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Turkey’s efforts to pursue independent policies to continue to exacerbate tensions with Western, non-Western actors – Turkey Special Analysis

This report was written by Sanjana Parashar (MENA Intelligence Manager) and Swathi Nagesh (Levant region specialist)

And reviewed by Darren Cohen (MENA Senior Intelligence Manager and Levant region specialist) and Oded Berkowitz (Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer)

Executive Summary

Tensions between Turkey and Western state actors have increased over recent years due to various geopolitical and security issues. Ankara’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy and the shift in its strategic alliances is the result of both developments in the domestic political sphere and the waning presence of leading Western actors in the region.

A significant area of contention is Ankara’s military interventionism. On October 8, the US condemned Turkey’s operations in Syria as posing “an extraordinary threat” to Washington’s national security. On October 5, Canada announced the suspension of arms exports to Turkey over Ankara’s reported military support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. On September 21, the EU sanctioned a Turkish firm for breaching the UN arms embargo on Libya

These developments highlight the clash between Turkey’s effort to bolster its regional influence and secure its independent interests on one hand and the interests of its traditional Western partners on the other.

Turkey and the US have particularly disputed the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which the latter contends threatens its advanced aerial capabilities. This decision reflects Ankara’s intent to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its willingness to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority.

Ankara’s efforts to gain accession to the EU over the past decades have suffered several setbacks over recent years as Brussels has condemned Turkey’s economic policies and alleged human rights violations. More recently, tensions have been elevated over Ankara’s deployment of research vessels to conduct oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Furthermore, Turkey has been engaged in a diplomatic rift with France over perceived anti-Islam comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron. The dispute has added to a growing perception in the West that Turkey seeks to adopt a “neo-Ottoman” ideology and present itself as the “protector of Islam”.

While Ankara’s foreign policy decisions have primarily been driven by an effort to advance its independent geopolitical interests rather than ideological opposition to the West, these decisions will nonetheless serve to alienate the latter.

That said, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations and, therefore, Ankara will refrain from completely jeopardizing its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy.

Regardless, during episodes of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western-aligned states, the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace can potentially translate into a hostile atmosphere, including calls for boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric.

Western nationals conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals.

Assessments & Forecast

Turkey’s geopolitical shift is partly a product of developments within its domestic sphere, US’s waning presence in the region

Although the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2018 general elections with a clear majority, the government’s popularity has somewhat decreased over recent years, as evidenced by the AKP’s losses in the 2019 municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This is primarily due to the inability of the government to stabilize the economy, characterized by a significant devaluation of the Turkish lira since 2018. Furthermore, a broad crackdown on opposition actors and perceived dissidents has exacerbated existing anti-government sentiments of certain sections of the local populace. Against this backdrop, Ankara’s willingness to confront its Western allies is likely part of an effort to gain patriotic support for Turkey’s endeavors and project its regional dominance, which, in turn, is partly aimed at containing domestic criticism against the government.

Erdogan has also attempted to revive the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and use Islamic sentiments to consolidate power, particularly from conservative and Islamist-leaning members of the populace. This is evidenced by the July 10 announcement to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, designated a museum by Turkish secular leaders in 1935, into a mosque. Although the decision sparked condemnation by various international actors, Erdogan received support for the move from conservative Turks who make up part of his support base. The decision’s timing was thus partly an attempt to bolster Erdogan’s “strongman” persona while diverting the local populace’s attention away from Turkey’s deteriorating economic conditions, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing military interventionism can also be partially attributed to the US’s waning presence in the broader region. Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring”, aimed at dislodging Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from the area, was launched two days after the US’s October 7, 2019 announcement regarding the partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Turkey likely aimed to capitalize on this power vacuum to increase its influence within Syria and mitigate the Kurdish militant threat emanating from the country. Washington has also been largely uninvolved in Libya over recent years, which has allowed Turkey to become the main supporter of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and therefore become one of the primary international actors involved in the country. Overall, the lack of military presence by Western state actors in these countries over recent years has created a relative power vacuum that Ankara aims to fill as part of its aspirations to expand its regional influence.

Turkey’s regional interventionism largely motivated by the pursuit of independent foreign policy, rather than ideological hostility towards West

In recent years, Turkey has pursued a more independent foreign policy, distinct from its traditional Western allies, as illustrated by its military regional interventionism, the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, and Ankara’s activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that has led to tensions with EU states. This approach has been perceived by Western actors to be destabilizing and contrary to the West’s interests. However, this is primarily, although not solely, an effort by Ankara to establish a more dominant role in the region, rather than being motivated by an ideological hostility to the West.

In Syria, Turkey’s efforts to mitigate what it perceives as the “Kurdish threat” to its national integrity have manifested in opposition to Washington’s interests. While Operation “Peace Spring” was launched primarily as an effort by Ankara to address the Kurdish militant threat, given the US’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of the YPG, it collided with Washington’s interests in the country. Tensions over this issue have persisted over the past year, as evidenced by a statement published by the US on October 8 indicating that Turkey’s operations in northern Syria directly undermine the former’s anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign and US’s national security. Therefore, while Turkey’s policy was not directly motivated by an anti-US agenda, it nonetheless contributed to the growing rift between the two counties.

Also in the Syrian context, Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (SNA) rebel alliance, which opposes the Damascus government, backed by both Iran and Russia, all of whom are adversaries of the US. However, the leaders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia have led the Astana Peace Process for Syria, which was originally launched in January 2017, and largely reflects an effort by Ankara, as well as Tehran and Moscow, to project itself as a regional power broker. It particularly underscores Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with its rivals in the Syrian sphere in order to cement itself in the political processes that determine Syria’s future and therefore maintain a strong influence in the country, which it considers essential to its security interests. However, as Turkey strengthens its strategic partnerships with Iran and Russia, and thus develops a greater alliance with the West’s foes, it partially reinforces its position as a non-Western-aligned state. This is also given the lack of involvement of the US in the Astana process, which showcases Ankara’s willingness to form interest-based alliances independent of its Western allies.

Turkey’s military backing for Azerbaijan amid its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has further served to alienate Western-aligned allies. Ankara’s support for Baku is partly driven by its shared ethnic and cultural ties as well as historical antipathy towards Armenia. NATO, however, has called for the restoration of peace between both sides in the region, while Western states, such as Canada, have actively condemned Turkey’s reported military support for Azerbaijan. Hence, Turkey’s role in this conflict as part of its independent foreign policy interests serves to supersede its obligations to this Western security alliance. That said, Turkey’s reported deployment of Syrian rebels to fight in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and overall support for Baku is also a sensitive issue for Russia, due in part to the perceived threat of Islamist spillover regions along Russia’s southern borders and Moscow’s long-term cooperation with Armenia. This, therefore, showcases Ankara’s efforts to prioritize its own geopolitical interests, even if they partially undermine its alliances with either the West or with Russia.

These opposing interests between Ankara and Moscow were also witnessed in Libya, where Turkey provides military support for Libya’s GNA and Moscow supports the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA). Amid Turkey’s increasing military reinforcements for the GNA, both in the form of equipment as well as Syrian fighters, Russia increased its provision of military equipment to the LNA as well as its deployment of Russian private military company (PMC) personnel. This further reiterates Turkey’s willingness to pursue its own military interests, potentially at the expense of the interests of its allies, both Western and non-Western.

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 reflective of efforts to confront the West, bolster its regional authority

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which the US has stated “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”, is indicative of Ankara’s prioritization of its alliances with Moscow over its participation in the US’s F-35 program and its ties to NATO and the West. While Turkey insists that this does not clash with NATO assets or US F-35 aircraft, despite evidence to the contrary, pressure is growing in Washington to impose punitive measures on Turkey for its perceived transgressions. This was recently demonstrated by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s condemnation of the S-400 testing, which the chairman called on October 16 “a direct threat to the [US-made] F-35”, adding that “US law requires sanctions against countries that continue to deepen their defense relationship with Russia.”

The decision thus reflects Ankara’s willingness to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its conviction to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority. In this way, Turkey aims to demonstrate that it is not bound by Western alliances and interests, which may in future grant it leverage over the West during potential disputes. Moreover, the decision is also likely rooted in domestic politics. By demonstrating Turkey’s willingness to acquire weaponry from any partner of its choice, Erdogan seeks to affirm Ankara’s sovereign right to choose its military alliances, regardless of the West’s objections. This, in turn, allows Erdogan to bolster his “strongman” credentials to the domestic audience.

As illustrated by Turkey’s recent testing of the S-400 system, regardless of concerns voiced by the US and other NATO members, Ankara is determined to proceed with the preparation process and ensure the systems become operational. FORECAST: Elements within the US foreign affairs establishment will continue to pressure the administration to sanction Turkey. However, US President Donald Trump’s reluctance to take action, as illustrated by the absence of sanctions despite the Senate’s approval of such measures in December 2019, renders it unlikely that imminent measures will be imposed. US policy vis-a-vis Turkey may change, however, if the presidential election yields a change in administration. This is unlikely to happen in the immediate coming months as it will take time for any administration to review and formulate its foreign policy.

Turkey’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub, secure foreign investments has also increased tensions with Western actors

Turkey’s involvement in Libya highlights its efforts to secure its energy interests in the region and counterbalance Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel. Turkey signed a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Libya’s GNA on November 27, 2019 for this purpose. This includes the establishment of a maritime border between the parties and allows Turkey to stake a claim to oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the vicinity of some Greek islands and the disputed waters south of Cyprus, which the Greek Cypriot administration claims is part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EU, particularly Italy, France, and Greece, as well as Egypt and Israel, have backed the Greek Cypriot government’s claim. Thus, although Turkey’s stance has elevated tensions with certain EU states and other regional stakeholders, Ankara’s determination to pursue its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea highlights its willingness to take a confrontational stance against certain EU members to achieve its energy objectives.

This determination to enhance its energy security has likely also been bolstered by the actions of other regional actors in this context. On September 22, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to promote natural gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey was not included in the forum. Ankara’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has reportedly stated that Turkey will “resolutely” continue to “protect its rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “no alliance of malice” will prevent this. Ankara likely perceives the establishment of the EMGF as a provocative action aimed at actively excluding Turkey, which has likely increased its efforts to conduct exploration missions in the East Mediterranean. FORECAST: As illustrated by Turkey’s recent extension of the “Oruc Reis” research vessel’s activities in disputed waters until November 14, regardless of whether such action prompts tensions with the EU and potential sanctions against it in the framework of Brussels’ targeted sanctions program against Turkey for its “unauthorized” drilling activities of “hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean”, Ankara will persist with its exploration activities.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have relatively divergent interests in the Black Sea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 allowed it to expand its de-facto coastline to over a thousand kilometers, enabling the country to carry out its energy exploration, in direct conflict with the interests of NATO countries and their allies, such as Ukraine, in the Black Sea. In this context, on August 20, President Erdogan announced the discovery of a “320 billion” cubic meters gas reserve in the Black Sea, constituting the largest gas reserve discovered in the area by Turkey. Energy production from this reserve is slated to begin in 2023. FORECAST: Ankara’s discovery of a gas reserve in the Black Sea in August and its growing readiness to invest additional resources to carry out its exploratory missions in the area may increase Moscow’s perception that Ankara is attempting to impose itself in the region and thus increases the potential for friction with Russia.

Overall, both of these developments constitute an effort by Turkey to acquire energy security and thus reduce its dependence on other states to import oil and gas, which is likely becoming increasingly costly as the lira has devalued significantly over recent years. The fact that Turkey’s operations in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the potential to cause friction with both the EU and Russia again demonstrates that Turkey’s activities are part of an overall effort to implement an independent policy, and while liable to alienate its geopolitical alliances, do not constitute an explicitly anti-Western strategy. However, as illustrated throughout this report, regardless of whether Turkey aims to antagonize its Western allies, the outcome is ultimately the same.

Political rapprochement with US’s adversaries motivated by geopolitical concerns, desire to present itself as ‘protectors of Islam’, likely to further alienate West

In Turkey’s partnership with Iran, Ankara likely aims to counter what it perceives to be a growing regional threat to its ideology and interests. The Erdogan-led government seeks to impose its version of state-level political Islam, by forming alliances with Iran, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood groups and affiliates throughout the region. This is with the aim of countering the growing alliance of states in the region that it perceives as countering its interests and ideology, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, all of whom are at least willing to collaborate with Israel and are largely acting in coordination with US interests. Thus, its increasing interventionism throughout the region can also be understood as an attempt to project Turkey as the “protectors of Islam” and has been perceived in the West as a form of “neo-Ottomanism” and an effort to invoke the spirit of the former Ottoman empire.

In this context, there has been a growing rapprochement between Iran and Turkey over recent years, in contrast with the ideological rivalry that initially emerged between the two states following the 2011 Arab Spring, with the parties largely on opposing sides in major conflict zones, such as Syria. The warming of their ties over recent years has manifested in political opposition to Saudi-aligned Gulf states and varying degrees of support for Qatar amid its rift with the former, both countries’ opposition to the “Abraham Accords” signed between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel, as well as Iran’s diplomatic support for Libya’s Turkey-backed GNA. A recent September 8 meeting between President Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wherein they committed to conducting joint counter-militancy operations is thus indicative of increasingly cordial relations between the two states. FORECAST: These ties are liable to increase the tension between the US and Turkey, given the former’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran, as part of its broader “maximum pressure” campaign.

The ongoing rift between French President Macron and Turkish President Erdogan pertaining to the former’s defense of the right to draw caricatures of religious figures is likely to increase the West’s perception of Turkey “neo-Ottoman” aspirations. These diplomatic tensions followed the beheading of a teacher in France for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students and has generated a diplomatic fallout between Turkey and France, with Erdogan stating on October 24 that Macron should get “mental checks” and Macron on October 31 accusing Turkey of having a “bellicose attitude toward its NATO allies”, adding that Ankara has “imperial inclinations in the region”. The fact that this has also translated into anti-France protests throughout Turkey illustrates the impact of such diplomatic tensions and the potential for a hostile environment to emerge for Westerners operating in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the US has stated that it “strongly objects” to Erdogan’s hosting of the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in Turkey on August 22. The Turkish government announced that it “fully rejected” the US’s statement and accused Washington of “serving Israel’s interests”. Additional reports from August also indicate that Turkey is granting citizenship to Hamas operatives. Through this action, Turkey has signaled its willingness to legitimize the Palestinian militant group, as opposed to Washington’s categorization of the Gaza Strip-based group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

Ankara’s actions are likely to be perceived by Western-aligned states as granting increased freedom of movement to Hamas and thus allowing them to carry out destabilizing activities in Israel. Similar to its relations with Iran, Turkey’s support for Hamas is unlikely to yield major economic or security benefits. Rather, it is indicative of an effort by Ankara to align with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and other Islamist groups and thus expand its sphere of influence throughout the region. Turkey also seeks to be a power broker and thus counteract recent ties between Gulf states and Israel, as evidenced by its hosting of talks between the two rival prominent Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, for reconciliation talks on September 22.

These relations constitute a further fault line in the current tensions between the US and its allies on one side and Turkey on the other. FORECAST: Turkey’s growing support for Hamas as well as its opposition to Arab states’ normalization with Jerusalem, despite the fact Ankara maintains relations with Israel, is liable to increase tensions between the US and Turkey as well as Israel and Turkey. Although Jerusalem and Ankara share strong economic ties, Erdogan’s growing support for Hamas and persistent condemnations of Israel has the potential to strain these relations. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that Jerusalem now has formal ties with other regional states that are rivals of Turkey, primarily the UAE, and may therefore opt to cooperate economically with these countries, at Ankara’s expense.

Turkey to ultimately refrain from completely alienating its NATO allies

FORECAST: Taken as a whole, while Turkey is pursuing a more independent foreign policy, it is unlikely to completely alienate its Western allies, particularly NATO members. This is because Turkey can leverage its strategic position as a member of NATO to deter any significant punitive measures. This alliance also allows Turkey to mitigate the risk of direct confrontations as it implements its military policies in Syria, Libya, and Armenia/Azerbaijan, as well as within the energy sector, as Turkey pursues its energy interests in direct conflict with certain EU member states, such as Greece. In turn, despite the disputes between NATO member states and Ankara, Turkey will continue to remain a strategic ally by hosting US and NATO military assets, such as the Incirlik Air Base.

Within the context of the energy dispute between Turkey and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, NATO also provides for peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms between its member states. This, therefore, allows NATO to mitigate the threat of direct confrontations between Turkey on one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Hence, it is in the interest of NATO actors to continue to retain Turkey in the alliance as this would serve to manage emerging conflicts with EU members. This, in turn, provides Ankara with leeway in terms of its ability to pursue its energy policies without the threat of military confrontation with EU states.

Business continuity in Turkey for Western-linked entities unlikely to be significantly impacted, although potential punitive measures liable to elevate tensions

As previously mentioned, it is unlikely that under a President Trump administration, barring a breakdown in personal relations between the leaders, the White House will implement the Senate’s December 2019 approval of sanctions against Turkey. However, a Joe Biden-led presidency may seek to change course and punish states deemed to be acting in opposition to Washington’s core interests, for instance by operating Russian-made air defense systems.

In the event that the US imposes sanctions or tariffs, as in 2018, there is a high probability of further damage to the Turkish economy, as was witnessed following the implementation of such measures two years ago. This would lead to a further devaluation of the currency and render it more difficult for Turkish-based companies and Turkish state entities to remain competitive. FORECAST: Irrespective of who wins the US presidential election, as previously mentioned, any decision on sanctions or tariffs against Turkey is liable to take several months as the incoming administration formulates its foreign policy agenda. Regardless, Turkey’s actions may prompt other Western actors to consider punitive measures to pressure Ankara to alter its perceived destabilizing activities. This may, for instance, manifest in a ban on arms sales, as announced by Canada on October 5, which has the potential to undermine Turkey’s aforementioned defense strategy.

In the event that the US and/or the EU does impose sanctions or other punitive measures on Ankara, there is a potential for an increase in vocalized sentiment emanating from the government and domestic populace against the US, the West, or its perceived interests. This was illustrated by events in August 2018 amid the sanctions and tariffs imposed on Turkey by Washington, wherein a significant uptick in protests condemning the US was recorded in major cities in Turkey and President Erdogan reportedly called for a boycott of US electrical goods, while some Turkish citizens posted videos on social media of them physically attacking US-made products and currency.

Similarly, amid the aforementioned dispute over comments made by French President Macron regarding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, reports from October 26 indicate that Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. Both of these episodes illustrate the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace that can translate into a potentially hostile atmosphere, including boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric. As per the prior example involving the US, these tensions tend to subside relatively quickly without a significant impact on foreign businesses operating in Turkey. However, there is also the potential for temporary retaliatory measures imposed by foreign states such as sanctions and tariffs, as occurred in 2018, as well as increased bureaucratic challenges for nationals of perceived adversaries, which may hinder operations in the country.

However, ultimately, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations. This is illustrated by its willingness to cooperate economically with China, despite differences in ideology. According to the EU, Turkey’s main export markets are the EU, the UK, the US, and Israel. Thus, despite Erdogan’s geopolitical activities, economic trade with its Western counterparts remains crucial for the stabilization and growth of the Turkish economy. FORECAST: The Turkish government is unlikely to significantly jeopardize its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy. Turkey’s geopolitical expansionism is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on Western economic interests over the coming months. Moreover, Turkey is unlikely to place restrictions on private Western citizens or enterprises from operating in the country, even in the event of a dispute between the states in which these entities are based.

Recommendations

Travel to Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir may continue while remaining cognizant of the latent threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

It is advised to avoid all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq given the increased risk of militancy and spillover of armed conflict emanating from these countries.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile, and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals. This is particularly the case in the event of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western or Western-affiliated states and entities.

Avoid any overt or critical statements of government, religious, or political institutions both in public spaces and online, including social media. It is also advised to be mindful of any social media posts made prior to travel that could be accessed publicly and could be viewed negatively during your visit. This is particularly the case during times of heightened political tensions involving Turkey in the international arena.

Iranian influence in Iraq to prolong civil unrest, political instability, economic insecurity – Iraq Special Report

This report was written by:

Shagun Nayar – MAX Security’s Levant intelligence specialist

And reviewed by:

Darren Cohen – Senior Intelligence Manager of MENA & Oded Berkowitz – Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer

Executive Summary

From October 2019, a nationwide anti-government protest movement has emerged in Iraq, much of it directly and indirectly related to Iran, which led to former Prime Minister (PM) Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation in November 2019.

Tehran’s influence on the political and security situation in Iraq has played a major factor in the instability witnessed over the past months. This is likely to continue to pose a challenge to the new PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi-led government over the coming months.

Additional challenges will be presented by Iraq’s deteriorating economy, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19-imposed restrictions on travel and business operations, as well as a decline in the demand for oil. Iran’s military and political entrenchment in Iraq is liable to deter US-aligned states and private enterprises from investing in the country over the long-term.

Given the US’s continued military presence in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias will likely continue their military campaign against US interests in the country over the coming months. While a large-scale armed conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq remains unlikely at the current juncture, the Iraqi government’s efforts to maintain cordial ties with both Washington and Tehran will pose a major challenge for the new government going forward.

Overall, the manner in which the newly formed government approaches Iran and its affiliated military and political groups over the coming months is likely to constitute a significant factor in the PM al-Kadhimi administration’s functioning and ability to implement reforms.

Travelers to Iraq are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the ongoing tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its regional allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Background & Current Situation

Political Situation

Following weeks of unruly protests, the Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned on November 29, 2019.

On February 1, President Salih appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as PM-designate. Allawi resigned on March 1 due to his inability to gain sufficient political support to form a technocratic government.

Adnan al-Zurfi was appointed as the next PM-designate candidate on March 17. However, Zurfi’s candidacy was rejected by a majority of Iraqi Shiite parties, as well as several factions within the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), who called him an “American Intelligence candidate”. Zurfi withdrew his candidacy on April 9.

On April 9, Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as PM-designate. His candidacy was welcomed by nearly all Iraqi Shiite parties as well as Iran and the US. However, PMU’s strongly pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah explicitly rejected his nomination as PM.

On May 6, 255 out of 329 lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament approved al-Kadhimi’s government program, which vows to reduce public spending, fight corruption, and “listen to the demands of the protest movement.”

On February 22, 2019 Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi, a candidate strongly favored by Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, was appointed as the PMU Chief of Staff.

However, on the same day, four brigades, known as the Hawza militias, loyal to prominent Iraqi Shiite religious cleric, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, issued a statement condemning al-Muhammadawi’s appointment. Sistani has publicly criticized Iran’s growing interference in Iraq’s affairs. On April 22, 2020 the Hawza militias split from the PMU.

Economic Situation

The US has extended sanction waivers to Iraq on Iranian energy imports a total of nine times since November 2018. Iranian natural gas imports reportedly account for approximately 40 percent of Iraq’s energy consumption. The latest such waiver was granted on May 6.

On April 20, Iraq reportedly announced that it had reduced Iranian energy imports by 75 percent due to near full sufficiency in domestic energy production.

However, on April 29, Iraq’s Minister of Electricity reportedly announced that replacing Iranian energy imports entirely cannot be realized immediately and that Iranian gas remains the “cheapest and easiest to transfer”. He further announced that the alternatives to replace Iranian oil are currently on hold due to domestic circumstances.

On April 12, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Plus, of which Iraq is a member state, agreed to cut oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day (mbpd) to raise the global price of oil due to a fall in demand amid COVID-19 restrictions.

According to April 16 reports, Iraq shut down oil production at state-owned oil facilities in Basra. Even prior to the agreement, Iraq reduced its production by 100,00 barrels per day (bpd) from February to March. Iraq’s oil revenue reportedly fell by 28 percent in the first quarter of 2020. In April, Iraq’s oil revenue dropped to its lowest level in a decade, at 1.423 billion USD, with oil production averaging 3.854 mbpd.

At the current oil prices per barrel, Iraq’s budget deficit is projected at a negative 19 percent of the entire GDP by the end of 2020. Iraq’s projected real GDP growth rate for 2020 is negatively valued at approximately 4.7 percent, compared to a positive 3.9 percent in 2019.

The economy’s projected current account balance is negatively valued at approximately 21.7 percent, compared to a negative 1.2 percent in 2019. 

US presence in Iraq

The US-led Coalition forces have partnered with Iraq’s security forces since 2014 to combat the threat of IS, which the Coalition states was “at the request of the Iraqi government”.

On December 27, 2019 a US civilian contractor was killed in a rocket attack targeting the K1 military base in Kirkuk. In retaliation, the US conducted airstrikes targeting several Kata’ib Hezbollah positions in Iraq on December 29.  

On January 3, the US conducted airstrikes that killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (QF) commander, Qassem Soleimani, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Deputy, and leader of the PMU’s Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad. 

On January 5, with 170 Shiite votes, the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraq.

On January 8, Iran’s IRGC launched at least 22 ballistic missiles targeting the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar Province and US-linked targets in Erbil. Both locales are known to house US-led Coalition troops.

On January 10, the Spokesperson of the US State Department announced “we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners…any delegation sent to Iraq would be to not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our…force posture in the Middle East”.

Between March 17 and April 4, US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” (OIR) Coalition troops, who support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), withdrew from several bases across Iraq. 

The OIR Coalition announced its decision on April 16 to “maintain maximum pressure on the Islamic State (IS) despite…the COVID-19 pandemic”. 

On April 6, three rockets landed near a facility operated by a US-based oil company in Basra’s Burjesia. 

The joint civil-military Baghdad International Airport was targeted with rockets during the overnight hours of May 5-6. The facility is known to house US troops. 

Civil Unrest

Between July and December 2018, anti-government protesters held persistent unruly demonstrations across Basra Province. Later, on October 1, 2019, an ongoing nationwide anti-government protest movement emerged. 

Both movements mobilized around issues such as lack of employment and access to public services, as well as demanded an end to alleged endemic corruption. 

They also denounced Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, as evidenced by the torching of the Iranian consulate in Basra on September 7, 2018 and in Najaf and Karbala on November 27, 2019 and November 3, 2019, respectively. 

Several protests were held in recent months to denounce the US military presence in Iraq, the most notable of which was the torching of the outer walls of the US Embassy by Iran-linked protesters on December 31, 2019. 

As a result of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iraq and the ongoing nationwide curfew to mitigate its spread, the anti-government protest movement has remained largely suspended.

Following Kadhimi’s election as PM, on May 6 and 7, protesters marched in Baghdad to express their dissatisfaction with the newly formed government. A further protest was recorded in Baghdad on May 10 under the banner “the revolution has not ended”. On the same day, clashes between protesters and security forces were recorded in Basra city, and Nasiriyah Province.

Prior to this, on May 9, protesters burnt the headquarters of the Iranian-backed Badr and Al-Sadiqoun parties in Wasit Province. Al-Sadiqoun is the political wing of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).

On May 11, PM Kadhimi ordered the arrest of five Iran-linked “Thar Allah” militiamen for reportedly killing a protester and wounding several others in Basra city on May 10.

Assessment & Forecast

Entrenchment of pro-Iran elements in Iraq’s political, security spheres to prolong instability

Iran, through a three-part strategy, has maintained significant influence in Iraq’s political process over the past years. First, it provided financial support and protection to Shiite parties in Iraq, particularly following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, thereby enabling such parties to enter Iraq’s political system. Second, it took advantage of the partial power vacuum to back several Iraqi Shiite militias, which gradually either joined or formed their own Shiite political parties. Third, it utilized IS’s targeting of Iraq’s Shiite population to project itself as the protector of Shiite interests in the country. In this context, it capitalized on the militant group’s resurgence in 2014 to establish a military presence in predominantly Sunni and Kurdish-held territories of northern Iraq, thereby expanding its influence pan Iraq.

The political crisis that has materialized in Iraq since November 2019 can be partially attributed to the deeply ethnic and sectarian-based political quota system, also known as the “Muhassasa”, within which Iran exercises significant influence. Within the broad Shiite political bloc, this has also been characterized by discord within the PMU, which can be attributed to disagreements with respect to the PMU’s scope in Iraq. Pro-Iraq nationalist factions favor integration into the ISF, while pro-Iran factions favor autonomy from the ISF and the Iraqi PM, which allows these elements to conduct activities in accordance with Iranian policy, particularly the regional strategies of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

This has manifested in the reported formation of the “Islamic Front for Resistance”, made of explicitly pro-Iran armed factions, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which reportedly answer directly to the IRGC and have pledged allegiance to Tehran. It currently remains unknown whether the broader PMU leadership backs the front. Regardless, the reported formation of a more hardline alliance of Iran-backed Shiite militias either within or separate to the PMU highlights Tehran’s divisive role among Shiite political and military groups, who harbor significant power and influence in the political landscape and among the majority Shiite population.

While such internal discord has persisted since the PMU’s formation in 2014, the strong coordination between the IRGC’s Qassem Solemani and the PMU’s Muhandis prevented such issues from escalating. However, following the US-perpetrated killing of both leaders, such disagreements have reemerged, as evidenced by the defection of four pro-Iraqi nationalist Sistanti-led factions from the PMU on April 22, reportedly due to the February 22, 2019 appointment of Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi, known to be a strongly pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah-backed candidate, as the PMU Chief of Staff.

This overall lack of cohesion partially contributed to the political vacuum in Iraq, characterized by the fact that the country functioned under a caretaker PM-led government from November 29, 2019 to May 6, 2020 due to the inability of two former PM-designate candidates to form a government amid a lack of support. This was chiefly due to a lack of political backing by Iraq’s Shiite coalitions, particularly the PMU’s political arm, the Fatah Alliance, which perceived such candidates as disadvantageous or indifferent to Iranian interests in Iraq. Overall, this highlights Iran’s direct and indirect role in prolonging political instability in Iraq due to its significant influence among prominent Shiite political and militia groups.

Iran’s influence within Iraqi political system to continue to present significant challenges for al-Kadhimi government

Given Iran’s long-standing position within Iraq’s political system, al-Kadhimi is unlikely to introduce major reforms that undermine the current status quo enjoyed by Tehran in Iraq. This is because such reforms would likely prompt the influential second-largest parliamentary bloc, the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance with 48 seats, and the pro-Iran “State of Law Coalition” with 25 seats, to pull support for the current administration. This, in turn, would likely trigger a political crisis that may lead to the potential dissolution of the al-Kadhimi-led government.

Thus, in order to avoid losing power and prevent a return to the political vacuum akin to that which was witnessed during the period between November 2019 and April 2020, al-Kadhimi will likely seek to broadly maintain the existing power structure. That said, the influence of Iran-backed militias may be slightly diminished due to the ongoing discord within the PMU. This is evidenced by the fact that the PMU overall supported al-Kadhimi’s candidacy despite Kata’ib Hezbollah’s explicit rejection. This indicates that some PMU factions, including those who are generally affiliated with Iran, are willing to apply pragmatism when necessary. This can likely be attributed to these elements’ fear that the complete disintegration and non-functioning of the political system may also pose a threat to Iran’s current influential role.

Meanwhile, al-Kadhimi has forged strong relations with officials from both Iran and the US in the capacity of his former position as NIS chief since 2016. It is very likely that in this position al-Kadhimi cooperated with both Iran and the US, the latter particularly in the context of the campaign against IS. FORECAST: The new PM will thus seek to leverage these ties that have been built up over recent years, which likely led to both Tehran’s and Washington’s broad approval of his candidacy, in order to strike the fragile balance between the parties’ competing interests.

FORECAST: However, Tehran’s influence within Iraq’s deeply sectarian and ethnic-based political quota system, and the competing claims of prominent Shiite factions in the government and policy-formation process, will continue to present challenges for the new al-Kadhimi-led government over the coming months. The administration will be compelled to satisfy multiple competing interests. In this specific context, alongside Iraq’s multitude of other security, political and economic challenges, the “Iran question” poses a specific set of dilemmas for al-Kadhimi. This includes the presence of the US-led Coalition on Iraqi soil following the January 5 parliamentary resolution to oust these forces, the level of political, military, and economic integration with Iran, and the ability of al-Kadhimi to rein in potentially rogue hardline Iran-backed elements within the PMU that refuse to comply with the Iraqi government’s orders.

Iranian attacks against US-linked interests, losses in oil revenue to exacerbate Iraqi economic situation

The periodic US-mandated sanction waiver extensions on Iranian energy imports have facilitated a largely uninterrupted supply of Iranian energy sources to fuel Iraq’s electricity needs. This is despite Washington’s global “maximum pressure campaign”, which has manifested in the form of economic sanctions on Iran and Iran-linked individuals and entities. These extensions are aimed at preventing a further deterioration of Iraq’s security environment, given that grievances over basic services, including electricity, have fueled violent anti-government demonstrations. Overall, and as evidenced by the US’s recent May 6 granting of a renewed 120-day waiver on electricity imports, these measures underscore Washington’s interest in stabilizing the country, even at the expense of making minor economic concessions to Iran. The particularly lengthy recent waiver, in comparison with prior waiver extensions, is indicative of the US’s effort to ensure a period of stabilization for the new government as short-term waivers can hinder the government’s ability to implement reforms against the background of energy uncertainty.

However, while the US government has demonstrated its willingness to actively prevent the collapse of the Iraqi economy, Iran-linked groups are likely to jeopardise the potential investment of US-based and US-affiliated private sector companies, which is vital for economic growth. The April 6 rocket attack targeting a US-based oil company facility in Basra and June 19, 2019 attack targeting the headquarters of major global oil companies in Basra illustrate the risks posed to US-linked facilities in Iraq, especially in the Shiite-majority areas of Basra Province where Iran is particularly influential. While no group claimed responsibility for either of these attacks, given that Iran-backed factions within the PMU have explicitly rejected the US’s presence in Iraq, and have conducted attacks against US interests in the past, their involvement remains highly likely. Although these incidents remain rare, they are likely to deter Western enterprises from investing or operating in Iraq over the coming months, particularly in the potentially lucrative oil sector. This is exacerbated by the fact that Iraq’s economic stability is largely contingent on the oil sector, which accounts for over 90 percent of its national budget and constitutes approximately 80 percent of Iraq’s total foreign exchange reserves.

Against this backdrop, there has been a significant drop in both oil production and oil prices, as evidenced by the 28 percent drop in oil-based export revenue in Q1 2020, and the decade-low oil revenue at 1.423 billion USD in April. Going forward, ensuring foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector therefore remains paramount to the country’s economic prosperity. This is because while Iraq has significant oil reserves, a majority remain underdeveloped due to the lack of investment and technical expertise required to make such gas and oil reserves functional. Continued foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector would therefore boost economic growth in Iraq, as well as making the country less dependent on Iran for energy imports, which remains a core US interest.

The ability of major foreign oil companies to operate in Iraq largely depends on the stabilization of Iraq’s security environment, which is currently undermined due to military actions by Iranian-backed militias, as well as IS. This has led to a decline in oil companies’ willingness to invest in the country’s oil sector, as evidenced by reports that only one Western company submitted an (unsuccessful) offer in Iraq’s April 2018 gas exploration auction. This event occurred after Iraq’s territorial defeat of IS in December 2017, which was anticipated to herald a new era of relatively increased stability in Iraq, and also predated the current period in which frequent attacks against US-linked interests occur. FORECAST: Thus, it remains even less likely that US and European-based oil companies will seek to invest in Iraq over the coming months, largely due to Iranian-backed militias’ and IS’s continued role in destabilizing the security environment of the country. This is further exacerbated by other considerations, including the currently diminished demands for oil, and added restrictions on travel and business operations both regionally and globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to further diminish Iraq’s domestic and foreign exchanges reserves, thereby further prolonging the economic crisis in the country.

FORECAST:The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic crisis are likely to have a short and medium term impact on Iraq’s gradual ability to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy sources. In this context, on April 20, Iraq reportedly announced that it had reduced Iranian energy imports by 75 percent due to near full sufficiency in domestic energy production. However, in light of Iraq’s Minister of Electricity’s statement that stated that “alternatives to replace Iranian oil are currently on hold due to domestic [COVID-19-related] circumstances”, Iran’s continued influence in Iraq’s energy sector will sustain over the coming months. Regardless, over the coming years, the reduction of Iraq’s energy dependence on Iran will create a vacuum in Iraq’s energy sector, which may facilitate a renewed role for Washington in exerting additional influence in Iraq.

US likely to retain military presence in Iraq despite rhetoric, military attacks by Iran-backed groups

The US troops’ training and financing of Iraq’s coalition of anti-IS forces, known as the ISF, which include the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi federal police, the Iraqi Armed Forces, and the Iraqi border guard forces, have significantly contributed to mitigating the jihadist group’s threat in the country. This includes training Iraq’s security personnel in shooting, urban combat, and subterranean warfare techniques, undergoing courses. Furthermore, the US-backed ISF conducted 1,007 anti-IS operations between January and April, even amid a partial scale-down of such operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, despite this, the withdrawal of the US military has remained a long-standing goal of Shiite elements in Iraq. The January 3 assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Muhandis drastically elevated existing anti-US sentiments in the country, including among segments of the non-Shiite populace. This is because the US’s military action in Iraq that killed two prominent military leaders without the prior approval of the Iraqi government, was perceived to be a violation of Iraq’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. The assaasination of the IRGC-QF leader and Iran-backed PMU commander in Baghdad also resulted in a rare direct military confrontation between Iran and the US in Iraq, namely the IRGC’s January 8 ballistic missile attack targeting Anbar and Erbil provinces. This highlighted the potential for the US-Iran tensions to translate into armed conflict in Iraq, where the two states continue to fight over influence. Such incidents have prompted Iraqi nationalist-leaning groups and leaders to oppose Iraq becoming a battle ground between Washington and Iran and thus to oppose all foreign intervention in the state’s affairs. FORECAST: Iran is unlikely to engage in direct military confrontation with the US in Iraq in the foreseeable future and is likely to instead target US interests in Iraq through its backed militias. This is because it currently does not remain in the interest of Tehran to elevate hostilities with Washington given the latter’s imposition of economic sanctions against the former over the past years. Such sanctions have led to significant economic challenges in Iran, thereby decreasing the likelihood of Iran engaging in a full-blown armed conflict with the US in Iraq.

This also has an impact on the political arena. The US’s military presence has been consistently explicitly rejected by almost all Shiite parties and militias in Iraq over recent months, including those who prioritize Iraqi nationalism over a strong allegiance to Tehran. This is evidenced by the January 5 non-binding resolution wherein 170 Shiite votes called for the removal of “all foreign troops from Iraqi soil”. While it is notable that both Sunni and Kurdish parties boycotted the vote, illustrating the polarization in Iraq’s sectarian politics, the rare display of cohesion among the Shiite bloc demonstrated a notable consensus among these parties vis-a-vis the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. Meanwhile, in the ensuing period, on April 4, eight PMU factions published a statement “vowing” to “defend” Iraq against the US’s “occupation” and demanded that US troops depart from Iraq in line with the January 5 resolution. On March 16, a Shiite, likely Iranian-backed militia group “Usbat al-Thairen” claimed two attacks targeting the Basmaya and Taji camps and advised US troops to leave “vertically before we force them to leave horizontally”.

These developments illustrate the ongoing opposition among pro-Iran Shiite groups regarding Washington’s military presence in Iraq, albeit for differing motivations. The influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr-led Sairoon Alliance opposes all foreign intervention in Iraqi domestic affairs for the aforementioned reasons, while the Iran-affiliated Fatah Alliance and Badr Organization seek closer ideological ties to Iran and the expulsion of US military forces. FORECAST: However, these developments were also a direct reaction to the US’s killing of Soleimani and direct US-Iran tensions inside Iraq have since slightly subsided and will likely continue to fade in the absence of new developments. Moreover, as illustrated by their boycott of the vote Kurdish and Sunni elements, as well as some Shiites, likely recognize the aforementioned role of the US in the anti-IS campaign and will be reluctant to allow the jihadist group to significantly reemerge.

FORECAST: Despite the persistent rocket attacks targeting US interests in Iraq, the existing anti-US sentiment among a considerable section of the Iraqi populace, as well as coronavirus-related health concerns regarding its military personnel in Iraq, the US remains unlikely to fully withdraw its troops from Iraq over the coming months. This is supported by the January 10 statement published by the US Department of State that stated “any delegation sent to Iraq would be to not to discuss troop withdrawal” as well as the April 16 decision by OIR that announced its decision to “maintain maximum pressure on IS despite…the COVID-19 pandemic”. Given this, Iranian-backed militias will continue their military action against US personnel and infrastructure in Iraq over the coming months, thereby prolonging the existing heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran in Iraq. This will lead to a further deteriorating of regional stability in the Middle East region.

FORECAST: The future of the US presence in Iraq will be based on a trade-off between political, economic and security considerations, and is slated to be discussed at the upcoming June “strategic dialogue” between Iraq and the US. While all Shiite parties and militias have continued to reject the US military presence, the new government will be compelled to strike a balance between Iraq’s multiple interests and ethnic groups. al-Kadhimi’s official position in his government program states that Iraq will promote the principle of “not allowing its territory to be used as a base for launching aggression against any of its neighbors and will not become a battlefield for regional and international conflicts”. This however has fallen short of advocating for the expulsion of the US forces’ presence in Iraq, which has reportedly triggered some pro-Iran groups to accuse al-Kadhimi of being too vague with respect to the issue. Given his recent rhetoric, while the new PM will likely seek to disentangle Iraq from becoming a battle ground between the US and Iran, he is unlikely to push for a broad withdrawal of US-led Coalition forces that would significantly harm Iraq’s anti-IS campaign. Al-Kadhimi will be cognizant of the US’s contribution from his experience as an intelligence chief. FORECAST: This assessment is bolstered by Iraq’s increasingly precarious economic situation. In order to maintain the aforementioned US-granted sanctions waivers over the coming months, the al-Kadhimi-led government will aim to balance political, security, and economic considerations in a way that does not run the risk of US-imposed economic sanctions against Baghdad which would harm the economy and thus aggravate existing severe socio-economic issues among Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

Protesters to continue to mobilize around issue of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs, Iran-linked groups to employ violence at protests 

A significant portion of unruly anti-government demonstrations has mobilized around the issue of Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, as evidenced by the torching of the Iranian consulate in Najaf and Karbala on November 27 and November 3, 2019, respectively. Unidentified gunmen reportedly shot several unarmed protesters during the aforementioned demonstrations. While the details surrounding these shootings have not been officially disclosed, given the timing, location, and target, it remains likely that the shootings were conducted by members or supporters of Iranian-backed militias. Meanwhile on December 31,2019, PMU members and supporters torched the outer walls of the US Embassy in Baghdad, following the US-perpetrated December 29 airstrikes targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah positions in Iraq. Taken together, these incidents underscore Tehran’s destabilizing role in sustaining civil unrest in the country, either by indirectly encouraging anti-US protests, or due to the fact that the presence of Iran-linked institutions triggers demonstrations by anti-Iran locals, who are violently dispersed by Iran-backed forces.

FORECAST: The anti-government protest movement however will likely sustain over the coming months. This is because a portion of the populace perceives the new government to entrench what many protesters perceive to be an illegitimate sectarian-based, corrupt political system. This is evidenced by multiple protests in Baghdad denouncing al-Kadhimi’s newly formed government since it was sworn in on May 6, some of which were held under the banner “the revolution has not ended”. This is despite the new PM’s measures on May 9 to appease the protesters, such as the release of detained protesters and appointment of Lieutant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi as commander of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).

In this context, the reinstatement of al-Saadi is particularly notable given that the nationwide protests that commenced in October 2019 were primarily triggered to denounce his ousting from the same role and provides some indication of the new al-Kadhimi-led government’s direction. Reports indicate that his demotion was motivated by Iranian considerations, as Tehran sought to gain influence with the CST, which is known to cooperate with the US, which reportedly founded and trained its forces. His return to the position may be indicative of a desire by the new PM to project his willingness to confront Iran-backed political interests, especially in the realm of security, given al-Saadi’s widespread popularity due to his role in the campaign against IS. Al-Kadhimi’s willingness to confront Iran-backed groups was also bolstered by his May 11 order to arrest five Iran-linked “Thar Allah” militiamen for killing and wounding protesters in Basra Province on May 10, which was very notable due to its rarity and illustrates he seeks to hold these groups to account. However, such decisions are likely to strain the new PM’s relationship with Iran-backed elements in Iraq that will undermine his legitimacy.

The mobilizing of protesters around the issue of Iran’s role in Iraqi affairs is likely to continue to be a focus of the anti-government protest movement. This is highlighted by the reported torching of the Iran-linked Badr Organization in Wasit Province on May 10. Such unruly demonstrations are part of broader anti-government protests and will add to the movement’s momentum in Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq. This, in turn, highlights how Iran-linked elements will present as an obstacle in the government’s efforts to introduce systemic reforms to address the protesters’ long-standing demands, either as a target of protest itself, or potentially, as a catalyst for additional unrest due to violence employed at demonstrations.

Moreover, as part of his government program, the new PM has pledged to establish a committee to investigate the violence at all protests since October 2019, which aims to compensate the families of those killed and individuals wounded in the demonstrations. However, many of those responsible were known to be Iran-backed militias and their supporters who al-Kadhimi relies on for support, which complicates the likelihood of an independent and thorough enquiry. This underscores Tehran’s significance in Iraq’s political and administrative apparatus. FORECAST: Given these political constraints, legal proceedings against such Iran-backed elements will unlikely comprehensively materialize, which may increase anti-government sentiment.

FORECAST: Overall, given Iran’s continued destabilizing role in Iraq’s political system, through its supported Shiite parties, the new al-Kadhimi-led government will likely avoid introducing any reforms that stand to systematically disrupt the current influence Iran enjoys. The broader challenges in enacting systematic government reforms, as well as the country’s deteriorating economic condition amid COVID-19 restrictions, will further exacerbate the populace’s existing anti-government sentiments, thereby prolonging civil unrest in the country. Such a scenario will be further compounded by the US’s refusal to completely withdraw its troops from Iraq over the coming months, potentially with the consent of the Iraqi government. This will both emolden Iranian-backed militias to conduct additional rocket attacks targeting US interests and increase the discord among the fragile Iraqi political landscape over those in favor and those against a US military presence in the country. All of these factors are liable to trigger unrest over the coming weeks and months.

Recommendations

It is advised to avoid all nonessential travel to Baghdad and Basra at this time due to the ongoing threat of militancy in these locales, violence in areas surrounding the cities, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Travel to Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces should be avoided at this time due to ongoing counter-militancy operations and militant attacks. 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.

Those operating natural gas or oil facilities are advised to obtain security consultation for facilities in outlying areas, specific to the nationalities and operational needs of their employees.

As a general precaution, it is advised that any travel, particularly in outlying areas, be conducted in armored vehicles, with proper security escorts and coordination with authorities.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, continuing to operate in Iraq are additionally advised to maintain a low profile, exercise heightened vigilance, and avoid locales frequented by foreign, particularly Western nationals. To mitigate the risk of attacks or abductions, ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals. As a general security precaution, avoid revealing to strangers your position or affiliation with foreign-based firms, as your response could attract a negative reaction from locals.

US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions 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 will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

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

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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.