REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Conflicting reports regarding status of Iranian morality police
On 3 December, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said the Iranian Morality Police – a branch of law enforcement tasked with enforcing the strict religious dress code – had been “shut down” in an apparent concession to the ongoing civil unrest in the country. The statement by Montazeri was disseminated by a state-linked media channel however further details were not provided and the status of the morality police remains unclear as no official statements regarding the alleged closure were subsequently made. Other Iranian officials, including the Interior Minister which oversees the force, did not confirm the closure.
Some state-linked media channels indicated Montazeri’s comments were “misinterpreted” while a spokesperson for the Headquarters of Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice – a government institution that supervises the application of religious edicts – said there would be no change to the implementation of Islamic dress codes. This indicates that the government will likely continue to enforce the mandatory hijab law through other mechanisms, even if the force is closed.
Regardless, any relaxation of the Islamic dress code or changes to the Morality Police is unlikely to significantly affect popular sentiments underpinning the unrest, which have morphed from focusing on the controversial death of Masha Amini to include a broader range of grievances against the government. Suggestions to abolish the morality police may well be a tactical move by the government to focus the discourse on the narrower issue of the dress code and thereby downplay the increasingly revolutionary tone of the demonstrations.
Nationwide strikes reported as protests move to next phase
Relatedly, protest organizers initiated nationwide strikes this week, in a continuation of recent civil unrest, with businesses reportedly shutting down in two-thirds of the country’s provinces. According to human rights sources, the strikes were most widespread in the Kurdish-dominated areas of the northwest, where more than half of all businesses were reportedly closed in several cities during the week. Strikes were also reported in Tehran, Isfahan, and other large cities across the country, with video footage disseminated on social media showing empty streets in normally busy commercial areas.
Protest organizers described the three-day strike initiated this week as the next phase of the unrest following a visible decline in the intensity of the protests. In response, authorities threatened to shut down businesses that participated in the strikes however the effect was limited and it remains to be seen if the government will follow through on such threats given the adverse effect on the already strained Iranian economy.
Four individuals with alleged links to Israel executed
On 4 December, four individuals accused of having links with the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad were executed in Tehran, while four others were given lengthy prison sentences. State-linked media channels said the convicts belonged to a “network” of individuals paid by Mossad and were reportedly involved in kidnapping, theft and the destruction of public property. Further details were not provided but the arrests were reportedly carried out in June 2022 near the Iran-Iraq border during an alleged attempt by the convicts to infiltrate Iranian territory.
New nuclear power plant planned in Khuzestan province
On 3 December, Iran commenced the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Khuzestan province, southwestern Iran, near the border with Iraq. Plans to construct the 300-megawatt facility – named Karoon – were initially unveiled in April and according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, construction is expected to take approximately eight years and cost approximately $2 billion.
Given the timeline, the immediate implications of the new plant are understandably limited, yet the timing of the construction underscores Iranian intent to further accelerate its nuclear capabilities. The announcement came less than two weeks after Iran confirmed that it began enriching uranium at 60% purity at the Fordow Research Facility and a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the country has tripled its capacity to produce 60% enriched uranium overall.
In a press conference on 2 December, IAEA Secretary General Raphael Grossi said the tripling of the capacity is “very close to military level” and warned that this “is something that has consequences.” Grossi also deplored the lack of transparency and the agency’s inability to confidently monitor and assess the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, as negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remain at an impasse. Recent steps by Iran have been widely condemned in the west, yet there are no signs of political intent to resume negotiations given the ongoing unrest and related human rights abuses in the country.
Coalition Forces resume joint patrols in northeastern Syria
Coalition Forces announced that joint patrols conducted with the Syrian Democratic Forces continued this week in northeastern Syria, days after the US Central Command announced a pause in operations on 2 December in light of the threat of a Turkish ground incursion. A tweet issued by the Combined Task Force on 7 December said “combined security patrols” continue in an effort to “build a safe and secure region free of IS influence” however the objective of the patrols remains unclear, as US officials earlier said these patrols are not aimed at countering IS. Instead, Kurdish officials said the patrols form part of routine operations conducted near border areas.
The announced suspension of counter-terrorism operations followed a phone call between US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on 30 November, during which Austin iterated the US’s strong opposition to any potential ground operation. US officials simultaneously confirmed that the Turkish threat is harming anti-IS operations in the region in light of the suspension of joint patrols with the SDF.
For his part, Defence Minister Akar asked the US for “understanding” regarding Turkey’s concerns while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said both the US and Russia failed to commit to an agreement to remove “terrorist groups” further south from the Turkish border. US officials have not independently confirmed such an agreement, however, various reports last week said Russia attempted to mediate a deal that would prevent a Turkish ground operation. Details of the proposal remain unconfirmed, but reportedly included a plan to deploy Syrian government forces in areas currently controlled by the SDF and essentially establish a buffer zone to alleviate Turkish concerns.
Fatalities reported during protest in southern Syria
On 4 December, anti-government protests escalated into clashes with security forces in al-Suwaida, southwestern Syria, as residents gathered near the provincial council building to denounce poor living conditions. Local government officials cited by state-linked media channels said protesters stormed and sabotaged the governate building, and that one police officer was killed as security forces intervened. Opposition-linked sources claimed security forces employed live ammunition against what initially amounted to a peaceful gathering and that two civilians were killed as a result.
While anti-government demonstrations have been relatively rare inside government-controlled areas, tensions related to economic grievances and poor living conditions have been regularly noted in the province. In 2021, clashes were also reported between residents and government-linked militias in the city, resulting in casualties on both sides. In isolation, the incident is unlikely to precipitate more significant acts of civil unrest inside government-controlled areas, yet it underscores lingering popular grievances driven by persistent food insecurity and economic issues compounded by international sanctions.
Relatedly, the fuel crisis currently affecting the country continues to worsen and on 5 December, the Ministry of Trade increased the price for diesel fuel to 93 cents/liter – almost double the previous amount. According to various reports, the effects of international sanctions and rising energy prices have essentially paralyzed large parts of the country that fall under government control. On 6 December, the government announced that state agencies will be closed for two days during December – on 11 and 18 December – because of the fuel shortages, while officials from the Ministry of Oil said western sanctions are to be blamed for a current 50-day supply delay. This is an assessed reference to delays caused to Iranian imports which remain essential to sustain fuel supplies in the country.
Minor decline in inflation for first time in 2022
On 5 December, Turkey’s official Statistical Institute announced that the rate of inflation in November decreased to 84.39%, down from 85.51% recorded in October. The slight decline is the first recorded in over a year as the central bank’s unorthodox policy of cutting interest rates has failed to curb rising consumer prices. Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said in a statement that the Treasury expects a downward trend from now, however some independent institutes question the official numbers and claim that the actual rate of inflation is significantly higher.
The inflation rates remain politically significant ahead of the 2023 national elections as President Erdogan has pledged that current economic policies will take effect early next year. Despite high rates of inflation, the Turkish economy continues to grow but a failure to rein in the cost of living may impact electoral support ahead of the polls.
Protests sparked by sentencing of activist
Large-scale and occasionally violent demonstrations broke out this week in Iraq following the sentencing of an activist accused of criticizing the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on social media. In a court ruling on 5 December, Hayder al-Zaidi – who is active in the October Movement – was sentenced to three years in prison over a post on Twitter that criticized the militias however al-Zaidi denies being the author of the post. In response to the sentencing, protests organized by the October Movement were reported in Baghdad and the southern provinces, and on 7 December two people were reportedly killed and 17 wounded when security forces employed live ammunition to disperse a gathering in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar province. The Government of Iraq announced that an investigation would be conducted into the incident however further protests related to the sentencing of al-Zaidi are expected over the coming days. Further context is provided in the full report.
Continued tensions between Iranian and Iraqi authorities over opposition groups in KR-I
There are signs of continued tensions between Iranian and Iraqi authorities concerning the presence of Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups straddling the border despite recently announced GoI commitments to increase border security measures. Beginning around 1 December, limited social media reporting claimed that Iranian Army units established approximately seven outposts in mountainous areas of northeastern Erbil province and northern Sulaymaniyah province. The outposts were reportedly limited to a depth of up to 3km inside the border. These reports were discussed by some media outlets, though they were not confirmed or denied by reports from official sources or highly credible media reporting in a reflection of the sensitivities involved. Further context is provided in the full report.
Rocket attacks target Turkish forces at Camp Zilkan
On 3 and 4 December, Iranian-backed militias conducted two rocket attacks against Turkish forces at Camp Zilkan, with no casualties reported. Shaped by unique conditions, these incidents concluded a lull in attacks against the base that had been in effect since 8 October. The attacks marked the renewal of routine forms of militia-authored militant activity now that the new Prime Minister’s administration has been fully formed. Further details and context is provided in the full report.
Two insurgents armed with explosive vests killed in Babil province
In a relatively rare incident on 6 December, Security forces clashed with two reported suicide borders armed with explosive vests in the Jurf al-Sakhar sub-district of northern Babil province. The Sunni-dominated area is a traditionally restive area previously associated with IS presence and was one of the few districts in the southern region controlled by IS following the 2014 offensive. According to various reports, including graphic video footage, the first insurgent was shot and killed without detonation, and the second was wounded and killed after detonating his explosive vest. Reports indicate that at least one soldier was wounded by the detonation. Further reports indicate that two PMF were killed, and at least one other was wounded. Further details are provided in the full report.
Xi Jinping stresses economic ties with Saudi Arabia during visit
On 7 December, Xi Jinping, President of China, arrived in Saudi Arabia for a three-day visit widely focused on economic cooperation. The visit is Jinping’s second to the Kingdom and the first in nearly seven years. Foreign Ministry spokesperson described the visit as a “milestone in Chinese-Arab relations” and the most significant high-level diplomatic meeting between China and the Arab world ever. During the three-day visit, the president is expected to meet with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and to attend a summit with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss ways to deepen economic and energy ties.
China remains Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and the meeting is understandably expected to focus on strengthening both bilateral energy and economic relations as well as to deepen cooperation between China and other members of the GCC. Earlier this year, a delegation of GCC representatives visited China to expand trade and economic ties, and similar rhetoric characterized Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit in April. The visit is also expected to enhance private-sector relations and on 7 December the Saudi Press Agency stated that Saudi companies signed 34 agreements with Chinese counterparts, covering various areas including green energy, cloud services, information technology, and construction amongst other sectors.
White House Spokesperson warns of Chinese influence
As widely reported, the visit is seen as another significant manifestation of China’s intent to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the US. The timing of the visit is in this sense significant in light of visible tensions in the US-Saudi partnership under President Joe Biden’s administration, compounded this year by the GCC’s reluctance to cooperate with the US against Russia and to reduce oil prices.
Commenting on Jinping’s visit, White House Spokesperson John Kirby said the US is “mindful” of China’s attempts to spread influence, especially in the Middle East. In an attempt to downplay perceptions of any adverse effects of the visit on US-Saudi relations, Kirby added that the administration is “not asking nations to choose between the US and China”, but that the US remains “well poised to lead” in the strategic competition between autocratic and democratic countries. Kirby also said that the “manner in which” China attempts to spread influence is “not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order.”
The full implications of the visit will be judged in hindsight, but despite the evident strategic competition, the visit is not expected to significantly alter the character of Saudi-China ties which remain limited to economic and trade issues. While remarks by Saudi officials generically mentioned “security cooperation” as a topic for discussion, China remains visibly reluctant to expand cooperation to include security and defense ties, and its engagement in the region remains visibly guided by the pragmatic pursuit of economic interests that transcend regional rivalries.
UAE president visits Qatar
On 5 December, UAE President and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan arrived in Qatar to hold meetings with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha. The visit is the first by al-Nahyan since 2017 and the subsequent diplomatic blockade of Qatar, which was lifted in early 2021. UAE diplomatic advisor and former Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash described the visit as “another step towards strengthening Gulf solidarity and joint action”, while al-Nahyan praised Qatar’s organization of the ongoing 2022 FIFA World cup.
The diplomatic rapprochement that followed the end of the blockade was remarkably swift, especially between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whose relations have since been characterized by close cooperation and warm rhetoric. By contrast, Doha’s engagement with Abu Dhabi was comparatively slow, amidst reports that the UAE initially opposed lifting the blockade. Tensions also remain between Qatar and Bahrain, which have yet to fully store diplomatic relations and whose relationship remains affected by occasional statements of criticism from both sides. Bahrain’s foreign policy remains closely aligned with the UAE, and the visit by Nahyan this week may optimistically precipitate a similar gesture from Bahraini officials in the near future.
Israeli President visits UAE and Bahrain
On 4 December, Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrived in Bahrain for a first visit to the state since the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Meeting with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Herzog stressed Israeli intent to expand business and trade ties between the two sides. After the visit, Herzog also visited the UAE to meet with senior officials, including Crown Prince al-Nahyan, and attend the Abu Dhabi Space Debate where both sides pledged to enhance cooperation to facilitate space exploration.
Although President Herzog’s position is mainly symbolic, the visit constitutes an attempt by Israel to consolidate diplomatic ties following the recent election and some concerns that the election of far-right elements may complicate ties with other regional stakeholders. In Bahrain, there were reports of limited protests across the country ahead of Herzog’s visits while some local MPs issued tweets in support of Palestine, however the overall trajectory of Israeli-Gulf ties is not expected to be significantly affected by the change in government in Tel Aviv.
Saudi-backed government imposes economic restrictions in response to oil terminal attacks
According to a directive dated 6 December, the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government in Aden imposed financial restrictions against several companies involved in importing oil to Houthi-controlled areas. According to a government official cited by Reuters, the restrictions were issued in response to recent Houthi-linked operations targeting oil terminals in southern Yemen, including several UAV strikes that targeted foreign vessels in October and November. The Aden-based central bank reportedly cited “anti-terrorism” and “anti-money laundering laws” as the basis for the new directives which aim to exclusively limit imports of oil to government-controlled ports only.
The restrictions may incentivize retaliatory strikes by the Houthi Movement, with a senior spokesperson reportedly threatening to “respond to any escalation with greater force and effectiveness.” In a statement issued on 7 December, the movement denounced efforts to “begrudge our people petroleum products” and deny people “legitimate rights.” So far, no significant operations have been reported, and earlier concerns the strikes in October and November would precipitate a more significant escalation from the movement have not materialized. Likewise, despite the expiration of the truce in October, nationwide levels of hostilities remain relatively limited despite the continuation of localized clashes. Efforts by UN and recently US officials to resume peace negotiations have not been successful however.