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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.

How will Kurdish referendum effect regional, national, and local ethnic tensions within Kurdistan Regional Government – Iraq Analysis

Current Situation

Reports indicate that the non-binding independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held on September 25 passed with a majority of 91.8%. The Iraqi Government denounced the referendum. In reaction, it closed its border crossings into the KRG on September 25. Reports additionally indicate that on September 27, the Iraqi Parliament gave the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) a mandate to deploy troops to the Peshmerga-held Kirkuk region.

Reports from September 22 quoting KRG President Masoud Barzani, affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), indicate that the referendum’s goal is to grant the KRG leader the mandate to negotiate independence. According to unconfirmed reports from September 29, Barzani agreed to postpone the declaration of independence for two years in order to engage in negotiations with Baghdad.

Furthermore, the Iraqi Council of Ministers demanded that the KRG hand over all oil revenues, as well as Erbil International Airport (EBL) and Sulaymaniyah International Airport (ISU) to the central government. During the evening hours of September 29, Iraqi authorities closed the airspace over the KRG for international flights, resulting in the cancellation of flights to and from the Sulaymaniyah and Erbil Airports, with the exception of domestic flights. This followed the ultimatum issued by the Iraqi government to the KRG to cancel the September 25 independence referendum results by September 29 at 18:00 (local time).

Turkish Airlines, Egypt Air, the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, and Royal Jordanian additionally announced a suspension of their flights. Since the results were announced, celebratory events took place throughout the region’s predominantly Kurdish-populated areas, including in Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

• On September 23, Turkey launched a military drill along the KRG border. While President Erdogan has threatened that “all military and economic measures are on the table”, Turkey’s Economy Minister Zeybekci stated on September 26 that he does not expect the referendum to impact trade relations between Turkey and the KRG at this point. At the time of writing, Turkey’s sole border crossing with the KRG, Habur, remains open. On September 28, Turkey’s Minister of Energy also threatened to impose sanctions on oil-related imports from KRG.  Iran has threatened to cease all security cooperation with the KRG. Moreover, flights to KRG airports were reportedly suspended, while border crossings between Iran and the KRG were closed one day after the referendum

How will Kurdish referendum effect regional, national, and local ethnic tensions within Kurdistan Regional Government - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

Over the short term, any concrete KRG steps towards independence remain unlikely to materialize, given the international community’s lack of acknowledgment, including by countries known for their military and economic support for Erbil, such as the US and the UK. Instead, President Barzani likely held the referendum at this point in order to deflect domestic criticism and bolster his status and popularity among the Kurdish population of the KRG. Such criticism is fanned by the fact that Barzani’s term expired in August 2015, with him staying in office after the Kurdistan Consultative Council extended his mandate for two more years. The measure has contributed to a persisting political crisis in the KRG, as evidenced by the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Parliament has been shut down since October 2015 due to growing disagreements between the KDP and opposition movement Gorran, particularly regarding the aforementioned extension of the presidential term. Barzani likely calculated that finally holding the referendum would assert his political control over the territory for the years to come. However, as Barzani previously stated, the referendum merely meant to grant the KRG the mandate to commence negotiations with the central government for independence, thus not entirely binding him to declare independence. Nonetheless, there remains a potential for some loss of credibility among the KRG’s Kurdish population in the long term, should the final goal of an independent Kurdish state fail to be achieved.

As highlighted by the Iraqi parliament’s mandate to deploy ISF troops to Kirkuk Province, tensions between the central government and Erbil are liable to remain heightened in the coming months. In addition to Baghdad’s interest in maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity, the KRG bears a significant economic importance, given its oil-rich regions, as well as its oil pipelines which run through its region towards Turkey. That being said, while minor skirmishes between ISF troops and Peshmerga fighters remain possible along the border of KRG-controlled territory and the central government, we assess that full-scale hostilities between the two parties remain less likely at this time. This is likely due to the fact such a scenario may weaken both parties, and thus pave the way for the Islamic State’s (IS) re-emergence in the country. FORECAST: Instead, Baghdad will likely impose political and economic sanctions on the KRG, which would potentially damage Erbil’s economy and cripple its ability to operate a sovereign state. This scenario is further likely in the event of similar sanction implementations by Turkey and Iran.

FORECAST: Within the KRG’s territory, the referendum is liable to exacerbate the longstanding internal sectarian tensions, particularly between the Kurdish population and the territory’s Arab and Turkmen minorities. This is further underlined by the reported clashes in Kirkuk Citybetween Kurds and Turkmen guards, during the night hours of September 18, in front of Turkmen Party Offices, which were triggered by the local Kurds’ celebration of the then-upcoming referendum, resulting in the killing of one Kurdish guard. Given the prevailing sense of marginalization among the Turkmen and Sunni Arab minorities, which would likely be enhanced in the event of the formation of a Kurdish state, it remains possible that some of these elements would be more susceptible to radicalization. In this context, the Sunni Arabs may even be prone to recruitment to Sunni jihadist militant groups, such as IS, as has been witnessed over the past several years. Regardless, localized ethnic-related hostilities between the aforementioned groups remain likely in the KRG over the coming weeks.

Regionally, the referendum is liable to enhance tensions with regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey. As underscored by the celebrations by Kurdish communities in these countries, this can likely be attributed to Tehran and Ankara’s growing concerns that the referendum will encourage the separatist aspirations of these countries’ Kurdish minorities and lead to increasing acts of militancy and civil unrest. With this in mind, Iran and Turkey’s posturing until this point likely intends to reduce the potential for such effects in these countries’ Kurdish-dominated areas. FORECAST: In Iran, groups such as the Party of Free Life

FORECAST: In Iran, groups such as the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) may intensify the frequency of their attacks against government-affiliated interests throughout the country’s northwestern provinces. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as its radical offshoot the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) to a lesser extent, will intensify their militant operations across the country, especially across its predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern regions.

That said, despite Turkey’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward Erbil, significant punitive measures by Ankara remain unlikely at this time. This is likely because the latter is heavily invested in the KRG’s economy. The aforementioned statement by the Turkish economy minister indicates that economic sanctions on the KRG remain rather unlikely over the coming months. This assessment is backed by the fact that a potential closure of Habur border crossing, the main route for oil exports, would harm not only Turkey but also the Iraqi central government, which obtains the majority of its income from these oil sales. Additionally, should Turkey implement actual punitive measures against the KRG, it may impact the level of militancy across the country’s predominantly Kurdish-populated southern provinces. If Turkey significantly alienates the KRG, it would potentially lead to the latter’s support for Turkey’s main militant threat along the Iraqi-Turkish border, namely the PKK, as the group is known to cross the border back and forth. This is in contrast to the current relations between the two Kurdish groups, in which the PKK and the KDP-led KRG are currently in a state of rivalry.

Iran is highly threatened by a potential independent state, as it would likely have a pro-Western orientation, including in the form of friendly relations with Israel, which is the Islamic Republic’s main adversary in the region. Such a state may be perceived by the Iranians as a potential base of operations for its rivals. As a result, we assess that Tehran is likely to take more significant punitive measures against the KRG. However, should Tehran keep the border with the KRG closed over the long-term, this would be liable to result in increased unrest and an uptick in acts of militancy in Iran’s Kurdish-majority provinces. This is due to the fact that the Kurdish-majority population in the border area depends to a significant extent on cross-border trade, a major source of income for them. Given this possible negative fallout, Tehran may choose to reopen the border crossings over the coming weeks.

FORECAST: Regardless, the Iranian government will likely punish the KRG by instructing Iranian-backed Shiite militias to ignite hostilities with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in disputed areas in northern Iraq, particularly in the Kirkuk and Salahuddin Province’s Tuz Khurmatu area. With this in mind, the risk for such hostilities will likely be elevated over the coming weeks.

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.
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.

Given the ongoing presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in bordering provinces and subsequent clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga, it is advised to avoid the vicinity of the KRG’s borders, and the disputed areas. 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.

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.

 

Read more geopolitical analyses in our security blog.

Threat to aviation by anti-tank guided missiles highlighted by al-Arish Airport attack case study – Special Analysis Report

Case study: December 20 attack on al-Arish Airport

On December 20, an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM)  targeted a helicopter on the ramp of al-Arish Airport, located in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. The helicopter carried, among others, the Egyptian interior and defense ministers who disembarked from the aircraft shortly before the attack.

On December 21, the Islamic State (IS)-linked news agency released a report on the attack, alongside a claim of responsibility by the local IS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, stating that the group had prior knowledge of the arrival of the ministers and dispatched a team of militants to ambush the entourage. It further stated that the attack was conducted with the use of a 9M133 “Kornet” ATGM that targeted an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that was escorting the VIPs.

Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack
Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack

Later that day, the IS-linked news agency released a video showing the attack itself, in which the ministers and their entourage can be seen next to the helicopter with its navigation lights still on, which contrary to initial publications was a UH-60 “Blackhawk”, as it was hit by an ATGM.

Edition number 111 of IS’s weekly al-Naba newsletter published on December 22 included a more detailed and contradictory account of the attack, stating that militants spotted a helicopter with a “unique shape” and concluded that this would be a high value target.

This prompted militants to dispatch an ATGM team to a position overlooking the airport with the objective of destroying the “unique aircraft”.

It is important to mention that the Egyptian Air Force (EAAF) reportedly operated two Blackhawk helicopters prior to the attack, mainly in the role of VIP transport. These aircraft are much more distinct than others that would commonly be seen in Sinai’s airspace, such as Apaches or Mi-17s.

Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS's weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports
Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS’s weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports

Analysis of the missile launch:

While there has been no corroboration as to the type of missile used by IS in the attack at the time of writing, Wilayat Sinai have employed Kornets several times in the past, most notably in July 2015 when the group used the missile to attack an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast of North Sinai’s Rafah.

If the missile used was in fact a Kornet as IS claims, given that the missile was in flight for 14 seconds from launch until it hit its target and given that the speed of a standard Kornet missile is between 250 and 300 meters a second, it would place the launcher between 3.5 and 4.2 km from the target, well within the Kornet’s effective daytime range.

By comparing the video and imagery analysis of Al-Arish Airport, we concluded that the missile was launched from an elevated structure or a dirt berm southwest of the helicopter’s position, as can be see in the following map:

Analysis of the Missile against Helicopter in Al-Arish-Airport

Threat posed to aviation from proliferation of ATGMs

The attack does not represent a precedent, but rather serves as an opportunity to highlight the threat posed to aviation from the proliferation of ATGMs in the hands of numerous militant groups in multiple countries. Several accounts of ATGMs being fired against aircraft were recorded in recent years, including successfully targeting aircraft in flight, with the most prominent example being the downing of an Israeli Air Force (IAF) helicopter by Hezbollah in Lebanon on August 12, 2006. This is especially important as this threat is often overlooked in comparison to the more well known threat posed by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

While MANPADS pose a more prominent threat to aircraft, as they were designed with the specific goal of targeting aircraft, they have several shortcomings compared to ATGMs. These mainly include being more delicate, having parts with short shelf lives, requiring greater expertise and training to successfully operate, and being more rare. ATGMs still require expertise and training, although less than MANPADS, and are generally more durable and can be sustained for operations over longer time and in harsher conditions. Most importantly however, ATGMs are significantly more common than MANPADS, and with the destabilization of countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, thousands of these systems, of different generations and capabilities, were taken away from military storage and ended in the hands of militant groups across the world. This is in addition to illegal purchases through stable countries that do not adhere to international norms, such as Belarus and North Korea.

As noted, ATGMs were not designed primarily to hit aircraft and therefore do not excel in it, however, the features for which they were designed, namely attacking a comparatively slow moving target, still make them effective weapons against aircraft. This is mostly relevant during the takeoff and landing stages of both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, when these are most vulnerable due to their low speed and altitude. In addition, while there are several options of countermeasures against MANPADS that can be used by civil aircraft, countermeasures against ATGMs are fewer, and often involve explosives, making them currently non-optional for civil aircraft.

An additional weakness exposed in the recent attack is the dependency on local security forces and their protocols, which can often be low in standard. The attack occurred in a region currently undergoing prolonged and high intensity militant activity, in a city that was hit by the most attacks in the region in recent months. Despite this fact, the VIPs were flown in a distinct helicopter that draws attention, the airport lacks even basic and cheap means in place that may disrupt or prevent a missile attack, such as walls that would block line of sight into the airport, or metal nets that would negate the missile’s shaped charge mechanism. All of these expose the weaknesses of local security protocols, which were a direct factor in the attack.

Recommendations

The threat of ATGMs should be considered as a potential factor while conducting risk and vulnerability surveys, particularly in unstable regions.

Prior to conducting aerial activity in countries with known militant activity, contact us at [email protected] to consult on the possible threat posed by relevant militant groups’ weapons and capabilities and ways to mitigate these.

Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for security surveys of airports.

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.

What effect will the Islamic State’s territorial setbacks in Iraq have on their strategy in the rest of the country? – Iraq Analysis

Current Situation

Over the past weeks and months, a marked uptick of asymmetric attacks perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS) has been recorded in the Diyala, Salahuddin and central Anbar Provinces. For instance, in Diyala Province,  on June 11, the group claimed responsibility for an SVBIED attack targeting the al-Safra checkpoint in the al-Adhim area, north of Baqubah. Five soldiers were killed and three others were wounded according to the group. Furthermore, on June 7, IS carried out an attack on an intelligence headquarters in the city of Baqubah according to IS-linked media. Finally, on May 28, IS claimed a suicide attack targeting a security checkpoint in Baqubah, which resulted in the killing of three people and the wounding of at least 13 more.

Meanwhile, in Salahuddin Province, on July 1, IS carried out an assault on Peshmerga fighters on Highway 55 linking the cities of Tikrit and Tuz Khurmatu. killing one Peshmerga officer. Furthermore, on April 5, IS had carried out a multi-pronged suicide bombing and shooting attack in the city of Tikrit, killing 31 people and wounding over 40. Finally, on May 2, another suicide bombing was staged by the Sunni jihadist militant group at a police checkpoint at the entrance of the city of Samarra, killing two security personnel.

Finally, in Anbar Province, large-scale IS-perpetrated suicide bombings targeting Iraqi Security is Forces (ISF) were recorded on April 3 in Fallujah, on May 3 in Ramadi, and on May 15 in Haditha.

What effect will the Islamic State's territorial setbacks in Iraq have on their strategy in the rest of the country? - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

The uptick of IS attacks in the aforementioned provinces comes amidst persistent territorial setbacks for the Sunni jihadist militant group to pro-government forces across Iraq, and chiefly the ongoing pro-government campaign to capture Mosul, which is liable to be completed over the coming weeks, thus resulting in IS’ loss of their prominent stronghold in Iraq. With this in mind, we assess that the increased number of asymmetric attacks in the aforementioned provinces is likely an effort of the Sunni jihadist militant group to establish a foothold in the Diyala, Salahuddin and central Anbar Provinces instead, as they lose their traditional strongholds, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a territorial control in these areas in the long-term. This is further underscored by reports indicating that IS is currently deploying fighters to villages at the border between the Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces, in a likely effort to capitalize on the low presence of pro-government forces in the area.

We assess that the increase of IS activity in these specific provinces is motivated by their ethnically mixed populaces, which includes a sizable number of Sunni Arabs. The fact that a significant portion of this population suffers from perceived marginalization by the Iraqi government, as well as reported cases of harassment of the local Sunni Arab populations by Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), makes these segments susceptible to sympathizing with the Sunni jihadist militant group.  We further assess that the fact that a significant number of the aforementioned IS attacks have targeted PMU forces is likely an indication of the group’s attempt to further exacerbate sectarian tensions between the abovementioned communities in order to gain and expand support among Sunni Arabs. Such a calculus is likely motivated by the fact that attacks against Shiite targets are often met with acts of reprisal by PMU forces against local Sunni Arabs, such as the torching of Sunni-operated businesses and the targeting of Sunni mosques to a lesser degree. Such developments, in turn, are liable to result in increased support of Sunnis for IS.

What effect will the Islamic State's territorial setbacks in Iraq have on their strategy in the rest of the country? - Iraq Analysis | MAX Security

Meanwhile, on a tactical level, such IS ambitions have likely been facilitated by the fact that the group has recently been able to renew its activities in the Hamreen Mountain range, which is strategically located between the Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahuddin Provinces and oversees the region. Furthermore, the mountains are located close to Highways 1 and 2 leading to Baghdad and bisecting Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, as well as to the cities of Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk, which are marked by frequent ethno-sectarian tensions. With this in mind, should IS be able to consolidate its presence in this mountainous region, this will likely increase their ability to launch asymmetric attacks in the aforementioned provinces and cities, and quickly withdraw to and take cover in the Hamreen Mountains following such acts of militancy. This is due to the fact that the rugged and mountainous terrain is liable to impede counter-militancy operations of pro-government forces launched in response. Additionally, IS may increasingly target Highway 1 and Highway 2, both main traffic arteries connecting Baghdad with northern Iraq, in order to hinder the Iraqi government’s attempts to rebuild and reconstruct the country’s northern regions after their eventual liberation from the Sunni jihadist militant group..

FORECAST: Over the coming months, given that the Diyala and Salahuddin Provinces are entirely held by pro-government forces, with IS lacking any consolidated territorial control at this time,  we assess that the Sunni jihadist militant group will likely maintain, and possibly escalate, its high intensity of asymmetric attacks in central government-controlled locations, such as Baghdad and Ramadi.  This would constitute an effort to force pro-government troop deployments away from these areas, in order to facilitate IS’ ambitions to gain a foothold in the Diyala and Salahuddin Provinces. Should such a scenario eventually materialize, the group may even capitalize on a broad deterioration of the security situation, thus setting the conditions to attain territorial control over parts of these areas over the long-term.

In light of the uptick in IS attacks in the aforementioned provinces, we assess that ISF forces will likely intensify counter-militancy raids targeting suspected IS militants in these areas over the coming weeks in an effort to mitigate the risk of further attacks by the Sunni jihadist militant group. With that being said, in light of the aforementioned rough terrain in which IS militants operate, the potential for such expected security measures to be successful remains very limited.

FORECAST:Furthermore, over the long-term, it remains possible that Iraqi authorities will attempt to reach out to the Sunni Arab populace, and particularly the local tribesmen, in these provinces by providing funds for development and improvement of infrastructure in order to reduce the appeal of IS in their eyes. Such a step could build on the successful 2007 precedent, when the Iraqi government channelled US-provided funds to Sunni tribes to fight against IS’ predecessor of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which resulted in a significant decrease in the group’s activity across the country throughout 2007-2008. As a consequence, local support for the Iraqi government increased considerably, with the Sunni jihadist group’s influence almost entirely diminished, until US funding was discontinued in conjunction with the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq. That said, a lack of available funds at disposal of the Iraqi government, as well as likely opposition of Shiite PMU forces to such a policy, are liable to impede its feasibility.

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.

Given the ongoing presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in bordering provinces and subsequent clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga, it is advised to avoid the vicinity of the KRG’s borders, and the disputed areas. 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.

MAX Analysis Saudi Arabia & Iraq: IS attack against Saudi-Iraq border crossing January 6, 2015

Executive Summary

  • An Islamic State-subgroup based in Iraq’s Anbar Province issued a statement on January 5 claiming responsibility for targeting the Iraqi side of Saudi Arabia’s Arar border crossing, which came under attack during the early morning hours of January 5. Three Saudi Border Guards were killed in the attack and two wounded, while four attackers were also killed.
  • Despite an ideological interest in targeting Saudi Arabia, we do not assess that the January 5 incident represents an alteration in the security situation along Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq, but rather a likely opportunistic attack, while IS in Iraq (formerly ISIS) remains primarily focused on consolidating its territory amidst increasing difficulties connected to, among others, anti-IS coalition airstrikes.
  • We assess that the interest in targeting Saudi Arabia is liable to be primarily pursued by radicalized Saudi citizens, including those that support IS, against which the country continues to crack down upon.
  • In Saudi Arabia, travel to Riyadh, Dammam, and Jeddah can continue as normal while adhering to basic security precautions and adherence to cultural norms.
  • In Iraq, 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 Governorates due to ongoing combat operations. 

Current Security Situation at the Saudi-Iraq Border
During the evening hours of January 5, the Saudi Ministry of Interior (MOI) security spokesperson provided further details regarding the early morning attack at the Suyef Center border crossing with Iraq in Jadida Arar. The report provided by the country’s official news agency stated that four militants were intercepted attempting to enter Saudi Arabia via the aforementioned border crossing, causing two of the four to open fire. One was killed by retaliatory gunfire from Saudi Border Guards while a second detonated an explosive belt. The remaining two were then killed by gunfire and the detonation of an explosive belt or vest after being pursued by the Border Guards into the Arar Valley.

  • As a result, three members of the Border Guards, including the commander of the Border Guard in the Northern Region, were killed. Two others were injured, with the official news agency reporting their condition as stable.
  • Reports further indicate that an automatic weapon, pistol, grenades, and explosive belts were seized, along with an unspecified amount of cash. As previously noted, reinforcements were reportedly dispatched to the border crossing following the incident.
  • In addition, the Islamic State (IS)-subgroup based in Iraq’s Anbar Province, known as “Wilayat Anbar”, issued a statement on January 5 claiming responsibility for targeting the Iraqi side of the border crossing with Saudi Arabia. In the photos included, at least 12 militants appear to be involved in the attack.

Assessments

  • Even without the statement by IS claiming responsibility for the attack on the Iraqi side of the border, we continue to assess that there are few other parties that would conduct, or have the capabilities to conduct such an operation. This is due to a number of reasons, including the modus operandi of the attack, involving suicide attackers, which is commonly utilized by IS, as well as the targeting of Saudi Arabia itself. In this context, when IS’s self-declared Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accepted oaths of allegiances from various IS groups in a November 13 audio recording, he stated that the “serpent’s head and the stronghold of the disease” is located in al-Haramayn”, referring to Saudi Arabia. He then listed those that should be targeted, namely, Shiites, the Al-Saud ruling family, and security force. 
  • Moreover, Iraq’s restive Anbar Province, in which the Iraqi side of the Arar border crossing is located, continues to witness ongoing IS activity, with significant areas reported to be under the group’s control. Although the Iraqi government reportedly maintains control of areas immediately along the shared border with Saudi Arabia, reports indicate that IS has a firm presence in al-Nukhayb, located along a road that leads directly to the Iraqi side of the Arar border crossing and is approximately 119 km away. Taking into account the ideology of IS and the fact that the militants were equipped with suicide belts/vests, IS likely did not feel threatened by Iraqi government forces in crossing territory reportedly under their control. In this context, confrontations with Iraqi government forces other than those stationed at the border crossing was likely also perceived as an acceptable battle and, thus, IS may not have been concerned with being intercepted along the way. Meanwhile, the IS claim refers solely to the Iraqi side of the border, suggesting that its aim were Iraqi forces stationed there. This suggests that the four of those involved in the Saudi incident were able to bypass the Iraqi side of the crossing and enter into the Saudi border post, particularly given the proximity of the two. Thus, the January 5 incident would appear more of an opportunistic attack rather than one aimed specifically at Saudi Arabia.
  • However, it cannot be ruled out that IS had other ambitions. This could include testing the capabilities of the Saudi Border Guards, conducting a sensational attack with the aim of increasing its media profile and gaining supporters, and/or creating fear among the country and other anti-IS coalition members. In this context, amidst increasing difficulties faced by the organization in Iraq, including due to coalition airstrikes, IS may be looking for a successful attack to boost morale. Along with the symbolism of a border crossing, Arar is home to an airport. In August, following the landing of the mortars near the city, unconfirmed reports stated that an IS “supporter” described the airport as “within reach of [the group’s] missiles” and would be targeted if it was used as a base for US missions in Iraq. During the 2003 Iraq War, reports that the US utilized Saudi facilities suggest that this airport was one such facility. Moreover, the timing of the attack, that is, coming amidst the dispatch of a Saudi delegation to Iraq to finalize the reopening of an embassy and consulate may be intended as a message to Saudi Arabia that, if it can attack them at their border, it can certainly target them in Iraq.
  • Regardless, we assess that this attack does not represent a substantial shift in the security situation in Saudi Arabia along the Iraqi border. Even if specifically aimed at attempting to infiltrate Saudi Arabia, there are a number of reasons as to why the country remains prepared and capable of defending this border area. In addition to the substantially increased security that has been implemented, including as part of Phase 1 of the “project for border security” inaugurated in September 2014 that involves, among others, a 900 km security fence and additional monitoring towers, the country introduced a 20 km expanded buffer zone in November. Moreover, while three mortars impacted near Arar in July, two incidents over a period of approximately six months does not point to a pattern. There is also no indication that one successful attack means that the Iraqi government has lost some or all of control over certain border areas with Saudi Arabia.
  • In addition, the Saudi Border Guards have demonstrated a capability in preventing attacks from moving past the border areas. In this context, the January 5 incident was contained to the immediate border area, causing the death of three despite the presence of two suicide bombers. Similarly, in July 2014, an attack against the southern Wadia border crossing claimed by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also saw an attack contained to the border crossing area. During this incident, two Saudi Border Guards were reportedly killed and a third was injured, later succumbing to his wounds, while three attackers were also killed and a fourth was wounded and arrested. A fourth Saudi was then killed when the remaining two militants hiding in a building and holding ten individuals hostage detonated the explosives they were wearing. As on January 5, the relatively limited number of non-militants killed despite the presence of at least two suicide attackers demonstrates the Border Guards’ capabilities to prevent deeper infiltrations and reduce casualties.
  • We also continue to assess that IS’s interest in opening a front with Saudi Arabia remains limited at this time. While their ideological desire to target the country certainly exists, as underlined by al-Baghdadi’s speech, the presence of two of Islam’s holiest sites in the country, and Saudi Arabia’s participation in the international anti-IS coalition, it is likely that they will defer to locally-based supporters rather than those operating in Iraq and Syria to further this aim. This is connected to our assessment that one of their primary goals at present is to consolidate territory in Syria and Iraq, particularly given increasing difficulties faced by coalition airstrikes and support offered to anti-IS forces.
  • In this context, we further continue to assess that the primary threat facing Saudi Arabia remains that stemming from radicalized locals and Saudi citizens, including those that have potentially returned from fighting abroad, and that have sympathies to IS or other militant jihadist groups. The presence of such individuals is known and underscored by a number of factors, including an uptick, albeit relative, of attacks conducted by individuals with links or sympathies to IS. This refers to two known incidents, that is, a November 3, 2014 shooting of Shiites in al-Ahsa and a November 22, 2014 shooting of a Danish national in Riyadh. Regarding the former, 77 subsequent arrests announced on November 24 by the MOI stated that the core group involved had “direct links” to IS, while, on December 11, 2014, the official news agency announced that three people, who stressed their strong sympathies to IS, were arrested for the shooting of the Dane. Their presence is also underscored by the significant percentage of Saudis in the recent militancy-related arrests. This includes 109 out of 135 arrests announced on December 7, 2014, 73 out of the aforementioned 77 announced on November 24, 84 out of 88 announced on September 2, 2014, and 59 out of 62 announced on May 6, 2014.
  • That said, despite this threat, we also continue to assess that Saudi Arabia’s counter-militancy capabilities remain high, underlined by the number of arrests, particularly those conducted and announced relatively shortly following attacks. Some of the 77 arrests announced on November 24, 2014, for example, were conducted in operations reported on November 4, one day following the al-Ahsa shooting. Similarly, following the November 22, 2014 shooting of the Danish national, arrests were recorded on December 11. Given Saudi Arabia’s interest in mitigating this threat and maintaining their security situation, including due to the presence of foreign companies operating in the country, we assess that similar arrest campaigns should continue to be recorded. In addition, while reinforcements were sent to the Arar border crossing following the attack, security precautions along the border have been increased to a particularly high level before this incident, underscored by the existing buffer zone. Thus, while a heightened presence may remain specifically at the border point, substantially changed measures along the border with Iraq are unlikely.

MAX Analysis Morocco: Threat of regional militancy and local jihadist presence in Syria, Iraq likely to require bolstered security measures August 24, 2014

Current Situation

Over the past weeks, borange alert oth Moroccan and foreign authorities have increasingly warned of an uptick in militant threats, starting from the announcement of a state of high alert by the Moroccan Interior Ministry on July 9, reportedly in response to the militant threat presented by the Islamic State (IS) against Morocco. As of July 2014, Morocco’s national intelligence agency reportedly estimates that there are about 1,500 Moroccan nationals operating in Iraq and Syria. Of these, an estimated 30 percent are former convicts who served time under anti-terrorism laws.
  • The July 9 decree included an order to regional governors to heighten security measures within their jurisdictions, an expanded security presence at vital installations throughout the country, and the launching of a public relations campaign to warn Moroccans against the potential security threat. Also on July 9, Morocco heightened its security protocols at its international airports following a recommendation from the American government.
  • Additionally, on July 18, an “orange alert” was declared for all American-owned restaurants operating in Morocco in anticipation of a possible militant attack. On July 21, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its travel advice for Morocco, warning of an “increased threat of terrorism.” The FCO cited Moroccan authorities’ warnings of an increased threat connected to Moroccan national militants operating in Syria and Iraq. 

Continue reading MAX Analysis Morocco: Threat of regional militancy and local jihadist presence in Syria, Iraq likely to require bolstered security measures August 24, 2014

Intelligence Analysis: Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders pushed toward moderation

Ten years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq’s inter-sectarian political experiment is in jeopardy. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite State of Law coalition remains in control, yet his government has come under excruciating pressure. In recent months, a wave of anti-government Sunni Arab protests, Cabinet boycotts by Shiite Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds, coupled with rising sectarian violence and the steady withdrawal of Sunniministers, have threatened the longevity of Iraq’s political experiment. But despite rising sectarianism, perceived marginalization of Sunnis and jihadist violence, there are indications that Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders are hesitant to abandon the political process and thrust Iraq into another war.

The March 29 Baghdad car bomb attacks targeting Shiite mosques underscore persistent efforts by Sunni jihadists to force this war. By increasing violence and radical sectarianism, Sunni jihadists are aiming to weaken the central Shiite-led government, force a Shiite-militia response, and Sunnis to take up arms against the state at a time of instability across the region. Despite counterinsurgency efforts by the Iraqi security forces and military, they remain largely unable to deter or prevent militant attacks, such as the coordinated mass assaults witnessed in the capital on March 13. Jihadists can largely strike at will.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

In addition to rising violence, persistent Sunni protests over a variety of issues continue to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Their demands vary from further rights, an end to the country’s terrorism and de-Baathification laws, to autonomy. Above all, protesters demand an end to the perceived marginalization of the Sunni community. It is hard, however, to see how such a perception will dissipate given mounting sectarian violence across the region.

Additionally, recent al-Maliki measures against Sunni ministers, on top of postponing local elections in Sunni-majority provinces and the continued targeting of local candidates, have only compounded Sunni restiveness. According to reports, at least 11 candidates for upcoming elections have been assassinated. Political candidates remain a high-level target for Sunni jihadists aiming to settle scores, deter cooperation with the government and weaken the traditional leadership of Iraq’sSunni community.

If such a strategy increasingly materializes, Iraq’s Sunni political leaders could be pressed to fall in line and replace the ballot box with an AK-47 to advance communal interests.
Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders pushed toward moderation