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Italy-France Tale Of Two Borders: Alpine Chic Meets Migrant Drama

At one spot where France and Italy cross, we see a futuristic ascent to a majestic panorama of the Alps. Farther south, desperate migrants' fate hangs in the balance.

The cross-border panoramic terrace at Pointe Helbronner
The cross-border panoramic terrace at Pointe Helbronner

Italy and France share a 488-kilometer long border, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Alps. Among the most scenic border crossings is just below the peak of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco), where Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came this week ​to inaugurate the Skyway Monte Bianco, a high-tech cable car ferrying passengers from the town of Courmayeur to Pointe Helbronner, a 3,462-meter peak (11,358 feet) in the Mont Blanc massif.


*A Skyway cable car on its way to Pointe Helbronner

The Turin-based daily La Stampa reports that the new cableway has three stations: it starts at Entrèves, a hamlet near Courmayeur at the foot of Mont Blanc, then rises to an intermediary station at Pavillon Mont Frèty, and finally on to Pointe Helbronner.

The Pavillon Mont Fréty station hosts an auditorium, botanical garden, and will even have bars, shops and restaurants. The cars transporting passengers between the stations constantly rotate at 360 degrees. But the Skyway’s real draw is Pointe Helbronner, with a large, 360 degree panoramic terrace straddling the Franco-Italian border. From here visitors can see across the Alps, from Mont Blanc â€" the tallest mountain in Europe â€" all the way to the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

Helbronner

Not one to miss an opportunity for a pun, Renzi stated he would like to eventually host a European summit at the summit of Europe, now boasting a conference center and a well-stocked bar.

But farther south, there are other sights that may be even more worthy of our attention. A four-hour drive away is the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, where French border police are refusing entry to illegal economic migrants and asylum seekers alike â€" just the latest chapter in Europe's ongoing immigration crisis.

Under an EU treaty the migrants must legally stay in Italy as that is the first European country where they landed, but France’s actions on the border have increased tensions between the two neighbors as Italy continues to call on the rest of Europe to share the burden. Negotiations on how to redistribute the influx of migrants are progressing slowly in Brussels, with Thursday night's EU meeting ending in rancor.

Back on Tuesday, as Renzi christened the shiny new cable car up on Mont Blanc, he was asked about the migrant stand-off down below. "Today, we see the highest point in Europe," Renzi said. "Let's hope we'll never have to see the lowest."

*All photos of the Skyway Monte Bianco are from Marco Destefanis, Pacific Press/ZUMA

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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