With Pope Francis, Geopolitics Back Atop Vatican Agenda

While Pope Benedict XVI sought to consolidate Catholic doctrine in a secular world, Pope Francis is devoting more of his papacy to bringing peace to the world's conflict zones.

Pope Francis' first Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas day
Pope Francis' first Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas day
Sergio Rubin

BUENOS AIRESPope Francis appears determined to resurrect the kind of dominant role the papacy played in promoting peace around the world under former Pope John Paul II.

Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI was less focused on world conflicts, preferring instead to use most of his energies to reaffirm traditional Catholicism in a society increasingly indifferent to religion.

The Church’s internal problems and unwelcome tensions with both the Jewish and Muslim communities also complicated Vatican efforts on the international stage during the eight-year papacy of Benedict XVI.

But Jorge Bergoglio — as Pope Francis was born 77 years ago in Buenos Aires — stepped onto the global stage on more solid ground. His call last September for a day of prayers for peace in Syria, when strikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seemed imminent, had an enormous impact, especially in the Islamic world.

In fact, some believe Francis played a critical role in the U.S. decision to suspend strikes. Days before the day of prayers, Francis wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting between heads of state, and that communication helped facilitate a change of postures.

During the traditional Christmas message, Pope Francis renewed his call for peace in Syria, where civil war continues with relentless horror, and reiterated his belief in negotiations as the way to end the bloodletting.

Holy Land visit

He also cited the conflicts in Africa, above all in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where religious factors such as fanaticism with an Islamic label are at play. He also voiced his hope for that ever-elusive agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians and for Iraq’s pacification.

Contrary to what some were expecting, the Pope did not announce a visit to the Middle East, though it is almost certain that he will travel there in May.

That pilgrimmage — which will include Jordan, Israel (Jerusalem) and the Palestinian territories (Bethlehem) — won’t be driven solely by a religious itinerary, but will also be meant to stimulate politicl talks between Israelis and Palestinians, with presidents from both places having formally invited him to the region on recent Vatican visits.

Pope Francis enjoys a particular influence because of the enormous enthusiasm he has generated around the world with his inclusive and unifiying messages. The crowd that braved the cold to witness his Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas Day illustrates that his charisma and popularity have made him a powerful international leader. The close relations he has built with other religions — replicating on a global scale the ecumenical ties he built in the Argentine capital as archbishop of Buenos Aires — are among his many assets.

It’s an understatement, but it would be fair to say it’s been a good start.

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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.

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