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

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Current Situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

Assessments & Forecast

Impact of IRGC’s designation as an FTO:

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

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

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

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

Potential Ramifications of the imposition of various sanctions on Iran:

A) Oil-related sanctions:

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

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

B) Uranium enrichment-related sanctions:

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

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

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

C) Metal industry-related sanctions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

Political Analysis: Impact of inter-Shiite rivalries in Iraq

A year after America’s withdrawal from Iraq, the country’s struggle for stability and security persists. Sunni protests are continuing following a government raid against Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi’s home on Dec. 20. The protests, which have recently acquired the backing of some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s main Shiite rivals – the Sadrists – come as the Shiite-led Iraqi government is already facing increased pressure from a persistent border standoff with Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). Regardless of whether al-Maliki survives the current campaign against him, the concept of a unified Iraq – shared between its many sects – will continue to suffer.

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

The protests are sectarian in nature, propagated mainly by Sunni Islamists and aimed at reducing al-Maliki’s influence and that of the Shiites over Iraq. Their demands are unlikely to be met. While Iraq’s government, security forces, and Shiites have faced years of deadly Sunni insurgent attacks, the protests underscore an increased effort by the country’s Sunnis to replicate mass protests held elsewhere in the region and pressure al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Protest leaders are likely aiming to capitalize upon perceived justification for mass protests following the government’s decision to act against al-Esawi. The timing also coincides with increasing pressure against Baghdad from the ongoing Kurdish dispute over territory in northern Iraq. The Kurdish gains and the Sunni revolt in Syria are likely giving many Iraqi Sunnis increased motivation to call for regional autonomy.

Continue reading Political Analysis: Impact of inter-Shiite rivalries in Iraq

Intelligence Analysis: Who will fight for Iran’s nuclear program?

Last week Iran sent a high-level envoy, Saeed Jalili, on a particularly controversial public-relations tour to Lebanon and Syria, the most explosive corner of the region. After ruffling feathers during a Beirut stopover, Mr. Jalili traveled to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al- Assad, where he declared the ties between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah to be an “axis of resistance.”

Israeli pilots prepare for flight. Iran has since warned of massive retaliation in response to an Israeli attack on it’s nuclear facilities

Jalili is an iconic figure, whose position as the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council also affords him the role of chief negotiator for Iran’s contentious nuclear program. Amidst a deadlock in negotiations and a rehashing of threatening rhetoric, Jalili’s visit was meant to remind the Israelis that Iran’s proxies on Israel’s northern doorstep remain ready and willing to plunge the region into chaos if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.

It appears however, that Iran’s allies in the eastern Mediterranean may not be as keen about going to war for the ayatollahs as Tehran would like – and the Israelis know it.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Who will fight for Iran’s nuclear program?