May 16, 2019

Despite aggressive posturing and inflamatory rhetoric from both sides, the likelihood of an overt military confrontation between US and Iranian forces in the next 30-60 days remains low. However, the saber rattling will continue to spur tensions regionwide as well as raise the potential for a tactical miscalculation in territory where the US and Iran are competing for influence, particularly in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and in pockets of Syria. The threat of escalating hostilities between US or US-allied forces and Iranian proxies is also increasing rapidly. Several diplomatic missions in the region have issued general advisories and elevated threat levels; some have scaled back operations and reportedly evacuated non-essential staff.


Show of Force in Persian Gulf

Despite the low probability of direct armed confrontation between the US and Iranian forces in the immediate future, show-of-force operations in the Persian Gulf, particularly in and around the Strait of Hormuz, are likely. These operations are not intended to be lethal, but in times of heightened tensions, such overt displays of military force increase the risk of miscalculation. Minor skirmishes in the Gulf cannot be ruled out and reports of subversive actions in the region's waterways, similar to the alleged May 12 "sabotage operations" near the Port of Fajairah off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are also likely to increase in the coming months.


Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units Pose Significant Threat

In Iraq, predominantly Shi'a paramilitary forces known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, may begin targeting US-led coalition forces operating in the country. Iraq's Shi'a PMUs are not a homogenous organization, but several are decidedly pro-Iran and have been designated as terrorist organizations by the US, including Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kita'ib Hizballah (KH), and Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba (HHN). If tensions between the US and Iran escalate, AAH, KH, HHN and their affiliates will pose a significant threat to Western coalition forces supporting the counter-Islamic State mission in Iraq's central and western governorates, particularly those operating along Iraq's border with Syria. 


Iranian Proxies in Syria

In Syria, Iranian proxies could target US-led forces based in and around the At-Tanf Garrison (ATG) in southeastern Homs Governorate near the Jordanian border. US forces established a 40 km (24 mile) buffer-zone around ATG, but Iranian-backed forces are active throughout the rest of Homs Governorate and could threaten the garrison as tensions mount. Israel, seeking to prevent a rapid build-up of Iranian-backed forces on its northern border, will also likely ramp up airstrikes in neighboring Syria, which could lead to retaliatory strikes in the Golan Heights and in the border areas of Israel's Northern District.


Israel, Lebanon, and Gaza

The potential for a flare-up on Israel's northern border with Lebanon is also increasing. Hizballah, arguably Tehran's strongest proxy in the Middle East, is well entrenched in southern Lebanon and poses a significant threat to Israel. Hizballah's offensive capabilities have likely grown substantially since its last major war with Israel in 2006 and will present a major challenge to Israel's missile defense systems. Another round of fighting between Israeli forces and pro-Iranian militants in the Gaza Strip is also almost certain in the coming months. Much of the fighting will likely be contained to the Gaza security envelope, but rocket attacks targeting sites in Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and further north cannot be ruled out.


Tensions Among Saudi Arabia and Yemen Persist

Regional tensions could also trigger another escalation between Saudi Arabia and the Al-Houthi rebels in Yemen, with the rebels increasingly targeting locations in the Jazan, Asir, and Najran provinces in southern Saudi Arabia, near the Yemen border. Saudi population centers within 40 km (24 miles) of the border will face the greatest threat, but an uptick in Al-Houthi ballistic missile and weaponized drone launches targeting sites deeper inside Saudi Arabia, including military bases and critical infrastructure sites north of Riyadh is also possible. The precise capabilities of the Al-Houthi rebels' longer-range weapons platforms are unclear, and the Saudi military employs a robust air defense system; nevertheless, the threat posed by Al-Houthi ballistic missile and drone platforms will persist.


Iran’s Insurgency Efforts in Saudi’s Eastern Province and Bahrain 

Iran will likely ramp up efforts to develop insurgent networks in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. The region is home to a large community of Shi'a minorities, and has been a major flashpoint of sectarian unrest in the Gulf state. The ongoing low-intensity insurgency in Eastern Province ebbed in late 2017, but the potential for resurging hostilities in the region remains high. Iran may try to capitalize on the existing tensions and foment unrest in Eastern Province in the coming months. Similarly, Iran may try to exert influence in Bahrain, where anti-government sentiment is strong among the island nation's Shi'a majority.


Key Takeaways

While an escalation stemming from a tactical miscalculation cannot be ruled out, a major military confrontation between US and Iranian forces in the Middle East is unlikely in the next 30-60 days. However, inflammatory rhetoric and aggressive posturing by both Washington and Tehran will undoubtedly fuel proxy conflicts throughout the region. As such, the security situation in many pockets across the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria, could deteriorate rapidly in the coming months.


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