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A crowd of Iranians listening to a speech by then-President Hassan Rouhani. A group of Iranians listen to then-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, Nov. 10, 2021

Over the past decade, 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 that could involve the U.S. Now both sides seem to be seeking a diplomatic offramp to confrontation, amid a broader shift toward lowering tensions across the region.

Saudi Arabia ramped up its regional adventurism after Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of King Salman known as MBS, was appointed crown prince in 2017. From the Syrian civil war to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, that has meant proxy conflicts with Iran-backed regimes and nonstate armed groups that have on several occasions veered dangerously close to direct hostilities between to two rivals. A precision missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 was widely blamed on Iran. And the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Tehran brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war in January 2020, with direct implications for Riyadh.

President Joe Biden has now reengaged diplomatically with Iran in an effort to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from. That coincides with broader moves across the Middle East to thaw relations that had been frayed by the region’s various arenas of conflict and competition. Biden has also promised to make respect for human rights a central pillar of his foreign policy. The potential implications for U.S. partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, are significant, although to date Biden has not radically changed America’s policies in the region.

Despite the recent efforts to ease tensions, the ongoing civil war in Yemen continues to fuel one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Syria’s 10-year civil war has now entered an extended endgame that, though less bloody, remains every bit as volatile. Libya has seen a respite in its civil war since a cease-fire was implemented in October 2020 and a transitional government named in March. But the absence of fighting by no means guarantees the establishment of a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas served as a reminder that the conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot be simply wished away by regional powers and the U.S. Like everything else in the region, this conflict has become entangled in the larger Saudi-Iran power struggle, with Saudi-allied leaders willing to remain silent on the Palestinian issue in return for Israeli support in containing Iran. The U.S.-brokered diplomatic normalization deals Israel recently signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain simply formalized a strategic realignment that had until now been an open secret in the region. The question now is whether Saudi Arabia will follow suit. But normalization with Israel without a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict no longer seems as tenable a position as it did even a few months ago.

WPR has covered the Middle East in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. How will the Biden administration reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East, and what will that mean for the region? Will the move toward diplomatic engagement succeed in tamping down the Middle East’s various conflicts? And will the most recent Israel-Hamas war move the Israel-Palestine conflict higher up the list of priorities in Washington and regional capitals? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Our Most Recent Coverage

A Drone Attack Raises the Stakes of Iraq’s Post-Election Standoff

Iraq faces a deadly dilemma: make a deal with the militias that appear to be behind an assassination attempt on the life of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, or face off against them in a fight that is sure to leave the Iraqi state and people worse off. Unfortunately, there are few good options for Baghdad to explore.

Domestic Politics

The political situation in the Middle East is in flux. Mass protests in 2019 ousted a long-time ruler in Algeria and rattled governments in Lebanon and Iraq, sparking speculation about a new Arab Spring, before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to those popular movements. The pandemic also drove a decline in global energy prices that has further undermined the sustainability of many Gulf states’ oil-based revenue models—and their social contracts, which have historically offered generous benefits for citizens in exchange for a lack of democratic accountability for the region’s rulers.

Regional Diplomacy

After a period of conflict and heightened tensions, the region’s competing powers have begun to engage diplomatically. Saudi Arabia and Iran recently acknowledged having engaged in talks aimed at easing their tensions. Similarly, Turkey and Egypt have begun a rapprochement that could lead to a normalization of relations. And the Saudi-allied Gulf states put an end to their blockade of Qatar. But the hostility between Israel and Iran has been an outlier to this trend, with the two sides engaging in covert tit-for-tat attacks that run the risk of escalating into open conflict.

War and Conflict

Ongoing conflicts and the threat of new clashes continue to overshadow the region, as hopes for negotiated settlements to the wars in Syria and Yemen have been repeatedly dashed. A cease-fire in Libya has been more effective at silencing the guns for now, but lasting peace is still far from guaranteed. 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.

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The Israel-Palestine Conflict and Israel-Arab Relations

The long-standing flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict was downgraded as a priority in Washington and the Gulf during the Trump presidency. Instead, Israel’s strategic partnership with the Gulf Arab states to counter Iran became formalized with the establishment of diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain—with the potential for more normalization deals to follow. The Biden administration promises to be more conventional in its approach to the issue, but whether a change in U.S. policy will have a meaningful impact remains to be seen. If the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas is any indication, however, hoping the conflict will simply remain on the backburner is no longer a viable option.

U.S. Policy

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy was dominated by support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and attempts to undermine Iran. But his bellicose rhetoric notwithstanding, former President Donald Trump had little appetite for an actual war with Tehran—or for America’s military presence in the broader region. Biden will certainly seek to reassert American leadership, but just how much he can achieve will depend on the political capital he is willing to invest.

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 the government in Algeria and threatened others. Biden has said he’ll make human rights a priority of his foreign policy, potentially setting up a showdown with America’s regional security partners.

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