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Our Expert Voices conversation on what comes next in Iran vs. Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry is less an ancient religious conflict and more a modern geopolitical proxy war cloaked in ethnic (Arab vs. Persian) and sectarian (Sunni vs. Shia) garb. The two countries are on opposing sides of horrific conflicts—in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq—that have caused over a million civilian casualties, the greatest refugee crisis since WWII, and the proliferation of Sunni Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Shiite militias to counter them.

The most powerful man in each country—78-year-old Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and 31-year-Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—are a study in contrasts. Khamenei is a deeply traditional cleric who cautiously rules a predominantly modern society; MBS has a modern outlook and bold ambitions but presides over a deeply traditional society.

The bottom line: Khamenei's death has been anticipated for over a decade, but it's equally plausible he and MBS will spend the next decade vying for preeminence in the Middle East. The cynicism of an autocrat who has ruled for 28-years, coupled with the assertiveness of a young leader eager to prove himself, means their rivalry is more likely to escalate rather than deescalate.

Other voices in the conversation:

Go deeper

8 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.