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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).

Iran and Saudi Arabia Battle for Supremacy in the Middle East

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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 October 2018 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 suffocate Iran’s economy. Months of tensions over Iranian provocations, including a drone and cruise missile strike against Saudi oil facilities in September, culminated in January with the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, followed by an Iranian ballistic missile barrage targeting U.S. troops there.

Though both sides quickly backed away from escalation to open warfare, the Middle East is rife with other ongoing conflicts, including a civil war in Yemen that has fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, another in Syria that may finally be reaching a no-less bloody endgame, and one in Libya that is once again escalating after a short-lived cease-fire. These conflicts exist on two levels: domestic battles for control of the countries’ futures, and proxy wars fueled by the regional powers, as well as Russia and—in the case of Libya—France.

Meanwhile, the long-simmering dispute between Israel and Palestine, which used to dominate international coverage, continues to flare up periodically. A round of fighting in May 2019 was the deadliest since 2014. And because the Trump administration’s peace plan, released in January, is designed more to legitimize the status quo than to move both sides to a sustainable resolution, it could ultimately prove destabilizing. 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. Will the recent exchange of fire between the U.S. and Iran embolden hardliners on both sides? Will tensions on Lebanon’s southern border lead to a new outbreak of war between Isreal and Hezbollah? How will Turkey’s incursion into Idlib, in 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

Under Lockdown and Occupation, Palestinians Fear a COVID-19 Catastrophe

Gaza and the West Bank recorded their first cases of the novel coronavirus last month. The Palestinian Authority has implemented a strict lockdown, but with health resources already overstretched and ties with Israel under strain, a wider outbreak of COVID-19 would have devastating consequences for Palestinians.

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 might 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, especially after the rollout of the Trump administration’s one-sided peace plan.

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, even more so after the recent tit-for-tat strikes in Iraq. 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.