In the last week of August, Iran-Israel tensions escalated after an Israeli airstrike against Hezbollah and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in southern Syria. Iran has been arming its allies in Syria and Lebanon with precision-guided missiles and “killer drones,” Israel says. At the same time, pro-Iranian groups from Yemen to Iraq are threatening the United States and U.S. allies, while an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean was bringing oil to the Syrian regime.
Iran’s influence in the Middle East generally has been seen as a “land bridge” or corridor to the sea that stretches through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It has a web of proxies and mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups that are allied with Tehran. This influence has grown since the defeat of ISIS, as Iranian-backed groups put down roots in areas from which ISIS had been removed, such as Albukamal on the border of Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s real influence comes from not just this patchwork of groups but also a third side to its power that emanates from Yemen, where Houthi rebels have been fighting an alliance led by Saudi Arabia since 2015. The rebels have become increasingly proficient in using Iranian technology, such as ballistic missiles, drones and air defense. They even downed two U.S. drones. Iranian media regularly brag about the Houthi capabilities; the Houthi slogan is “death to America, death to Israel.” Together, the Houthis, Hezbollah and Iran’s allied militias in Iraq and Syria form a triangle of power aimed at rolling back U.S. influence and laying siege to Israel.
For Tehran, the U.S. and Israel are key enemies, and Iran poses itself as part of the “resistance” against those allies in the region.
The “resistance” mostly is carried out through a sort of “good cop-bad cop” strategy of using political groups to infiltrate governments while arming militia groups. The political groups are the good cop; they feign moderation or “working in the system,” while their affiliated militias stockpile weapons. For example, Israel has accused Hezbollah of attempting to outfit its 130,000-missile arsenal with Iranian precision-guidance technology. The Israel Defense Forces recently released information about a facility belonging to Hezbollah, located in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, that manufactures and converts precision-guided missiles. “The facility was established a few years ago by Iran,” the IDF said.
The challenge for Israel in confronting this threat is that Iran and its allies present themselves as a kind of octopus, with so many different elements and threats that one can strike at only the highest priority targets, cutting off the most dangerous tentacles while the overall threat remains. The U.S. expressed support for Israel’s defending itself against Iran on Aug. 25, after the recent airstrikes. But Washington is reticent to engage in a conflict with Iran, or risk a conflict with Iranian-backed allies in Iraq or Syria.
Iranian-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries in Iraq have blamed the U.S. for recent airstrikes that destroyed their munitions, which the U.S. denies carrying out. But the rhetoric is part of a rising campaign of attempted intimidation against the U.S. in Iraq, which included suspending Al Hurra, a television channel that receives U.S. support.
Iran’s power in the Middle East is multi-pronged, reaching from Yemen via the Gulf of Oman to Iraq and then through Syria to Lebanon. It faces some hurdles in its consolidation of power. Its attempt to send an oil tanker to Syria in July was briefly stopped by U.K. Royal Marines who boarded the vessel in Gibraltar. When the tanker was released, the U.S. Treasury targeted it for sanctions, but it proceeded to anchor off Syria’s coastline anyway, attempting to deliver oil.
With Russia and Iran on the same side in Syria, and Iran and Turkey increasingly working together on trade, the U.S. and its allies could be at a disadvantage in the region. Overcoming Iran’s triangle of power will take a long-term approach from the U.S., Israel and others who want to see Iran’s threats diminished.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.