The Crucial American Role In Calming Saudi-Iran Turmoil

U.S. President Barack Obama with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef at the White House in May 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef at the White House in May 2015
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS â€" In the 1970s, in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s visit to China, commentators talked about the Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle. These days, in the Middle East, there is another triangle: between Riyadh, Tehran and Washington. The problem for the region's stability is that this triangle is absolutely dysfunctional. Indeed, the only way to understand the dangerous escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is to highlight the role â€" or rather, in this case â€" the relative timidity of the United States.

While the U.S. is no longer dependent on the Middle East for energy, Saudi Arabia now marches to its own beat. And its autonomy isn't following the right direction, to say the least. Until very recently, Saudi diplomacy combined "a generous checkbook and a low profile.” If Riyadh wasn't lurking in the shadows, it was, at least, treading with some degree of prudence. Now it looks like it wants to compensate for its weakening financial resources with boldness and visible initiatives.

By executing Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia has taken the risk of aggravating its relations with Iran, and beyond, with the entire Shia Islamic world. It did so deliberately, and mostly for political reasons. For Riyadh, the goal is to divert its population's attention at a time when the dizzying (and probably long-lasting) drop in oil and natural gas prices no longer allows the kingdom to buy itself social peace through subsidies, as it did during the beginning of the Arab Spring.

But to play the card of sectarian and religious nationalism to the brink of war â€" be it an actual war, like in Yemen, or a potential one against Iran â€" is always a dangerous move for a fragile regime. Could the Saudi regime one day face the same fate as that of France's Second Empire (1870) or of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918), which didn't survive military defeat?

Of course, Riyadh's headlong rush can also be explained by personal reasons. To say that the Saudi court lacks a Kissinger is putting it mildly. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who led the kingdom's diplomacy for 40 years, didn't find a worthy successor. With a political system that's flawed in its principle and weakened in its legitimacy by an ideology and a religious practice that, seen from abroad, don't seem that different from those of ISIS, Saudi Arabia seems to be using its obsession of Shia Iran as its identity's main driving force. For France, which has been banking on Saudi Arabia for several years, its evolution of behavior is cause for concern.

An unrecognizable ally

What real relations can you have with an ally that behaves irresponsibly, on which you no longer have any real influence, and which is both the source of the issues facing the region and a shield against the risk of chaos? If Riyadh no longer listens to Washington, why would it pay any mind to Paris?

Saudi Arabia's responsibility in the current escalation of tensions is resounding. But Iran is far from beyond reproach. In terms of human rights, it is no example. In 2015, Iran executed many more people (about 1,000) than Saudi Arabia. Iranian conservatives saw in the Saudi provocation a convenient excuse to question once again the little progress made by the moderates and President Rouhani since the nuclear deal.

As a matter of fact, ISIS is the only real beneficiary of the escalation initiated by Saudi Arabia and exploited by part of the Iranian regime. It's a paradox. While the terrorist organization is losing ground, it's benefiting from the divisions among its opponents. How can we hope that the process initiated in Vienna for Syria's future will see the slightest progress, if two of its participants are trying to weaken each other instead of ISIS? The same assessment can be made of the conflict in Yemen. If Riyadh and Tehran only talk to each another to insult each other, any compromise in the entire region becomes impossible.

We need to go back to the triangle formula. The United States can't and doesn't want to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it may be the only country that can still contribute to restoring a form of responsible dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran.

A majority of Iranians support the country's opening to the world, which should in all logic accompany the signing of the nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia felt abandoned â€" if not betrayed â€" by an America it understands less and less since the 2003 Iraq war, a conflict that left only one victor: Iran, and by extension the Shia cause.

There is, however, a survival instinct in a large number of Saudi leaders. To denounce U.S. irresponsibility is one thing, but to effectively push Washington into the arms of Tehran is another. America must exert all the means of pressure it has at its disposal to discourage Saudi Arabia and Iran from continuing to flirt dangerously with war.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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