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A technical team explodes remnant ammunition near Sirte, Libya. Photo: Mohammed Ertima/Anadolu Agency via Getty

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.

Go deeper

Apr 12, 2021 - World

"Nuclear sabotage" in Iran threatens nuclear talks in Vienna

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (2nd R) at a Nuclear Technology Day exhibition on Saturday. Photo: Iranian Presidency Handout via Getty

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has threatened retaliation against "any power with knowledge" of Sunday's attack on an Iranian nuclear site, and said Iran would now accelerate its violations of the 2015 nuclear deal until the U.S. lifts sanctions.

Why it matters: The apparent act of Israeli nuclear sabotage, which caused a blackout at the underground Natanz enrichment facility and may have caused significant damage, comes as the U.S. attempts to revive the nuclear deal.

Apr 13, 2021 - World

Iran to enrich uranium to 60% in response to apparent Israeli attack

Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. Photo: Iranian Leader Press Office via Getty

Iran has informed the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will begin 60% uranium enrichment, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told reporters as he arrived to Vienna on Tuesday for a second round of nuclear talks.

Why it matters: This will be Iran's most severe violation of the 2015 nuclear deal since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018. It's also a serious blow to the ongoing efforts to salvage the deal.

Apr 13, 2021 - World

UN human rights chief warns Myanmar crisis heading toward Syria-style conflict

U.N. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The head of the UN human rights office on Thursday urged the international community to "respond with united resolve" to the military coup in Myanmar, warning of "clear echoes of Syria in 2011."

Why it matters: Military and security forces have killed more than 700 people in the country since pro-democracy protests began in response to the Feb. 1 coup. UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said in a statement Tuesday that the situation risks "heading towards a full-blown conflict."