The Iran-U.S. Trigger List The Big Picture 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, heating up its cold wars, deepening its sectarian fissures and opening new wounds that could fester for generations. One trendline that has shaped this state of affairs is Iran’s growing regional role and the heightened convergence between its Arab and Israeli adversaries, backed by the U.S. under the Trump administration, over the critical need to block it from further gains and start to roll back its influence. This regional standoff became more acute in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran and its allies. Israel has been sounding alarm bells about Iranian and Hizbollah forces massing close to the Golan Heights and Iran’s apparent plan to transfer an indigenous precision-guided missiles production capability to the movement. Israel has conducted numerous airstrikes in Syria since 2012, purportedly in an attempt to thwart Iran’s transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hizbollah or establishment of new military infrastructure there. So far, Iran, focussed on protecting its beleaguered Syrian ally and helping it to regain lost ground, has largely demonstrated restraint; this could change as the situation on the ground stabilises and/or if Israeli strikes cause significant additional Iranian casualties. Cross-border tit-for-tat attacks between Israel and Iran/Iran-backed forces in Syria are part of a multi-front shadow conflict increasingly coming out into the open. This is occurring against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s more assertive – at times reckless – approach toward the region. Its crown prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, appears to have concluded that the kingdom has been too passive in the face of Iranian expansion and increasing clout in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He described Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as “the new Hitler”, vowing to counter him forcefully in all these countries. Yet Saudi Arabia’s responses have either failed or even backfired, generating new crises that Iran has been able to exploit: notably the misadventure in Yemen that marked fitful military progress while causing a humanitarian catastrophe. In Washington, Joe Biden’s inauguration seems to be mark an inflection point, especially compared to his predecessor’s unquestioned support for U.S. friends in the region and outspoken animosity toward Iran. Under its “maximum pressure” strategy against the Islamic Republic, the Trump administration tried to push back against Iran in several theatres, from the Gulf to Yemen to Syria to Iraq, rejecting the notion of diplomatic engagement in favour of economic coercion, and in the process seeking to establish a new power balance in the region. But instead of curtailing Iranian capabilities, that approach only led Iran to become more aggressive, responding directly and indirectly though its network of allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to push back against the U.S. and its friends in the region. Iran believes that it has succeeded in defending its strategic interests in the region against efforts by its foes to roll back its clout and encircle it. Its spear tip, the Iranian 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 Bashar Assad in power in Syria, steady its allies in Iraq, preserve Iraq’s territorial unity by thwarting Kurdish aspirations for independence, and assist Huthis in Yemen to withstand years of Saudi-led siege and aerial onslaught. Even the U.S. killing of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, which prompted the Iranian retaliation with missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces, did not diminish Iran’s regional clout. However, what Tehran presents as defensive looks like an ever-growing offensive threat to its enemies. These regional developments are set against the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration’s 2018 exit from the agreement and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions put the deal’s future into serious doubt, even as the other signatories sough to salvage it. While the deal, by design, was tailored to exclusively address concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the implications of its demise may become manifest not only in deepening breaches of its commitments but in asymmetric military responses by Tehran in the region, targeting U.S. forces deployed in close proximity to Iranian local partners in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. In short, escalation arising from regional competition could contribute to the JCPOA’s demise, just as the JCPOA’s erosion did give rise to more serious clashes in the region. In the strategic stalemate between the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign and Iran’s “maximum resistance” response, there was little hint of dialogue that could alleviate the sense of growing friction and deepening rivalry. The Trump administration closed the brief diplomatic openings crafted with Iran under its predecessor. Ayatollah Khamenei felt vindicated in his long-standing mistrust of the U.S., while Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt empowered by the Trump administration’s overt hostility toward Iran. The Biden administration’s January 2021 entry into the scene could portend a break from this cycle of nuclear and regional brinksmanship. Reviving U.S.-Iran diplomatic engagement on the JCPOA’s original basis could restore the agreement’s considerable non-proliferation benefits, revive contacts that have withered in the shadow of U.S. maximalism and offer at least the prospect of discussing issues outside the nuclear file in a constructive rather than adversarial manner. It could in due course also provide an opportunity for dialogue between Iran and Gulf Arab states: a diplomatic process supported by outside powers, and owned by regional actors. But moving from estrangement to engagement is likely to be a challenging process, with high levels of mutual mistrust to overcome and difficult negotiations to handle, all the more with Iran’s hardliners consolidating control over all centres of power. And in the meantime, the flashpoints scattered across the region still sit, uneasily primed for escalation.