Talos Regional Snapshot – 9 September 2023

Sep 9, 2023



Iran slows uranium enrichment process yet monitoring remains insufficient
According to a report by AP News on 4 September, the Iranian nuclear program is showing signs of deceleration, with the pace of uranium enrichment declining in recent months. Citing an internal and confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the report estimates Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched at 60% – or just short of weapons-grade levels – at 121.6 kilograms in August, to be compared with 114kg in May. The amount stockpiled over the three-month period between May and August indicates the stockpile is growing at its slowest pace since 2021 when Iran implemented the so-called strategic action plan – a piece of legislation passed in response to the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh and that stipulated a significant acceleration of the enrichment process.

Despite this positive development, another confidential report by the IAEA, leaked by the media during the week, noted that there was “no progress” in efforts to monitor and verify the nuclear program. The agency pointed to Iran’s decision to remove “all of the agency’s JCPOA-related equipment” in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement and that, as a result, the verification and monitoring of Iranian activities has been “seriously affected.” Since then, the IAEA has attempted to persuade Iran to reinstall cameras and in March this year Tehran tentatively agreed to reactivate some surveillance equipment, however this has yet to be materialized.

The reported slowdown in recent months coincided with the start of limited negotiations between the US and Iran which, combined with the subsequent prisoner exchange agreement, set conditions for more serious engagement between the two sides. The current status of the negotiations remains difficult to ascertain as no significant new developments have been noted in recent weeks, however the deceleration suggests Iran is open to facilitating diplomatic efforts. While further talks remain possible and may contribute to a reduction in regional tensions over the nuclear program, a return to the JCPOA in its previous form remains unlikely prior to the 2024 US presidential elections as Tehran will likely opt to await its outcome.

EU confirms detention of Swedish official in Iran
The EU confirmed this week that a Swedish official employed by the EU diplomatic corps was detained by Iranian security forces in April 2022 and has been imprisoned in that country since. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also confirmed the detention and said it is working “very intensively” to release the official whose imprisonment was first reported by the New York Times. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrel likewise confirmed the identity of the prisoner as Johan Floderus and said the EU has pushed for his release “relentlessly” since. For their part, Iranian officials denied any knowledge when asked to comment on the reports.

Details of the detention remain limited but in July 2022 Iranian state-linked sources said a Swedish citizen had been detained on charges of spying – a common accusation used by Iranian authorities to target foreign citizens. The detention coincided with, and formed an assessed response to, Sweden’s conviction of Hamid Nouri – the former head of an Iranian prison – for his role in the 1988 mass executions of Iranian political prisoners. Nouri was sentenced by a Swedish court to life imprisonment for “crimes against international law” and the detention of Floderus may have been carried out with a view to pressure Sweden to overturn Nouri’s conviction. Regardless, following the earlier arrests of Belgian, French and German citizens amongst others, the reports this week underline Iran’s engagement in “hostage diplomacy” to extract concessions from the West. While Floderus was abducted in Iran, this policy understandably extends beyond Iranian territory and translates into a persistent threat of Iran-linked kidnappings against Western individuals operating in countries where Iran-linked groups are present.

Russian fighter jets join Iranian air force
Iranian state-linked sources reported this week the arrival of the first batch of Russian Yak-130 advanced trainer and light-combat aircraft to Iran. Video footage on 2 September depicted at least two jets being tested at the 8th Tactical Air Force base near Isfahan and state media reported that the aircraft are being deployed to train air force pilots to fly 4th generation aircraft.

The Iranian Air Force already operates the so-called HESA Yasin version – a homegrown model unveiled in 2019 – to train fighter pilots however the addition of the Yak-130 is a significant upgrade and now constitutes the most advanced and modern fighter jet trainer in its inventory. While primarily intended for training purposes, the aircraft can also be used in a light combat support capacity. Other capabilities include aging Su-24 fencers, SU-22 Fitter, and the F-5 Tiger II – all third or fourth-generation aircraft added during the 1970s, prior to the Iranian Revolution. Since the expiration of a weapons embargo, Iran has embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize its fleet and last year Tehran and Moscow reportedly struck a bartering agreement whereby Russia agreed to provide advanced jets in exchange for Iranian UAVs.

In addition to the Yak-130 models, this reportedly also included a squadron of SU-35 jets which, once added, will significantly further enhance Iranian air force capabilities. While the timeline for their arrival remains unclear, this week’s arrival of the Yak-130 serves as a precursor for the Su-35 and will likely enhance the readiness of Iranian fighter pilots to use the more advanced Russian-made combat aircraft.

Authorities detain Amini’s uncle ahead of anniversary
This week, Iranian authorities reportedly detained the uncle of Mahsa Amini days prior to the anniversary of her death which sparked nationwide, months-long protests in 2022. Sources and family members said no reason for his detention was given yet the arrest follows several seemingly arbitrary detentions of individuals connected with the 2022 protests and appears part of a coordinated campaign of intimidation conducted ahead of the anniversary.

Limited reports in recent weeks suggest plans by protest organizers to renew demonstrations during the anniversary, with the same reports citing plans for nationwide gatherings on 16 September. The scope of the protests, largely coordinated on social media, remains difficult to verify beforehand but visible steps are currently being undertaken by the authorities to pre-empt any demonstrations, with various reports citing an increase in security measures, including checkpoints and enhanced troop deployments, in the western provinces of Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan. To recall, these provinces served as an epicenter for the most intense protests in 2022. An intensification in security measures can be expected ahead of 16 September as well as in the days after the anniversary.

In a related development, the anniversary nearly coincides with the 19 September deadline issued to the Iraqi government to relocate Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups based in the KR-I. To recall, the protests last year coincided with Iranian cross-border strikes targeting dissident groups in the region over their alleged involvement in stoking unrest inside Iran. In August, Iranian officials threatened to renew unilateral strikes unless the Iraqi government fulfills an agreement to relocate opposition groups before the deadline. Related developments will be monitored closely over the period 16-19 September considering the understandable potential for escalation in western Iran.


SDF declare end of military operations in northeastern Syria
Clashes between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Deir Ez Zour Military Council (DMC) continued this week in the Deir Ez Zour province following weeks of hostilities sparked by the arrest of Abu Khawla – a senior commander of the DMC. This week, the SDF launched an operation to retake the remaining areas controlled by the DMC and affiliated Arab tribal fighters, as US and coalition officials continued efforts to mediate and de-escalate the situation. Notably, on 5 September, the SDF launched an operation to retake the town of Ziban – the last stronghold of tribal elements affiliated with the DMC – and pledged to restore control within “24 hours”.

The SDF subsequently regained control on 6 September and declared an end to military operations in Deir Ez Zour, but follow-up search operations continued to be reported in the vicinity on 7 September. The SDF also convened a meeting with tribal elements in the town. While the restoration of control of Ziban appears to have calmed the situation along the Euphrates, underlying tensions are assessed to remain, and reports of localized clashes continue to circulate. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), over 90 people have been killed, including nine civilians, following the outbreak of hostilities on 27 August.

The regional repercussions of the fighting are also significant considering the influx of Iran-linked elements. As detailed in the last Talos Regional Report, several Iranian-backed and Syrian government-linked militia groups reportedly arrived in the province to support Arab tribal elements in the uprising. This week, the commander of the Baqir Brigades was cited by Iranian media describing the current situation as the “new uprising by Syrians against the US occupation” while the SDF commander Mazloum Abdi described the episode as a deliberate attempt by the Syrian government to remove the SDF and, by extension, coalition forces from northeastern Syria. Limited reports also suggest the involvement of Russian elements in coordinating cooperation between the Syrian government, Iranian and Arab tribal elements fighting alongside the DMC in a clear effort to stoke divisions within the SDF. Such engagements between these sides are not new and the DMC’s increasing engagement with the Syrian government is indeed widely perceived as a key reason for the arrest of Abu Khawla earlier in August.

Related developments will be monitored closely yet the outlook for renewed hostilities and associated efforts by outside actors to capitalize on these divisions remains understandably elevated over the near term. For the coalition, this presents an enduring challenge in terms of maintaining stability in northeastern Syria as well as ensuring the effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations in the area.

Multiple Syrian government soldiers killed in Latakia province
Hostilities also remain elevated in the northwestern parts of Syria where, on 1 September, another attack conducted by Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – a former al-Qaeda-linked group that controls significant parts of Idlib province as well as small pockets in Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama provinces – targeted Syrian government forces stationed in the Jabal al-Akrad area of northern Latakia. Casualty figures remain subject to conflicting reports but media reports claimed nine Syrian government soldiers were killed, and several wounded, whereas a local source consulted by Talos indicated five government soldiers were killed and at least one member of the HTS.

The clashes on 1 September follow a period of escalation in Idlib and Latakia provinces where Russian and Syrian airstrikes intensified in mid-August, targeting militant and jihadist elements in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. On 26 August, members of Ansar al-Tawhid – another former AQ-linked faction – conducted a complex attack involving the detonation of explosives followed by gunfire against Syrian government forces in southern Idlib province. At least 11 government soldiers were killed as a result of what constitutes one of the most significant attacks in the region this year.

While these groups are excluded from the Russia-Turkey truce agreement reached in 2020 and which largely froze broader conflict activity in Idlib province, the latest escalation remains an object of concern that may reignite more significant hostilities following a period of relative stability. A continuation of large-scale attacks against Syrian government positions will understandably raise pressure for more concerted counter-terrorism efforts in Idlib and Latakia provinces which may, in the medium term, undermine the truce agreement should Turkish-backed forces be drawn in.


Four killed during unrest linked to ethnic tensions in Kirkuk
Ethnic tensions involving Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish residents escalated in the Kirkuk city this week, culminating in violent protests and the imposition of a city-wide curfew on 2 September. The escalation is linked to the ongoing efforts to implement a directive by Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani to transfer control over several premises and HQs in the city from federal forces to the KDP – a directive issued in line with an agreement reached between the two sides during the 2022 government formation process but which, for various reasons, has been stalled until now. The directive was met with resistance from PMF-linked elements and related tensions culminated in the outbreak of violent clashes that, according to various reports, left at least four individuals dead and several others wounded. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Report (available to subscribers).

Turkish UAV strikes continue to target PKK in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil
Turkish airstrike activity remains elevated across the KR-I, with a relatively high number of strikes recorded over the week targeting PKK-linked locations. A noticeable change in strike patterns involved an uptick in operations outside established areas of operations. This included most notably a large number of operations recorded in northern Sulaymaniyah province where nine UAVs and airstrikes were reported during the week to be compared with two the previous week and none the week before. These included coordinated operations between 31 August and 1 September as various sources reported airstrikes conducted by fighter jets in northern Sharbazher and Pshdar districts. The Turkish Ministry of Defense later claimed 14 caves and several PKK warehouses and logistics facilities were targeted however the casualties were not specified. Later, two noteworthy precision strikes conducted with UAVs were recorded in the Penjwin district on 2 September, killing one PKK operative transiting on a motorcycle near the Komari village. On 5 September, another UAV strike targeted a vehicle near the Qandil Municipality building in Pshdar, with the building sustaining damages as a result. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Report (available to subscribers).


Iran pushing to hold trilateral meetings with Turkey and Saudi Arabia
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan arrived in Tehran on 3 September to meet counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in what was the foreign minister’s first visit to the country since assuming his position in June. While details of the discussions were limited beyond the usual diplomatic rhetoric that stressed the importance of expanding bilateral cooperation, a Saudi-based source said the two also discussed the prospects of arranging trilateral economic meetings between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The same source noted that the initiative is being pursued primarily by Iran and it remains to be seen whether it will materialize. This follows both Turkey and Iran’s recent re-engagement with Saudi Arabia which plausibly sets conditions for cooperation between all three sides. 

While not explicitly stated, the meeting also likely discussed ways to coordinate interests in Syria and Iraq amidst a flurry of diplomatic meetings coinciding with Fidan’s visit. This included Amirabdollahian visit to Syria the previous week and Fidan’s previous visit to Iraq where Iran and Turkish interests differ but where the two sides have successfully coordinated strategies to avoid any outright confrontation. The meeting also took place the day prior to President Erdogan’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin where the Turkish president attempted, but ultimately failed, to secure a renewal of the grain export deal from Ukraine amidst soaring commodity prices. Regardless, the meeting consolidates Turkey’s role as a mediator between the West and Russia over Ukraine which nominally affords Turkey a degree of leverage against the West.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi ambassador arrived in Iran as travel ban allows football team to play in Iran
In another symbolic step towards restoring diplomatic ties, the Saudi ambassador to Iran, Abdullah bin Saud al-Anzi, arrived in Tehran on 5 September to formally assume his duties. In a ceremony, al-Anzi reaffirmed the Saudi leadership’s commitment to strengthening ties and increasing “communications and meetings” with Iran. The event was held a day after Iranian ambassador Alireza Enayati also arrived in Riyadh and thus completed the last step in the process of restoring full diplomatic ties that started with the announcement in March of the China-brokered agreement.

In a separate but related development that is equally of symbolic significance, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to lift a previous ban that prevented football clubs from the two countries from playing on each other’s territories. Matches between Saudi and Iranian clubs were previously played on neutral venues due to political tensions, however the Asian Football Federation confirmed this week that home and away matches will now proceed as normal.

Saudi Arabia reaffirms cooperation with Russia on oil prices following BRICS admission
On 6 September, President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman reaffirmed in a phone call their mutual commitment to maintaining stability in global energy markets. An official readout by the Kremlin expressed “satisfaction” with the level of cooperation between the two sides within the framework of the OPEC+ alliance while the Saudi government readout also stressed Riyadh’s aspirations to “build economic partnerships” with other BRICS countries.

The phone call came a day after Russia and Saudi Arabia announced the extension of voluntary production cuts to the end of the year. The price per barrel rose as a result to $90 as oil industry analysts already anticipate a reduction in supplies during the fourth quarter. The production cuts announced on 5 September amount to 300 thousand barrels per day and came as a surprise to many analysts considering prevailing market conditions.

The joint statements this week further underscore Saudi Arabia’s steadfast commitment to its energy cooperation with Russia despite Western sanctions and unsuccessful US-led pressure on Riyadh to reduce collaboration with Moscow. The timing is also significant following Saudi Arabia’s recent admission, alongside the UAE and Iran, to the BRICS group in August. While comprised of multiple countries with divergent geopolitical and economic objectives, the group is seen – and indeed promoted by China and Russia – as a challenge to the West, with Saudi Arabia’s admission potentially seen as another symbolic stance against the US.

While the tangible economic implications of joining the group are limited, and while perceptions of the group as an “anti-western” bloc may be exaggerated, the inclusion of Iran and explicit discussions within the group to end the “dollarization” of the world economy, certainly makes Saudi Arabia’s inclusion a potential source of tension with the US and western partners. So far, Riyadh – like the UAE – has downplayed such perceptions by differentiating economic and political interests, however Riyadh’s future engagement with the group, and its cooperation with Russia, will be monitored closely.


Western officials pressing UAE over Russian exports
In a related development, a report by the Wall Street Journal this week stated that officials from the US, UK, and EU are intensifying pressure on the emirates to crack down on sanctioned exports of sensitive materials to Russia. The report said officials from several countries visited the UAE this week to meet and address the issue with government officials, notably concerning the exports of computer chips and electronic components involved in the manufacturing of military technology used in the war in Ukraine.

US and other officials refrained from publicly commenting on the reports, and details remain limited, however this follows long-standing pressure from the West on the UAE to crack down on financial activities utilized by Russia and other countries to avoid sanctions. The timing of the report is also noteworthy following the UAE’s admission to the above-discussed BRICS group. For their part, a UAE official denied that the country in any way facilitates sanctions-evading exports and stressed that the government is continuously monitoring the export of “dual-use products”.


Israel Foreign Minister inaugurates embassy in Bahrain
On 3 September, the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrived in Bahrain to mark the third anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two sides. Cohen was reportedly scheduled to visit the kingdom earlier this summer however the trip was postponed at the time due to Israeli-Palestinian tensions emerging in the wake of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the contested al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. During the trip this week, Cohen notably inaugurated Israel’s new embassy in Manama and, in a meeting with counterpart Abdullatif al-Zayani, signed several agreements to expand cooperation within the fields of technology, finance and bilateral relations.

The visit was rebuked by Palestinian Hamas as well as Lebanese Hezbollah which, in separate statements, strongly denounced regional countries for normalizing ties with Israel. While such rhetoric can be expected from these groups, the normalization is not without potential local repercussions as protests denouncing the rapprochement continue to be reported inside Bahrain on a near-weekly basis. While the majority of these gatherings remain small and peaceful, a level of local resistance is assessed to remain widespread and demonstrations over the issue can be expected to continue as Israeli-Bahraini relations deepen. 


Foreign medical staff abducted in Yemen
Two foreign employees, including a German and Myanmar national, working for Doctors Without Borders, were reportedly abducted in late August by unidentified gunmen in Yemen. The organization released a statement on 28 August claiming it lost contact with the staff members who were working in the Marib province at the time. Further details were not released, citing concerns for their safety, but reports citing a government source later confirmed that the two had been abducted by an unidentified armed group. As of writing, no faction has claimed responsibility for the abduction but the district where the kidnap took place is currently controlled by Yemen government forces and affiliated tribal factions.

In March 2022, two other members of Doctors Without Borders were abducted in the same district by what was described at the time as “tribal elements”. Both were released unharmed approximately six months later with a ransom payment believed to have been made in exchange. The motives for the most recent incident remains understandably speculative but the majority of kidnapping targeting foreign staff are usually conducted for economic motives. To recall, in August, the UN announced the release of five employees kidnapped by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and although the organization denies any ransom payment, several sources indicate the abductions were likewise made for economic purposes and that a payment to secure their release was eventually made.

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