Friday, November 10, 2017

Foreign Affairs Magazine: The Current State of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry is Particularly Dangerous

Toby Matthiesen writes for the Council on Foreign Relations magazine, Foreign Affairs:
Although the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has existed for decades and has seen many ups and downs, the current situation is particularly dangerous for
a number of reasons. Chief among them is the concentration of power in one man in Saudi Arabia, who is determined to use the narrative of an Iranian threat to shore up Saudi nationalism. Unlike under the previous U.S. administration, moreover, the United States under President Donald Trump appears eager to back MbS [ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] unconditionally. This special relationship has certainly given MbS the impression that he can act with impunity. (The United States and United Kingdom are instrumental in the Yemen war, despite its devastating humanitarian consequences, and when a heavy-handed crackdown on a handful of Shiite militants in the Saudi Eastern Province in the summer of 2017 left a whole town destroyed, there was not a word of disapproval from Washington.)

Here's  Matthiesen on the new emerging Washington to Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, and the dangers it presents:
Meanwhile, the Iranians are extending their power in the Levant, where after the near-total defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS), they have established a land corridor linking Iran with Syria and Lebanon. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly jumped on the Saudi bandwagon, using [Lebanon's Prime Minister] Hariri’s resignation to highlight the dangers Iran posed to the region and talking up the threat of Hezbollah. The Israeli Foreign Ministry ordered its embassies abroad to follow the Saudi line on the Hariri resignation and talk up the threat of Hezbollah and Iran. Indeed, Hezbollah and other Iran-supported groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would be major obstacles to the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that Trump is trying to put together through his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Israel has also said that it will not allow the end of the Syrian conflict to result in a strong Iranian presence on its border with Syria.

It is in this context that Hariri’s resignation should be understood. On November 3, Hariri met in Lebanon with an Iranian delegation led by Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A day later, Hariri, who has Saudi citizenship and had extensive business interests in the kingdom, appeared in Riyadh and announced his resignation in an address televised by the Saudi Al Arabiya news channel. Saying that he had fled Lebanon because of a plan to assassinate him, Hariri blamed his resignation on Iran’s mischievous role in the region and its alliance with Hezbollah. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah responded with a speech the next day, putting the blame for the situation squarely on the Saudis and denying that Hezbollah had sought to remove Hariri, whom he urged to come back to Lebanon. Hariri’s resignation aimed to weaken Hezbollah by denying it legitimacy, but it may also hurt Hariri himself, whose leadership of the Lebanese Sunni community has long been contested, including by Sunni Islamists. A Saudi minister said that Saudi Arabia would from now on deal with the Lebanese government as an adversary because of Hezbollah’s presence in it—an official line that will involve isolating Lebanon diplomatically and punishing it economically.

In the new Middle East, regional power blocs are emerging across older fault lines. As MbS has consolidated his power in the kingdom, a new axis is emerging—one running from Washington to Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi and intent on countering Iran and its allies. If things continue as they have, Lebanon may turn out to be only one among many casualties of this conflict

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