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Implications of recent escalation in US-Iran tensions on Iranian domestic, foreign policy – Iran Analysis

Executive Summary

Over the months of April and May, the US took multiple measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign vis-a-vis Iran, including the revocation of sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil and deployment of US military assets to the Middle East.

As a response to the perceived provocations, on May 8, Iran announced its decision to partially halt its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and set a 60-day deadline for European states to renegotiate the financial terms of the agreement, marking a highly significant development since the ratification of the nuclear deal in 2015.

The purported involvement of Iran and its affiliates in the recent uptick in attacks against US allies, particularly the May 12 attack against four naval vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the UAE, has further fueled tensions in the region.

Iran has resisted direct negotiations with the US thus far, which indicates the high level of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy. Tensions are liable to remain high as both Iran and the US are likely to continue their strategic posturing in the region over the short term, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to regularly review emergency and contingency protocols as a basic security precaution due to the risk of limited hostilities between Iran, the US, and its Gulf allies. Those operating in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria are advised to maintain a low profile due to threat of attacks by Iranian-linked elements.

Current Situation

On May 8, Iran’s SCNS released a statement announcing Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA and setting a 60-day deadline for European states to take steps to counteract the negative effects of US sanctions.

The US President Donald Trump subsequently issued an executive order to impose sanctions on Iran’s metal industry.

On May 11, the US sent Patriot air defense systems to US CENTCOM based in Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base.

On May 12, the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert advising “all US citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq” and the “requirement to remain vigilant.”

On May 12, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency stated that two out of the four civilian commercial cargo ships that were subject to a “sabotage attempt” near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, off the eastern coast near Fujairah, were Saudi oil tankers.

On May 14, the Yemeni Houthis claimed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack against an oil pipeline belonging to the official Saudi Arabian Oil Company in Riyadh Province’s towns of al-Duwadimi and Afif.

On May 15, the US ordered the departure of all non-emergency US government employees stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil from Iraq.

On May 18, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued an advisory warning of risks to civil aviation over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

On May 19, a rocket landed in the vicinity of Baghdad’s Green Zone, less than two kilometers away from the US Embassy.

On May 20, the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi stated that Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of enriched uranium had increased by four-fold.

On May 20, two ballistic missiles were reportedly intercepted over Mecca Province’s Taif and Jeddah. Yemeni Houthis denied involvement in the attack.

On May 24, the US announced additional deployment of 1,500 military personnel to the Middle East.

Background

In May 2018, the US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated between Iran and P5 +1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) countries in 2015. Subsequently, the US re-imposed sanctions related to Iran’s export of oil in November 2018, but granted sanction waivers to eight countries including India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, and Turkey for a period of 180 days. On April 8, 2019, the US designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This was followed by the US’s decision to end sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil starting on May 2, 2019. Out of the seven sanctions related to Iran’s uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear energy cooperation, the US revoked two sanction waivers related to Iran’s uranium enrichment process under the JCPOA – one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman and one that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for raw yellowcake with Russia. On May 5, US officials announced their decision to deploy an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East citing indications of Iranian threat, but provided no further details. This prompted Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA on May 8, 2019.

Assessments & Forecast

Impact of IRGC’s designation as an FTO:

The designation of the IRGC in its entirety, including its extraterritorial wing, the Quds Force, as a “terrorist entity” marks a highly significant development, as it constitutes the first ever instance wherein the US has labelled a country’s military organization as an FTO. Such a designation comes amid the US’s continued policy to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government to end its alleged role in destabilization activities across the regional as well as the international stage. It forms part of the US’s efforts to depict the Iranian administration as “rogue” or an “outlaw”, and is aimed at further isolating Iran on the international stage.

The move is largely symbolic, given the fact that US sanctions already target the IRGC and its leaders, affiliates, and subsidiaries such the Basij Resistance and the Quds Force and the US had already designated the IRGC as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in 2017. However, the latest step will likely augment the existing pressure on Iran. Any individual or entity knowingly providing material support to the IRGC will now face the possibility of a 20-year US prison sentence. It will also impose immigration restrictions on members of the IRGC who attempt to travel to the US simply by virtue of their membership or affiliation to the organization. FORECAST: Given that the IRGC has significant stake in the Iranian economy, through this measure, the US likely intends to make it further difficult for foreign entities to conduct business with Iran, which, in turn, would have a negative impact upon the Islamic Republic’s economy. However, the fact that a large extent of the IRGC’s business dealings are known to be carried out through illicit channels, such dealings are unlikely to be significantly affected by the recent designation.

FORECAST: Moreover, such a move is also unlikely to alter Iran’s policies on the regional setting, like its involvement in supporting proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Harakat al-Nujaba (HNA). Rather, given the increased restraints faced by the IRGC, the recent move is liable to increase Iran’s motivation to expand its regional footprint through the above-mentioned proxies as well as other sponsored militias. To this effect, the Iranian government will continue to divert large funds, at the expense of its domestic population, in order to sustain its influence in neighboring countries. This, in turn, is likely to inflame already existing local grievances, which may result in further instances of widespread civil unrest in the country. However, on a broad basis, given Iran’s history of strategic culture and great power rhetoric, a majority of the Iranian populace views the US sanctions as the source of their economic hardship, as compared to the Iranian government’s policies. While this is partly aided by the intensive propaganda campaigns in the country, it nevertheless galvanizes unity in the face of a “foreign aggression”. Thus, it is likely that the Iranian administration will attempt to placate the inherent domestic concerns related to the government’s regional activities and support for its proxies amidst an economic crisis, by attempting to project strength vis-a-vis the US. This may take place through the continued portrayal of strength through military exercises, display of new defense equipment, such as the unveiling of the new domestically produced “Khordad 15” air defense system on June 9. Moreover, the Islamic Republic will seek to counteract the US’s measures by maintaining a relatively belligerent posture, given the influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy.”

FORECAST: By continuing, or rather increasing support for its proxies, the IRGC may be able to effectively target its adversaries, namely the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia-aligned countries in the Gulf over the coming months. In this regard, given that much of the recent attacks in the region, such as the May 19 rocket landing in Baghdad’s Green Zone near the US Embassy, the June 1 rocket attack into Israel’s Mount Hermon from Syria, or the spate of attacks against Saudi targets have consistently targeted Iran’s adversaries, it is likely that they were encouraged by Tehran in an effort to destabilize the region. Moreover, the fact that some of the attacks were carried out against energy-related targets, such as the May 12 targeting of Saudi oil tankers off the coast of UAE’s Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman and the May 14 Houthi-claimed UAV attack on the oil pipeline in Riyadh Province, suggests that Iran may be attempting to weaken the economies of Saudi-aligned countries, given their significant dependence on oil revenues. This would align with Tehran’s strategy of preventing its rival, Saudi Arabia, from expanding its influence in the region and subsequently positioning itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. This, in turn, would allow Iran to prevent the regional balance of power from significantly shifting away from itself, particularly in light of the reimposition of US sanctions.

Potential Ramifications of the imposition of various sanctions on Iran:

A) Oil-related sanctions:

The US’s refusal to extend the 180-day sanctions exemptions for importers of Iranian oil (China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan) from May 2 constitutes a core segment of the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign, as it aims to completely diminish Iran’s oil revenue. Although India and China, the two top importers of Iranian oil, were envisaged to face significant setbacks to its energy security policy due to the US move, it appears that both countries have planned for this eventuality and are effectively looking at alternate sources to fulfill their energy requirements. In this scenario, while neither of the two countries have officially announced their position on the future of Iranian crude imports, it is likely that imports from other key energy players such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will feature on a higher side, specifically in the case of India. This will put further strain on Iran’s revenues from its oil sector, which, in turn, will have a significant adverse impact upon its national economy.

FORECAST: Given that the move has been anticipated since the reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran in November 2018, early indications suggests that apart from the initial shock, the decision has not drastically impacted the global oil market, despite fears of an oil price surge and supply disruptions. This is primarily due to a boost in Saudi Arabia’s oil production in May to fill the gap of Iranian crude, along with similar boosts in production by Iraq and Libya. However, Iran may resort to illegal trade of its oil in the black market, particularly in countries such as Yemen, where the Houthis have been reportedly deriving a majority of its income by selling Iranian oil. Furthermore, Iran may also attempt to export its oil through the use of “switch-off-the-transponder” tactics, which makes tracking ships increasingly difficult.

B) Uranium enrichment-related sanctions:

The May 8 statement released by the SNSC, which was reiterated by Iranian President Rouhani in a televised address, represents a pronounced effort by the Islamic Republic to project strength in response to perceived US provocations in recent years. The decision to halt its partial commitments under the JCPOA regarding enriched uranium and heavy water reserves follows the US’s May 4 revocation of the two sanction waivers, which practically forces Iran to completely overhaul its production of heavy water and uranium enrichment or continue production and find itself in breach of the JCPOA. Moreover, the five sanction waivers that were extended were also reduced from 180 days to 90 days, in which the remaining adherents of the JCPOA are allowed to cooperate with Iran on the sites of Bushehr, Arak, and Fordow without facing US sanctions.

This was followed by the May 20 announcement from the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi according to which, Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of uranium had increased by four-fold. However, Iranian officials reportedly stressed that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the JCPOA. Thus, although Tehran still remains party to the JCPOA, its increased capacity to produce enriched uranium suggests that Iran is likely to soon exceed the 300 kg uranium stockpile limitation set by the accord. FORECAST: However, as indicated in Rouhani’s speech, Tehran will likely retain its enriched uranium (upto 300 kg) and heavy water (upto 130 tons) rather than selling them to other nations while remaining within the limits prescribed in the nuclear deal over the short term, at least until July 8. This would allow Iran to project its adherence to the terms set under the JCPOA.

FORECAST: However, as per the joint statement released by France, Germany, and the UK on May 9, while the European states expressed “regret” over the reinstatement of US sanctions and continued to pledge their willingness to support alternate trade mechanisms such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), they also categorically rejected Tehran’s 60-day ultimatum for negotiations. While this highlights their unwillingness to publicly be strong armed onto the negotiation table, it is also indicative of their reluctance to oppose US policies. Furthermore, the reimposition of the US sanctions has increased the risk of conducting business with Tehran for foreign companies, several of whom have already ceased their operations in the Islamic Republic. This is likely to have a significant adverse impact upon Iran’s economy over the coming months.

C) Metal industry-related sanctions:

The US President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to impose new sanctions on Iran’s metal industry are aimed at undermining Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals, the country’s largest non-oil sector, which reportedly accounts for approximately ten percent of its export economy. While Iran’s mining industry was already facing severe setbacks due to shipping and payment restrictions, the recent move is liable to inherently impact employment provided by the metal as well as the automotive industry, which reportedly constitutes almost six percent of Iran’s total labor force. This is liable to significantly exacerbate domestic workers’ grievances, which have manifested in the form of persistent localized demonstrations across Iran over the recent months.

FORECAST: In this context, public protests surrounding employment, pensions, inflation, increase in the prices of basic commodities and other economic-related issues are liable to continue in a significant manner over the coming weeks and months. Such demonstrations will likely take place across Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran, as well as in outlying provinces such as Khuzestan and Kordestan, where the locals comprising of an Arab-majority or Kurdish population perceive themselves as marginalized by the Shiite Iranian government’s policies. This will not only increase the threat of civil unrest in the country as a whole, but also exacerbate sectarian tensions between the countries minority communities and the Shiite-led government.

Lack of direct engagement, continued strategic posturing liable to prolong tensions in the region:

The Iranian administration’s current position to resist direct negotiations with the US, albeit agreeing to mediation talks with Japan, highlights the high degree of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy at this juncture. Such elements continue to criticize the Rouhani administration’s moderate approach towards dealing with the US and aspire to correct the perceived weakness with which the terms of the JCPOA were negotiated in 2015. FORECAST: This, combined with the relative lack of tangible economic benefits from JCPOA, is liable to further embolden segments of hardliners and conservative elements within Iran’s political sphere. This may result in further appointments of such elements in key leadership posts, which is liable to significantly hinder the popularity of more moderate officials, consisting of figures such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This is underscored by the appointment of General Hossein Salami, a prominent hardliner within Iran’s military establishment as the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief on April 21. Such appointments are not only liable to increase the anti-US rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic but also significantly hamper the potential for backchannel negotiations with the US, which are generally conducted by more moderate officials.

FORECAST: On a regional level, tensions are liable to remain high due to the strategic posturing of the two countries, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table. The deployment of US warships, including an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force on May 5, the sending of Patriot missile systems on May 11, as well as the decision to deploy an additional 1500 US military personnel to the region, is likely to significantly increase tensions in the Persian Gulf waters and the Strait of Hormuz over the coming weeks and months. This is particularly in light of Tehran’s persistent effort to assert its authority as the legitimate custodian of security across its territorial waters. These tensions may manifest in the form of limited confrontation between the naval forces of the two sides, which constitutes a general risk to shipping through the critical energy choke point.

FORECAST: Tensions are also likely to increase between Saudi-aligned countries and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Iran may encourage its backed elements, particularly the Yemeni Houthis, to increase their attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This would also align with the Houthis’ aim of weakening the economies of countries that are part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen in order to reduce their ability to engage in the ongoing civil war in the country. Iran may also use its proxies and backed elements in Syria and Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, to put pressure on the US by using them as leverage against Israel, the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. This may manifest in the form of attacks against Israel by Iranian-backed elements in Syria, as witnessed on June 1, when a rocket was launched from Syria towards Israel’s Mount Hermon. However, such attacks are likely to remain limited and constrained to areas within close proximity to the Syria-Israel border. This is because an attack deep inside Israeli territory would trigger a large-scale conflict between Israel on one side and Syria and Lebanon on the other, and Syria is currently not interested in such a scenario given its preoccupation in hostilities with rebel forces.

FORECAST: Overall, as tensions between the US and Iran get prolonged, the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries will increase. Such a military confrontation is likely to be limited at least in the short term, with Iran attempting to use its proxies as a means to put pressure on the US and its Gulf allies and the US retaliating with a further increase in military presence in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is currently not interested in a broad conflict with the US given that its economy is unlikely to be able to sustain such a cost, as previously assessed, the influence of hardliners on the country’s foreign policy reduces the possibility of backchannel negotiations. This combined with the fact that the US is unlikely to agree to any terms that do not significantly diminish Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, further reduces the possibility of successful negotiations. Therefore, as these tensions persist over a long period of time, the risk of a full scale conflict between the US and Iran cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other may manifest in some form of cold war or even a limited or full military confrontation.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

US citizens and other Western nationals operating or residing in other countries in the Middle East with sizeable Iranian-backed elements are advised to keep a low profile and maintain heightened vigilance, given the potential for attacks by such groups.

Those operating vital infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector, in Saudi Arabia are advised to review security protocols in light of the threat posed by Yemeni Houthi-perpetrated attacks, particularly through the use of UAVs.

Those planning to operate commercial aircraft over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are advised to exercise heightened caution and remain apprised of further FAA notices regarding the increased threat to aviation in this region.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

US, UK, France missile strikes against Syrian government likely attempt to deter Damascus from further use of chemical weapons – Syria Analysis

Executive Summary

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, UK, and France fired more than 100 cruise missiles against Syrian government facilities in Homs Province and near Damascus.

The strikes are likely an effort by the West to deter the Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, as well as to send a message to Iran and Russia, amidst their perceived expansion across the Middle East.

The attacks are unlikely to significantly impact the Syrian conflict on-the-ground in the long-term, given pro-government forces’ overall superiority over rebel forces.

While tensions will increase between the parties, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the West remains unlikely at this time.

Iranian-backed groups may target US interests and allies across the region over the coming days.

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Current Situation

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, France, and the UK conducted multiple strikes against Syrian military facilities across Syria, with approximately 120 cruise missiles fired at these targets.

The strikes, which were carried out from naval vessels in response to the suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against the town of Douma on April 7, targeted government military facilities in Homs Province and the Damascus area. Near Damascus, US Tomahawk missiles hit Kiswah Military Base, Mezzeh Airbase, Dumayr Airbase, as well as a scientific research facility in Barzeh District. In Homs Province, the attacks, which involved the UK’s Shadow Storm cruise missiles, targeted a scientific research facility in Qusayr District. At the time of writing, while French forces also carried out missile attacks, their exact targets and scale are yet to be known.

According to pro-government forces, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) air defense systems intercepted the “majority of the US fired missiles at the Damascus’ area”.

While at the time of writing the exact number of casualties is unconfirmed, according to pro-government media outlets, three civilians were wounded as a result of the attack.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated,“Right now, this is a one-time shot”. UK Prime Minister Theresa May stressed that there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force”. However, May also stated that the strikes were not about “regime change”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned the missile attacks. The spokesperson further stressed that there were no Russian casualties as a result of the strikes.

Assessments & Forecast

Assessments: Strikes likely symbolic and meant to deter Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, send message to Moscow, Tehran 

The strike highlights our previous assessments that the Western response to the chemical weapons attack will be localized and target facilities linked to the use of chemical weapon, although they were larger than last year’s US response to the Khan Shaykhun incident. The use of cruise missiles, which allow attacking targets from a standoff distance, was likely meant to avoid any potential risks associated with operating in or near Syrian government airspace.Because the strikes hit research centers and storage facilities, the West’s response will likely impede the short-term capabilities of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons. However, in the medium-term, particularly in light of recent reports that the Syrian government transferred some of their weapons and forces away from multiple bases, these capabilities were likely not be significantly damaged and it is therefore possible that further attacks using chemical agents may be witnessed across Syria over the coming weeks and months.

In spite of the still relatively limited scope of the strike, the West’s operations in Syria are likely symbolic and meant to deter the Syrian government from using such weapons, especially because of the large number of targeted bases and installations. The strikes also aim to prevent the “normalization” of the usage of chemical agents across the globe, as these type of weapons had been used persistently throughout the Syrian conflict. Despite the low likelihood that many missiles were actually intercepted, if at all, these claims by the Syrian government, as well as the lack of significant casualties among pro-government forces, will likely be capitalized on to bolster its image among its troops and supporters across the country. Coupled with the aforementioned assessments regarding the potential for further chemical attacks by the SAA, the strikes’ deterrence impact will also be limited.

Globally, the development comes amidst an uptick in tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s perceived aggressive policies across the globe. These include Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, alleged interference in elections in Western countries, as well as most recently, the suspected attempted assassination of a Russian national in the UK. The West likely used these attacks to deter Moscow from engaging in further actions perceived as hostile towards the West and its allies. In the Middle East, the strikes occurred amidst growing concerns among Western allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, regarding Iran’s growing regional influence, including in Syria. The Western strike against Tehran’s important ally, is likely an attempt to intimidate Iran and send a message that its actions are not unnoticed.

Assessments: Strikes unlikely to impact on-ground situation in medium-to long-term; retaliation by Iranian-backed elements against US interests, allies possible across region 

FORECAST: In the short-term, the US-led operations may slightly impact the situation on-the-ground in the vicinity of the targeted facilities. In addition to hindering their operational capabilities, the strikes also led pro-government forces to reportedly transfer some of their weapons and vehicles away from bases. This now forces them to redeploy and reorganize. During this period of time, rebel forces may exploit the possible disarray from the strike and launch assaults on government-held territories and capture some areas from the Syrian government. This is especially likely on fronts near targeted facilities, such as the rebel enclave in the Dumayr area, northern Daraa Province, and northern Homs Province. Nonetheless, in the medium- to long-term, given the strikes’ limited scale and overall superiority of pro-government forces vis-a-vis rebel forces, the developments are unlikely to significantly impact the situation on-ground, with the SAA and its allies likely reversing any possible short-term gains by rebel forces.

The attack by the US, France, and the UK does not represent a shift in the West’s policy regarding the Syrian conflict. This is highlighted by the statements of these countries’ officials that the strikes are a singular, isolated response. However, should the use of chemical weapons persist, additional missile strikes, as well as air raids to a lesser degree, may reoccur over the coming months, targeting the Syrian government’s military facilities.

The operations are liable to increase the already heightened tensions between Moscow and the West. However, particularly given the lack of reports about Russian casualties as a result of the missile attacks, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US, UK, and France remains highly unlikely at this time. Instead, Moscow’s response will focus on diplomatic measures against these three countries, such as sanctions. This assessment is highlighted by the April 13 bill by Russia’s Duma to implement sanctions on US alcohol, tobacco, and agro-products. Additionally, cyber attacks by Russian hackers against government institutions in the UK, US, and France may also be witnessed over the coming days.

The events are unlikely to have a significant impact on regional dynamics as a whole. However, it remains possible that a localized retaliation by pro-government forces and Iranian-backed militias will take place against US troops and their backed forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria and factions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in southern Homs Province. Should this occur, it will likely include mortar fire and IED detonations. Attacks against US interests may also occur in Iraq, where such actions have occurred in the past. Iranian-backed elements throughout the region may also seek to target countries that are considered Western allies. This mainly includes Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite Houthis may be directed by Tehran to intensify their ballistic missile attacks deep in Saudi territory. Additionally, albeit to a much lesser degree, it cannot be ruled out that Iranian-backed groups, such as Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions, will target Israel, including in the form of IED and anti-tank guided missile attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops along the border with Syria.

Recommendations

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 – Israel & Syria Alert

Current Situation

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 - Israel & Syria Alert | MAX Security

Click here to see Map Legend 

According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), IAF aircraft targeted the Syrian Air Defense System, as well as Iranian military bases in Syria during the morning hours of February 10. Twelve targets, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military targets, were attacked. The airstrikes reportedly targeted Iranian military bases in al-Kiswah, located south of Damasus.

The attack was launched in retaliation to the penetration of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from Syria into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, as well as Syria’s shooting down of an Israeli F-16 with anti-aircraft fire earlier in the day. The latter led to at least one missile landing in Israel, sounding multiple code red sirens in the Golan Heights.

Departures from Ben Gurion International Airport were temporarily halted and arrivals were delayed during the morning hours of February 10 due to increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace. However, further reports indicate that operations at the airport have resumed.

According to incoming reports, the IAF conducted further airstrikes against unspecified targets near al-Kiswah during the late morning hours of February 10.

Assessments & Forecast

The development is highly notable given that it marks the first Iranian launched UAV into Israeli airspace. The incident represents a significant escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. Although reports do not indicate whether the UAV was armed or not, the drone was likely being utilized for reconnaissance and attempting to gain intelligence on IDF troop positions in the Israeli Golan Heights. Such information would allow Iran’s proxy Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah to target IDF positions in Israeli Golan Heights in a future conflict.

The IDF achieves two objectives by targeting Iranian installations in Syria. First, the Israeli government displays a lack of tolerance against any breach to its sovereignty, regardless of its severity. Second, the IDF utilizes such events to neutralize Iranian military facilities in Syria. The IDF has taken increasing efforts against Iran’s actions in Syria in light of the risk that it may pose to Israeli defense. Syria, however, also increased its efforts to retaliate against Israel, as witnessed in today’s incident. Syria’s response is even further significant in regards to this latest development given that it succeeded in shooting down an Israeli aircraft, a feat that the Syrian army has not achieved in recent years. Major successes for the Syrian army in its conflict with both rebels and the Islamic State (IS) likely emboldened it and increased its confidence in terms of conflict with Israel. Israel now faces an increasing threat when conducting such actions given the Syrian army’s higher morale and Iran’s evolving presence in Syria.

Iran’s determination to build its own presence through proxies in Syria, mainly Hezbollah, and in sensitive locales along Israel’s northern borders highlights the risk that the IDF faces in the region. The Israeli government has made attempts both diplomatically and militarily to prevent a buildup of Iranian-backed forces at the border with the Golan Heights, yet this recent development shows Iran’s resilience in proceeding and Syria’s willingness to back Tehran, despite the consequences the Syrian government may face in its own civil war. The Iranian UAV may lead Israel to consider more serious measures in dealing with this threat presented by Hezbollah and other proxies. Israel has already conducted large-scale drills in recent months to simulate a Hezbollah infiltration into northern Israel.
FORECAST: Israel will likely utilize the coming hours to target additional installations in Syria, as recent reports suggest, while Syrian forces may continue to respond forcibly. Syria’s response may include further missiles landing in Israel’s Golan Heights, leading to further code red sirens in the near-term. IED detonations, as well as RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border also remain possible, though to a lesser extent.

No side at this time is likely seeking a major large-scale escalation in conflict, especially Syria given its preoccupation in its own war. The US and Russia are also likely determined to achieve de-escalation between all sides given that such conflict may counteract their own interests in the region. Regardless, the Israeli-Syrian border region is likely to remain tense in the coming days and weeks as the IDF remains persevering in eliminating the threat presented by Iranian-backed proxies and as Syria likely responds to any infiltrations of its own sovereignty. Additionally, increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace may lead to further disruptions to commercial air traffic in the coming hours.

Recommendations

Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside – Iran Analysis

Current Situation

A reported leak of President Rouhani’s proposed government budget last month has triggered a wave of nationwide unrest in Iran which erupted on December 28. The budget leak exposed parts that were generally kept secret, and Iranians discovered that billions of USD were going to the military, hardline organizations, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and religious foundations. At the same time, the budget proposed an end to millions in subsidized and an increase in fuel prices.

Following the leaked budget, Iranians vented their frustration against the money going to the military and clerical establishment via a popular messaging app in Iran used by an estimated half of the country’s 80 million inhabitants.

On December 28, 2017, the hardliners, led by the prominent Ahmad Alamolhoda, started a demonstration in Mashhad, where hundreds shouted slogans against the weak economy and shouted “Death to the Dictator,” and “Death to Rouhani.” Videos of the event spread and triggered protests nationwide in the days that followed, despite attempts by authorities to block access to popular social media and messaging services used to organize and publicize the protests.

On January 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the unrest stating that the blamed “outside enemies” for the week’s events, without specifying who. President Rouhani, meanwhile, appealed for calm and maintained that the protesters “had the right to be heard.”

At the time of writing, the unrest has reportedly led to at least 450 arrests and 21 deaths.

Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside - Iran Analysis | MAX Security

 Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside - Iran Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

The unrest recorded over the past week comes amidst small-scale protests witnessed across Iran over the past months surrounding topics of economy and employment. These include demonstrations of hundreds of oil workers and truck drivers protesting late payment of wages, workers at a large sugar cane plantation and mill complex, bus drivers, teachers, tractor workers in Tabriz against their factory’s closure, Tehran tyre workers at bonuses being delayed, and victims of failed financial institutions across the country. In this context, the leaked budget served as a catalyst for these latest protests, and underscores the frustration and anger among large segments of the population over social-economic problems among the disaffected young people in peripheral, rural areas who have largely driven the demonstrations, in stark contrast to the protests witnessed in 2009 during the so-called “Green Revolution”, which were largely led by the urban middle class.

While the unrest began over economic grievances, it has since taken on a political dimension as demonstrators have voiced anger over corruption and the perceived authoritarian political system as a whole. This is reflected particularly in the anger over Iran’s regional policies and how it spends billions of USD to extend its influence abroad, including in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, despite the high unemployment and economic woes at home, as highlighted by the slogans of “Let go of Syria, think about us” and “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon”. Moreover, what makes these protests exceptionally notable is the extent of the radical and sometimes slogans used, as some have called for the death of the president and even unprecedented calls of “Death to Khamenei” and calling for the Supreme Leader to step down and demanding the exit of clerics from politics.

FORECAST: We assess that it’s unlikely that the protest movement will survive in the long-term and lead to a collapse of the system for several reasons. First, the fact that it has taken on a political dimension and the use of political slogans has been exploited by the authorities as a justification to crack down on protesters as “anti-social” and violent elements. Moreover, this government approach has been aided by the support protesters have received from abroad, particularly from the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian authorities already perceive, or at the very least vocalize the perception that the unrest has been manufactured and manipulated by foreign governments. That these foreign governments are openly and publicly supporting the protests will thus only further serve to strengthen this perception and allow the government to increase its crackdowns under the guise of protecting Iran’s sovereignty from the interference of foreign states. With this in mind, should the Iranian authorities decide to implement their forces fully, including the IRGC and the Basij, in repressing the protests, it’s highly likely the demonstrations will be swiftly minimized.

Second, unlike the “Green Revolution” in 2009, these latest protests lack leadership, alternative, and a shared vision. Protesters are united in what they don’t want, rather than what they want, as indicated by the often contradictory slogans. Some want democracy, yet more nostalgic ones praise the former monarchy and the Shah. Demonstrators have called for the death of moderate Rouhani, yet also called for an end to the clerical establishment. Others still are invoking nationalistic ideals and racial slogans, such as “We are Aryans, we don’t worship Arabs.” Overall, given this lack of leadership and organization, the protests are likely to either peter out over time, particularly if the government shows a willingness to make concessions and reforms or will be quelled by an increased crackdown.

That said, we assess that the heightened unrest will continue for longer in the country’s peripheral regions where both civil unrest and militancy stemming from sectarian tensions have long been an issue. These include the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, a predominantly Arab-populated southwestern Iran, including primarily Khuzestan Province, and the majority-Kurdish-populated northwestern Iranian provinces of Kordestan, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Ilam. Over the past week, we have already witnessed a higher level of unrest and arrests in these areas, as local activists and militant groups are likely seeking to exploit the nationwide discontent to further their own separatist ambitions. Furthermore, the authorities have a history of severely cracking down on these regions, thus making it more likely for escalations between security forces and locals. Over the coming weeks and months, such escalation will likely lock these regions in a vicious cycle of arrests, which subsequently provoke the locals to further unrest and militant attacks, prompting a security crackdown in return.

Recommendations

Business travel to Tehran, Esfahan and other major cities may continue at this time while remaining cognizant of ongoing protests and avoiding the vicinity of such events.

Western nationals are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

We advise against all travel to outlying border areas with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Armenia due to ongoing militant activity.

Those traveling to Iran should anticipate prolonged questioning by customs officials. Refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists. Cooperate with all security officials and respond to questioning in a respectable and calm manner.

Refrain from discussing the current political situation, Iran’s nuclear program, or tensions with the United States and Israel with local residents as a basic precaution. Be advised that authorities may monitor communications from hotels and other facilities frequented by foreigners, while internet access may be limited.

In the event that embassy services are required, it is advised to check the operational status of pertinent embassies and consulates. Consular services for US citizens are provided through the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

Iran likely to influence Iraqi government in proceeding forcibly against Kurdistan Regional Government – Iraq Analysis

Current Situation

Iran likely to influence Iraqi government in proceeding forcibly against Kurdistan Regional Government - Iraq Analysis | MAX SecurityClick here to see Map Legend

Following the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) passing of an independence referendum on September 25, the Iraqi army, along with Iranian-backed Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), entered and took control of Kirkuk Province. Since then, hostilities between pro-Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have halted as both sides engage in negotiations. The president of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, resigned on October 29, calling into question the future of northern Iraq. Islamic State (IS) has already taken advantage of the disarray to launch its own attacks in attempts to make a comeback as it faces major setbacks elsewhere.

Negotiations between KRG and Baghdad

Negotiations between the Iraqi central government and the KRG remain at a stalemate and were partially stalled following the 7.3 magnitude earthquake taking place along the Iraqi-Iranian border.

Control of border posts is the most recent contentious issue between the two parties. The KRG offered a proposal to share control of the 29 border crossings currently under Kurdish Peshmerga administration; however, the Iraqi government rejected this offer and demanded they be handed over. Iraqi officials threatened military action if border posts remain in KRG-control, but no such actions by the army have taken.

Oil is also a heavily debated issue between the two sides, especially as the KRG economy is heavily reliant on oil revenues. Kirkuk Province previously served as the main supply for oil for the KRG prior to the Iraqi government’s seizure. Officials in the KRG stated that Baghdad was no longer sending oil like it did in the past, to which the Iraqi government responded by guaranteeing fuel deliveries in the coming weeks.

The Iraqi government continues to take punitive measures against the KRG as negotiations remain ongoing. The Central Bank’s decision to call on all banks to “halt operations” in the KRG “indefinitely” and the banning of international flights to and from northern Iraq are examples and both policies remain in place.

In terms of hostilities, fighting between both sides decreased significantly in recent weeks.

Iran likely to influence Iraqi government in proceeding forcibly against Kurdistan Regional Government - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security
Pro-Iraqi government forces at Semalka border crossing between northern Iraq & Turkey

Politics in the KRG

Tensions remain between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the opposing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as the former holds a grudge for the latter’s decision to coordinate with the Iraqi central government and allow troops into Kirkuk at the start of the offensive.

Political tensions led to the resignation of former KRG President Masoud Barzani, whose roles were absorbed by his grandson Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. For the most part, the prime minister continued expressing the views of his grandfather, stating that the Iraqi government was “violating the constitution” by initiating talks with individual provinces in the KRG, instead of with the Kurdish government as a whole.

Iran likely to influence Iraqi government in proceeding forcibly against Kurdistan Regional Government - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security

Iranian involvement

Following Iranian-backed Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) heavy support for the Iraqi government in the taking of KRG territory, Tehran stayed involved in the negotiation process and in Iraqi internal affairs.

On November 11, Baghdad and Tehran agreed to export oil from Kirkuk Province to Iran. According to the deal, over 30,000 barrels of oil a day would be exported to western Iran and in exchange, Iranian oil will be sent to southern Iraq.

Additionally, Iraq’s electoral commission authorized two more PMU groups’ political wings to run in upcoming elections in 2018, despite a law prohibiting individuals associated with the PMU from running for political office. The Iranian-backed Kataib al-Tayyar al-Risali and Asaib Ahl al-Haq groups’ political wings were both approved by the electoral commission.

Iran likely to influence Iraqi government in proceeding forcibly against Kurdistan Regional Government - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security
Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader speaks at celebratory event near Kirkuk

US position

Since the start of the conflict, the US government avoided taking sides and attempted to remain neutral. US officials provided no armed or financial support to either side during the hostilities and pushed for negotiations between the two parties.

Prime Minister Barzani, however, claimed that the US is not playing a neutral role and accused the US of taking Baghdad’s side in the conflict.

Islamic State (IS)

Twin suicide bombings targeted PMU offices in Kirkuk City on November 5, leading to multiple casualties. No group claimed responsibility, yet IS has already taken advantage of prior hostilities to make its own gains of small villages near Kirkuk. As hostilities between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga have ceased, IS activity has been reduced.

Also, on November 16, IS-linked news agency reported the killing of five Iraqi troops in clashes near Kirkuk Province’s village of al-Riyadh, located about 45 southwest of Kirkuk City.

Assessments & Forecast

The Iraqi government and the KRG both have different core objectives in ongoing negotiations, which has likely led to the current stalemate. Baghdad seeks government control over the entire KRG region, including the armed Peshmerga, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said should immediately come under Iraqi command. To achieve this outcome, the Iraqi central government began implementing a “divide and conquer” strategy, namely by promoting divisions within the KRG. The Iraqi government already began holding separate meetings with individual local provincial councils and relying heavily on the opposition PUK. The KRG, however, seeks internal unity so it can negotiate with Iraqi authorities on equal ground. Prime Minister Barzani has led the charge on bringing all factions within the KRG together, as well as calling on Baghdad to honor the Iraqi constitution, which gives regional autonomy to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

A stalemate has ensued between the Iraqi government and the KRG as the parties have failed in settling multiple disputes, including control of the latter’s border posts. International actors now have a chance at shifting the direction of these talks in shaping the future of the KRG. Iran has taken initiative in this respect by pressuring the Iraqi government to stay forceful, as Tehran already did when encouraging Baghdad to seize control of Kirkuk. Iran benefits greatly from the ongoing conflict as the Iraqi government was forced to rely on the Iranian-backed elements of the PMU in order to proceed forward with gains in the KRG. A stronger PMU allows Iran to have greater influence in Iraq and thus, permits Tehran to further influence the future of the KRG. A weak KRG not only supports Tehran’s objectives in Iraq, but also serves as a major blow to Kurdish factions fighting in Iran, as the Peshmerga had been a prime example for Kurdish autonomy in the region. Additionally, a weaker Peshmerga would damage Kurdish militants’ capabilities in Iran itself as such elements are known to train in Iraq. Tehran would also be able to make it harder for these Kurdish-Iranian militants to travel back and forth between the countries.

The US is one party that could ultimately counter such Iranian influence in Iraq. While the US has attempted to stay neutral, it has released statements over the past week demonstrating opposition to the Iraqi army’s military operations in areas other than Kirkuk Province. As hostilities have stalled, however, the US refrained from backing any of the parties and has sent delegates to the region to encourage negotiations. Overall, the US has offered weak responses to Iran’s rising influence in the country, namely through their PMU proxies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call for Iranian-backed militias to “go home” stands as the only stated opposition to actions supported by the Iraqi government to date. Additionally, US President Donald Trump’s “America First” platform is only likely to further discourage any serious action by the US, despite Trump’s persistent opposition to Iranian actions taken in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia also has the potential to impact the Iraqi government and sway it away from Iran. The Saudi government made such attempts in October by signing agreements with Iraq which involved multiple political and economic deals including the relaunching of certain flights between the countries and working together to develop new ports and highways. While this approach may strengthen the Iraqi-Saudi alliance, the Saudis are still being cautious, which contrasts greatly from Iran’s more aggressive actions. Iranian-backed Shiite militias would also view such relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia as negative, thus potentially damaging Baghdad’s control of these units and causing further tensions in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite communities.

Without any party willing or fully able to counter Iran’s heavy influence in the country, the Iraqi central government is likely to stay aggressive in its demands going forward, including continuing to call for full control of all border crossings and potentially other disputed territories currently held by the KRG. The Iraqi government’s divide and conquer strategy will likely succeed over Prime Minister Barzani’s attempts to unite the KRG given these already existing internal divisions. Additionally, Barzani’s deep connections to the former president make him unlikely to be the figure that all elements in the KRG will stand behind. Instead, regional governments will likely seek a new KRG leader to support, potentially turning to the PUK, which could thus strengthen the Iraqi government’s hand in negotiations once again.

If negotiations remain at a stalemate and Baghdad is unable to convince the KRG to hand over border crossings and other disputed territories, the PMU may lead the charge in aggressively seizing these areas, even if it goes against the Iraqi government’s wishes. Shiite militiamen have been successful in controlling and administering their own territories close to the KRG border, including in Salahuddin Province’s Tuz Khurmatu, where unconfirmed reports have recently indicated that the PMU has strengthen their numbers. Iraqi authorities’ reluctance to proceed with more force may be countered with Iranian pressure to seek military solutions to the current disputes. Spokesmen of these militias have stated in the past their willingness to turn on the Iraqi government if Iran demanded it, thus underscoring the danger that such militias could ultimately present.

The PMU’s taking of such actions could also provide a larger opening for IS to take advantage of the disarray, as already witnessed in recent weeks. The jihadist group lost its last urban stronghold in Anbar Province on November 17, largely forcing them to retreat to the desert with no territory left to hold. Such developments have pushed the jihadist militants to be more active on other fronts where sleeper cells and sympathizers for the group exist. This includes Kirkuk Province where IS militants have staged multiple attacks since the outbreak of this conflict. While the jihadist group has not been able to consolidate any territorial gains, if the PMU stages offensives on Peshmerga-held areas, IS could change its situation very quickly and move in amidst the disarray to take small villages that it previously held. Additional IS attacks in Kirkuk Province remain likely to occur in the short term.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Baghdad at this time due to the daily threat of militancy in the capital, violence in areas surrounding the city, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions.

For those remaining in Baghdad, it is advised to ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.
We advise against nonessential travel to Basra. If travel is essential, contact us for itinerary-based consultation and on-ground support.

Travel to areas outside of Baghdad and Basra should be avoided at this time, particularly to the north and west of the country, including the Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces due to ongoing combat operations. This is in addition to avoiding the Babil Province, south of Baghdad. Those operating in these regions are advised to contact us for itinerary and contingency support measures, including evacuation options, given the deterioration in the security situation. Consult with us before traveling to Kirkuk City.

Travel to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah may continue at this time while maintaining heightened vigilance and adhering to standard security precautions regarding the threat of militant attacks. Avoid all nonessential travel in the Kurdistan Regional Government outside of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region – Middle East & N. Africa Analysis

Current Situation

During the morning hours of June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced the cutting of all diplomatic ties with Qatar.  The Hadi-led government in Yemen, as well as Libya’s anti-Islamist House of Representatives (HoR) similarly announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar on the same day. The first four countries issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Qatari diplomats to evacuate their respective nations, while similarly issuing an ultimatum to all other Qatari citizens to leave within two weeks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced that they had closed their airspace for Qatari aircrafts, and that all flights by airliners from these countries to Qatar were suspended. Qatari naval vessels will also not be allowed to use the countries’ seaports to anchor, while land travel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be limited to non-Qatari nationals only.

Additional measures implemented against Qatar include the expelling of the country from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and its anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria. These measures were implemented based on accusations that Qatar is “supporting and financing extremist groups” across the region, as well as encouraging sectarianism and subversive elements operating in the abovementioned countries. Meanwhile, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the accusations are “absolute fabrications” and “proves that there are premeditated intentions to cause damage to Qatar”.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region - Middle East & N. Africa Analysis | MAX Security
Map of countries affected by travel restrictions on Qataris

Assessments & Forecast

Severing ties may hurt Qatar economically, push its policy towards more pro-Iranian approach; limited impact on regional conflicts

While the new development is unlikely to have any effect on Qatar’s and any of the other impacted countries’ security conditions in the short term, we assess that this measure may lead to multiple local and regional ramifications over the coming months. For instance, approximately 90 percent of Qatar’s imports of food products are transferred through land from Saudi Arabia. Thus, in light of the border closure between the two countries, Doha will likely be forced to divert a large amount of resources in developing its maritime trade, including in the form of improving its seaport infrastructure, as now its imports via sea are liable to be enhanced significantly. Moreover, given the high-profile nature of the event, there remains a possibility that the turn of events will impact global markets, and particularly the oil sector, as it may be perceived as a source of instability across this oil-rich region.

These new developments may also impact expatriates, including Westerners operating in Qatar and the GCC, particularly given the suspension of flights between the GCC countries and Qatar and the closure of the land border with Saudi Arabia. In light of the likely increase in logistical difficulties in traveling between Qatar and the above-mentioned countries, exacted upon expatriates by the measures, it is likely to damage Qatar’s national economy. Though the impact on GCC residents seeking to enter Qatar is yet to be determined, it cannot be ruled out that Qatar will implement punitive measures and ban GCC citizens and residents from entering the country.

The partial isolation of Qatar may affect several conflicts and political rivalries across the region. With regards to Iran, Doha is liable to improve its bilateral relations and economic ties with Tehran, as now Qatar would be compelled to compensate for its political and economic setback. Moreover, in Yemen, in the short-term, Qatar’s absence from the Saudi-led coalition may slightly reduce the latter’s on-the-ground capabilities in fighting against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis. However, given Qatar’s already limited role in the coalition, as well as the aforementioned arms deal with the US, in the medium to long-term the Saudi-led coalitions is unlikely to be significantly impacted by Qatar’s absence from the coalition.

In Syria, in light of the already heightened internal divisions between rebel factions, it remains possible that this new development will further exacerbate tensions between rebel groups supported by Qatar on one side, and factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Should the event indeed lead to an economic recession in Qatar, their supported factions on-the ground would suffer from a shortage of resources, thus forcing them to disband or merge into other factions. With this in mind, should scenarios eventually materialize, it would potentially tip the scale towards the pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict.

In Libya, the development may constitute a boost to the HoR and its allied Libyan National Army (LNA), given their conflict with the pro-Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and its affiliated militias, which are partially supported by Qatar. That said, Qatar’s direct involvement in this conflict has significantly waned in recent years, particularly since the March 2016 arrival of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to the designated capital of Tripoli, and therefore any implications on the conflict will remain limited.

Cutting ties with Qatar likely linked to global, regional developments involving Iran, new US administration

Today’s development comes amidst years of tensions between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt on one side, and Qatar on the other, surrounding multiple issues, chiefly the latter’s alleged direct involvement in the internal affairs of countries throughout the region. This is particularly relevant to Qatar’s long-standing support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked political elements across the Middle East and North Africa, as the countries in this Saudi-led alliance view the Islamist organization is a subversive element and a threat to their respective governments. Additional contentious issue include Qatar’s overall positive relations with Iran, as opposed to that of the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), with the exception of Oman, which remain strong adversaries of Tehran. This is highlighted by numerous past economic agreements between Tehran and Doha in recent years, such as the agreement from February 2014 to create a joint free trade and economic zones between the two countries. A further issue that contributed to the strained relations with Qatar throughout the years is the cooperation of the Qatari-based news outlet al-Jazeera, which had been accused by the aforementioned countries of attempting to undermine their, as well as their regional allies’, governments.

That said, despite these strained relations, Qatar and the other GCC countries’ relations can be characterized over the past several years by intermittent escalation and rapprochement between the sides. For instance, on December 9, 2014, Qatar agreed as part of a GCC summit, to establish a regional police force in order to improve coordination regarding drug trafficking, money laundering, and cybercrime, as well as announced its “full support to al-Sisi-led government in Egypt”. This followed Saudi officials’ March 9, 2014 threats to impose sanctions against Qatar, including in the form of sea blockade, in light of Doha’s persistent support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements across the region. However, the complete cutting of diplomatic relations between the aforementioned Saudi-aligned countries is highly notable given its wide scale and scope, as it includes significant restrictions on Qatar and its citizens.

We assess that this escalation is linked to global and regional geo-political developments, largely with regards to Iran and the new Donald Trump administration in the US. With this in mind, in recent years, under the Obama administration, relations between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side, and Washington on the other, were oftentimes strained due to the US’ perceived efforts to approach Tehran, which was likely viewed by Riyadh as coming at its expense. In light of the aforementioned normal relations between Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries were likely felt compelled to prevent Qatar from approaching the Islamic Republic too much, as this would have significantly undermined their sense of security and regional interest.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, Washington increased its anti-Iranian rhetoric, while at the same time strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia. This is highlighted by the May 15 UAE-US defense agreement, as well as the 350 Billion USD agreement between Riyadh and Washington involving an arms deal, and Saudi investments in the US. Thus, there remains a potential that the recent visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia in late May, as well as the US’ growing support for Saudi Arabia and its allies, motivated the Kingdom to implement these measures, as part of the shared interest with the US in tackling Iran and its allies’ influence throughout the region. With this in mind, given Saudi Arabia’s decreasing need for Qatar’s cooperation on security and political support amidst the ongoing rivalry with Shiite Iran, it is likely that Saudi Arabia assessed that it is no longer obligated to maintain positive bilateral relations with Qatar, prompting this development.

The development comes amidst a diminishing political influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization across the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years. In this context, it remains possible that Saudi Arabia no longer felt compelled to maintain good relations with Qatar, following the reduction of the threat stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to previous Saudi attempts to pressure Qatar to abandon their support for the Islamist organization in return for the improvement of relations with the other GCC countries.

Recommendations

Travel to Qatar may continue as normal while adhering to cultural norms and avoiding making any statements critical of the Qatari Emir and government officials, despite the aforementioned new restrictions. That being said, those operating in Qatar over the coming days and weeks are advised to stock up on food and basic products, due to the possibility that these will be in shortage due to the declared measures. Those operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar are advised to remain cognizant of developments and potential effects on travel and business continuity given the current lack of full information regarding the various restrictions that will be in effect. This is particularly relevant for the possibility of unexpected border closures between the relevant countries over the coming days and weeks.

 

This report was written by:
Asaf Day – MAX Security’s Senior Intelligence Manager, Middle East & North Africa

MAX Analysis Iran News: Agreement to seven month extension of talks on Iran’s nuclear program underlines interest in reaching consensus while highlighting existence of ongoing disputes November 27, 2014

Executive Summary

  • On November 24, the P5+1 and Iran announced a seven-month extension of the interim Joint Plan of Action following an inability to reach a final status agreement by the deadline.
  • The extension itself, along with the presence of Iran’s and all P5+1 Foreign Ministers during the conclusion of this last round of talks, underscores the continued interest in reaching a final status agreement, while Tehran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, as well as sanctions relief, likely remain key points of contention in talks.
  • An interest in reaching an agreement prior to the allotted seven-month deadline is likely encouraged further by calls for more sanctions against Iran from the US Congress, which will be controlled by the Republicans in January, and concerns that a lack of significant day-to-day economic improvement in the country may result in opposition to talks.
  • Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations.

Iran Nuclear Talks: Current Situation

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on November 24 the deadline for the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) agreed between Iran and the P5+1, that a further seven month extension of talks had been agreed upon during this round of negotiations in Vienna, Austria. Although a seven month extension would bring the new deadline to June 24, 2015, Iran’s official news agency reported that it will be June 30, while British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that the interim deal will be extended “until June next year”. At the conclusion of this round of talks, the foreign ministers from all P5+1 countries, as well as EU’s Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, were in attendance.

  • During his statement, Kerry also stated that “in these last days in Vienna”, the P5+1 and Iran “made real and substantial progress” and “new ideas surfaced”. He went on to state that the extension comes with “the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months and with the understanding that we we will go to work immediately, meet again very shortly, and if we can do it sooner we want to do it sooner”. If, at the conclusion of these four months, the negotiating parties “have not agreed on the major elements… and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed”. Unconfirmed reports state that the parties will meet again in December.
  • As part of this extension, as it was with the previous extension agreed upon in July, Iran will reportedly be receiving a portion of its frozen funds, paid out in installments and totaling 700 million USD per month.
  • This extension follows the issuance of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 7 regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program and agreements. According to the report, Iran has not enriched uranium higher than five percent “at any of its declared facilities” while “all of its stock” of higher-enriched uranium “has been further processed through downblending or conversion into uranium oxide”. It further stated that “no additional major components have been installed at the IR-40 Reactor” referring to the reactor at the Arak Heavy Water Plant”, and that “Iran has continued to provide the Agency with managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities”.
  • On November 10, the IAEA issued a correction to the November 7 report, stating that enrichment of up to five percent uranium has increased to 8290.3 kg (the November 7 report placed this figure at 8390.3 kg).
  • The report also states that Iran has not provided additional information to allow the IAEA “to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures”, which was requested by the agency on September 4 as well as again on October 8. This is connected to “five practical measures” agreed upon as part of the November 11, 2013 “Framework of Cooperation”, to be implemented by August 25. However, at the time of writing, only three have been implemented, including two of the three after the deadline. This is despite two “technical meetings” between the IAEA and Iran on November 2 and October 7. Reports indicate that resolution of this issue was temporarily postponed ahead of the final round of talks in Vienna.

Assessments

  1. The agreed-upon extension, along with reports, including statements from Kerry, that progress was achieved prior to the extension’s announcement, underline the parties’ continued interest in reaching a final status agreement. Such interest was further highlighted by the attendance of the foreign ministers from all involved parties, along with the EU’s Catherine Ashton. This included the last-minute arrival of the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, reportedly during the evening hours of November 23 and the morning of November 24, respectively. This suggested an effort to make a final push toward an agreement or at least progress on the remaining contentious issues. In this context, while an agreement was unable to be reached by the now-extended November 24 deadline, the four month “deadline within a deadline” also points to an interest in resolving this issue prior to June 2015. This is also underscored by Kerry’s statement that they “will go to work immediately” as well as Zarif’s iteration that they “do not intend to use the whole period”. This all serves to suggest that the unconfirmed reports of talks resuming in December are credible.
  2. Amidst reports of progress, upcoming talks are likely to continue to focus largely on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, which has reportedly been one of the main ongoing contentious issues. In this context, we continue to assess that, for the P5+1, enrichment capabilities involves ensuring that Iran’s breakout capability is limited, referring to the amount of time in which Tehran could produce a sufficient amount of “bomb-grade” material. For Iran, this capability needs to be at a level able of maintaining what its perceives as a sufficient civilian nuclear program, with previous reports indicating that Iran has estimated its requirements at 190,000 separative work units (SWU), which refers to a standard measure of enrichment. Reports indicate that discussions have focused on the number of permitted centrifuges, rather than SWUs, with reports from a government-linked Iranian news source previously reporting that Iran was offered as part of an agreement, and rejected, to operate 4,700 first generation (IR-1) centrifuges. Researchers on this issue have reported that the IR-1 reactors have an enrichment capability of between 0.7 and 1.0 SWU per year. With this in mind, it cannot be ruled out than any final agreement will include enrichment capabilities based on SWUs rather than numbers of centrifuges.
  3. Moreover, Iran’s negotiating team needs to mitigate perceptions of excessive capitulation to the P5+1 demands, given that the civilian nuclear program maintains widespread support and the presence of hardliners, some of which are opposed to the negotiations themselves. This is underlined by reports that approximately 200-300 hardliners protested near Tehran’s Research Reactor on November 23 criticizing the nuclear negotiations. The protest reportedly received official approval and the participants, in addition to chanting “Death to America”, demanded that negotiators refuse to give into excessive Western demands. 
  4. Other disputed topics will be discussed as well, with reports that sanctions relief, and particularly the speed of such relief, has been one such topic. The P5+1, and particularly Western parties, may be aiming for a more gradual removal dependant on Iranian adherence to the final agreement, while Iran is likely looking for the opposite given its interest in improving its still struggling economy. In this context, Tehran is liable to see sanctions on its banking, oil, and gas industries as the most essential for removal. Conversely, sanctions that were implemented by certain parties, including the US, for humanitarian issues or Iran’s support for militant groups, are likely to remain in place even in the event of an agreement.
  5. Iran’s aforementioned failure to implement two of the five practical measures agreed upon with the IAEA is liable to also remain an overarching issue. While the Framework of Cooperation is a separate agreement signed with the IAEA, much of the information requested in such practical measures have been part of the JPoA, pointing to the connection between the two. Moreover, given that the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program was what triggered the initial sanctions and ultimately talks to begin with, the failure to provide information requested by the IAEA may raise concerns and suspicions among negotiating parties, while likely does not serve to instill confidence. That said, given the postponement of this issue until the November 24 deadline, we assess that meetings between the IAEA and Iran will resume in the coming months with the aim of implementing the final two measures and agreeing to more. Iran’s interest in achieving a final status agreement, underlined in previous assessments and highlighted by the IAEA report that confirms its continued adherence to the JPoA, is liable to serve as encouragement in this regard. Moreover, it is also possible that any such final agreement will include a provision stipulating continued Iranian adherence to the Framework of Cooperation.
  6. Moreover, we do assess that, while talks have, thus far, steadily continued without significant interruption, there remain events that could serve to directly affect talks. This includes reports that Republicans in the US Congress, who will have a majority in both houses in January 2015, have called for action with regard to Iran come January. A joint statement, for example, was released by three Republican Senators on November 24 stating that they “believe the latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal with Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval”. That said, the JPoA states that “the US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”, while Iran would certain perceive such action as being in violation. Despite this, we assess that US President Barack Obama’s interest in achieving an agreement, coupled with his previous statement that he would veto any legislation involving new sanctions, reduces the potential for congressional activity to derail talks.
  7. Finally, the effort to reach an agreement in a shorter time span than the seven months allotted may also be connected to a recognition that, in addition to the previously-discussed alteration in the makeup of US Congress, patience with the ongoing talks, that will hit a year’s mark in January, could diminish. This includes in Iran, with reports that day-to-day economic difficulties have persisted. While the official news agency reported on November 26 that inflation has reduced to 17.8 percent in the month ending November 21, reports suggest that the cost of food has increased in 2014 and unemployment remains relatively high. This includes among the 16-24 age group, with reports that the official unemployment rate is nearly 23 percent among this population and allegations that unofficial rates are higher. In this context, the release of frozen funds and limited sanctions relief, along with policies implemented by Rouhani, have worked to gradually assist in improving the country’s economic situation, particularly macroeconomically and especially when compared to previous months when inflation was as high as 40 percent.
  8. That said, the aim of such sanctions relief and release of frozen assets was likely intended to allow some improvement to Iran’s economy, but not so much that motivation to reach a final status agreement would be removed. Thus, while some of the population may perceive the improvement witnessed as indicators that a final status agreement would spur further developments, the absence of significant day-to-day improvement may also trigger reduced support for talks. Potential opposition to Rouhani’s policies from this sector, in conjunction with the aforementioned existing discontent among more conservative, anti-Western, and hardline members of society, could increase pressure on negotiators. At this point however, and amidst persistent anti-Western rhetoric, the country’s Supreme Leader continues to demonstrate support for Rouhani, while the interest in removing sanctions may serve to overcome any emerging or growing opposition.

Recommendations

  1. Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations. For non-Western nationals, travel to Tehran, Esfahan, and other major cities in Iran may continue while adhering to basic security precautions regarding civil unrest and adherence to cultural norms.
  2. We advise against all nonessential travel to outlying border areas with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, and Armenia due to ongoing militant activity.
  3. Those traveling to Iran should anticipate prolonged questioning by customs officials. Refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists. Cooperate with all security officials and respond to questioning in a respectable and calm manner.
  4. Refrain from discussing the current political situation, Iran’s nuclear program, or tensions with the United States and Israel with local residents as a basic precaution. Be advised that authorities may monitor communications from hotels and other facilities frequented by foreigners, while internet access may be limited.

In the event that embassy services are required, it is advised to check the operational status of pertinent embassies and consulates. Consular services for US citizens are provided through the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, while those for British citizens are provided through any EU embassy.

Max Security Analysis Iran: June 20 IAEA report, indications of progress on contentious issues highlights adherence to agreements, effort to reach deadline June 29, 2014

Current Situation
On June 20, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report comprised of 14 points delineating Iranian adherence to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 on November 24, 2013 and implemented on January 20. Key points include the following:
  • The IAEA states that Iran has not enriched uranium above five percent at its declared facilities.
  • Iran has completed the requisite dilution of half (104.56 of 209.1 kg) of its higher-level (20 percent) enriched uranium to five percent. It has also converted 100 kg into uranium oxide, leaving approximately 4.54 kg to be converted by the JPoA’s July 20 deadline.
  • There have been no “further advances” to Iran’s activities at the Fuel Enrichment Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, or the Arak Heavy Water Plant.
  • Iran has also begun the commissioning of the “Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP)”, which will be utilized for converting uranium newly enriched to five percent during the six month interim period to oxide.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that the next round of high level talks between the P5+1 and Iran will extend over a two-week period from July 2-15 in Vienna, ahead of the July 20 deadline. This follows the previous round from June 16-20, also in Vienna.
  • In addition, according to reports from June 27, the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Iran concluded that Iran was the source of a weapons shipment destined for Sudan and seized by Israel’s navy in the Red Sea in March in a Panamanian-flagged ship called the Klos C. The shipment reportedly included M302 rockets and fuses, 120 mm mortar shells, and 7.62 caliber ammunition. Reports indicate that the panel concluded that the shipment is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1747.

Continue reading Max Security Analysis Iran: June 20 IAEA report, indications of progress on contentious issues highlights adherence to agreements, effort to reach deadline June 29, 2014