Middle East in Focus
Though headlines continue to be dominated by news of UN votes on Jerusalem and the associated rhetoric coming out of the White House, many regional observers have recently turned their attention to recent developments concerning Iran. For the most part, the views expressed reflect a general distrust of Iran by many in the Arab world, who see it as a growing threat and a potential flashpoint for war.
One of the more pressing questions for many in the region concerns the ongoing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which many fear may lead to an outright confrontation. Acknowledging Iran’s advantages in asymmetric warfare, The National’s Mohammed Alyahya believes Iran has more to lose in a direct conflict: “Saudi Arabia is fighting an asymmetric war with Iran in Yemen – one where its conventional military strengths are at a disadvantage in facing Iranian-backed insurgency. For all the comparisons between the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been mismatched. Iran excels in fighting ambiguous wars both on the ground and rhetorically.... Iran must recalibrate its foreign policy. It has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East on its own terms and drawing on its own strengths. It must realize that such recklessness could cause its regional adversaries to draw on their competitive advantages.”
Some have suggested that Iran has felt particularly emboldened partly because of its growing cooperation with Russia. However, Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri warns that Tehran may soon find out, if it hasn’t already done so, that Russia and others in the region may not always see eye to eye with Iran: “It is almost certain that regardless of what happens next in Syria, the mullahs of Tehran are unlikely to grab the leading role in shaping that nation’s future. Besides Russia there are several other major players in Syria who won’t welcome the take-over bid from Tehran.... Large chunks of Iraqi Shi’ites are beginning to feel self-confident enough to reject tutelage from Tehran. As for Iraqi Kurds, only the remnants of the Talabani faction, linked to Tehran through juicy business deals, still look to Tehran for guidance and support.”
In an op-ed for Jordan Times, Hassan Barari turns to another of Iran’s regional competitors, Israel, as a possible source of conflict in the near future, adding that it would be in the interest of the United States and Russia to make sure such a confrontation was avoided: “Unlike other countries, Israel under its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear objective and seems willing to achieve it: to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria…. Iran and its proxies are set to fill the vacuum, thus posing a credible threat to Israel.... In a nutshell, tension between Iran and Israel could reach new heights as a result of the evolving situation in Syria. Barring an acceptable arrangement for both countries, a confrontation will be the most likely scenario. While Russia stands to lose its project in Syria in case a new regional war erupts, it has yet to convince Iran not to challenge Israel. Likewise, Washington may need to step in to constrain Israel from taking the region down the road of another deadly war.”
The United States has its own Iran grievances, with Tehran’s alleged nuclear program topping the list, an issue which, according to Gulf News’ Shahir ShahidSaless, has become more complicated following U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to impose new sanctions: “The reimposition of sanctions would not simply represent a symbolic and theatrical move. Rather, it would penalize the corporations and organizations that would break the sanctions, because such penalties would be necessary to effectuate the sanctions.... Iran’s economic relations with Europe have significantly expanded since the nuclear deal and the ensuing lifting of sanctions in early 2016. The size and the potential of the Iranian market cannot be ignored by the Europeans....If Trump refrains from issuing sanctions waivers against this backdrop, the U.S. may in effect enter into both an economic and political war with the EU. In any event, Trump has until January 15 to find a way to overcome this major dilemma.”
While many have decried Mr. Trump’s belligerent talk vis-à-vis Iran, Saudi Gazette’s Khaled Batarfi is of the view that the U.S. president’s position on this issue may even be worth overlooking his recent announcement on Jerusalem: “Like North Korea, Iran does have an arsenal of ballistic missiles, capable of reaching every European capital, including Paris, London, Berlin and Rome. In fact, that is exactly why we all should join the alliance the U.S. is building to face this danger. Madmen in Tehran are already boasting and threatening Europe with termination. Thankfully, they don’t have, yet, the nuclear capability. If we wait longer it might just be too late....U.S. President Donald Trump may have his share of mistakes, atop them his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist state. However, regarding the Iranian danger, he is absolutely right.”
The concerns with Iran, however, are not limited to matters of geo-strategic considerations. Reflecting on several high-profile imprisonments of Iranians with dual nationality, Yossi Mekelbert expresses his concerns for the state of human rights in the country: “When Hassan Rouhani succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran back in 2013, hopes for a change in the country’s human rights approach were high.... It is becoming increasingly obvious that Iran’s attitude to human rights will not improve under the Rouhani administration, and that the persecution of those who are perceived as a threat to the regime will continue in the most arbitrary manner. The hope that the nuclear deal would also be a catalyst for progressive domestic change has not materialized thus far, suggesting that the Revolutionary Guard and the conservative religious leaders still have the upper hand in both domestic and foreign affairs.”