The endless conflicts of the Middle East

How the Middle Eastern region continues – and will continue – to be a hotbed of instability.

 

On the 14th of May 2018 Israel celebrated its 70th anniversary, reaching a goal that in 1948 seemed impossible to most, given the tense Middle Eastern cotext in which the Jewish State came to light. And indeed, even to this date the Middle East continues to be a region of deep tensions, in which the passing of time produces ever more crises and never significant distensions.

Taking the anniversary of Israel’s independence as useful pretext to raise the question of where the Levant stands today, the first element to be noticed cannot bu be the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to the expectations of all those who 25 years ago – when Arafat and Rabin famously shook their hands on the lawn of the White House after signing the Oslo Accords – thought to be witnessing the beginning of a new era of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the conflict between the two peoples has actually never ceased. At most, it has changed form –conventional war, peaceful resistance, guerrilla war, terrorism – in order to respond to the circumstances and the requirements of each specific moment.

Over the past year, a dangerous combination of factors has inevitably led to an increase in hostility: the ascent to the White House of Donald Trump, most-openly pro-Israeli American president to date; the strengthening in Israel of the ultra-right front that has been leading the country since 2015; the lack of a coherent and credible Palestinian political leadership able to address the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and to advance the national interest of the Palestinians.

Elected President in January 2017, as early as last December Trump announced the moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Recognizing the latter as capital of the Jewish State and modifying in this way the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question that had been maintained by any previous administration, Trump has compromised the credibility of the United States as arbiter super partes in the dialogue between Jews and Palestinians – a dialogue that consequently has now become ever more doomed to stalemate. Furthermore, Trump’s decision has not only made any prospect of future negotiations more difficult, but it has also changed its terms significantly: recognizing Jerusalem as Jewsih capital, it has canceled the possibility of a two-state solution leading to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A decision of this kind, with the implications that it has on the bilateral dialogue, could not but ignite the Palestinians’ anger and embolden Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition. The latter, indeed, strong of the new Israeli-American friendship that has been restored under Trump, has rapidly exploited the momentum to take steps that seek to change the demographic balance in Israel/Palestine to its sole advantage: it has proceeded at a fastened pace with the Jewish occupation of the West Bank by means of new construction permits and the retroactive legalization of illegal settlements and it has passed a new law that gives to the Interior Minister the power of outstripping Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship if their “loyalty” to the Jewish State is doubtful.

On this background, on the 30th of March the Palestinian people of Gaza launched the “March of Return” to protest the isolation enforced by Israel against the Strip and to claim their right to retunr to their ancestral land. The protests, held for six consecutive Fridays, have seen thousands of youths (some affiliated with Hamas, others with no political affiliation and others critical of the group that has been ruling Gaza since 2007) march towards the border with Israel to be met with gunfire and tear-gas by the Israeli Defense Forces. Until mid May, the victim toll was of 49 but the apex was reached on the 14th of May, a symbolic date that not only marks the anniversary of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba but that this year also coincided with the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. On that single day, 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 injured. A dramatic confirmation that even if 70 years have passed tensions between the two peoples still run high.

Alongside the perennial Palestinian question, the Middle East today is the theatre of further tensions that are contributing to defyining new regional dynamics and new axes of alliances and rivalries.

In Syria, the victory of Assad is by now undeniable and the war has entered a new phase in which the civil conflict is leaving the place to an open competition between external powers – regional and non regional – interested in carving out for themselves convenient areas of influence upon the Syrian territory. Thus, while the opposition to Assad is seeing itself forced to leave the areas that it still controls in exchange for guarantees of survival, and while the Kurds seek desperately to defend their aspirations to statehood, Russia, Iran and Turkey have made of the negotiation table of Astana (where the U.S. does not participate) the place where to define the future status quo of Syria.

Here, an important role is played by Iran. In fact, if Turkey uses Astana to make sure that the national aspirations of the Kurds in Syria do not achieve successes that might embolden the Kurds of Anatolia and to carve out for itself a role of primacy in the Middle East at a time in which its relations with the West are at their lowest, and if Russia uses Astana to defend its startegic interests through a Syrian firendly regime that leaves in place Moscow’s air and naval bases in the Mediterannean, Iran is using Astana to accomplish its hegemonic ambitions. In the specific, it is exploiting its involvement in Syria on Assad’s side (supported via the Revolutionary Guarda and the proxy Hezbollah) to create a corridor of influence that stretches form Iran to the Mediterannean going through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The presence in Syria of Iranian military bases and pro-Iranian forces is a first-hand threat to Israel, that has in Iran its nemesis and that sees the vicinity of Iran to its borders as a red line that, if crossed, jutifies any response.

To worsen the tensions triggered between Israel and Iran by the latter’s ascent in Syria, last week came Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 by the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. The American withdrawal – strongly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Israel – risks strengthening within Iran those hardliners who criticized Rouhani’s opening to the West and who might now call for a more assertive foreing policy and a full recovery of the nuclear program. Unsuprisingly, the hours after the US decision saw Israel and Iran firing missiles over the Syrian sky, thus seeming to be ever closer to an open confrontation that might lead the entire region to chaos. The evolution of these tensions will largely depend on the role that Russia – a precious ally of both – will want to play and on Europe’s capacity to ensure the survival of the JCPOA.

For Israel, the Iranian threat is accentuated by the ascent of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that Teheran has been nurturing since the ‘80s in open anti-Israeli function. Since the outset of the Syrian war in 2011, Hezbollah has obatined two important victories that make Israel particularly worried. Firstly, is the military victory that the group has obtained thanks to its beloning to the pro-Assad axis and that is made by a combination of: increase of the group’s military (especially milistic) arsenal thanks to the arms transfers by Iran; access to sophisticated war material capable of posing a direct and serious threat to Israel’s security; conslidation of the group’s presence in the Syrian-Lebanese area that borders Israel. Besides this military victory, there is the political victory that the group has obtained last week at the polls and that confirms the wide support it enjoys among the Lebanese people – even beyond its traditional Shia powerbase.

Having at its borders an historical enemy like Hezbollah that is now more preapred militarily, more favoured strategically and more credible politically represents a primary threat in the eyes of Israel. From the perspctive of the Jewish State, in fact, hezbollah could use Syria as a strategic platform from where to launch attacks against Israel without openly compromising Lebanon and from where to upset the existing sttaus quo.

In this cotnext, the Middle East has become today the theatre where two blocs of triple alliances are in competition: the “status quo bloc” formed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S; and the “resistance bloc” formed by Iran, Turkey and Russia. Contravening past rhetorics and ethnic-religious divergencies, these systems of alliance are born to respond to immediate needs but, whatever their length will be, they are producing dynamics whose effects are likely to be felt in the region in the medium to long term.

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In death of the nuclear deal

All the (worrying) consequences that the American withdrawal from the deal is likely to have.

 

Yesterday, the fear that many around the world – in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the US itself – became concrete as President Trump annouced his decision to rescind from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by his predecessor with China, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Iran.

Withdrawing from the deal, Trump fulfilled – once again – one of the many promises that he had made to his domestic electorate, made of Christian conservatives nostalgic of a past time in which America was “great” and did not sign deal with obscure Islamic Republics run by alledged “fanatics with beards”. Thus, just as he did last year with TPP and the Paris climate agreement, Trump abandoned also the JCPOA. However, while the previous “divorces” led by Trump have not brought about – or at least not yet – dramatic consequences, the same might not be said this time.

Withdrawing from the deal without consideration for the many voices that have come from Western Europe calling for the maintenance of the JCPOA as best safeguard against Iran’s nuclearization inevitably widens the gap between the United States and Europe. After Trump’s abandonment of the Paris agreement and his decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (a city as holy as contested), the unilateral withdrawal from a deal that represented a supreme example of concerted Euro-American diplomacy is thus the latest example of how the traditional allies are behaving ever more differently on an increasing number of issues.

Since 1945 and the emergence of the post-World War II order, the American-Western European friendship has been one of the certainties of international dynmics. Yet, sventy years later, trans-relations appear characterized by many frictures.

Besides complicating Euro-American relations, Washington’s withdrawal risks isolating the United States on the international stage. If the withdrawal from the Paris climater agreement, the withdrawal from the TPP and the contested decision on the status of Jeruslam had already displayed the image of the US as a super-power thinking and acting solo, the abandonment of the JCPOA leaves the United States with only two foreign friends: Israel and Saudi Arabia – two far-from-easy friends to have, surrounded by innumerate controversies and with a troublesome standing in the international arena.

In terms of alliances, another effect of Trump’s latest move is the consolidation of relations of Iran with Russia and China – two signatories of the JCPOA that have promptly reacted to Trump’s annoucement by remarking their intention to stay in the deal and to keep it alive. The consolidation of the entente between Russia and Iran, in particular, is something that should have made Trump – and his loyal allies Pomepeo and Bannon – more cautious about stepping out from the deal: at a delicate juncture of the Syrian conflict as the current one, in which Turkey, Russia and Iran are successfully using the Astana forum to divide among the three of them highly-stretegic areas of influence in Syria without Washington having a strong part to play, the departure of the United States from the JCPOA will make its position over the arrangement of future Syria even weaker vis-à-vis the Russian-Iranian duo.

Within Iran, the United States’ departure from the deal is likely to embolden the conservatives who since the beginning of the negotiations had criticized the deal. In the current intra-Iranian context – that already sees the support for the moderates weakened by a difficult economic situation which the lifitng of sanctions after the JCPOA has only partially improved – a similar strengthening of the hardliners will easily translate into a renewal of the nuclear program and a much more assertive foreign policy in the Levant.

With Iran back on the path to nuclearization and ever more assertive in the region, new and deep tensions risk emerging in the Middle East. Here, of the two battlegrounds where Iran is currently involved – Yemen and Syria – it is Syria the theatre where the situation would escalate the most. In fact, while the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is not to be downplayed, neither Teheran nor Riayd are interesting in escalating the conflict there: for Teheran,Yemen is too far from its area of immediate strategic interest to find it convenient to divert financial and manpower resources there; for Ryadh, Yemen is at its doorstep but the country does not have the military strength to sustain a conflict that it has largely regretted initating.

Conversely, Syria is a battleground of major importance for both Iran and Israel: Iran is seeking through its involevemnt to create a corridor of influence stretching from the Islamic Repubblic to the Mediterranen; Israel sees Iran’s presence in Syria and the military empowerment of its proxy Hezbollah as an existenctial threat and is ready to respond to it with all means available. Thus, now that the US has withdrawn form the deal, the confrontation between Iran and Israel might reach the point of no-return.

This is particularly worrisome considering the attitude Netanyahu: threatened by a series of scandals that are compromising his political credibility in the eyes of many Israelis, he has been relentlessly emphasized the security threat represented by Iran and presented himself as the only leader who can guarantee Israel’s security thanks to his special relationship with Trump and his resolute approach. Far from saying that Netanyahu is seeking a full-fledged war to save himself, it is nonetheless true that recently the attention of Israel’s media has turned from Netanyahu’s judicial saga to the existential menace allegedly posed by Iran in Syria.

Finally, leaving the deal has consequences that go beyond the Middle East and touch upon other regions, actors and agendas. Of particular concern, is the fact that withdrawing from the JCPOA damages the credibility of the United States as reliable signatory of international agreements and the attractivity of non-proliferation agreements. This becomes worrying if the consideration is extended to the current attempts to initiate a negotiation process that leads Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear ambitions: if a deal signed by an American president can be so easily discarded by his predecessor and if accepting to curb nuclear amibitions is not an assurance that previous sanctions will not be reinstated, why should North Korea abandon its nuclerization and sign its own JCPOA?

These are considerations that show that even if the JCPOA was far from being a perfect deal it was nonetheless the best we could aspire to.

 

(Photo credits: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.

Yemen, one year after

Entering its second year of hostilities, Yemen is stuck in the dynamics of a civil and regional conflict that seems to offer no easy way out

 

Often obscured by the other events threatening the Middle East’s precarious balances and often buried under the curtain of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Yemen is nevertheless one of the most crucial theatres of the region and one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the past decades.

It all began (or rather escalated) one year ago, when the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa and the Saudis intervened at the head of a Sunni coalition determined to prevent any Shia rise in the Gulf.  Since then, Yemen’s already weak political landscape has definitely collapsed; a civil conflict has taken roots in the country and taken the life of too many of its inhabitants; jihadist groups such as AQAP and ISIS have found a fertile ground for their terrorist acts; and all the attempts made to reach viable agreements through diplomacy have gone up in smoke.

With the war marking this month its first anniversary, no light seems to be in sight at the end of the tunnel and no side seems to be disposed to step back and compromise. Rather, each party maintains the perception that a step back would be a step down in the precipice and a victory for the enemy.

Saudi Arabia, the war’s major foreign player, entered the Yemeni conflict through an intervention that marked the beginning of a new and more assertive Saudi foreign policy and that revealed how much Riyadh was (and still is) feeling exposed to the threatening rise of the Shia rival Iran.                                                                                                                                           With the rapprochement between the West and Iran in full course and with the role played by Teheran and its Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Houthis in Yemen became for Riyadh the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Despite the lack of any confirmation of a direct Iranian support for the Houthis, it became nonetheless vital in the eyes of Riyadh to prevent the Houthis from taking control over Yemen so as to avoid any risk of an Iranian wave of influence spreading from the Levant to the Gulf. In this framework, the war in Yemen became for Saudi Arabia pivotal to preserve its credibility as regional power and instrumental to send a signal to the rising Shia rival.

All this, though, came at a cost for Riyadh and to stand up to the perceived Iranian threat the Saudis have found themselves stuck in Yemen.

Acting as it did, Saudi Arabia gave to what was a domestic conflict a regional geopolitical dimension that it did not have and this, over the past twelve months, has turned the Yemeni war in such a complex and multidimensional conflict that it is now difficult to even imagine a viable way out.

Riyadh has thus far invested too much (both economically and in terms of credibility) to accept anything less than a settlement that grants the House of Saud a major influence over Sanaa’s affairs.

Nor is the search for negotiations stronger on the opposite side of the war. The Houthis have found themselves at the heart of geopolitical games, calculations and interests that go beyond the framework within which they had initially conceived and conducted their upsurge.        Risen against Hadi and a political system which they regarded as discriminating, they ended up on the stage of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and seem now to be in a position in which their bargaining power in any future settlement depends on how long they manage to resist the attacks of the Saudi-led coalition.

Therefore, imagining an agreement capable of restoring stability in the country requires a considerable degree of faith and hope.

Interested by domestic and regional dynamics whose boundaries are becoming ever more overlapping, the Yemeni war can find its end only with a serious and unambiguous intervention on part of the international community. In the specific, the international community should frame each side’s perception of costs and benefits of the war in a way that stresses possible points of convergence when it comes to imagining a post-war Yemen. For instance, nor the Houthis nor Saudi Arabia have anything to gain from the presence on the Yemeni soil of jihadist groups that directly threaten to the former’s survival and to the letter’s security. Their common opposition to AQAP and ISIS could thus be turned into a first and concrete point of convergence capable of making the dialogue start and progress.

For the moment it seems that the prosecution of hostilities is the only point on which all parties agree and though it is not too late yet to merge faith and hope with a coherent and resolute diplomatic approach aimed at avoiding another anniversary of a war that is tearing Yemen apart.

[Published in “The Times of Israel – Blogs“]

Iran’s new political chapter?

Assessing the political implications that the lifting of the sanctions against Iran can have for the Teheran-Riyadh relationship in the region

Since 1979, when the Shah was eventually overthrown after his steadiness on the throne had been decreasing by the day and Khomeini took that crucial Air France flight that brought him back home, Iran has been politically isolated in the Middle East and marginalized in the international community. In addition, since 2006, because of its nuclear program, it has been subject to economic sanctions imposed by USA, EU and UN that have reined in the country’s economic potential and condemned its population to economic hardships.
Now all this might change.
On 17th January 2016, after the IAEA confirmed Iran was complying with what agreed upon in last summer’s nuclear deal by sensibly reducing its nuclear activities, those sanctions that over the past years had doomed Iran to face a double-digit inflation were lifted. A breakthrough development, capable of opening –in Rouhani’s words- a “new chapter” for the country, a major event whose consequences will not interest Iran only but will affect the whole region – economically as well as politically.

On the economic side it is where the consequences are clear the most. With the country back in the international economy, new prospects and opportunities are on the horizon and optimism is slightly reappearing in the streets of Teheran.

Though, it is in the political field, where clear and certain predictions are much more difficult to be made -especially in a region as complex as the Middle East, where any new day brings about new crucial events and developments- that consequences are interesting the most.
As said, Teheran is considerably isolated since the earliest days of life of the Islamic Republic –an isolation that first emerged with undeniable clarity during the war with Iraq and that is still reflected in today’s regional dynamics- new scenarios might be now opening up.
Over the past years, the Middle East has witnessed a progressive disengagement of the United States -whose major strategic interests are shifting towards the Pacific and for which the Middle East is becoming nothing more than a source of continuous failures and worries- and a progressive heightening of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever more engaged in a struggle for power in which any loss is a rival’s gain, the two regional powers have turned Syria and Yemen into the preferred fields of a bloody proxy war whose prize is supremacy over the region, prestige and political sway.
Resisting the temptation of reducing everything to a Sunni-Shia divide that this time is just in the background, it is to be reckoned we are in front of a struggle for power whose balance is leaning in favor of Teheran – at all expense of a Saudi monarchy that its own most recent moves are dragging ever down. In front of a rival getting closer to the international community thanks to the nuclear deal, Riyadh has responded by escalating the conflict in Yemen -now destined to become a new endless, Syrian-like bloody stalemate- and by escalating sectarian and political divides through the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Both disputable choices that are not leading Saudi Arabia anywhere. Especially when on the other side of the Gulf’s waters Iran is on the rise and strengthening its standing at international and regional level.
Indeed, the reality that is now unfolding in the area, and that is bringing worries to the Saudis as much as it is bringing hopes to the Iranians, is that Iran, by signing a nuclear deal the population had been waiting (and asking) for long, is not only reaping the economic advantages that the lifting of sanctions brings. It is seen itself recognized as a power capable of sitting at a table with the world leaders, negotiate agreements and keep its promise. It might seem nothing big at a first look, but it actually is. The fact that today the international community begins to regard Iran not as a radical Islamic country, led by bearded religious leaders and ambiguous political figures, but as a country with which dialogue is possible and agreements are reachable, creates the possibilities for a new chapter to begin for real. Politics is made of perceptions, of ideas we have of ourselves and of the others, and of behaviors that by those ideas are instructed. A change in perceptions is therefore a change in behavior, and the perception today is that Iran is on the rise and that the future dynamics of the Middle East will depend much more on Teheran’s moves than on Saudi Arabia’s.
With an opening economy, political leaders such as Zarif who are giving the country a new face, and an educated population willing to work, travel and enter in relations with the outer world, Iran’s capacity of expanding its influence in the region goes now beyond the “proxy war rationale” through which Teheran and Riyadh have used to confront each other. Iran is now increasingly on the rise because it is believing in the possibility of founding its strength and regional influence on elements other than material capabilities: a new international image, new economic opportunities, new capacity of building relations with the outside.

That said, it is clear that Teheran will not reduce its indirect presence in Yemen, will not abandon its intervention in Syria, nor will it moderate its support to Hezbollah and other regional Shia militias. However, attention must be given to the fact that it is giving to its foreign policy a new dimension, competitive because centered on soft power. A dimension that Riyadh is proving it does not know how to compete with.

The game the Middle East does not need

The sectarian rivalries the Saudis are trying to ignite in an anti-Iran logic are a direct threat to the whole region, and the Middle East’s near future is now dependent on Teheran’s responses

Too fast have the events of the past two days unfolded before our eyes.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 prisoners – some of them accused of involvement in the Al-Qaeda-led terror attacks that have hit the country over the past years, others of incitement of violence against the government.
Bearing in mind that in 2015 alone Saudi Arabia executed 175 people, the executions of the 2nd January might look as nothing more than the prosecution of a grim record that ensures Saudi Arabia a place in all the statistics on human rights violations. However, this time it is different and worse, because beyond the human rights dimension there is a political one, that comes to give a particular significance to the executions of Saturday and has the potential of spreading instability and violence across the whole region.

Among the 47 people executed on Saturday, in fact, one individual stands out: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Arrested in 2012 with the charge of inciting the wave of anti-government protests that in the framework of the Arab Spring did not spare the Saudi Kingdom, Nimr al-Nimr was more than a critic of the House of Saud. He was also more than a Shia expressing his resentment towards a Sunni government that has always relegated the Shia minority of the country in a marginalized position: he was the face of all the Saudi Shias who in 2011-12 took to the streets asking for the end of discrimination. He was expression of the Shia soul of a Wahhabist country that one day though will have to deal with its Shia side in a more inclusive way, if it aspires to be something more than a regional power. He was a man and an icon, and the execution of a figure like him cannot but have consequences in the broader region, there where the axis Sunni-Shia is still the main definer of the individuals’ identity and one of the major driver of the countries’ foreign policies.

Not surprisingly, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked a wave of protests than spread from the Gulf to Indian Kashmir, going through Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
And it is indeed at Iran that we have to look to understand what lies behind Saudi Arabia’s move.

Putting on the lenses of Realism to look at the region’s reality, it immediately emerges how Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two protagonists of a zero-sum struggle for power. The champion of Sunnism and the exponent of Shiism are indeed involved in a struggle whose price is nothing less than influence on the region, and whose battlefields are Syria as much as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to carry out Nimr al-Nimr’s execution has the effect of dramatically escalating the tensions between Riyadh and Teheran: on Saturday itself, the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital was set on fire and on Sunday Saudi Arabia announced the end of any diplomatic tie with Iran.

Why do so then? Precisely to achieve this result: escalate tensions with the region’s number one rival.

In the bilateral competition for power of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the players, the former has emerged over the past year as the weakest one. Since Salman became king last January, global economy and international diplomacy have played against Riyadh and given King Salman sleepless nights.
As if the fall of oil prices was not enough to dramatically weaken the influence of a country whose contracting power and strength has since its foundation relied on its black oil, the nuclear agreement reached by the P5+1 with the ayatollah has made Saudis’ position even more staggering.
Iran has indeed emerged over the last months as a growing regional power, whose re-integration in the international economic and political system represents a direct threat to Riyadh’s national interests. If to this we add the increasing possibility of negotiations emerging on the horizon of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars that would improve Iran’s image worldwide, it emerges the necessity for the Saudis of curbing the rival’s rise.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr find thus explanation within such framework. It is the last, exasperate card played by a country in economic and political decline trying to preserve what still remains of its traditional role of major regional actor. A role the Saudis are trying to preserve igniting the sectarian conflict in the Middle East; pushing Iran to react harshly and thus lose the possibility of a full (re)integration in the international system; strengthening Sunnis’ anti-Shia feeling in the whole region; protracting the wars in Yemen and Syria to prevent Iran exploiting the benefits of diplomatic negotiation.

As of now, Iran has reacted verbally only and the ayatollah – though obviously condemning Nimr al-Nimr’s execution – has also avoided leaving unpunished those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran.
By so doing, Iran is following not only a positive path that might succeed in keeping the sectarian tensions under check, but also a strategic one. It is playing the Saudis’ card against the Saudis themselves. It is presenting itself as a reasonable regional power who reacts by words without inciting violence as the Saudis hoped, and it is making all the responsibility of sectarian clashes fall on Riyadh, thus impairing even more their international image, when not even legitimacy.
A route of action that, if maintained with coherence and avoidance of any reprisal, will confirm even more Iran’s rise – despite the dangerous game the Saudis have initiated and that could turn into an added element to their recent weakness.