AMU Intelligence Middle East Original

The Middle East: Recent Events Increase Conflict Risk

During a commemoration of the 2020 death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, over 100 people were killed and a further 188 were wounded in an attack on January 3, according to CNN. Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike while visiting Iraq. Iranian officials are calling the bombing a terrorist attack, but no group has taken responsibility so far.

Related: Hamas and Israel at War: What Motivated the Surprise Attack?

Another Influential Leader Was Also Killed This Week

It’s not the only killing of an influential leader that has occurred in the past few years. In Beirut, Hamas deputy secretary-general Saleh al-Arouri was killed in an explosion on January 2, according to USA Today. Although Israel is the prime suspect, the Israeli government hasn’t directly taken responsibility.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that his government will go after Hamas leadership and financiers regardless of location, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see Israel behind this action. In addition to these two events, a U.S.-led coalition has warned Yemen’s Houthis that they will face consequences if they continue to attack international shipping in the Red Sea.

The U.S. Navy continues to destroy Houthi boats and aircraft used to attack civilian vessels passing through the area. However, it appears likely that the U.S.-led coalition will begin striking ground-based targets, such as the ports and airstrips in Yemen that the Houthis use to launch their attacks.

While the statement issued by the coalition specifies the consequences of continued attacks by the Houthis, disrupting the coastal bases used by the Houthis seems highly likely. While not yet definitive, all of these events could escalate and lead to a wider conflict in the Middle East.

Related: Red Sea Attacks and Their Effect on the Global Economy

Soleimani’s Death Didn’t Stop Iran’s Activities in the Middle East

The U.S. targeted Soleimani four years ago for his involvement in fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Soleimani was a popular figure among the hardliners in Iran and played a key role in facilitating the funding and training of Iran-backed militants around the world.

His death was profoundly disruptive to Iran, but Soleimani’s death didn’t stop Iran from carrying out retaliatory strikes against U.S. forces in the Middle East or Iran’s global assassination campaign. The recent attack against visitors to Soleimani’s shrine was well planned and executed, suggesting the attackers behind it have some training and experience.

Iran has several anti-government militant groups operating within its borders, along with numerous citizens who are disaffected with the Iranian government. Any of those groups or citizens could have carried out the attack, but it’s likely that the Iranian government will blame the U.S. and Israel for supporting whatever group carried out the operation.

Israel has carried out several assassinations against Iranian officials and scientists involved with Iran’s nuclear program. However, this style of attack doesn’t fit with Israel’s method of operating in Iran.

Large attacks against unarmed civilians pushes security forces into overdrive and could easily threaten valuable intelligence assets that Israel has in Iran. Also, this attack on Soleimani supporters carries no strategic value for Israel.

The Impact of the Arouri Assassination in the Middle East

Though the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri is easily viewed within the context of the current Israel-Hamas war, it is important to explore the implications of his death regionally. Arouri served as the deputy secretary-general for Hamas, and one of his responsibilities was liaising with Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in preparing the fight against Israel and securing funding from Iran.

Hamas and Iran certainly have other people they can use to coordinate between Hezbollah and IRGC. But with the death of a top liaison like Arouri, Iran may view his assassination as another attack.

For their part, Hezbollah has stated that any attack on Lebanese soil will be met with a response, according to ABC News. Hezbollah has increased its troop numbers along the shared Lebanese- Israeli border, yet it hasn’t done much else.

That situation could easily change, however. It depends on continued attacks against Hamas in Lebanon and Iran’s desire to retaliate or escalate matters for its purposes.

The same goes for any attacks against Houthi infrastructure in Yemen. Yemen’s chaos over the past 10-15 years has allowed Iran to gain a proxy force on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and increase Iran’s influence in the area.

Both Iran and the Houthis have a lot to gain and a lot to lose by disrupting international shipping. It’s likely that Tehran will use whatever practical approach is necessary to influence the global economy and support Houthi activities against international shipping without going so far as to sacrifice Iran’s toehold in the region.

The Effect of the Abraham Accords

The advent of the Abraham Accords came as a shock to Iran and its proxies in the Middle East. If Israel continues its path towards normalization, then several non-state actors in addition to Iran will find themselves locked out of a new regional order.

This concern was likely one of the motivating factors behind the Hamas attack on October 7 of last year, since Hamas would lose Arab support in the name of improved trade and security. Hamas succeeded in its attack, but its leaders failed to anticipate the lack of support for their position. There has been plenty of public anger at the Israeli response, yet very little action.

In fact, the Abraham Accords are still in effect and will continue to expand as Israeli operations spin down. As a result, Iran has two choices:

  • Escalate matters and place as much pressure as possible on the nascent agreement between Israel and several Arab states
  • Look for a diplomatic way to ensure that Tehran has some influence over the new and growing order

Due to Iran’s growing relationship with Russia and China, Tehran may gamble and escalate the situation to demonstrate that it cannot be ignored, while also laying the groundwork for a diplomatic solution. It’s the escalation that poses the greatest risk because any player can miscalculate. That potential miscalculation could lead to a wider conflict in the Middle East.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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