U.S.-Iranian Competition in the Levant: Parts I & II
January 10, 2013
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:
- Part I, “Competing Strategic Interests and the Military and Asymmetric Dimensions of Regional Instability”, analyzes how the US and Iran compete – albeit indirectly – in terms of the regional military and asymmetric balances. Part I is available on the CSIS web site at: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/121212_Iran_VIII_Levant_report_Part_1_1.pdf
- Part II, “The Proxy War in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories & Syria” expands on the six core arenas of the US-Iranian competition in the Levant. Part II is available on the CSIS web site at: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/121212_Iran_VIII_Levant_report_Part_2_2.pdf
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.
Other reports in this series include:
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions - This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
- Iraq After US Withdrawal: US Policy and the Iraqi Search for Security and Stability - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan - This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria. The military balance is also analyzed.
- Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan - This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States - This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.
- U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.