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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

 Warships take part in a joint naval military drill between Iran, Russia, and China in the Gulf of Oman, Iran, in this picture obtained by Reuters on March 17, 2023. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Warships take part in a joint naval military drill between Iran, Russia, and China in the Gulf of Oman, Iran, in this picture obtained by Reuters on March 17, 2023. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

Wider Middle East War

Neither Iran and its non-state allies nor the United States and Israel want a regional confrontation, but there are plenty of ways that the Israel-Hamas war could trigger one.

In some ways, the war plays into Iran’s hands. It has frozen, for now, a U.S.-brokered deal that Iran disliked, which would have seen Saudi Arabia normalise relations with Israel, Tehran’s sworn foe. It has also revealed the reach of the so-called axis of resistance, a collection of Iran-backed armed groups – Hizbollah in Lebanon, various militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, plus Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad – over which Tehran exercises varying degrees of control. These groups have turned the temperature up (when Israeli ground troops entered Gaza) and down (during the weeklong truce in Gaza when hostage-prisoner exchanges were conducted) in a manner that shows they can act in concert. Tehran welcomes the swell of rage directed at Israel and the United States across the Middle East.

But the war comes at a bad time for Tehran. Its relations with Washington had calmed after a patch of Western fury at the regime’s crushing of protests in late 2022 and weapons deliveries to Russia. In August, the United States and Iran exchanged detainees, in parallel to a tacit understanding that entailed Tehran dissuading Iraqi and Syrian militias from targeting U.S. forces, slowing nuclear development and cooperating better with inspectors, reportedly in return for the U.S. government easing enforcement of sanctions to help Iran’s battered economy. That arrangement is now in tatters.

The war in Gaza also puts Iran in a bind. Tehran does not want Gaza to jeopardise Hizbollah, an ally it sees as central to what it calls its “forward defence” – deterrence against an attack on the Islamic Republic itself by Israel or the United States. Yet, having claimed for years to back the Palestinian cause, Iran and its allies feel pressure to act. Tehran is reportedly irritated that Hamas, which it funds and arms, launched the 7 October attack when it did. Hamas, in turn, appears frustrated that Iran is not helping more.

As for the United States, the last thing that Biden wants is a bigger Middle East war when he is trying to support Ukraine, contain China and campaign for re-election. Washington’s tacit understanding with Tehran to lessen friction last summer aimed to defer a nuclear or other regional crisis, but without giving Iran formal sanctions relief and appearing soft ahead of the 2024 U.S. election. Washington has tried to stop the war from widening, deploying two aircraft carrier groups to the Mediterranean and spending enormous diplomatic capital, though Biden has so far rejected the one step – pushing for a ceasefire – that would lower risks fastest.

The most perilous flashpoint is the Israel-Lebanon border. Since 7 October, Hizbollah and Israel have traded missile fire at a steadily increasing clip, with Hizbollah seeking to tie down Israel’s military below the threshold of the all-out war that the two sides briefly fought in 2006.

That tension could take on a life of its own. Hawkish Israeli leaders suggest that after the 7 October attack, Israel cannot risk leaving a hostile militant force – especially one that is much more potent than Hamas, with an estimated stockpile of 150,000 rockets – so close to its northern border. There is public pressure, too, to tackle Hizbollah; more than 100,000 residents of northern Israel have been forced to evacuate indefinitely.

Elsewhere, Iran-backed groups have traded fire with U.S. forces. In Syria and Iraq, militias have repeatedly struck U.S. bases and diplomatic facilities, prompting U.S. counterstrikes that have killed militiamen.

Then there are the Houthis, more expendable for Iran than Hizbollah and a bit of a wild card. The Yemeni militants have launched missiles and drones at Israel and struck commercial vessels in the Red Sea, citing Israel’s assault on Gaza as their motive. In mid-December, strikes on two ships near the Bab al-Mandab, a strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, prompted shipping giant Maersk and other companies to halt their vessels’ transit. The U.S. and other Western governments’ formation of a naval force to protect maritime traffic appeared, by late December, to have partly reopened the route. At some point, Israel, the United States or its allies might lose patience, striking not only Houthi but also Iranian targets – an Iranian spy boat assumed to be passing on intelligence would be an obvious one – which would also take things up a notch.

At the same time, Iran is inching closer to the ability to build nuclear weapons. It can already enrich enough uranium to produce an arsenal of four warheads within a month. (Though it would still need a few more to make an actual weapon.) It has curtailed the UN watchdog’s oversight. Returning to an agreement like the 2015 nuclear deal would be hard, given Iran’s nuclear advances since then, yet no one gives much thought as to what could replace it.

While neither side wants war, much could go wrong, especially while Israel’s Gaza campaign grinds on. Any attack – whether on the Lebanese border, in Iraq or Syria, or the Red Sea or Persian Gulf – that kills large numbers of civilians or U.S. personnel would risk setting off a spiral of tit-for-tat strikes.

If Israel does move against Hizbollah, a war like that of 2006 would almost certainly trigger a wider confrontation given Iran’s buildup in the region, and it could end up sucking in the United States across the region.

With U.S. officials mostly seeing diplomacy with Tehran as toxic, Iran edging toward the nuclear threshold would present Washington with only unsavoury choices: accept a bitter adversary with a nuclear capability that successive administrations have sought to prevent or try setting it back through force, which would almost certainly trigger the regional confrontation that most of Washington wants to avoid.

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