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Tensions remain high in the Middle East as various actors including Iran vie for control and influence in the region. Iran’s ongoing antagonism with Saudi Arabia, exacerbated by religious and geopolitical differences, has seen both countries and others allegedly active in several so-called ‘proxy wars’ in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, backing rival factions with funds, weapons and in some cases direct military assistance.

A number of incidents in 2018 led to further conflict. These included disputes over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, with the United States withdrawing from the nuclear agreement agreed with Iran and other European nations—with which Iran has also subsequently stated it will no longer comply—drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil fields, and the targeting of tankers in the strategically important Gulf of Hormuz.

In addition, Iraq continues to exist in a state of turmoil, with Prime Minister, Adel Abd al-Mahdi, resigning in December 2019 amid anti-Iranian protests alleging corruption and a failure of governance at a time when many state institutions are perceived to be subject to Iranian influence. Conflict between Iran and the United States has also continued to impact stability in the country. A rocket attack on US personnel at an Iraqi military facility near Kirkuk in December 2019 led to reprisal US air strikes against Iranian-backed Shia militias. This in turn prompted violent scenes at the US Embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve.

Tensions were heightened still further on 3 January 2020, when the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, General Qasem Solemani, was killed in a drone strike conducted by the US military at the Baghdad International Airport. Mr Solemani was an influential figure in the region, who the US President, Donald Trump, has suggested was involved in the preparation of “imminent and sinister” attacks on US personnel, charges that Iran denies.

In response to the attack, Iran launched two missile strikes against the al-Asad and Erbil airbases in Iraq on 8 January, which house US and coalition forces. No fatalities were reported.

On the same day, a Ukrainian passenger aircraft bound for Kyiv crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport with 176 people on board. Despite initial denials, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Division has since admitted firing two missiles at the plane, apparently mistaking it for a US cruise missile.

That admission has triggered protests in Tehran and other cities across the country and resignations from journalists at state-run news outlets, as well as criticism from other notable Iranian media and sports personalities.

The UK Government has continued to call for a de-escalation of tensions in the region.


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