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U.S. intelligence expects a stormy year in the Middle East

Ongoing conflicts, economic crises and the fallout from COVID-19 will likely destabilize several countries in the Middle East in 2021 and could even put some on the brink of collapse, according to the U.S. intelligence community's annual Threat Assessment Report, released on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The report is the most comprehensive assessment the intelligence community produces every year. It paints a portrait of conflicts, insurgencies, terrorism and protest movements across the Middle East.

  • Popular discontent and socioeconomic grievances will continue to rise due to the pandemic, and leaders in the region will struggle to meet public expectations for political and economic reform.

According to the report...

Iran “will take risks that could escalate tensions and threaten U.S. and allied interests in the coming year,” but will attempt to avoid a direct conflict due to concerns about the U.S. response. Sparring between Iran and rivals in the region will continue.

  • Excerpt: “We assess that Iran remains interested in developing networks inside the United States ... but the greatest risk to U.S. persons exists outside the Homeland, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia."
  • On the nuclear deal, Tehran will be reluctant to engage diplomatically with the Biden administration in the near term without sanctions relief, and it will accelerate its nuclear program if sanctions relief does not arrive.
  • The report notes that Iran is not currently developing a nuclear weapon.

In Iraq, the government will continue to struggle to fight ISIS and to control Iran-backed Shiite militias.

In Libya, the interim unity government will face enduring political, economic and security challenges that will make reconciliation very difficult.

  • Excerpt: “Instability and the risk of renewed fighting in Libya’s civil war will persist this year — despite limited political, economic, and security progress — and might spill over into broader conflict."

In Syria, the crisis will continue for years to come, and President Bashar al-Assad will struggle to re-establish control over the entire country.

  • Excerpt: “Iran is determined to maintain influence in Syria. [It's] pursuing a permanent military presence and economic deals."

Worth noting: An unclassified version of the annual threats report is published while a classified one is presented to the president and other senior officials.

  • The unclassified report didn’t explicitly name the countries that could reach the point of collapse.

Read the report.

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