In light of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, we take a look back at our event from one year ago on the risk of interstate war in the Middle East.
The Middle East has suffered numerous violent conflicts over the past decade, including in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen. While these conflicts are fundamentally civil wars, they have also long been used as proxy battlefields for the competing regional powers around them. But what would happen if tensions between these regional powers escalated into direct, interstate war?
To discuss such risks and the potential ramifications, MEI President Paul Salem led a panel discussion with Brookings Distinguished Fellow Martin Indyk, American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth Pollack, MEI Senior Fellow Bilal Saab, and Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow Julianne Smith.
Salem honed in on the danger of conflict between the United States and Iran in his exchange with Pollack, who works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs and attributed the risk for war to several main factors:
Civil War in the Region
The most salient factor is the prevalence of civil wars in the region. “Civil wars are engines of instability,” Pollack said. “Things happen because of civil wars that no one would have predicted and frankly no one wanted beforehand.”
An Unpredictable President
Trump’s unpredictability has compounded the instability these civil wars have sparked. “You have a president who is deeply ignorant about the world an incredibly unpredictable,” Pollack said. “That makes it very hard for other countries to calculate to make decisions about what to do.”
On top of these unpredictability, the Iranian government has shown a tendency to overreact to American moves in the region, which Pollack attributed to Iran’s fear that the United States is trying to enact a “regime change” in the country.
Possibility for Proxy Wars
The possibility for war also stems from the possibility for conflict between Iran and American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel. “At what point do American allies decide that Iranian aggression in the region is simply too much for them to bear?” Pollack asked. “Will they at some point decide to start something with Iran in the hopes that the US can be brought in to finish them off?”
Changing Tides in Tehran
Historically, Pollack said, Iran has “always demonstrated a very healthy respect for American conventional military power.” That might be changing, however. According to Pollack, there is a growing rift in Tehran between conservatives and moderates, which could result in a new attitude toward the American military in the region.
- Summary by Nathalie Bussemaker, July 2019
While armed nonstate actors and proxy militias have been grabbing most headlines in recent years, the risk of interstate war in the Middle East is rising at an alarming rate. This includes the risk of war between Israel and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and possibly the United States and Iran, or the United States and Russia. Tensions between Israel and Iran have boiled over several times in recent weeks in Syria, risking a serious escalation between the two countries. Iranian-supplied missiles have been launched from Houthi-held areas in Yemen targeting Riyadh and other Saudi towns and cities, risking an escalation between the two regional powers. Tension also persists between the United States and Iran as the Trump administration moves away from the JCPOA. In Syria, U.S. and Russian forces are flying missions in a crowded air and military space; the risk of escalation there between the two superpowers also cannot be discounted.
How high is the risk of interstate war in the Middle East? What are the dynamics of these various tension axes? How could the United States and other regional and international powers help avert such potential outbreaks?
The Middle East Institute (MEI) was pleased to host a panel featuring Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), MEI's Bilal Y. Saab, and Julianne Smith of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) to discuss these mounting tensions and how best to address them. MEI's senior vice president for policy research and programs, Paul Salem moderated the discussion.
John C. Whitehead distinguished fellow, The Brookings Institution
Martin S. Indyk is the John C. Whitehead distinguished fellow in international diplomacy in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. From February 2015 to March 2018, he served as executive vice president of the Brookings Institution. On July 1, 2014, Indyk returned to Brookings after serving as the U.S. special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July 2013 to June 2014. Previously, Indyk was vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program and a senior fellow and the founding director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Indyk served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001. He also served as special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council (1993-95) and as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the U.S. Department of State (1997-2000). Before entering the U.S. government, Indyk was founding executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for eight years. He currently serves on the boards of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia and the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. Indyk also serves as a member of the advisory boards of the Israel Democracy Institute and America Abroad Media.
Kenneth Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries. Before joining AEI, Pollack was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Before that, he was the center’s director and director of research. Pollack served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs. He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operationsduring the Persian Gulf War. Among other recognitions, Pollack was awarded the CIA’s Exceptional Performance Award twice and the Certificate of Distinction
Bilal Y. Saab
Senior fellow and director, Defense and Security Program, MEI
Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at MEI. He specializes in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. Previously, he was senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, where he also created and chaired the Gulf Policy Working Group and led the Middle East Crisis Simulation Series. Saab is a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations. A native of Lebanon, Saab has experience living in the Middle East for more than two decades. Throughout his career, Saab held various research and analytic positions in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East including at Brookings, CSIS, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence,MEI, and Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
Senior fellow and director, Transatlantic Security Program, CNAS
Julianne Smith is senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security program at the Center for a New American Security. She is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, where she coedits “Shadow Government.” From 2012-2013, she served as the deputy national security advisor to the vice president of the United States. In addition to advising the vice president on a wide range of foreign and defense policy issues, she represented him in cabinet- and deputies-level interagency meetings. During March and April of 2013, she served as the acting national security advisor to the vice president. Before her post at the White House, she served for three years as the principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon. In that capacity, Smith acted as the principal advisor to the assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs for all matters falling within the broad spectrum of NATO and European policy. Her office managed the Department’s bilateral relationships with 31 European countries. In January 2012, she was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Smith directed the CSIS Europe program and the Initiative for a Renewed Transatlantic Partnership, where she led the Center’s research and program activities on U.S.-European political, security, and economic relations. She authored or contributed to a number of CSIS books and reports, including Alliance Reborn: An Atlantic Compact for the 21st Century (2009), Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change (2008), Transforming NATO (…again) (2006), and America and the World in the Age of Terror (2005). She co-directed the Transatlantic Dialogue on Terrorism, which examined U.S.-European disagreements over the root causes of terrorism.
Senior vice president for policy research and programs, MEI
Paul Salem is vice president for policy research and programs at MEI. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East. He has a particular emphasis on the countries of the Levant and Egypt. Salem writes regularly in the Arab and Western press and has been published in numerous journals and newspapers. Salem is the author of a number of books and reports including Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World (1994), Conflict Resolution in the Arab World (ed., 1997), Broken Orders: The Causes and Consequences of the Arab Uprisings (In Arabic, 2013), “The Recurring Rise and Fall of Political Islam” (CSIS, 2015), “The Middle East in 2015 and Beyond: Trends and Drivers” (MEI 2014). Prior to joining MEI, Salem was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon between 2006 and 2013. From 1999 to 2006, he was director of the Fares Foundation and in 1989-1999 founded and directed the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Lebanon’s leading public policy think tank.