The following analysis is part of Global Guardian's 2023 Risk Assessment Map. To explore and download the map, click here.
A hot conflict between Iran and its proxies and Israel and/or the United States (U.S.) would have profound macroeconomic effects. Iran has already demonstrated its willingness and capacity to strike Saudi oil production and disrupt maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz – where 30 percent of both global crude and LNG pass through – and the Bab Al Mandeb Strait, the world’s fourth busiest waterway that connects Europe to Asia. With proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Yemen, a hot conflict with Iran over its nuclear program could prompt a regional conflagration.
- United States
Syria’s Assad regime has been propped up militarily by Iran and its proxies, owing its survival of the Arab Spring to Tehran. In turn, Syria allows Iran to use its territory to build and store rockets and recruit militia members that can be leveraged against Israel in a future conflict.
Hezbollah, the militant organization and Lebanon’s preeminent political player, is the world's most sophisticated and heavily armed non-state actor with an arsenal of over 130,000 rockets. Founded by Iran’s revolutionary guards, this proxy opposes Western powers operating in the Middle East and is committed to Israel’s destruction per its 2009 manifesto.
Ansar Allah (Houthis) is a Yemeni Shi’a rebel group backed by Iran that currently controls northwestern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. Prior to the current ceasefire, the Houthis regularly targeted the Saudi Arabian city of Jizan and launched rockets as far as Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) is an umbrella organization of around 50 Iraqi militias whose most powerful elements take orders from Tehran. Iran uses these groups to facilitate arms shipments to Syria, maintain offensive pressure on American forces, and allegedly for the 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais facilities.
Hamas & Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are two Palestinian militant groups based in the Gaza Strip that both receive funding, training, and weaponry from Iran. While Hamas is responsible for governing Gaza and possesses other ideological and financial partners, PIJ’s sole patron is Iran, giving Iran a high degree of influence over its activities.
Iran is a revolutionary power; both the spread of its ideology and the open confrontation against its adversaries, namely the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia is paramount to preserving the regime’s legitimacy. Iran’s strategy has been to establish deterrence via its “forward defense” strategy and through its long-term pursuit of nuclear weapons. Since the bloody Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iran has preferred to fight far from its borders, relying on proxies to fight and encircle its opponents without facing the direct risk of reciprocation. Iran has exploited the regional instability and ethnic strife in the region to further this end. With assistance from North Korea and in parallel to its uranium enrichment program, Iran has also been developing its ballistic missile program.
Israel is highly proactive in eliminating critical threats. There is a precedent for Israel launching preemptive strikes to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons, having destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear site in 2007. In 2008, the U.S. allegedly rejected an Israeli request for logistical support for a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. Already facing Iranian-backed militant groups on two borders, Israel has been engaged in “The War Between Wars,” a campaign to disrupt the production, transfer, and storage of Iranian weapons in Syria – precision-guided missiles and rocket conversion kits – and degrade its command-and-control capability. The campaign has resulted in several flare-ups. Israel will not allow Iran’s nuclear capability to become a fait accompli.
Over the last decade, the U.S. has sought to lighten its military footprint in the Middle East. To this end, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in the hopes of delaying the Iranian nuclear threat until 2030. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal to place maximum economic pressure on Tehran to either create a better agreement or to destabilize the regime and limit funding for its malign regional activities and weapons research and development. The subsequent 2020 targeted assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (responsible for military operations and espionage abroad), and Iran’s retaliatory rocket barrage on U.S. forces in Iraq marked the closest point to a hot conflict between the U.S. and Iran in several decades.
Since 2021, the Biden administration has loosened the economic pressure and engaged in open-ended diplomacy to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. During this time, the Iranian nuclear program has accelerated to the point where Iran has become a nuclear threshold state, now possessing the requisite fissile material to produce one to two nuclear bombs should it choose to.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the current attempt to revive it are also illustrative of the realization that it won’t be politically viable for the U.S. to use military means to uphold the norm of nuclear non-proliferation. Iran and its proxies’ small and medium-sized armed drones and cruise missiles can threaten U.S. forces in Iraq and the Gulf at any time and there is no appetite for military conflict with financial and military resources being allocated to Ukraine and with defending Taiwan from China now taking center stage.
Yet, in July 2022, President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration, a mutual pledge to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon and in September 2022, Israel signed a deal with Boeing to supply it with four of the most advanced air refuelers. With or without a diplomatic agreement with Iran to postpone its nuclear weapons timeline, a showdown in the medium-term is likely.
- Syria shifts its policy towards Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria and begins to retaliate
- Hezbollah intervenes in a future round of Israel-Gaza fighting
- Iran decides to build a nuclear weapon
- Israeli preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities
- Hezbollah attack on Israeli Karish off-shore gas platform
- Defense and aerospace
- Banking and financial services
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