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Global hotspots are getting hotter

Global hotspots are getting hotter
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Lost amid the understandable public and media focus on domestic political issues of late has been a sharp uptick in tensions in several troubled areas of the world, many with direct security implications for the United States. Put these boiling crises together with a cooling global economy and there is a growing risk of real international instability.

In Iran, the looming return of punishing U.S. oil sanctions, which are scheduled to go into effect in early November, has threatened Iranian economic stability, fueling a flight from the Iranian rial and triggering a series of public protests. Tensions inside Iran have also been exacerbated by an attack late last month on an Iranian military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, which killed two dozen people and wounded 70 others, and which Tehran blamed on a group supported by the Gulf States. The recent torching of the Iranian consulate in Basra, Iraq, by a mob of protestors has added to the sense of uncertainty in Tehran. These developments have rattled Iranian leaders and appear to have left them as uncertain of their footing as at any point in the past decade.

In response, Tehran is scrambling to identify creative options for circumventing U.S. sanctions, particularly by heavily courting major consumers of its oil exports such as China and India, while simultaneously weighing a range of other countermeasures. Just last week, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards fired several missiles into eastern Syria, reportedly targeting the fighters it blamed for the Ahvaz attack. In late September, the State Department announced that it was temporarily closing its consulate in Basra amid reports of Iranian threats and incitement to attack American personnel and facilities.

Iranian military leaders have also threatened in recent months to retaliate for the curtailment of its oil exports by blocking shipments of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Although Iranian leaders have issued these type of public threats in the past and not acted upon them, it is hard to know precisely just how far Tehran may be willing to go if its leaders are convinced, despite White House protestations to the contrary, that the survival of the regime is threatened.

So what to expect? We should anticipate that Iran will pursue several options to try to ease the pressure it is experiencing. These actions will likely range from diplomatic efforts to further divide the United States from its allies on sanctions enforcement, to much more aggressive actions such as potentially launching plausibly deniable cyberattacks against Saudi and American oil infrastructure targets, as well as providing expanded military and technical support to its regional proxies and encouraging them, especially its Shiite militia allies in Iraq, to target Western interests. In other words, it is likely that the already tense relationship between the United States and Iran will escalate sharply in the not too distant future.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, a series of clashes in Tripoli over the past few months between rival militias has underscored a precarious security situation, which is further complicated by the reported resurgence of the Islamic State in central and southern Libya. The high profile Islamic State attack against the National Oil Commission in Tripoli last month and the longstanding desire of the group to gain access to Libyan oil resources is especially worrisome against the backdrop of already tight global supplies.

In Yemen, the ongoing coalition campaign led by Saudi Arabia to recapture the critical port city of Hodeidah, through which most imports and aid supplies for the country flow, risks exacerbating the already dire humanitarian crisis there. United Nations officials recently expressed concern that a major attack on the port, which appears inevitable given the continuing lack of diplomatic progress in resolving the conflict, could trigger a nationwide famine in a country where more than eight million people are already on the brink of starvation.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the ongoing “tit for tat” trade sanctions fight between the United States and China is capturing most of the world’s attention, but it is the American military response to Chinese military and diplomatic assertiveness in the South China Sea that is the most likely flashpoint between the two countries. Since 2017, the United States has gradually routinized its freedom of navigation operations in the disputed Spratly Islands, conducting one every two or so months. This has clearly grated on nerves in Beijing, as did a flight last month of American B-52 bombers over the South China Sea and East China Sea, which Beijing called a “provocative” action.

Last week, tensions spiked around the Spratly Islands when a Chinese warship forced, according to the United States Navy, an American destroyer to change course by sailing too close to it an unsafe manner. The two ships reportedly came within 45 yards of each other. This incident brings to mind the Hainan Island incident, which involved a midair collision between an American P-3 and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001, and which triggered an intense diplomatic stalemate that lasted 11 days.

Given the recent sharp downturn in relations between the United States and China across a broad front, however, there is reason to worry that an accidental confrontation between the two militaries in the South China Sea at this point could spiral into a crisis that neither side can back down from and that both find difficult to contain.

It is possible, of course, that these hotpots, along with others such as Afghanistan, will continue to percolate but not bubble over anytime soon. But the trend lines are ominous if not obvious, and recent history suggests that America does not always get to choose the time, place, or particular issues that eventually force their way to the top of the national security agenda.

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.