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Mapping Middle East tensions

The Iran-U.S. Trigger List

An early-warning platform to monitor, analyse, and provide regular updates on the key and increasingly tense flashpoints between Iran and the U.S. or their respective allies that could lead to a direct or indirect confrontation, or generally to a dangerous regional escalation. Read more...

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This map shows the various flashpoints of the conflict. Flashpoints are locations of importance, places where potential conflicts trigger and propagate.

    List of Flashpoints Collapse List

    This article is also available in Persian.

    The Middle East is not unaccustomed to instability and conflict. Yet three interconnected developments, feeding on and exacerbating one another, 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.

    First is Iran’s growing regional role and the heightened convergence between its Arab and Israeli adversaries, backed by the U.S., over the critical need to block it from further gains and start to roll back its influence. For months now, 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 organisation. Israel has conducted nearly 100 airstrikes in Syria since 2012, purportedly thwarting Iran’s transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hizbollah. So far, Iran, focused on protecting its beleaguered Syrian ally and helping it to regain lost ground, has not responded; this could change once the situation on the ground stabilises and/or if Israeli strikes cause significant Iranian casualties.

    This is occurring against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s new, more assertive – at times reckless – style. Its crown prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, appears to have decided that the kingdom has been too passive in the face of Iranian expansion and increasing clout in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen for too long. He recently described Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, as “the new Hitler”, whom he believes should be forcefully countered 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: from the misadventure in Yemen that marked no military progress while causing a humanitarian catastrophe, to the self-inflicted wound of embargoing its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar and thereby damaging the Gulf alliance, to the clumsy attempt to isolate and expose Hizbollah in Lebanon by forcing the prime minister to resign, a decision the latter soon reversed.

    In Washington, belligerency toward Iran appears to be the Trump administration’s organising principle in its Middle East policy. It is also its chosen course for restoring U.S. credibility and deterrence that it says President Barack Obama allowed to erode. The White House is thus keen on pushing back against Iran in several theatres, from the Gulf to Yemen to Syria to Iraq, rejecting for now the notion of diplomatic engagement, and in the process seeking to establish a new balance of power in the region.

    For its part, 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 and recruiting 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 nearly three years of Saudi-led siege and onslaught. However, what Tehran presents as defensive looks like an ever-growing offensive threat to its enemies.

    The second development is ISIS’s demise. Its rise in Iraq and Syria created a common foe for Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies. But with the group’s territorial hold virtually over, rival forces compete for the spoils: strategic terrain and resources. Today’s battle lines may harden into lines of attrition, and mutual concerns over the other side’s presence and long-term intentions could trigger clashes between their allied forces, which in turn could draw Tehran and Washington into direct confrontation.

    These two developments are set against a third factor: the Trump administration’s avowed hostility toward the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tehran has complied with the accord; Europe, Russia and China have embraced it; and yet the U.S. appears intent on unravelling it. In October 2017 and again in January 2018, President Trump failed to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, empowering U.S. Congress to fix the agreement’s perceived shortcomings and threatening to nix it by 12 May if Congress and European alliesfail to deliver. Even a relatively softer touch – a constant stream of sanctions and threats that deepens uncertainty in the Iranian market and deprives Tehran of the deal’s promised dividends – could produce a similar effect by provoking Tehran into taking retaliatory measures of its own.

    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 stepped-up Iranian efforts to enrich uranium but in asymmetric responses by Tehran, 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 scuttling of the JCPOA, just as erosion of the JCPOA could trigger more serious clashes in the region. As such, escalation on one front could provoke escalation on another.

    Economic sanctions against Iran might have effects in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias compete over territory that has strategic value and energy resources. A missile strike fired by Huthis in Yemen toward a Saudi or Emirati city or an inadvertent clash in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical artery of the international energy trade clogged with U.S. and Iranian vessels, could provide justification for direct U.S. retaliation on Iranian soil, or for new sanctions that could jeopardise the JCPOA. Risks are high in a region that faces a free-for-all in which the only operative restraint on one’s actions may be reluctance to absorb other side’s probable reply.

    Any hint of dialogue that could alleviate the sense of growing, inescapable crisis is as welcome as it seems unlikely. The Trump administration appears to have closed the small diplomatic openings crafted with Iran under its predecessor. Ayatollah Khamenei feels vindicated in his habitual mistrust of the U.S. Iran is too confident of its current regional position to feel the need to initiate the first de-escalatory move toward its regional rivals, while Saudi Arabia is convinced that only after it has restored strategic balance might dialogue be useful. This is a recipe at best for a dangerous standstill, at worse for strife.

    It may be the case that no one seeks an escalation. But without navigating a way out of the current turmoil through dialogue and diplomacy, the prospect for escalation between the U.S. and Iran or between Iran and Saudi Arabia inevitably will grow, with all its predictable and ominous consequences.