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Vol. 81/No. 43      November 20, 2017

(lead article)

Tehran-Saudi conflict grows in war-torn Middle East

With the defeat of Islamic State in all but a few towns along the Iraqi-Syrian border, Washington and the contending capitalist regimes in the region are turning their attention to new conflicts and battles shaping politics in the Mideast.

Iran’s capitalist rulers have taken advantage of the war against Islamic State to make progress in securing a land route from the Afghanistan border, across Iran, Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea and close to the Israeli border.

To do so, Tehran has deployed Hezbollah military forces from Lebanon and Shiite-based militias from Iraq, whose leaders pay allegiance to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. These forces, along with Moscow, have helped crush the rising struggle for political rights and space in Syria that began with mass public protests in 2011, ensuring the continued dictatorial rule of Bashar al-Assad there.

Tehran has increased its control over the majority Shiite government in Iraq, too. Tehran-backed forces have led recent attacks against Kurdish Regional Government peshmerga forces, seizing Kirkuk and other territory in northern Iraq after the Sept. 25 Kurdish independence vote in that region.

The government of Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s principal rival in the region, is counterpunching by trying to strengthen its political and military position, in alliance with other bourgeois Arab regimes. Decadeslong monarchical rule by the Al Saud family has held back capitalist development, keeping the kingdom dependent on its massive oil reserves.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading efforts to reverse engines. He began a series of purges Nov. 5, arresting top ruling family members and tycoons.

He ordered the arrest of 11 princes and more than three dozen current and former ministers on allegations of “corruption.” They include multibillionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Miteb bin Abdullah, minister and former chief of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard.

Prince Mohammed is also curbing the power of the Wahhabi Sunni religious hierarchy to make them subservient to the capitalist regime.

Under the rubric “Saudi Vision 2030,” the regime is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into projects to build industrial zones, technology centers, new cities, and resorts and other tourist attractions.

Prince Mohammed, whose father became king in 2015, has taken control of the military, national guard and intelligence operations, and stripped the religious police of arrest powers.

In September King Salman announced steps to introduce more modern bourgeois social relations, lifting restrictions on the right of women to drive and attend public sporting events. Prince Mohammed has since called for “gender mixing” and music at public events. The regime arrested clerics and other figures who oppose these changes.

The vast majority of the working class in Saudi Arabia is made up of immigrant workers. Its army, though large and well armed, has been incapable — even though backed by U.S. bombers — of putting down a smoldering rebellion by a smaller Tehran-backed Houthi force in Yemen.

Future holds more wars, instability

The war in Yemen is devastating working people there. Thousands of civilians have died, including many from U.S. and Saudi airstrikes. The country is on the brink of famine. Poor sanitary conditions have led to almost 800,000 cases of cholera since last year and more than 2,100 deaths.

Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile Nov. 4 that reached the outskirts of Saudi Arabia’s capital before being shot down. Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubair called the attack an “act of war” by Tehran.

To finance deeper conflicts in the region, the Saudi rulers are looking to sell shares in the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., the largest oil producer in the world. President Donald Trump urged the Saudis to market the stock, worth as much as $100 billion, on the New York Stock Exchange.

Lebanon’s prime minister resigns

On Nov. 4 in a televised address from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation, saying that he believed his life was in danger given the growing strength of the Hezbollah Shiite militia. Through Hezbollah, Iran has created “a state within a state” in Lebanon, he said.

“We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring war,” Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for Persian Gulf Affairs, told the press.

Washington, far and away the strongest imperialist power in the world, with large military bases across the Middle East, now confronts an emboldened Tehran and the emergence of Moscow as a force in the area.

Moscow, and especially Beijing, are becoming increasingly meaningful capitalist competitors in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
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