The Middle East stretches from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Kingdom of Morocco, with most of the constituent states suffering varying degrees of national and regional political and social problems and disparities. The region continues to experience threats primarily from four sources: violent extremism, inter-state tensions and disputes, national upheavals, and major-power interventionism. This may remain the case for the foreseeable future, unless there is a substantial reconfiguration of forces and world powers’ involvement to enhance the prospects for wider stability and security at state and regional levels. While some regional leaders and the United States under President Joe Biden are cognisant of the need to engage in major policy reforms to diminish the danger from these sources, the conflicting geopolitical and geostrategic interests, not to mention sectarian differences, standing in their way are also formidable.
Below I analyse the sources of threat, examine the inter-state tensions and disputes in play, briefly elaborate the responses of states and outside powers to these tensions, and consider the region’s prospects in the times ahead.
Sources of threat
The oil-rich and strategically significant but at the same time Covid-19-ravaged Middle East presently seems calmer than it has been since the pro-democracy uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ a decade ago, and the advent of Iran’s Islamic regime more than forty years ago. Lately there have been some signs of improvement in regional relations, especially between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Tehran and Riyadh have also engaged in dialogue. However, the region remains in the grip of many serious challenges. Some stem from recent developments while others have their roots in deeper set traditional variables.
Violent extremist, or ideologically and combatively assertive, groups continue to pose a serious threat in the region. Prominent among them are Daesh, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Al Qaeda. No doubt both of these groups have lost some of their saliency, but they remain ideologically and operationally resilient.
War-torn Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, not to mention Afghanistan if we consider it as part of the wider Middle East, remain wide open to the activities of such groups. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are on fertile ground in all these countries in the face of weak or non-viable central government, political fragmentation, conflicts fuelled by domestic and/or external imperatives, social-economic disparities, sectarian divisions, poverty and unemployment (especially among young people), and ungoverned spaces. They thrive on zones of unrest and conflict, and the Middle East has many of them.
ISIS and Al Qaeda have managed to regroup and recompose considerably since their territorial defeats in 2017 and 2001. US Intelligence reports indicated in 2021 that while both have weakened, they are in the process of reconstituting. In the case of ISIS, the defeat of its khilafat (or Islamic State) by a combination of internal and foreign forces led by the United States, Russia and Iran—in different alliances but with a common goal—was a serious blow to the group’s capabilities, but did not uproot it. As Anthony Cordesman states, ‘The U.S. may have helped to break up the ISIS proto-state or “caliphate”… but it … scarcely defeated it’. He claims that ISIS remains cohesive, with substantial funding to exploit opportunities not only in Iraq and Syria, but also across the Middle East and beyond when opportune. This is elaborated in a detailed study by Nur Aziemah Azman.
While estimates of ISIS fighters vary, in January 2019 a US Defense Department inspector-general report gauged the number of its members as being as high as 30,000, with 10,000 of them now in detention camps in Syria. ‘In the first quarter of 2020 alone 566 ISIS attacks were reported in Iraq’. The group reportedly also managed to execute 126 attacks across Syria in the first seven months of 2020, compared to 144 in all of 2019. As late as 20 January 2022, insurgents affiliated with ISIS carried out a brazen attack on Al-Sina prison in Syria’s far northeast, sending a clear message that the organisation has significant military, financial and media abilities. In Iraq, in early 2022, ISIS staged attacks in the Kirkuk, Anbar and Saladin Provinces. The Diyala Province persisted as a hotbed of ISIS activity, with Al Jazeera reporting that the group’s fighters killing eleven Iraqi soldiers there in January 2022.
ISIS’s ability to cause more havoc in Iraq and Syria and beyond remains very real. The group has franchised out of its original zone of operations. It has noticeably become active through affiliates in Egypt and Libya. Since 2019, it has carried out a good number of improvised explosive device attacks against government positions in Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, and dozens of assaults against forces aligned with warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya. In June 2021, a suspected ISIS blast killed two police officers and a Libyan army commander. And Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and even Iran have not been spared, as ISIS affiliates under a variety of names have subjected them to periodic attacks.
Al Qaeda has also been in recovery since the US dispersion of its leadership and main operatives from Afghanistan at the end of 2001. America’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, and his son and heir Hamza in the Afghan–Pakistan border region in 2019, did not cripple the group. These attacks undermined its cohesion and organisation, but not its ability to implant and activate cells in Middle Eastern conflict zones. The group’s main ideologue and nominal leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, managed to remain active in hiding until the US killed him on 1 August 2022 in a drone strike in Kabul, under the rule of the Taliban.
In Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda has worked closely with ISIS. In the wake of the rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014, al-Zawahiri shifted a considerable number of assets to the Levant to support IS. Although Jabhat ul-Nusra, or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, has represented Al Qaeda in Syria, ISIS, like Jabhat, has essentially been an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was closely affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and who was killed in an American bombing in 2006. In other words, Al Qaeda and ISIS have in many ways shared a common agenda, although with a different timetable. It is hard to differentiate between their operations. Every attack that ISIS executes equates to what Al Qaeda wants. Of course, this is more so in the Levant than in some other parts of the Middle East, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in North Africa (AQIM) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen run their own shows without too much referral to core ISIS. As recently as June 2022, suspected Al Qaeda fighters executed an attack in Yemen, killing ten Yemeni soldiers.
In the broader Middle East, ISIS’s Khorasan branch (IS-K) and Al Qaeda are very active in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. IS-K, which was established in 2016, has exponentially enlarged its terror operations in the country. While it is opposed by many core members of the Taliban, who are against any other group encroaching on their turf, IS-K has been responsible for some of the most horrific attacks on both civilian and military targets across Afghanistan. It has applied the same strategy in Afghanistan as it has in Iraq and Syria: to ignite a sectarian conflict between the Sunni majority and Shia minority, often by targeting the Shia segment of the Afghan population. IS-K’s members are estimated to number more than 2000.
As for Al Qaeda, the Taliban’s power reassumption has boosted the group’s position. There has been a resurgence of its activities in Afghanistan. It reportedly commands a cohort of some 400–600 operatives fighting in close coordination with the Taliban in the country, according to UN Security estimates. Despite President Biden’s claim that the US intervention achieved its goal of ensuring that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for attacks on the United States, in May 2021 an Al Qaeda operative promised that ‘war against the US will be continuing on all fronts’, most importantly in Afghanistan.
Under Taliban rule, both Al Qaeda and IS-K have been able to regain a territorial base they had lost in Iraq and Syria. Despite the Taliban’s repeated denial of ties with Al Qaeda, the latter is allowed to command operational cells in more than half of the thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan. Similarly, the Taliban’s repeated claims that they have defeated IS-K ring hollow in the face of IS-K’s continued targeted attacks, especially in Kabul and north-eastern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are not only battling IS-K but also nationalist and progressive resistance forces in different parts of the country. Spearheading the phenomenon is the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the famed Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. The latter fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and subsequently the Pakistan-backed Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance before being assassinated by Al Qaeda-Taliban agents two days before 9/11.
Inter-state tensions and disputes
The Middle East is a zone of frenemies, rivalries and conflicts. In addition to the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian dispute, which has resulted in many deadly confrontations—the most recent in May–June 2021—the danger of Israeli–Iranian hostilities morphing into a full-blown confrontation cannot be discounted. Despite the recent resumption of dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh through Iraqi mediation, the two sides still harbour fundamental ideological and geopolitical differences that cannot be expected to subside easily. They remain locked in rivalry or in proxy conflicts in several parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, and suffer from the lack of any formal relations since Riyadh broke all ties in January 2016.
Under the Iranian presidency of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who seems to sing from the same songbook as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran and Riyadh have shown an inclination to improve relations. But Riyadh, along with some of the Saudi partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), still views Iran as a major threat. This has played a critical role in prompting Riyadh to establish informal links with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to normalise relations with the Jewish state in a united front against Iran. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners, except Qatar, continue to harbour serious concerns about what they regard as Iran’s nuclear military ambitions. This is a concern that the United States shares, as reconfirmed by President Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia in mid-July 2022.
The Vienna talks between Iran and other signatories to the July 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA) to renegotiate some of the aspects of that agreement continue, though with the United States indirectly. But the talks have not produced any tangible results so far. Meanwhile, in reaction to former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, Tehran has accelerated its uranium enrichment with the installation of more advanced centrifuges. Its enrichment is now more than 60 per cent, well above the less than 3.7 per cent permitted under the JCPOA. This has seriously concerned not only Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, but also Iran’s regional arch-rival Israel. Tehran has strongly supported the Palestinian cause against what it sees as the Zionist regime’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian lands, and Israel has vowed to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from gaining military nuclear capability.
Like his predecessors Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, the newly appointed Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid is adamantly anti-Iranian. As reported by BBC News in June 2021, Lapid shares Bennett’s condemnation of Raisi’s presidency as the head of ‘a regime of brutal hangmen [who] must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction’. Ignoring Tehran’s repeated claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, Israeli leaders have strongly urged the United States and other signatories to the JCPOA not to revive the agreement.
Israel and Iran are locked in a shadowy war. Israel has targeted Iranian forces and those of Iran’s allies, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Lebanon, as well as Iran’s nuclear scientists and facilities (through cyberattacks) and oil tankers. Iran has hit Israeli or Israeli-related assets, including ships, wherever possible, while also backing Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas as formidable resistance forces to Israel. If the Vienna JCPOA talks fail to produce an agreement, the prevailing situation carries the threat of an Israeli–Iranian war by either intention or miscalculation, which would be disastrous not only for the two protagonists but also for the region and beyond. Despite a desire by the Biden administration to avoid US involvement in such a war, in the event of a conflict breaking out Washington would find it obligatory to support the Jewish state under the US–Israel Strategic Partnership deal. Russia and China can be expected to make common anti-US cause with Iran as their close strategic friend.
There are also many other inter-state tensions and disputes that have the potential to lead to major flare-ups in the region, for example between Egypt and Turkey over Libya, or Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara, or Egypt and Sudan over the Nile waters. However, the chances of any of them developing into a major confrontation appear rather slim for the foreseeable future. Yet the same cannot be said about another round of mostly localised Israeli–Hamas confrontations.
A further source of threat is the state-society dichotomy which is rampant throughout the region. All the states, including Israel, have experienced polarisation between the forces of the status quo, which support incremental change as befitting their hold on power, and forces for change, which want a reformation of their states and societies. The popular political uprisings or ‘Arab Spring’ that emerged in the early part of the last decade continue to haunt the constituent states, from Iran and Iraq to Egypt, Sudan and Algeria, as another major factor in instability. In addition, Israel’s status as a nuclear state means that the threat of nuclear proliferation is constant. While Iran’s denial of a military nuclear program is not believed by its adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not discounted the possibility of having such a program. Nuclear proliferation constitutes another source of danger in the Middle East.
States’ responses to these sources of threat
At the official level, all the Middle Eastern states have claimed they are taking elaborate measures to counter terrorism, including de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programs, working to reduce the chances of inter-state conflict, and tackling the issues underpinning internal upheavals. The Israeli, Saudi, Egyptian, Moroccan and Iranian authorities claim more success than others in this respect. But counterterrorism has also often been used to quash internal dissent, and in the case of Israel, to ensure its continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as its blockade of the Gaza Strip, where it has done everything possible to suppress Hamas. All these states have said that their de-radicalisation programs have been humane and effective, although more reliable and dispassionate sources, including Human Rights Watch and various UN reports, have claimed the contrary. As long as the root causes of violent extremism, inter-state tensions and disputes, and political-social upheavals remain unaddressed, their potential for keeping the Middle East a deeply troubled area in world politics cannot be overstated.
There are multiple sources of threat in the Middle East that could impact the region’s future. They all have the potential, though in varying degrees, to do so. Yet the one that stands out most is the possibility of an Israel–Iran confrontation. Even this will depend on how successful the Biden administration is in its balancing acts in the Middle East. Initially, Biden announced policies that included: a recalibration of relations with Saudi Arabia and the castigation of the Kingdom’s de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman in the wake of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul; a halt to Saudi-led Arab coalition operations in Yemen; and a negotiated settlement of the JCPOA. However, he has lately found it expedient to backtrack on all of these issues. As the nuclear talks in Vienna have dragged on, with Washington and Tehran blaming one another for the delay, the Ukraine crisis has generated new urgent contingencies, including a need for the US to bolster relations with its traditional Middle East allies, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden visited these countries on a mending mission in July 2022. This would not impress Tehran.
The prospects for a JCPOA deal, the extinction of rivalries or the diminution of conditions that encourage violent extremist groups do not look bright. Even if a US–Iran rapprochement were to materialise, it could cut both ways. It carries the risk of either reducing or escalating Iran–Israel tensions. On the one hand, it could insert a strategic buffer between the two regional foes. On the other, it could irritate Israel to the point of orchestrating a confrontation on its own. At any rate, while the threats and possibilities of the past and present Middle East are relatively discernible, predicting the region’s future has always been risky, its complexity frequently defying predictions.
 Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, ‘Biden says afghans must “decide their future” as U.S. troops withdraw’, The New York Times, 25 June 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/25/us/politics/biden-afghanistan-withdrawal.html.
 Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘The Real World Capabilities of ISIS: The Threat Continues’, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 9 September 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/real-world-capabilities-isis-threat-continues.
 Nur Aziemah Azman, ‘The Islamic State (IS): Maintaining Resilience in a Post-Caliphate, Pandemic Environment’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 13(1), 2021, pp. 106–111.
 Quoted in Elizabeth Dent, ‘US Policy and the Resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria’, Middle East Institute, 2020, p. 4, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-10/US%20Policy%20and%20the%20Resurgence%20of%20ISIS%20in%20Iraq%20and%20Syria%20%20.pdf.
 Dent, ‘US Policy and the Resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria’, p. 5.
 For a detailed discussion, see ‘U.S. Report: ISIS and Al Qaeda Threats in 2019’, Wilson Center, 20 June 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/us-report-isis-and-al-qaeda-threats-2019.
 ‘Suspected Al Qaeda attacks Kill at Least 10 Yemen Soldiers’, Middle East Monitor, 23 June, 2022, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220623-suspected-al-qaeda-attacks-kill-at-least-10-yemen-soldiers/.
 For details, see Daniel L. Byman, ‘Don’t Expect an Al-Qaeda Reboot in Afghanistan’, Brookings, 4 May 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/05/04/dont-expect-an-al-qaida-reboot-in-afghanistan/.
 See Faranz Fassihi, ‘Blast in Tehran near state broadcasting headquarters rattles Iran’, The New York Times, 9 July 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/world/middleeast/iran-tehran-explosion-state-tv.html.