Apr 6th 2015

Iran Versus Saudi Arabia

by Joschka Fischer

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 until 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

BERLIN – The “new” Middle East is now on daily display. Unlike the old Middle East, whose fate was determined by the dominant Western powers (the United Kingdom and France after World War I, and the United States from the 1940s until recently), the new one has no external hegemon to stabilize it. And, without a dominant regional power, a dangerous strategic vacuum has emerged.

The US, quite obviously, is no longer willing – or able – to play its old role. Though America will not withdraw its armed forces from the region completely, direct military intervention, especially with ground troops, is not tenable, given the debacle in Iraq. America will not be a military player so long as the region’s strategic balance is not called into question in a fundamental way (which explains US airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria). Apart from this, the US is now operating at the level of diplomacy to resolve, or at least contain, a fundamental strategic threat – the danger posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

Various state and non-state actors have been trying to fill the void created by America’s newfound caution, with most of the latter dependent on the support of regional powers, and two in particular: Iran and Saudi Arabia. These countries’ struggle for regional supremacy is now playing out on proxy battlefields in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, now, Yemen. Indeed, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen marks a new phase in the broader regional conflict. Not only is it occurring in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, directly on Saudi Arabia’s borders; the kingdom’s direct military intervention has brought its strategic rivalry with Iran into the open.

As always in the Middle East, religious and ethnic factors play a large role in this rivalry. The Shia-Sunni divide within Islam is being reflected in the region’s geopolitics. Moreover, whereas Iran is a Shia country, the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Sunni, reinforcing the salience of Iran’s ethnic distinctiveness.

Geopolitical interests, religious sectarianism, and ethnicity thus form a dangerous mélange in the new Middle East. And, because history has shown that outside military intervention can neither solve nor even contain such conflicts, the regional powers will have to sort this out among themselves, which is far easier said than done. It will entail a long phase of largely unpredictable violence, which implies a high risk of escalation, even toward global conflict; and it will most likely result in humanitarian disasters on the order of what is happening in Syria today.

Even barring escalation beyond the Middle East, significant economic dangers are also likely, given the region’s energy reserves and thus its importance to the global economy. World oil prices are de facto determined on the Arabian Peninsula and by the countries of the adjacent Gulf region, and this will not change anytime soon.

In terms of international security, a long-term fight for regional dominance will increase the threat of global terrorism, as both sides are using extremist groups that seek to legitimize their actions in religious terms. An even greater danger is that the key players in this conflict seek to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race in a region characterized by long-term instability would be a global nightmare.

So it is no accident that, concurrently with the regional powers’ direct military confrontation in Yemen, the international community, led by the US, has been trying to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran. The framework agreement that has now resulted from these talks, which have been taking place off and on for 12 years (and in which I participated for a time) is intended to bring Iran’s nuclear program under international supervision, thereby containing the risk to regional and global stability. In exchange, international economic sanctions on Iran are to be lifted.

America’s agenda is now arousing massive criticism from its close allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But such criticism is based on illusionary aims. Acceding to it would merely ensure further escalation of the conflict with Iran, which will never completely abandon its nuclear technology and nuclear activities. The only realistic option to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region is international supervision – as far-reaching and as comprehensive as possible.

But this goal, even if achieved, would satisfy neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia, both of which fear that any agreement would support Iran in its effort to establish its regional dominance. So the end result could be a de facto change of regional strategic partners by the US – a development that in fact is already becoming apparent in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Iran’s strategy in all of this has not been very clever: its military interventions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen entail major risks. That became apparent with the recent formation of a pan-Arab military force, which is clearly directed against Iran and should give its leaders reason to rethink their policy.

The new Middle East needs neither a nuclear arms race nor religious hatred, and it also does not need a foreign policy based on military intervention. Rather, it requires the strength to sit down together and negotiate, and to develop systems of collective security that do serve the legitimate interests of all parties involved. Without diplomacy and the willingness to work toward viable mutual understandings, as has just happened with the framework agreement negotiated with Iran, the new Middle East will remain the powder keg of world politics – one whose fuse has already been lit.



Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.