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A crowd of Iranians listening to a speech by President Hassan Rouhani. A group of Iranians listen to President Hassan Rouhani during a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11, 2019 (AP photo by Vahid Salemi).

A Battle for Supremacy in the Middle East

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East has insinuated itself into nearly every regional issue, fracturing international alliances and sustaining wars across the region, while raising fears of a direct conflict between the two powers.

Saudi Arabia has ramped up its regional adventurism since Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of King Salman, was appointed crown prince in 2017. And it has cracked down on its opponents, including the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That appears to have had little effect on the crown prince’s increasingly close ties to the Trump administration, though. Determined to undermine the Iranian regime, Washington has pulled out of the nuclear deal with Tehran and used its economic might to block five countries from continuing to purchase Iranian oil.

The Middle East is rife with ongoing conflicts, including a civil war in Yemen that has fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and another in Syria that may finally be reaching a no-less bloody endgame. These conflicts exist on two levels: domestic battles for control of the countries’ futures and proxy wars fueled by the regional powers.

Meanwhile, the long-simmering dispute between Israel and Palestine, which used to dominate international coverage, continues to worsen. A round of fighting in May was the deadliest since 2014. Like everything else in the region, this conflict has also become embroiled in the larger power struggle, with Saudi-allied leaders willing to remain silent on the Palestinian issue in return for Israeli support in containing Iran.

WPR has covered the Middle East in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. As Washington increases its pressure on Tehran, will it embolden hardliners within the regime? Will tensions on Lebanon’s southern border lead to a new outbreak of war between Isreal and Hezbollah? How will Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria affect the endgame of that country’s civil war? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Recent Coverage

Netanyahu’s Bet on Trump Is Starting to Look like a Costly Mistake in Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gambled on a close embrace of Donald Trump from the moment he became U.S. president. The wager seemed to pay off for a while. But now, after his abrupt Syria withdrawal, Trump is providing a powerful boost to Netanyahu’s rival for prime minister, Benny Gantz.

Domestic Politics

The political situation in the Middle East is in flux, with both Saudi Arabia and Iran facing challenges. Riyadh is contending with international blowback for recent reckless and brutal moves. And Iran continues to be backed into a corner by the United States. Meanwhile, mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq, following the peaceful uprisings that ousted long-time rulers in Algeria and Sudan, have sparked discussions about a new Arab Spring.

War and Conflict

Though ongoing conflicts and the threat of new clashes overshadow the region, there are some reasons for hope. Alongside some recent diplomatic advances in Yemen, the battlefield defeat of ISIS fighters—culminating in the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—has reduced violence in Iraq and Syria. That has not spelled the end of the movement, though, as ISIS appears to be in the midst of transitioning into an insurgency, even as the Trump administration’s quixotic approach to Syria could give the group an unexpected lifeline.

Human Rights

Protections for human rights remain relatively fragile across the region, particularly when it comes to political dissidents, women and minority communities. Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have cracked down on civil society groups and political opponents. With its murder of Khashoggi at the end of 2018, Riyadh wiped out any goodwill it had earned for loosening some of the restrictions the regime has placed on women.
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Israel-Palestine

The long-standing flashpoint may be approaching another crisis. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be nearing the end of his long hold on power, there is no indication that any of his potential successors would be willing or able to revive hopes for the two-state solution. Meanwhile, clashes between the two sides on the Gaza border have been escalating.

U.S. Policy

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy has been dominated by support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and attempts to undermine Iran. The administration’s ultimate objectives with regard to Tehran remain unclear, though. President Donald Trump has also clearly tired of America’s military presence in the region, but the disconnect between his stated preferences and his administration’s actual policy is introducing confusion into regional capitals’ calculations.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.