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Of the thirty contingencies included in this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, an armed confrontation between Iran and the United States or one of its allies over Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and support of militant proxy groups was assessed as a top tier priority for the United States in 2019. The contingency was deemed moderately likely to occur and, if it does, of having a high impact on U.S. interests.
Iran and the United States support opposing sides in several ongoing, regional conflicts in the Middle East. In the Syrian civil war, Iran supports the Bashar al-Assad regime while the United States supported the Syrian Democratic Forces, which fought to overthrow the Assad regime. In Yemen, Iran has allegedly provided support to the Houthi insurgents while the United States has, until recently, provided extensive logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis. In Iraq, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps provides support for Shia militia groups—largely through the Popular Mobilization Forces—while the United States has traditionally had influence with Sunni and Kurdish groups. Finally, in Lebanon, Iran supports Hezbollah, a Shia political party that has also been accused of supporting—or orchestrating—terrorist attacks on U.S. ally Israel.
On May 8, 2018, the Donald J. Trump administration announced its intent to limit Iran’s influence regionally and to withdraw the United States from participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), citing a lack of progress in limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons development program and a failure to adequately deal with Iran’s missile program. In November, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran. Some analysts have suggested that the reversal of the JCPOA will result in increased economic and political pressure on the Iranian regime, which could lead to an accidental military confrontation with the United States.
The U.S. National Security Council has reportedly reviewed military options for a strike on Iran and, while in Cairo, Egypt, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated the Trump administration’s objective of preventing and turning back Iran’s influence. Pompeo also announced an upcoming international conference to discuss Middle East stability, and Iran’s role in the region. The United States will likely remain focused on Iran in the coming months, particularly as the Trump administration considers new sanctions and the consequences of a troop withdrawal in Syria.
The Preventive Priorities Survey was conducted in November 2018 and reflects the expert opinion of respondents at that time. As such, it should be viewed as a snapshot assessment. Recognizing this, CPA tracks ongoing conflicts with our Global Conflict Tracker and suggests policy options for responding to crises with our Contingency Planning Memoranda, including the report, “Israel and Hezbollah: Deterrence and the Threat of Miscalculation,” by Daniel C. Kurtzer.
View the full Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2019.
About the Preventive Priorities Survey
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has conducted an annual survey of foreign policy experts for their collective assessments on contingencies that represent the greatest risk to U.S. interests. This year, CPA began soliciting contingencies in October 2018, narrowing down a list of possible conflicts from nearly one thousand suggestions to thirty contingencies deemed likely and potentially harmful to U.S. interests. In early November, CPA sent the survey to over six thousand experts and received about five hundred responses. The survey results were scored according to their rankings and the contingencies were sorted into one of three preventive priority tiers (I, II, III) according to their placement on CPA’s risk assessment matrix.