2020 Predictions: Middle East tensions set to escalate

Following the death of Qassem Soleimani, arguably the second most powerful man in Iran, there are a number of potential scenarios in the surrounding region over the coming months.

While Iran’s response is unpredictable, it is most likely that direct conflict between the US and Iran on Iranian soil remains unlikely. Proxy attacks will increase significantly over the coming months, which will trigger American drone and airstrikes on Iranian proxy groups’ positions.

While we do not anticipate a full-scale regional conflict occurring, Iran will almost certainly respond to Soleimani’s death. It is unlikely that Iran will retaliate with overt aggression, as the regime would risk inviting a conflict in Iranian territory, which it would be unlikely to survive. The Iranian regime is aware that US and Western forces would overpower them in conventional warfare. The regime also lacks the domestic support to win such a war. However, there are several locations in the region which are likely to be future flashpoint locations for any Iranian response. These include:

IRAQ

We consider Iraq to be the most likely flashpoint for an Iranian response. Iran is extremely influential in Iraqi politics. The most powerful blocs in parliament are pro-Iran, and Soleimani and the IRGC were responsible for a large proportion of the lethal force used against peaceful Iraqi protests taking place in Baghdad, as the demonstrations were a threat to Iranian power. The Iraqi political elite has staunchly criticised the US actions as a breach of Iraqi sovereignty. While Iranian-backed Iraqi proxies have primarily conducted symbolic attacks on US infrastructure that have avoided many casualties, this is likely to change. US citizens, military bases and diplomatic infrastructure are now under severe threat. It is also likely that Iran will continue placing pressure on Iraqi lawmakers to pass laws in parliament banning US forces from Iraq. This also complicates security cooperation between Iraq and the US in the fight against IS.

ISRAEL / LEBANON

Heightened tensions between Israel and Lebanon may also manifest following Soleimani’s death. Hezbollah, which is arguably Iran’s most powerful proxy, exercises large influence in Lebanon in both the military and political spheres and had extremely close and cordial relations with Soleimani and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). Hezbollah is likely to be utilised to attack American targets throughout the region, and this may transform into attacks on Israel, which has long seen Soleimani as a target and the nation has stated its support for his killing in recent days. In a worst-case scenario, this would lead to attacks against the US embassy in Beirut or develop into a direct conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. This would cause widespread infrastructural damage and operational difficulties in both countries.

THE GULF

We do not anticipate Gulf countries being embroiled in conflict or being directly affected by Soleimani’s killing. The UAE has already stated the need for calm and for diplomatic solutions to the conflict. Kuwait has also sought to de-escalate tensions. Even Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest adversary in the region, has called for restraint. These countries are not willing to engage in a war with Iran owing to the widespread infrastructural and economic damage that would be caused. There is the potential for the IRGC to increase funding to Iranian proxy groups in Bahrain, but the security forces tightly control all opposition groups and attacks on US infrastructure remains unlikely. However, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was used in the airstrike that killed Soleimani on 3rd January was allegedly flown from the US Ali Al-Salem Air Base in Kuwait, something Kuwait has denied. This may make US sites in these countries a target for Iranian attacks, although we consider this unlikely to happen in the coming months.

SAUDI ARABIA / YEMEN

There has been a marked attempt by the Saudis since the Abqaiq oil refinery attack in September to reduce tensions in Yemen. The war has lasted almost five years and the internationally recognised Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government has not been reinstated; the Houthis still control a large part of north-western Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown prince and de facto ruler, has sought to wind the war down for domestic reasons, as he is attempting to open the country to investment and attract tourists; constant Houthi missile fire is not conducive to this cause. However, in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, the IRGC may provide further encouragement and support to the Houthis to attack American targets in the US and throughout the Gulf. Although the IRGC do not directly control the Houthis, the group has a robust arsenal of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles that can be easily utilised to fire across Yemen’s northern border.

THE PERSIAN GULF

Iran is likely to attack US ships and naval assets in the Persian Gulf. While Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf have been focused against US allies such as the UAE and the UK, the IRGC has thus far been hesitant to attack US-flagged ships. This could change in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death. The USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group reported last month that Iranian naval ships had harassed vessels as they were leaving the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea; further incidents of a similar nature are likely in the coming months.

Security managers with assets throughout the Middle East should ensure that evacuation plans are current, actionable and regularly tested in case of a rapid deterioration in the security environment.

Escalatory triggers to look out for include:

• Death of US military personnel/contractors
• Further US assassinations of top Iranian military generals.
• Attack on US infrastructure in a gulf country such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Bahrain.
• Large US Troop deployment to the Middle East (50k+)
• Expulsion of US troops from Iraq

Our advice to travellers and organisations in the Middle East would be to monitor independent news sources for updates, as local media in the Middle East can often be skewed and favourable towards a specific government.

Organisations should also ensure that employees being deployed to the region are fully briefed on the political and security developments in Iraq and any other potential destinations.

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