Iran Hits Northern Iraq, Halts Talks With Saudis

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Michael Gruber/AP

Tensions have ratcheted up in the Middle East after Iran claimed responsibility for missile strikes in northern Iraq over the weekend and also suspended talks with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom executed 81 people.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it launched Sunday’s attack on what it described as a “strategic center” operated by Israel in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

It said the strikes were a response to an Israeli airstrike in Syria last week that killed two Revolutionary Guard officers, Iran’s Nour News website reported.

Iraq’s government condemned the attack as a “flagrant violation” of the country’s sovereignty, warning that its territory should not be used “to settle scores between countries and entities.”

A US State Department spokesperson said there were no indications that the strikes had targeted US facilities, adding that no damage was sustained and no personnel were injured.

In January 2020, Tehran launched missiles at air bases housing US forces in Iraq in retaliation for Washington’s assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Multiple Factors at Play

The main target of Sunday's attack was the house of Baz Karim, the CEO of Kar Group, according to a well-informed Kurdish source.

The source said that around 90% of the missiles had reportedly landed on target.

Sheikh Baz, as he is known, is a powerful figure in the Kurdish energy sector.

His company recently signed an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to extend a gas pipeline north toward Iraqi Kurdistan's border with Turkey.

"Baz has been at the center of negotiations to extend the gas pipeline from the KRG to Turkey, and obviously this could be a potential alternative supply to Iranian and Russian gas," the source said.

The weekend missile attack also coincided with a break in the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, which have been held up by a last-minute demand from Russia.

"I think this is a multifaceted thing. It’s not one thing. The negotiations on the next Iraqi government, the Kurdish gas, the Vienna talks ... [The attack] sends a message to everyone."

Iran-Saudi Talks Suspended

Separately on Sunday, Iran temporarily suspended talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia that had been due to resume in Iraq, according to Nour News.

No reason was given, but the decision came after the kingdom executed 81 people convicted of crimes ranging from murder to membership of militant groups.

This was the largest known mass execution in the country's modern history, with activists saying 41 of those executed were Shiite Muslims, according to media reports.

Shiites form a minority in Saudi Arabia but make up the bulk of Iran's population, and Sunni-Shiite tensions have dominated the Saudi-Iran relationship over the past four decades.

In early 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was ransacked by protesters when Riyadh executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Last year the two Opec oil producers launched an effort to improve relations and focus on repairing their economies after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nuclear Talks on Hold

Meanwhile, negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and lift sanctions on that country’s oil exports have stalled after Russia demanded that its trade with Iran be exempted from any Ukraine-related sanctions.

Moscow has sought written guarantees on this point from the US — a demand that Washington has rejected.

“We are currently having a breather from the nuclear talks,” Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told local media on Monday.

“We are not at a point of announcing an agreement now since there are some important open issues that need to be decided on by Washington."

"As soon as we receive their decisions, we will be able to return to Vienna and reach a final agreement,” he added.

Although Russia and Iran have close ties, Tehran has signaled that it won’t allow any nation to stand in the way of its national interests.

The recent spike in oil prices has dramatically strengthened Iran's incentives to strike a deal with the US that lifts sanctions on its exports.

Moscow's new demand and efforts to keep the Vienna talks alive are expected to top the agenda when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visits Moscow on Tuesday.

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