U.S.-Iranian Competition in the Levant: Parts I & II

The US and Iran are competing in a steadily more unsettled and uncertain Levant. Amid unprecedented popular unrest starting in 2011, dynamics in the region have become all the more complex thanks to changes in leadership, political contestation, the fragmentation of decaying state and security structures and socio-economic challenges driven by long-term popular discontent. Key arenas of competition – including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Lebanon Egypt and Jordan – have been affected by this trend with the potential for knock-on effects on how the US and Iran compete in the Levant.

The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition US-Iranian competition in the Levant. This project has led to the production of an updated third edition of the report tracking US and Iranian competition in the Levant.

This report is available in two parts:

Iran’s efforts to expand its regional influence in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan are a key aspect of its strategic competition with the US. Nearly twenty years after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and five years after the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War, the US and its allies continue to struggle with the realities of Iran’s growing influence in the region and its use of proxy and asymmetric warfare.

The Islamic Republic has developed strong ties with Syria and non-state actors in the region, including the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas Islamist movement, in what Iranian and Syrian leaders have dubbed the “Resistance Axis.” Iran continues to exploit Arab-Israeli tensions in ways that make it an active barrier to a lasting Arab-Israeli peace, while the US must deal with Arab hostility to its strategic partnership with Israel. At the same time, both the US and Iran face new uncertainties in dealing with Egypt, Syria, and the wave of unrest in the Arab world.

At the same time, both the US and Iran face an unprecedented level of policy instability in the Levant, and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, that affects every aspect of their regional competition. At present, no one can predict the outcome in any given case. Even the short term impact of changes in regimes is not predictable, nor is how they will affect the underlying drivers of regional tensions. It is particularly dangerous to ignore the risk of replacing one form of failed governance with another one, and the prospect of years of further political instability or upheavals.

Syria has been a challenge for US policy-makers for decades. Yet the current round of instability, an increasingly corrosive and sectarian civil war and the growing role of jihadi and militant Islamist groups are unprecedented. While the US may be poised to grant the Syrian opposition with formal recognition, Washington is less likely to enact a coherent strategy in the short term. This in turn informs the future pace and form of competition with Iran over Syria.

Lebanon has been relatively stable during the current period of upheaval, however, local Sunni-Shiite competition mirrors and overlaps with broader regional competition between Sunni Arab states and Iran. As Syria’s civil war deepens there are real risks of instability further spillover effects. However, there are also opportunities to manage security politics in the Levant that the US should not ignore.

As these two reports show, Israel too is an arena for US-Iranian competition and the recent cycle of instability will remain critical to how both countries develop their bilateral relationship and security ties.  While cooperation with the US on the development of anti-rocket and anti-missile systems such as the Iron Dome has been important in degrading the asymmetric capabilities of Iran and its regional allies, cooperation on efforts to revive a beleaguered peace process also serves to undermine Iranian influence in the region.

The place and role of the Palestinians in US policy and competition with Iran are also part and parcel of US-Iranian competition over Israel. While differences remains between the US and Fatah about the best approaches to achieve Palestinian statehood, the core challenge the US will face remains in dealing with an ascendant Hamas and the possibility the group could make further gains politically in the years ahead. How the US recalibrates or adapts to this will either benefit or undermine Iranian influence among the Palestinians.

Lastly, US policy towards Egypt and Jordan are driven by a number of common factors that have impacted whether or not these two key US allies become exposed to Iranian influence and interference. Patterns of regional instability are likely to last for years and Syria’s civil war will undermine the stability of peripheral states, including Jordan. The US must continue to work with regional allies – especially states within the Gulf Cooperation Council – to stave off the socio-economic and political effects of instability on both Egypt and Jordan.

Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to anerguizian@csis.org and acordesman(@)gmail.com.

Other reports in this series include:


Aram Nerguizian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Burke Chair in Strategy