Why Germany Looms So Large In Italy's Election

Silvio Berlusconi bad-mouths Angela Merkel, while Mario Monti tries to woo her. But there are deeper reasons the German factor is at play as Italians go to the polls Sunday.

Monti and Merkel in June
Monti and Merkel in June

ROME - As Italy gets set to elect its Prime Minister, two candidates stand out as exceptionally gifted demagogues: Silvio Berlusconi, 76, media mogul and former Prime Minister, and Beppe Grillo, 64, the shooting-star comedian from cyberspace.

Of course these two natural-born populists couldn’t be further apart in most respects, except for one: they both love to pin the blame for Italy’s present misery on the Germans – and particularly on Angela Merkel.

Ahead of the national elections on Sunday and Monday, the Germans have become the Italian media's favorite topic. It's not a sign of any deep-seated hostility to Germans among the Italian people, but the idea that Germany is pulling the strings in Italy keeps coming up on the campaign trail.

Mario Monti, who heads the caretaker government and is also running in the general elections as a centrist, commented that he didn’t think that Signora Merkel would want to see the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) come into power in Italy.

A Monti spokesman said the comment was largely a reaction to the repeated attacks over the last weeks from the center-right candidate Berlusconi, who has regularly brought up Merkel's name, warning that Monti and the German Chancellor had privately agreed to support center-left candidate Pierluigi Bersani, who is leading in the polls.

"Neither I nor Bersani need Mrs. Merkel’s blessing," Monti had declared.

Indeed, Merkel was forced on Wednesday to say that she was not taking sides in Italy's election.

Nevertheless, the Germans and their Chancellor remain a number one target for finger-pointing in the present nervous climate in Rome. Whenever a business goes bust, for every man or woman – particularly if they’re young – who can’t find employment, blame is pinned on “German” austerity measures. The Germans forced them on Brussels which then forced it on EU countries -- with the known tragic results, goes the typical rant.

The situation was not helped by European Parliament President Martin Schulz calling on Italians not to vote for Berlusconi. For one thing, this is not something any Italian who voted for Berlusconi in the past is going to want to hear – and the call could in some cases spur voters to go right out and vote for him again. For another, many will remember that this top European politician is actually German – the very same politician that Mr. Berlusconi, ten years ago, called “perfect” for the role of Kapo (guard) in a Nazi concentration camp.

And although Schulz’s remark that "much is at stake in the forthcoming elections, including making sure that the confidence built up by Mario Monti is not lost," referred to the fact that Monti won European and market confidence back for Italy after the Berlusconi era – for many Italians, this past year has been one of hardship, loss, rising prices, not “built-up confidence.”

Italians also remember with disfavor the smile many thought was a disrespectful smirk exchanged very publically at the mention of their leader Mr. Berlusconi by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel 14 months ago.

All of these are reasons why, according to polls, the center-right party behind Berlusconi – in any case a superb campaigner -- now stands, ahead of Monti and Grillo, just 3% away from the leading PD after Bersani’s huge lead in the early phases of the campaign.

Berlusconi has been promising voters the sun, moon and stars – and, expert salesman that he is, he has managed to sell an inexistent platform. Of course many understand that not all this is too be taken overly seriously, including the German card Berlusconi has played so frequently and effectively during the campaign.

That card should be seen as a mere tool for an unnecessary, populist smear campaign that will soon be forgotten. Many in Rome are already saying they feel ashamed by it. And if Berlusconi feels he has a beef with Germans, he shouldn’t be targeting Merkel but another one of her prominent countrymen: Pope Benedict XVI, whose surprise resignation announcement diverted the media's attention from him just as his momentum began to grow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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


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

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!