affiliate active in several countries in south and central Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.   In an assessed effort to downplay the associated threat, however, the statement added that there were no “concrete threats” of an imminent attack. Regardless, the reported arrests may be seen to vindicate the precautionary measures undertaken by the affected missions despite criticism from the Turkish government. While no imminent attack was assessed based on available evidence provided by Turkish authorities, the arrests also highlight increased militant intent to conduct attacks amidst elevated hostile sentiments emanating from the Quran burnings.

Congress conditions F-16 sale on NATO membership
On 2 February, a bipartisan group of senators in the US Congress said they will not support the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey unless Ankara ratifies the memberships of Finland and Sweden. In a letter signed by 29 members and sent to President Joe Biden, the senators said Congress would consider the sale of the fighter jets “once the NATO accession protocols are ratified by Turkey” and that a “failure to do so” would “call into question this pending sale.”

The Biden administration has expressed support for the sale to Turkey and has been reluctant to link the two issues, yet officials have repeatedly remarked that admitting Sweden and Finland would facilitate the process. In his visit last month to the US, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected any attempt to condition the sale on the NATO membership issue however Turkish officials have yet to respond to the letter submitted on 2 February.


Border crossing disruption complicates deliveries to northwestern Syria
Western officials and humanitarian organizations have called on the Syrian government to allow the opening of additional border crossings to ensure aid deliveries following the earthquake on 6 February. To recall, cross-border deliveries from Turkey are currently allowed only through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing point however aid deliveries have been significantly disrupted due to damages to nearby roads. According to local officials, the crossing point itself has not been affected by the earthquake however UN officials reported significant problems in transporting critical supplies this week. The WHO also warned that difficulties in ensuring sufficient aid deliveries will further impact an already dire humanitarian situation in the northwest, where some four million people were already dependent on aid assistance prior to the earthquake.

Several western officials, including German Foreign Minister Annalena and UK Aid Minister Andrew Mitchell Baerbock, called on the Syrian Government to allow humanitarian organizations to deliver aid through additional border crossing points and through airports based in government-controlled territories. For their part, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bassam Sabbagh, rebuked these calls and reiterated that the government should be solely responsible for administrating aid. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged to deliver aid via Damascus (see below), US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price ruled out the possibility of providing assistance via the Syrian Government and said the US would continue to work via other humanitarian partners.


Russian Foreign Minister arrived in Baghdad
On 5 February, a Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Baghdad to discuss and review various aspects of Iraq-Russian relations. The delegation reportedly comprised members of the Russian Foreign Ministry as well as representatives from several Russian companies and other government ministries. In remarks made following his meeting with Lavrov on 6 February, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said the two sides discussed economic and financial cooperation, including how to encourage Russian investments in Iraq. Lavrov later met with Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani and, according to an official readout, reportedly conveyed greetings from President Vladimir Putin. The statement expressed Moscow’s desire to “expand relations with Iraq in various fields” and these sentiments were largely reciprocated by Prime Minister al-Sudani.

As usual, the discussions were subject to limited detail. Prior to the meeting, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said the visit underscores Iraq’s willingness to maintain close relations with Russia despite current sanctions and pressure from the West to reduce ties with Moscow. Overall, Iraq seeks to balance both sides and has been careful not to take any clear sides amidst current geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict. With respect to the war, the government has repeatedly called for a “diplomatic solution” yet refrained from condemning the invasion while cooperating with Saudi Arabia and Russia on oil market prices within OPEC+.

Hussein to visit US to discuss currency measures
The timing of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Baghdad is also noteworthy and took place only days prior to a scheduled trip by Hussein to Washington D.C. In his remarks, Hussein notably said he would discuss its cooperation with Russian companies with US officials, including how to pay dues of Russian companies in Iraq under existing international sanctions.

Scheduled to arrive in Washington D.C. on 8 February, the meeting is otherwise expected to focus on the impact of US regulation on currency exchange rates and the significant decline in the value of the Iraqi Dinar. To recall, widespread protests have been ongoing in the country to demand additional government measures to stabilize the exchange rate and combat inflation. In its latest measure on 7 February, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved a reevaluation of the exchange rate of the Iraqi Dinar (IQD) to 1,300 IQD per USD.

The decision on 7 February was based on a recommendation from the board of directors of the Iraq Central Bank and within hours of the decision the exchange rate on currency markets in Iraq went from around 1,560 to 1,440 per dollar. To recall, the recent exchange rate fluctuation was in part precipitated by measures implemented by the US Treasury to stem the flow of USD into Iran, as part of a wider effort to tighten sanctions on the country. While several MPs expressed support for the latest measure, it remains to be seen if the cabinet decision on 7 February will produce a lasting effect that may alleviate current popular discontent and mitigate associated unrest.


Israeli Justice Minister stands by judicial reform despite protests
On 5 February, Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv Levin ruled out suspending or freezing plans for controversial judicial reforms undertaken by the new government. The reforms will significantly strengthen the government’s control over the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, and make it more difficult for the court to overturn legislation passed by the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims the reforms are necessary to roll back the allegedly excessive influence of the court while critics argue that the reforms will undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Large-scale demonstrations involving tens of thousands took place across the country on 4 February to denounce the reforms, marking the fifth consecutive week of protests since the plans were unveiled. This week, President Isaac Herzog called on the government to “freeze” the plans to allow dialogue and reach a common ground as the issue continues to increase political polarization in the country.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Foreign Minister visit to Iraq likely related to Iran-Saudi dialogue
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan arrived in Baghdad this week to meet with senior Iraqi officials, including counterpart Fuad Hussein and Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani. The meetings focused on a wide range of issues broadly aimed at further expanding economic and energy cooperation, including the need to “activate” the Iraq-Saudi coordination council and implement the electrical interconnection agreement signed in 2022, under which the countries agreed to connect their electricity grids. The agreement is expected to link the Northern Border Provinces in Saudi Arabia to Baghdad province in the coming years.

The two sides also discussed regional cooperation, with al-Faisal highlighting Iraq’s role in “enhancing stability” and “addressing any disagreements.” While Iran was not explicitly mentioned, Hussein said Iraq is working to “ease tensions” and it is widely believed that the two officials discussed the issue of the Iranian-Saudi dialogue. Indeed, reports preceding the visit speculated that the meeting primarily served to re-engage the Iran-Saudi dialogue which has been mediated by Iraq since 2021. Last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian said the negotiations with Saudi counterparts would resume in the near future.  


UAE and Saudi Arabia approve aid packages to Syria and Turkey
On 7 February, the UAE Ministry of Defense announced that it dispatched seven flights with aid deliveries to Syria and Turkey, to assist rescue operations after the earthquake on 6 February. Two of these flights reportedly landed in Damascus and the delivery is being coordinated with the Syrian government. Rescue teams from the Ministry of Interior and police forces from Abu Dhabi and Dubai were also on board to facilitate operations in southern Turkey. On the same day, UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the country will provide $100 million in relief to the areas affected.

Similarly, Saudi government officials ordered the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center to provide food, shelter, and logistical and financial assistance in both Syria and Turkey. According to a statement cited by the official Saudi Press Agency, Crown Prince Bin Salman ordered the center to establish an “airbridge” to facilitate the operations.

The announcements follow significant steps taken by both countries to normalize and improve ties with Turkey in 2021, and by taking a proactive role in the early aid relief efforts, the goodwill gestures represent an opportunity to further expand ties with Ankara. Likewise, the decision to coordinate aid deliveries via Damascus, despite US and western opposition, is the latest indication of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s intent to normalize relations with the Assad government.


Three AQ members killed in US UAV strike
On 30 January, a suspected US UAV strike targeted and killed three members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The strike took place in the Wadi Obeida area, Marib province, and reportedly targeted a vehicle transiting in the vicinity, killing the three members immediately. US officials did not officially confirm the operation but a report citing local government officials said it is “believed” that the operation was conducted by the US. AQAP later confirmed the killing and claimed the strike targeted a senior commander and known explosives expert who survived a precision strike in the province in December.

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