04/01/2020 – TENSIONS between the US and Iran, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are reaching a critical level, as are risks of a deliberate or accidental confrontation among these parties.
Nearly two years after entering into force, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) is in jeopardy.
Simultaneously, regional dynamics across the Middle East are trending in a worrisome direction.
Friction between Iran and the US is growing in Iraq and Syria as the strength of their common foe, the Islamic State (ISIS), diminishes.
In Lebanon, Yemen and the Persian Gulf, Israel, the U.S. and a more assertive Saudi leadership see an emboldened Iran they are determined to cut down to size.
Escalation on one front could provoke escalation on another: US efforts to undermine the JCPOA could prompt Iran to respond asymmetrically by targeting US forces in Iraq or Syria, Iranian actions in the region could push the US executive or legislative branches to take action jeopardising the nuclear deal, another Huthi missile launch against Saudi Arabia could result in US or Saudi retaliation against Iran; an Israeli strike against a target in Syria could trigger a Hizbollah response, in turn engulfing Lebanon.
In short, these intersecting crises significantly increase the possibility of an intentional or inadvertent, direct or indirect confrontation between Tehran and Washington, the consequences of which could be catastrophic.
Yet missing from this picture is any hint of diplomacy among principal stakeholders.
To understand the interconnected dynamics, alert officials and non-officials about potential risks, and propose concrete steps to mitigate them, the International Crisis Group is launching the Iran-U.S. Trigger List. It is an interactive early-warning platform aimed at monitoring, analysing and providing regular updates on the key and increasingly tense flashpoints between Iran and the U.S. or between their respective allies.
Some potential flashpoints – such as re-imposition of US sanctions; a successful Huthi missile strike on a Saudi or Emirati city; a U.S. attack on an Islamic Revolutionary Guards facility in Iran; an Iraqi Shiite militia targeting of a US soldier; or an Israeli pre-emptive attack against Hizbollah – are more likely than others to escalate and destabilise the region.
Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Program Director, Joost Hiltermann has written, “conflicts’ long-term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers. What precipitates a conflict may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris”.
The Red Sea strait of Bab el Mandeb, located between Yemen and the African countries of Djibouti and Eritrea is one of the areas that might be on the receiving end of rising escalations between United States and Iran.
In Yemen, the United States is backing its ally Saudi Arabia against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The assessment warning to the Horn of Africa nations to stay alert, was issued by the International Crisis Group, which lists the other flashpoints in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf of Hormuz.
Iran on Friday promised to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike.
Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The overnight attack, authorised by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.
International Crisis Group