The archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia are battling for supremacy in the Middle East and are carrying out their struggle in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Domestically, though, the two countries are facing remarkably similar problems.
No previous US president had been made to suffer such an indignity when visiting America’s supposedly closest ally in the Arab world: When Barack Obama touched down at the airport in Riyadh in mid-April, King Salman opted to remain in his palace. The most powerful man in the world was received by the governor of Riyadh instead. There was no pomp or ceremonial reception and state-controlled television declined to broadcast the arrival. Obama seemed slightly at a loss on the tarmac before trying to cover up the affront with a broad smile.
The message was clear: Saudi Arabia feels as though it has been left in the lurch by America and is not afraid to show that it isn’t happy.The story of the failed reception is more than just an anecdote from the international diplomatic stage. It serves to illustrate the massive geo-political shift and the growing conflict that has gripped the entire Middle East. It has become the Cold War of our era, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, the two rivals that are striving for supremacy in the region. And it is not entirely clear which side the US is on.
Uncertainty and Rapid Change
The Middle East as we have long known it is changing dramatically. And no matter where one looks, Tehran and Riyadh are standing behind at least one of the parties involved in the conflict. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, host and protector of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, sees itself as the home of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of the world’s Muslims belong. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, claims leadership of the Shiites, which make up roughly 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. For both regimes, religion is an important tool of power.
Today’s bloodiest civil war, the conflict in Syria, is entering its sixth year and has thus far cost the lives of more than 250,000 people — and the cease-fire that has been in place for the last two months doesn’t look as though it will last much longer. In Syria, and also in the conflicts in Iraq and in Yemen, the fighting fronts run primarily along sectarian lines: Sunnis against Shiites. A fragile peace holds in Lebanon and Bahrain, but it is one that could be shattered at any time by sectarian unrest.
All of these proxy wars and sectarian conflicts have unleashed a wave of migration among those who have been displaced: more than 6 million people from Syria and Iraq along with almost 3 million from Yemen. And out of the rubble of the Middle East, hydra-headed monster has risen that seeks to terrorize Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and the rest of the world: Islamic State. In an irony of history, the Sunni terror militia sees both Iran and Saudi Arabia as its enemies.
At its essence, the escalation in the Middle East also has to do with America and its changing role in the world. After decades of enmity with Iran, US President Barack Obama wanted to restart a dialogue with the country and he negotiated a nuclear treaty with Tehran. The hope is that the deal will limit Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon while making it possible for the country to do business with the West in return.
At the same time, though, the US would prefer to withdraw from this complicated, crisis-plagued region of the world. Current developments are also a product of this trend.
Iran, meanwhile, following decades of isolation, would like to revert to its former position of regional importance. The more Middle Eastern countries there are under the control of Shiites, the stronger Iran feels — and the more hard-pressed Saudi Arabia feels, a country whose rulers once rose to power by way of a pact with Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis.
This new Cold War affects the entire world, making it vital to search out its causes and to scrutinize what is pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue on the path of escalation. A team of SPIEGEL reporters went to both countries to investigate and spoke with politicians, religious leaders, activists, intellectuals and normal people on the streets.
The Saudi Shiite-Paranoia
Awamia is a dusty town on the shores of a body of water one side calls the Arabian Gulf and the other the Persian Gulf. In Awamia, it looks as though Saudi Arabia itself were involved in a civil war. A checkpoint marked by high protective walls marks the entrance to the town and an armored vehicle is parked in front of it. At night, spotlights illuminate the checkpoint.
Thick concrete walls are also to be found on the main square of Awamia surrounding the police station, the electrical substation and the municipal office. The walls are covered with graffiti:
“They’re killing us because we’re Shiite!” “Go to hell you cheats!” “We’ll never give up!” “We’ll never forget you, Nimr!” “Our Nimr hasn’t died!”
On the night of Jan. 1, Saudi Arabia had the cleric and preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who was based in Awamia, executed — along with 46 other prisoners, most of whom had been convicted of terrorism. It was the largest wave of executions the country had seen in more than three decades.
Saudi Arabia too has a Shiite minority, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s population, and Nimr was one of the minority’s most prominent representatives. He was a fierce opponent of the royal House of Saud, accusing the country’s rulers of systematically oppressing the Shiites. The government rejected the accusations and accused Nimr of being a terrorist controlled by Iran. They said he had been responsible for the deaths of Saudi Arabian security personnel.
Following Nimr’s execution, a furious — yet seemingly organized — mob stormed the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, resulting in Riyadh breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran. Tehran withdrew its diplomats as well and since then, an icy silence has reigned between the two regional powers.
The brother of the dead Shiite cleric is sitting in his office in a courtyard on the outskirts of Awamia. Mohammed al-Nimr, 52, is a tall, elegant man with a gray moustache and beard. He is wearing traditional white robes with a red-and-white keffiyeh. “The execution of the other 46 prisoners was merely a pretext to kill my brother,” he says. Mohammed al-Nimr doesn’t sound angry or distraught, but rather restrained. “The other prisoners had been sentenced to death long before,” he continues. “Sheikh Nimr was an inspiration to us, particularly to the younger people. He was revered here.”
The cleric had been arrested often during his life, most recently in the summer of 2012. Just prior to that arrest, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz had died, an event Nimr had commented on by saying: “The worms will eat him and he will suffer hellish agony in his grave. The man who forced us to live in fear and suffering — should we not be happy about his death?”
The words his brother uttered “are one thing,” says Mohammed al-Nimr. “But terrorism is something different.” He speaks with a raised index finger in slow, clearly articulated Arabic. Indeed, he too could have made for an effective preacher. But he is a businessman and he weighs every word carefully. He condemns the attack on the embassy and says: “I am a person who loves his country.”
Five months before his brother was arrested, Mohammad al-Nimr’s then-17-year-old son had likewise been taken into custody. During the Arab Spring, his son had taken part in protests and was sentenced to death as a consequence. Ali al-Nimr is to be beheaded and crucified. “What should I say about that?,” the father asks. “My son was a child when he was arrested.” Ali, he says, is clever and ambitious and had enrolled in university. “Now, he has been sitting in prison for the last five years.”
The execution of the Shiite cleric and the barbaric sentence handed down to the cleric’s nephew triggered dismay across the globe. But the episode serves to show that Saudi Arabia is feeling pressured by Iran — and is provoking a sectarian conflict in response, even in its own country. The royal house has chosen a dangerous rejoinder.Recently, the country has also embarked on foreign policy adventures: In Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor of Yemen, Riyadh launched a military initiative against the Shiite Houthi rebels. Yet despite months of bombing, the operation has been a failure, with the images of destroyed cities and dead civilians primarily helping Iran.
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister, is sitting in his Tehran practice in a dark blue suit, an ascetically haggard diplomat who is once again working as a pediatrician. It is shortly after 9 p.m. and the last patient, a seven-year-old with an earache, has just left.
Velayati is foreign policy advisor to Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, making him part of the innermost circle. Just in February, Velayati traveled to Moscow to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the way forward in Syria. And now, in his practice, he wants to talk about foreign policy. He speaks of the “2,000-year-old Iranian-Yemeni friendship” and notes that 1,500 years ago, Iran sent troops to the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to fight against the Ethiopian occupation of Yemen. The “invaders” were triumphantly beaten back, he says.
Just like the Ethiopians then, the Saudis today would suffer “complete defeat” in Yemen: “They are in the swamp up to their necks,” he says. The fact that the incumbent president of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, isn’t just supported by Saudi Arabia, but is also recognized by the international community, is of little interest to Velayati. The government there, he says, is “illegal” and will soon be “removed.”
He leans back contentedly into his armchair. After all, what are a couple decades of Western sanctions or the not quite 100 years of rule by an Arab family in Riyadh against the more than 4,000-year history of the Persian Empire?
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, likewise has a clear take on events in the region. “The war in Yemen is not a war that we wanted,” he told SPIEGEL in February, “We had no other option — there was a radical (Shiite) militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah that took over the country” — the Houtis. Al-Jubeir’s interview took place during the Munich Security Conference in February. The evening prior, he had met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss a cease-fire Syria for the first time since the two countries had broken off diplomatic relations.
Until that point, the two had preferred to cast aspersions at each other from afar, by way of op-ed contributions to the New York Times. Saudi Arabia’s “active sponsorship of violent extremism,” Zarif wrote, is “the real global threat.” He argued that “the Saudi strategy” is to “perpetuate — and even exacerbate — tension in the region.” Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir countered by claiming that it wasn’t Saudi Arabia that supported terrorism, but Iran: “the single-most-belligerent actor in the region.”
From the perspective of Riyadh, the situation looks like this: Iran — which, with almost 80 million residents, is more than three times the size of Saudi Arabia — wants to become the predominant power in the Middle East. The old hegemon, the US, is withdrawing. Thus, it is up to Saudi Arabia to restore the balance of power in the region.
That is the core of Saudi Arabia’s new, offensive-minded foreign policy. For a country that had for decades been considered by the West to be a “strategic partner,” a reliable oil supplier and defensive-minded military actor, it is a radical break from the past with incalculable consequences.
The Roots of Enmity
The two powers have not always faced each other with such hostility: There have also been periods of understanding and even cooperation. Their rulers generally got along quite well during the phase starting in the mid-20th century when they both became rich supplying oil to the West. They also had a common ally: the US.
Indeed, relations were so good at the end of the 1960s that the Iranian shah and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia even wrote letters back and forth to each other. In an example related by the Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, the Shah advised the king to follow his lead by opening up his country’s society and, for instance, allowing girls and boys to go to school together. The king answered by writing: “May I remind you that you aren’t the Shah of France? Your population is up to 90 percent Muslim. Don’t forget that.”
The dark prophecy was fulfilled in 1979, a year that has repercussions in the Middle East to the present day. The radical Shiite leader Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the regime of the pro-Western Shah, students stormed the US Embassy and the country that soon would be renamed the Islamic Republic of Iran descended into a bloody power struggle. Not long later, the war against Saddam Hussein-led Iraq followed.
Saudi Arabia backed the Sunni Saddam Hussein and the US, which had until then maintained good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran, leaned toward Saudi Arabia.
So was 1979 a good year for the Saudis? Not exactly. On Nov. 20, Sunni terrorists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took thousands of pilgrims hostage. Their leader came from the heart of Saudi Arabia and claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer — and he called for the overthrow of the king. The royal family saw little choice but to call for assistance from French special forces — infidels — to liberate the mosque.
The House of Saud was humiliated, particularly in front of its own religious establishment and the princes sought to cleanse themselves by beginning to send billions in oil money to radical preachers — preachers who then carried Wahhabism, the most strict and unforgiving form of Islam, around the world.
As such, 1979 didn’t just mark the year when the export of the “Islamic Revolution” began, as urged by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. It was also when Saudi Arabia began planting the seeds of Sunni extremism, the bitter fruits of which are still being harvested today in the lawless valleys of Pakistan, in Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State, and also in the West, in the heads of confused young men. And in the kingdom itself: Now, Sunni extremism is even threatening the country where it was once spawned.
Eight years after the momentous events of 1979, there was a devastating clash between Iranian demonstrators and security personnel during which 400 people lost their lives. Prince Nayef, the brother of the present-day king, blamed the Iranians. Like other “heretics” before them, he said, they had attempted to desecrate the Grand Mosque.
Ayatollah Khomeini was furious and called for the overthrow of the Saudi rulers, calling them “detestable and godless Wahhabis” and “a pack of heretics.” It was a clear indication that modern-day Iran and Saudi Arabia were destined to continue the centuries-old conflict between the Sunni Arabs and the Shiite Persians.
It was the beginning of the 16th century when the Persian rulers introduced Shiite Islam as the state religion. Meanwhile, the preacher Muhammad Bin Abd al-Wahhab, who was born in 1703 not far from present-day Riyadh, belonged to the much larger Sunni branch of Islam. He founded Wahhabism, and he disdained — indeed hated — the Shiites. In the mid-18th century, the Saud clan — the present-day royal family — allied themselves with the preacher and Wahhabism became state doctrine.
In both countries, the sectarian determination is an instrument of power politics and it binds the people to their ruler. Still today, the rulers of each country use religion to exert control over their subjects — and in each country, there is an ongoing struggle between reformers and conservatives. A look at the societies in the two countries shows that, despite their official enmity, the two face astonishingly similar challenges.
On Feb. 26, the day of the Assembly of Experts election and first round of parliamentary elections, Iranian political VIPs appeared at a polling station in northern Tehran. It is a place where Ayatollah Khomeini often received visitors when he was still alive. Today, a huge photo of the revolutionary leader hangs on the wall.
The first voter on that morning was Foreign Minister Zarif. It is said that Zarif was never allowed to watch television as a child to prevent his exposure to toxic Western influences. After him, dressed in the robes of a cleric, came former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The wealthiest man in Iran, he is considered a powerful influencer behind the government of President Hassan Rohani. It is said that the government has been charged with implementing Rafsanjani’s ideal vision of economic freedom combined with religious control.
After him came Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the revolutionary leader, and former President Mohammad Khatami, a man many Iranians still hold in high regard as a reformer. The regime has banned him from the public limelight and has prohibited him from giving interviews, but he appeared at the polling station nonetheless. Despite their differences, after all, Iran’s elite all agree on one point: The revolution made them what they are today.
Supreme Leader Khamenei presides over everything. He makes the decisions, but he also takes into consideration the various centers of power when doing so, especially the Revolutionary Guard. The paramilitary organization is a state within a state, more powerful than all the other institutions. With its informers placed everywhere, it has a hand in controlling not only the security organs, but also large parts of the economy.
It’s the dictatorship of a theocratic power apparatus, but — in contrast to the absolutist Saudi Arabian monarchy — it still allows the people a degree of participation. The Iranian revolutionary leaders refer to their system as “Islamic Democracy,” and there are elections, too, even if the approved candidates have been handpicked. It’s a system in which diverse bodies adjudicate who is “Islamic” enough to participate. The others are shut out, as was the case with most of the so-called reform candidates in this year’s election. True reformers who advocate greater freedom of expression and an independent judiciary land in jail.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for its part, doesn’t even claim to be a democracy. “If democracy is the medicine, then we’re not sick,” says Jamal Khashoggi, one of the country’s most influential political commentators.
Until the death of King Abdullah in early 2015, the monarchy’s power structures tended to be static, but they have since undergone a drastic transformation. His successor and half brother Salman bin Abdulaziz, 80, fired his most important advisors only days after assuming office and then changed the line of succession, naming Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, the experienced interior minister, as his crown prince. He subsequently appointed his own son, 30-year-old Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and defense minister.
The range of offices the aged king furnished his son with leaves no doubt about who he would like to see has his successor: In addition to being responsible for the military, Mohammad bin Salman also oversees the country’s oil reserves as chair of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
“Theoretically, this team could have full governing power,” says Khashoggi. So far, though, the new government has been cautious. It is constantly making sure it has the backing of the powerful tribes and the even more powerful clerics. Khashoggi says that’s good for cohesion. “But it is also holding us back.”
On the issue of how to proceed with Iran, for example, even Khashoggi, himself a patriotic man, is willing to admit how dangerous the conflict is. “Iran and us are like fire and dynamite. We are the rowdies who could bring the whole house down. Perhaps you shouldn’t just leave the Middle East to us.” His tone is ironic, but he means this seriously. “Put the Middle East at the top of your priority list. From my perspective, you could even hold another Yalta conference with us! Do something.”
The New Role of Women
Despite the clerics, princes and moral police, modernity is creeping under cover into both of these antagonistic states. That’s especially clear when it comes to the changing role women play in society.
The woman in Iran who has risen to the top is President Rohani’s deputy Shahindokht Molaverdi, 50. A lawyer by training, Molaverdi is an attractive woman, but she is also careful to conceal that in the chador that covers part of her face. She is sitting in the conference room of her official office in Teheran, surrounded by the insignias of the theocracy: flags and photos of the supreme leader.
It took a purposeful provocation for her to secure the post. When the president introduced his government in summer 2013, she criticized him publicly. “Why is the women’s share in a 33-person-strong list zero?” she asked. “Why does he not trust women?” Two months later, she got appointed as one of several deputies to Rohani.
As vice president for women and family affairs, Molaverdi holds a position equivalent to family minister in Iran, even if the current conservative parliament would never officially confirm her as such. Molaverdi is considered to be a progressive feminist. She would never openly criticize the system but it has been reported that she would like to reform inheritance and penal laws in the country that discriminate against women. Witness testimony by a woman in Iran, for example, officially carries only half the weight of testimony provided by a man. And daughters are only able to inherit a fraction of what sons get. At the same time, 60 percent of university students are female.
When women in Saudi Arabia want to rise in society, it can help in some circumstances to keep the men out. At Huda al-Jeraisys’ company, a sign on the door notes that men aren’t allowed in. Inside the orange building in central Riyadh, it looks like a normal office, minus the Y chromosomes. Women can be seen sitting at computers wearing jeans and blouses, their hair well-coiffed and makeup applied. They organize training and language courses for other women.
If men were allowed to enter into the office, the women would then be required to stay in separate rooms with separate entrances and wear a black abaya robe and cover their hair. Many would also veil their faces. This, after all, is Saudi Arabia, the country with the world’s strictest gender division.
“Feel free to take off the headscarf and the abaya too,” al-Jeraisy says, smiling. “It is important for us to be able to feel comfortable here.” But when the boss leaves the office, the only thing still visible between all the black cloth covering her are her eyes.
This is not to say she’s invisible. Far from it. Al-Jeraisy is a pioneer, one of around 20 women in the kingdom who won seats in December elections for local and municipal councils. It was the first time women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to run as candidates for political office. It was also the first time women were allowed to vote in any election in the country.
It was a pinch of democracy, even though city councilors don’t have much of a say in a system oriented around the king’s absolute rule. Instead of a parliament, the country is only home to a Majlis al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the rulers.
Of the Riyadh city council’s 30 members, 10 are appointed — all men — and 20 can be elected. In addition to Al-Jeraisy, two other women also landed seats. She says it’s interesting that the other two also completely veil their faces. “I have determined that we, as women, can achieve our goals more easily if we cover ourselves. The men are more likely to listen to us and trust us.”
During city council meetings, the women sit in a separate room and are connected to their male colleagues through a loudspeaker system. Al-Jeraisy claims this doesn’t bother them. “You need time for change.” The things that are possible today, she says — female city councilors, women in the shura, women who work as businesspeople, surgeons or lawyers — “all that,” she says, “would have led to civil war 20 years ago.”
Women in Saudi Arabia are still banned from driving, requiring them to have a chauffeur. Worse yet, they are also required to have a legal guardian, without whose permission they are prohibited from traveling. But as in Iran, they already tend to be better educated than men, advancing today in professional careers from which they were excluded only a short time ago. Only 15 percent of women in the country are currently employed, but that figure is growing rapidly, in part out of economic necessity.
A building is growing into the sky just outside the gates of the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, a skyscraper that will likely be famous in a few years’ time. The Jeddah Tower will be the world’s first skyscraper that is over 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) tall. The groundbreaking ceremony was held three years ago and the tower already stretches 150 meters into the sky. Freight elevators make gnashing noises, cement mixers hum. The structure is to be completed within four years.
“Altitude is pride,” says engineer Talal al-Maiman. “The skyscraper is a symbol of the kingdom’s place in the world.” The project’s leader and initiator is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the king’s nephew and the wealthiest man in the Middle East. Al-Maiman is responsible for the prince’s real estate business. The kingdom has every reason to be to be self-confident, he boasts: “We have Mecca and Medina. We have oil. The world envies us.”
Saudi Arabia can still live from the billions in oil revenues it earned during the decades-long oil boom. But the boom has ended for now and the price of oil has collapsed. Meanwhile, the country is involved in a costly military intervention in Yemen that is siphoning money away from other areas where it could be used. Saudi Arabia is also deliberately producing excess oil to keep prices low and damage the Iranian economy. This isn’t cheap for Saudi Arabia, either: The kingdom had a 2015 budget deficit of around $100 billion. If the situation doesn’t change, the country is expected to deplete its currency reserves within five years. Some of the country’s ambitious construction plans — an “Economic City” on the Red Sea, for example, and a futuristic financial district in Riyadh — are only moving forward at a snail’s pace.
The Next Step: Diversifying Economies
But even if the oil price does start to climb again, Saudi Arabia’s reserves are just as finite as those of its rival Iran. Both countries are fully aware that their dependence on mineral resources is a problem.
Both countries have very similar problems: unbalanced, ossified economies and young populations that are demanding openness, flexibility, as well as social and political reforms from its aging leadership. The Arab Spring showed that the dissatisfied masses can topple even the most hardline dictatorships in the Middle East — a recognition that alarmed Saudi and Iranian rulers alike.
In response, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has announced drastic changes. Oil production is Saudi Arabia’s life blood, but the goal now is to diversify the country’s economy. Efforts to that end include a modernization program that includes initiatives in the administrative apparatus, the state-run economy and even a partial sale of Saudi oil giant Aramco. Last week, the reform program was introduced under the title “Vision 2030.” As part of the shakeup, Saudi Arabia announced the ouster of long-serving oil minister Ali al-Naimi on Saturday.
Who builds taller and more quickly? Who is more modern? Even construction in the two countries feels like a competitive race. In northern Tehran, entrepreneur Ebrahim Pourfaraj is currently building Iran’s biggest hotel on the stone slopes of the Alborz Mountains. To begin construction, workers had to dig a monstrous, almost 75-meter-deep hole in the rock, with their colorful steel-container offices dramatically hanging from the concrete walls, reachable by catwalks.
Some 125 new four- and five-star hotels are currently being planned. For the moment, it’s still an international pariah state inhabited by bad guys, but Iran, with its mosques, gardens and fire temples is now suddenly considered by many as a romantic adventure destination. The government is estimating 400 percent growth in tourism between now and 2025, at which time 20 million visitors are expected to come each year, spending up to $40 billion in the country annually.
Everything is slated for renewal: the automobile industry, the shipyards, the airports. At least $100 billion in annual investment will be needed for the restoration of natural gas and oil production plants alone.
The years of isolation may be over, but not the long-term consequences. The Revolutionary Guard has built up a massive business empire. They stepped in to fill the gaps when the international companies left the country and it will be difficult to circumvent them in the future.
The unstable economic situation in both countries, their ambition and their courting of international investors will at first provide an opportunity for the West. Countries like Germany, which has maintained business relations with Saudi Arabia and will now commence them with Iran, will have a ready-made lever for exerting influence. Political conditions could be tied to attractive business deals.
It also provides the West with the opportunity to do some things that could help to stop the destruction in the Middle East and the spread of Islamist terror in the world.
Two Difficult Partners
Listening to the radicals on both sides might lead one to believe that the conflict represents an epochal wrestling match between two powers with a sectarian and political wedge driven right through the middle of them — one in which there can ultimately only be one winner and one loser. But this impression is deceptive. Neither of the two countries represents the caricature of the rogue state that agitators on each opposing side are trying to sketch.
Saudi Arabia is a young, powerful country and, as a commodity giant and ally of the West, also well-networked around the world. With the nuclear deal now in place, Iran, which is a similarly youthful and dynamic, can now become integrated into global markets to the degree Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed.
The West has gotten used to viewing the Middle East as a perpetual crisis zone in global politics, one in which fanaticism and paranoia triumph over compromise and reason. But the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran isn’t just comprised of fanatics: There are, of course, also more critical and level-headed voices, ones the West could strengthen rather than simply retreat from the region.
Nor must the West choose between these countries on the search for a single partner. After all, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is an ideal partner: Both are home to torture prisons for dissidents and brutal punishments for petty crimes.
The United States has long profited from the oil it procures from the Middle East and it has influenced politics in the region. If, after the failed missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington would now prefer to leave the region to its own devices, it would be making a mistake, because it would leave behind the kind of vacuum that Russia recently took advantage of in Syria.
It is imperative that Washington move quickly to repair its rocky relationship with Saudi Arabia. And the previous reflex, that of automatically blaming Iran for everything bad happening in the region, must not now be directed toward Saudi Arabia.
To solve problems like the Syria conflict, the West needs to promote direct negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In order to apply pressure on the elites of both countries, Europe has two powerful tools at its disposal: the 500 million consumers who live in the EU and the possibility of imposing stricter controls on defense exports.
So are there any signs of hope?
The flag of the Islamic Republic still flies today over the shuttered windows of the abandoned Iranian Embassy in Riyadh. In Tehran, the Saudi Arabian Embassy is blocked by steel barricades. Smoke stains from Molotov cocktails, hurled at the building in January by protesters, can still be seen on the white façade. City officials have renamed the street leading to the embassy: It is now called Martyr al-Nimr Street.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran appears prepared at the moment to make any overtures to the other side, and Switzerland is now expected to step in to mediate. After 30 years spent carrying messages back and forth between the United States and Iran, Swiss diplomats are to play the same role between Riyadh and Tehran.
Following the nuclear deal, it appeared for a short time as though the Swiss in Tehran had already fulfilled their most important task. Now they may be needed more than ever before.