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Middle East

Iran, Saudi Arabia and the new Middle East

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier is set to visit the Middle East to speak with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both regional powers are adversaries on several issues. It'll be a difficult trip.

It's clear where Germany's foreign minister is going - at least geographically.

First up is Tehran, then Riyadh

. Far less clear is where the talks of the upcoming days will go politically. Several scenarios are possible - and the general direction will only be decided during Frank-Walter Steinmeier's first stop in Tehran.

Iran has had a politically successful year. The Iranian nuclear talks came to a successful end and several sanctions against the mullah regime were lifted. Photos of seemingly relaxed talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian colleague Mohammed Javad Zarif were published all over the world and signaled that the political ice age between Washington and Tehran was beginning to thaw.

Iran is back on the international stage - that's what other photos of Sarif and Western politicians suggested as well. And in that role, Tehran also wants to be seen as a participant in the "War on Terror."

Kerry and Zarif walking and talking. (Photo: AP Photo/Keystone,Laurent Gillieron)

Deep in conversation: US Secretary of State Kerry and his Iranian colleague Zarif

Iran on the path to expansion

At first glance, it looks as if the situation in Iran - and the attitude of other countries toward it - is becoming somewhat more relaxed. It remains to be seen, though, whether that is actually the case.

There are two plausible scenarios for the country's political future, writes Middle East expert Volker Perthes in his new book about the "end of the Middle East as we know it." The first scenario: Iran wants to keep a balance with its regional and international partners, works hard to keep a dialogue going and exerts a moderating influence, for example on the actors in the Syrian war. Maybe this could even end the war.

The second scenario sounds less promising from a Western point of view: Iran feels empowered by the lifting of the sanctions and is strong enough to go after its interests - forcefully and, if things go badly, ruthlessly, without much consideration for its neighbors. The country's domestic path could become harsher again as well with the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2016 and 2017. This would disappoint all those who were hoping for reforms in the near future.

Politically, Iran is exhibiting tough behavior at present, and that shows where the country is moving ideologically. "The growing urge of the Iranian government to expand its activities in the Middle East goes against the American belief that the nuclear talks would get the country to focus mostly on itself," the Arabic international newspaper "Sharq al-Awsat" wrote in early October, adding that the exact opposite was in fact happening.

Syrian army personnel fire a cannon in Latakia province. (Photo: Alexander Kots/ Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)

The fighting continues in Syria, as seen here in Latakia province

Indeed, Tehran is currently conducting its foreign policy with mostly military means. In Syria, special forces are fighting side by side with dictator Bashar al-Assad's troops, who can also rely on hands-on Russian support now. And Iran is active in neighboring Iraq as well. There, Iranian troops are supporting the Shiite-dominated government led by Haidar al-Abadi in its fight against the terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS).

"While Iranian politics in Syria and in Iraq are aiming at a sectarian cleansing, the country has more supporters than ever on the international stage," Qatar-financed newspaper "Al-Araby Al-Jadeed" writes.

Iran has this support because global priorities have obviously shifted: Russia, the US and most European states are more interested in fighting IS than in fighting Bashar al-Assad.

Aggressive Saudi Arabia

If Iranian politics continue on this path, Steinmeier will have trouble placating his hosts on the trip's second stop, Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is going down a path of aggression as well, domestically and in its foreign policy. Yemen is the unfortunate victim of this at present. Since March, Saudi Arabia has been waging a bloody war there as the head of an international coalition. They're fighting the Houthis, who are cooperating with Iran, according to Saudi Arabia. The UN says almost 2,400 civilians had already been killed in the war by the end of September.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has published the study "State of Crisis: Explosive Weapons in Yemen" in cooperation with other organizations. In it, they write: "Civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence in Yemen, and a population already suffering desperate poverty, insecurity, malnutrition and limited access to health and sanitation is now facing a severe humanitarian emergency."

Saudi efforts to support Assad's opponents militarily and thus end the Syrian war haven't worked so far. This makes Saudi Arabia even more determined in its war against Yemen, the poorhouse of the Arab world.

A little boy is standing next to a soldier in Yemen. (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)

Saudi Arabia exerts its strength in Yemen

Domestically, the royal leadership in Saudi Arabia behaves in an equally uncompromising manner. In the first half of 2015 alone, 102 people were excecuted there. Liberal blogger Raif Badawi is in jail, as is Shiite activist Ali al-Nimr. He was sentenced to death for protesting against the government. When he took to the streets to speak his mind against the regime in 2011, Al-Nimr was a mere 16 years old. He's been in prison ever since.

Saudi Arabia is frequently accused of supporting a very militant form of Islam. In several tweets, Shiite activist Hamza al-Hassan has described the IS "made in Saudi Arabia," saying that Wahhabism, which is a Sunni brand of Islam and the state religion in Saudi Arabia, and the terror organization shared the same ideological roots.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has a tough trip ahead of him: the culture of dialogue is not in good shape in the region.

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