Instability and conflict are rife in the Middle East. Tensions between two broad fronts – on one hand, Iran and its local allies across the region, on the other governments who view the Islamic Republic as a dangerous rival – could plunge the region into further turmoil.

The adversarial relationship between Iran and the U.S. is a major driver in this perilous state of affairs. A brief period of diplomatic engagement during the Obama administration’s second term that led to the 2015 nuclear deal gave way to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach against the Islamic Republic. Through the application of tough unilateral sanctions, the strategy aimed at pushing back against Iranian capabilities as well as influence in several theatres, from the Gulf to Yemen and from Syria to Iraq. But that approach only led Iran to become more aggressive, responding directly and indirectly through its network of allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to push back against the U.S. and its friends in the region. Meanwhile, in 2019 Tehran began systematically breaching the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that the U.S. unilaterally exited a year earlier. 

The Biden administration’s January 2021 arrival sought to break from this cycle of nuclear and regional brinksmanship. But efforts to revive the nuclear deal and use it as a basis for wider engagement repeatedly stumbled in the final straight over the scope and durability of sanctions relief and the fate of a long-standing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards investigation. At the same time, new rifts emerged which further diminished prospects for diplomacy: Iran’s provision of drones to Russia that Moscow has deployed in its war of aggression against Ukraine and deep concerns over the regime’s brutal crackdown of protestors since September 2022 have seen Europe’s position toward Tehran, previously centred on forestalling the JCPOA’s total collapse, harden instead. With little prospect for major breakthroughs between Tehran and Washington – the former believing that it could muddle along without an agreement, the latter reluctant to make additional concessions in a fraught political environment and amid competing strategic priorities – the two sides reportedly sought informal understandings that could at least keep tensions on the nuclear and regional fronts from escalating. But the start of the Gaza war in October 2023 set those efforts back as well.

Even as it faces the prospect of deepening diplomatic isolation from the West, Iran’s government believes that it has succeeded in defending its strategic interests in the region against efforts by its foes to undermine it, roll back its clout, and encircle it. Its spear tip, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has effectively helped – through military aid/advice, and by mobilising fighters for Shiite militia proxies from Lebanon and Iraq to as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan – retain President Bashar Assad in power in Syria, steady its allies in Iraq, preserve Iraq’s territorial unity by thwarting Kurdish aspirations for independence, and assist Houthi rebels in Yemen to withstand years of a Saudi-led siege and aerial onslaught. However, what Tehran presents as defensive, its enemies view as an ever-growing offensive threat. The trendlines are worrying: Iran continues to expand its nuclear activity and could escalate regional provocations, while facing increased economic and diplomatic pressure from Western powers and their regional allies. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic’s most hardline forces continue to consolidate their grip over all branches of government. They prioritise strengthening ties with Russia, China and regional neighbours, aiming to counterbalance Western pressures while facing growing economic, political and social challenges domestically.

While Iran’s regional rivals, notably Israel and some Gulf Arab states, are eager to see Tehran’s influence diminished, the risk of blowback has led to some hedging: The UAE and Saudi Arabia are keeping lines of communications open, even as skepticism abounds over the prospects of improving relations with the Islamic Republic. But while there are subtle tendencies toward de-confliction in the Gulf, longstanding tensions between Iran and Israel are multifaceted and growing in scope and complexity. Notably, the October 2023 Hamas attack against Israel – which Iran applauded but denied any involvement in – and subsequent Gaza war saw a spike in activity by the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” across the region against Israel and U.S. forces, underscoring the risk of a broader conflict.

With hostility toward Israel, as well as the U.S. as its major ally, a key tenet of the Islamic Republic’s ideology, two issues have generally been the focus of bilateral tension: the nuclear program, which Israel regards as an existential threat, as well as Tehran’s financial and military support for an array of local proxies and allies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza that Israel views with concern. Israel has reportedly carried out a variety of military and cyber operations intended to set back Iranian nuclear activity, though the track record for success is at best mixed: these operations reveal a quite significant degree of intelligence penetration into Iranian personnel and facilities, though their strategic impact, with Iran’s nuclear program presently at its most advanced point ever, belies the tactical successes. On the regional front, Iran’s support for the Assad government in Syria and its provision of funds and arms to Hizbollah have in recent years led to the emergence of what Israeli experts refer to as the “war between the wars” doctrine (MABAM), which has included frequent air strikes against Iran-linked targets, predominantly in Syria, to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in close proximity as well as provision of missiles and related technology to proxies. Such strikes, intensified against the backdrop of the Gaza conflict, led to Iran directly launching massive airstrikes against Israel in April 2024, an unprecedented development that may recast the red lines in their hostilities. The friction extends into the maritime domain, as well as in tit-for-tat cyber attacks. Meanwhile, Tehran warily watches as Israel deepens its diplomatic engagement with Gulf Arab states such as the UAE and Bahrain, especially if these warming ties lead to greater hostile military and intelligence cooperation on Iran’s doorstep.  

Facing discontent from below and growing opprobrium from the West, while increasingly reliant on Russia and China for major power cover, and also challenged by regional rivals, Iran’s government is contending with multiple crises at once. As the nuclear question remains unresolved, and relations with the U.S. (and Israel) revert to a zero-sum contest, the flashpoints that stretch across the Middle East – and beyond – serve as the volatile backdrop to a strategic contest with increasingly higher stakes. 

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