The Region: A Middle East Newsletter
THE REGION is a weekly news digest summarizing significant Middle East developments that will be of interest to the English-speaking audience. The news items in THE REGION are curated by ACLS experts and drawn from a wide range of English, Arabic, and other regional language sources. Subscribe to this weekly newsletter and daily intercepts here.
This week the situation in Iran remained the top story in the Middle East. One month after protests against the Iranian regime first erupted following the killing of Mahsa Amini on September 16, the entire region remains fixated on the intensifying wave of anti-regime unrest. Observers around the region, especially in Arab countries where the Iranian regime has been militarily involved, hope–or fear–they could be watching a political earthquake that could change the entire Middle East.
Iranian Regime Releases One American Hostage, Revokes Furlough for Two Others As Evin Prison Catches Fire
On October 5 the Iranian regime released 85-year-old American citizen Baquer Namazi from imprisonment so he could seek urgent medical attention outside Iran. The release came more than six years after the regime imprisoned Baquer shortly after enticing him to Tehran to seek the release of his imprisoned son, Siamak Namazi. When announcing Baquer Namazi’s release, the Iranian foreign ministry implied a cash-for-hostages deal by claiming the Biden administration had agreed to allow South Korea to release $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds and in return Tehran would release the Namazis and one other jailed American “for humanitarian reasons.” When U.S. officials denied the Iranian assertion of a cash-for-hostages deal, the Iranian regime revoked the local furloughs of Siamak Namazi and fellow hostage Morad Tahbaz, forcing them to return to the Iranian regime’s notorious Evin prison, the facility where the regime for decades has held political prisoners and foreign hostages. The revocation of the furloughs created the impression that the Iranian regime intended to hold the remaining two Americans in prison until the United States acquiesced in the release of the $7 billion frozen in South Korea.
On Saturday, October 15, just days after Siamak Namazi was taken back to Evin, a large fire broke out at the prison. The blaze prompted immediate outrage from Iranians who streamed to the prison’s vicinity in concern that the regime might be taking measures against prisoners. On Sunday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price wrote via Twitter that the United States will hold Iran “fully responsible for the safety of our wrongfully detained citizens,” and demanded their immediate release.
Regime officials initially offered no explanation for the fire, but later announced that eight people had died in the blaze, according to Iran International. According to Tehran Times, a regime-associated media source, the fire broke out at a prison tailoring workshop after fights between detainees and security guards. Reuters published the names, nationalities, and stories of foreign dual citizens currently held in Evin, while noting that the prison was “criticized by rights groups and…blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2018 for serious human rights abuses.” Satellite photos published on October 17 showed that the fire had done serious damage to the prison complex.
Iranian Supreme Leader Slow to Respond to the Protest Movement
After being absent from public view for more than two weeks after the massive country-wide protests condemning the murder of Mahsa Amini, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei finally appeared on October 3rd at a military graduation ceremony for young Iranian military cadets, an event meant to convey that Khamenei’s regime still enjoys the support of its youthful loyalists despite the hundreds of thousands of young protestors on the street. Iranian activists, however, viewed Khamenei’s unusual appearance at a regime military college and not among his usual appearances before preachers at Friday prayers as a sign that “he feels safe only among the gunmen who protect him.” In his October 3rd and subsequent public remarks, Khamenei has claimed the protests are “riots” that were engineered by the U.S., Israel, and “certain treasonous Iranians abroad.” Khamenei and other senior regime leaders have also claimed that western statements of support for Iranian women’s rights are disingenuous and meant to mask a western obsession with preventing Iran from being “a strong, independent, and advanced country.” In the face of accusations that his security forces have killed, wounded, and abducted Iranian citizens with impunity, Khamenei has chosen to blame the protestors for any violence. Though he claimed that the death of Mahsa Amini “broke his heart“, Khamenei deflected responsibility for her death, claiming that “rioters” have attacked the Basij and law enforcement officers, caused social disturbances, burned copies of the Quran, harassed veiled women, and set mosques on fire. Khamenei also has accused the U.S. of ulterior motives, questioning why the American President and the House of Representatives support protests in Iran but not in France, and why the United States offers internet services to “rioters” in Iran but not in other countries.
Protest Movement Building Momentum Without Formal Leadership
According to Iranian reformist commentator and political analyst Reza Tajik, “the current generation of Iranians who have taken to the streets in recent weeks are part of a movement that has no ideology, no leader nor even an organization. He described the movement as “A unity within a plurality.” Another uniquely interesting aspect of the current Iranian movement is the presence of women. It is indeed “a women’s uprising” and “Iranians are no longer willing to be obedient servants of the government,” Tajik explained. Although the internal protest movement has no apparent leadership, Iran’s exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi has become the most prominent external voice among Iranians. Pahlavi has called on police forces, the army, the Revolutionary Guard, paramilitary Basij forces, and plainclothes agents not to allow the Islamic Republic’s authorities to use them as “tools of repression.” As for their message to the people of Iran, Pahlavi said that “Nationwide strikes alongside nationwide protests will bring this regime to its knees.”
Iranian Regime Massacres Demonstrators and Worshippers in Baluchistan
Alongside the massive protests in Tehran and other cities, in the first week of October the province of Baluchistan became the scene of intense violence by regime forces against the local Sunni-majority Baluch population. Baluchistan’s most senior Sunni cleric denounced the regime after regime forces opened fire on crowds in Zahedan, killing 41 people and wounding more than 200. The Sunni leader said that “plainclothes agents started shooting in response to a small number of youths who threw stones at the police station but there were many people among those shot that were saying their prayers and were not even chanting slogans.”
Lebanese and Israeli Leaders Reach Tentative Deal to Delineate Maritime Boundary
Last week representatives of the Lebanese and Israeli governments announced they had reached an agreement, brokered by the United States, to delineate the maritime boundary between their two countries, a step that would open the way for the development of offshore gas fields for each country. On Saturday Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that he had signed the agreement on behalf of the Lebanese government, while on October 11 Israeli Prime Minister Lapid sent the agreement to the Knesset for a two-week review that could result in the Israelis formally approving the agreement before the end of October.
The Lebanese government appeared to get a green light last week from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who stated that since the agreement was a pact among the Lebanese state, the Israeli state, and the United States, Hezbollah had no intention of standing in its way. However, Nasrallah and other Hizballah representatives also asserted that the maritime agreement did not obligate Hizballah to cease its resistance to Israel, and that Hizballah would consider itself free to attack Israeli territory, including any offshore gas infrastructure, if provoked by Israel. Hizballah’s media outlet al-Manar, for example, asserted that contrary to Israeli wishes–and the apparent terms of the agreement–Hezbollah had no intention, “neither now nor later,” of recognizing Israel’s line of security buoys as the legal boundary between the two countries’ waters. Hizballah’s position thus appears to be that the Lebanese and Israeli governments are free to make a deal that will allow each side to proceed with gas field development, but Hezbollah will continue to consider itself free to wage war on Israel at the same time. Nevertheless, Hezbollah media outlets have chosen to depict the agreement as a win for Lebanon for which Hizballah deserves credit, claiming that Israel was compelled to offer big concessions to Lebanon in the final agreement out of fear over Hizbullah’s recent threats to attack Israeli gas infrastructure. Pro-Hezbollah outlets also sought to deny the United States credit for brokering the agreement and claimed that France, not Washington, had delivered results for Lebanon through the efforts of the French ambassador in Beirut.
Other Lebanese observers were less sure that the agreement would be to Lebanon’s advantage. “The acceleration of the agreement is beneficial to Lebanon, but it is more beneficial to Israel, which is several years ahead of Lebanon in terms of benefiting from the gas and oil wealth in the sea,” wrote Ali Hamada in the Beirut Observer. Hamada explained that Hizballah wants to signal to the outside world that regardless of what the Lebanese states agrees to, Hizballah itself “owns the sovereign decision in Lebanon.” Also writing in the Beirut Observer, Fares Khashan argued that although Hizballah has frequently propagandized that U.S. negotiator Amos Hochstein is biased in Israel’s favor and part of “an American siege on Lebanon,” it was in fact Hizbullah’s allies in the Lebanese government who urged Hochstein to reopen the frozen negotiations and keep them moving toward an agreement. Khashan noted that Hezbollah’s weapons are to blame for Lebanon’s failure to begin developing its gas fields in the 13 years since their discovery, since Hizbullah’s arms have stood in the way of the maritime boundary agreement with Israel required for gas companies to proceed in the fields. Khashan writes that Hizballah has thus caused Lebanon to incur a huge opportunity cost, since Lebanese gas cannot be produced for another seven years, by which time the world’s demand for gas will already have begun to decline for geopolitical and technological reasons.
On the Israeli side, there is a disagreement between the major political blocs about whether the agreement is to Israel’s advantage or to Hizbullah’s. Despite Hizballah’s assertion that the maritime agreement would have no limiting effect on the group’s continuing conflict with Israel, Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz claimed that the maritime deal would be a win-win for Lebanon and Israel and would have a stabilizing effect on the Israel-Hizballah conflict–though he also added that Israel would be ready to respond to any Hezbollah military threat to Israel gas rigs.
The big dispute within the Israeli political sphere, however, is between the Lapid government and its main opponent, former Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been harshly critical of Lapid for proceeding with an agreement that Netanyahu argues will disproportionately benefit Lebanon and, by extension, Hizballah. In what appeared to be a rebuttal of Netanyahu, the Lapid government briefed the Israeli media that the Qana gas field the Lebanese stand to gain may actually contain far less gas than initially expected and in fact may be completely dry. The Lapid cabinet’s position is thus that Israeli concessions over what may be an empty gas reservoir are a small price to pay in exchange for Lebanon’s recognition of Israeli control over other, far more profitable fields and recognition of Israel’s line of buoys as an international boundary.
After a Yearlong Stalemate, Iraqi Parliament Elects New President and Designates a Prime Minister
On October 13 the Iraqi parliament met to elect former Water Resources Minister Abdul Latif Rashid the new president of the Iraqi republic. Rashid is a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish political party founded by the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and headquartered in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. Rashid’s election came after Iraq went almost a year since the parliamentary elections of October 2021 without forming a new government. The impasse over government formation has grown violent in recent months, with Moqtada Sadr’s political coalition mounting massive street protests against efforts to form a pro-Tehran government by their rival Coordination Framework Bloc, which is led by Tehran-aligned parties such as those of former PM Nouri Maliki and militant leader Qais al-Khazali.
Once the parliament elected Rashid as Iraq’s president, the next step was for Rashid to appoint a prime minister-designate who would have 30 days under Iraq’s constitution to form a cabinet that meets the approval of the parliament. As many in Baghdad expected, Rashid invited former minister Muhammad al-Sudani, a senior member of former Prime Minister Maliki’s political party, to accept the premiership and begin forming a cabinet. Whether Sudani can succeed in reaching a deal among the major parliamentary parties to approve a cabinet by the 30-day constitutional deadline is the question that now dominates affairs in Baghdad. Sudani is the PM candidate that the Sadrists mounted massive protests to try to block from office, and many Iraqi observers believe they could attempt to do so again.
Iraqi Kurdistan Targeted by Iranian Missiles and Drones
The last week of September and first week of October saw the Iranian regime launch a series of heavy missile and drone strikes against Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s Tasnim News Agency claimed that Tehran launched the attacks in response to alleged efforts by the Iraqi Kurdish community “to foment riots in Kurdish cities across the border in Iran and took advantage of protests in the country to incite chaos and carry out armed attacks.” The Iranian attacks prompted immediate protests from the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government, as well as a special session of the Iraqi parliament to discuss the ongoing Iranian bombardments. UN Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert reported to the UN Security Council that “Tehran used over seventy ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones” during its last “deadliest” attack leaving 14 people killed and 58 others, mostly civilians, wounded. The drones the Iranian regime used in the attacks against Iraqi Kurdistan are the same as those being used by Russia in its war on Ukraine. According to the Kyiv military administration, six explosions only 75 km south of Kyiv had been carried out by Iranian-made Shahed 136 delta-win ‘kamikaze’ drones in addition to Shahed-129, and Mohajer-6.
Situation in Northern Syria Volatile After Power Grab by Jolani and HTS
On October 13, Abu Mohmad Jolani and his Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham Islamist militia stunned Syrians by mounting a rapid military takeover of the city of Afrin and its surrounding area, ejecting other Syrian opposition groups from the area by force. HTS, which had seemingly been content to consolidate its longtime control of the opposition-held portion of Idlib province, took advantage of a violent confrontation between the two major opposition military groups in the Afrin area to roll into those two groups’ territory and claim it as part of HTS’s administration. Jolani’s fighters seemed determined on October 15 to push forward to seize the towns of Azaz and Al-Bab, but angry protests from local residents slowed them down. On October 17, HTS reportedly agreed to a Turkish-brokered ceasefire with the main rival militia it had been trying to supplant, but the situation at time of writing remains tense and unpredictable.
Local residents in northern Syria believe HTS’s power grab was an opportunistic move by Jolani to exploit souring relations between Turkey and the Levant Front, the opposition militia that HTS attacked. The Levant Front raised Turkish ire when it publicly criticized President Erdogan for his recent remarks indicating an openness to negotiating directly with Bashar Al Assad. Locals in northern Syria also believe that one of HTS’s objectives was to try to seize control of Bab al-Salm border crossing with Turkey near Azaz, a step that would give Jolani control of the two major border crossings in northwest Syria. This is a charge the Assad regime state run media repeated on October 17.
Some observers outside Syria were quick to describe the HTS expansion as an expansion of terrorism, given Jolani’s former allegiance to Al Qaeda from 2012 to 2014. The Russian military pounced on this opportunity to increase its airstrikes in the name of counterterrorism, bombing locations throughout northern Aleppo on October 17.
U.S. Continues Military Campaign Against ISIS in Syria
The United States Central Command CENTCOM announced on Wednesday October 6, 2022, that it successfully conducted a rare airdrop operation on an Assad regime-controlled village 17 kilometers north of Qamishli, Syria. The operation targeted an ISIS leader, Rakan Waheed al-Shammari (aka Abu Hashem al-Umawi), responsible for the beheading of two members of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and for facilitating the smuggling of ISIS fighters and weapons. Shammari and another unnamed affiliate were killed in the raid. The operation also resulted in the temporary arrest of a local Syrian air force intelligence commander who was at the target location per Al-hadath. Assad regime-controlled media sources claimed the U.S. raid had not killed an ISIS leader, but merely a local sheep breeder, though they appeared to confirm that a regime official had been arrested in the raid. Alwatan newspaper very briefly confirmed the news of what they referred to as “the kidnapping of a member of the auxiliary forces and another civilian to an unknown location.” CENTCOM made no mention of the Syrian regime officer’s arrest, but Syrian opposition media outlet Enab Baladi reported that anonymous US officials told the press that since the last two U.S. counterterrorism operations in Syria, the deconfliction phone line with Russia has not been used. On October 8, 2022, US forces announced a failed missile attack attempt against a U.S. base in Syria’s northeast without any damage. More missiles were found at the launching site, according to Al-Hadath. On October 10, 2022, Al Hurra reported that U.S. forces had conducted another drone strike in northeastern Syria, killing an ISIS member while he was riding his bike.
Houthis Withdraw from Ceasefire and Threaten International Waterways, Prompting U.S. Warning
In early October, the Houthis announced their refusal to continue a UN-brokered ceasefire and closed Sanaa airport to travelers. Houthi forces resumed attacks using Iranian made drones, three of which were brought down by the Yemeni army. On October 4, 2022, the Houthis issued a statement declaring the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, and Arabian Sea a military area of operations.
The Houthi threat against international waterways prompted American concern, with Secretary of State Blinken stating that the United States would closely coordinate with Saudi Arabia to try to extend the truce in Yemen. US envoy Tim Landerking announced the United States would hold the Houthi militia responsible for obstructing the extension of the UN truce and said the Houthis had raised new and unacceptable conditions for respecting the truce, including a Houthi demand for payment of salaries of Houthi fighters. For their part, the Yemeni government on October 17 urged the United States to reimpose financial sanctions on the Houthi movement. The Yemeni foreign minister stated that the U.S. government’s lifting of sanctions on the Houthis in early 2021 had worsened the war in Yemen by emboldening the Houthis to defy international efforts to resolve the conflict.
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