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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

Monday, July 6, 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 known as MBS, 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—especially if Israel follows through on plans to annex parts of the West Bank. 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 exchange of fire in January between the U.S. and Iran embolden hardliners on both sides? How will Turkey’s incursion into Idlib, in Syria, affect the endgame of that country’s civil war? Will the Turkish-Russian proxy war in Libya be contained within its borders? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Our Most Recent Coverage

‘The Path of Negotiations Has Failed.’ Where Annexation Leaves Palestinians

With its planned application of Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, initially scheduled for July 1 but now indefinitely postponed, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is set to leap forward into formal annexation, bringing to a final close the era of the peace process that began with the Oslo Accords. Palestinians now have an opportunity to clean house politically, and build a new movement for self-determination.

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, sparked discussions about a new Arab Spring, before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to those popular movements.

War and Conflict

Ongoing conflicts and the threat of new clashes continue to overshadow the region, as recent hopes for negotiated settlements to the wars in Yemen and Libya have been dashed. Meanwhile, although 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. Now, with ISIS appearing to be in the midst of transitioning into an insurgency, 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. Most recently, several countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to limit or ban political protest movements that had already brought down two governments in North Africa and threatened others.

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Israel-Palestine

The long-standing flashpoint may be approaching another crisis. With the most dangerous challenge to his long hold on power now safely behind him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now seems intent on putting the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, aided by 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.