U.S.-Iranian Competition in the Middle East

December 13, 2012

            The Arab uprisings shattered the conventional military balance between Iran and the United States in the Middle East, according to an updated report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The two countries have since strengthened relationships with both state and non-state actors to “project power and shape the broader regional balance of power.” Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan are key arenas of strategic competition. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.

            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.
           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.

Click here for Part I, “The Military and Asymmetric Dimensions of Regional Instability"

Click here for Part II, “The Proxy Way in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Syria” 

Read Anthony H. Cordesman's chapter on Iran's conventional military in “The Iran Primer”