In this interview conducted by the "Iran Desk" at ITSS Verona Prof. Germano Dottori addresses and analyzes Iran's role within the new developments in the Middle East. The interview focuses on the possible outcomes of Biden's travel to the Middle East and the developing potentials of new Middle Eastern alliances.
Professor Germano Dottori was the Chair of Strategic Studies at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome until November 2020. He was an Adviser to the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 2001 and 2006. He has worked with the Rivista Italiana di Difesa (Italian Defence magazine) since 1997. He has published books and research in Italy and Great Britain on security and defence.
As the light at the end of the tunnel of revitalizing the JCPOA grows weaker the tension between Iran and the international community rises fiercely. Tension can be analyzed on two levels, regional level, and international level. On a regional level whilst Iran's regional competitors express their concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program, Israel has been applying a drastically different approach, a completely physical approach that dances on the edge of initiating a direct regional conflict. For the past month a notable number of high-ranking officers and scientists within the IRGC and Ministry of defense have been targeted and assassinated in the streets of Iran, almost all targets played an important role in the country's nuclear and missile program. Even though the Israeli officials never officially accepted the responsibility but Israel remains to be the main guess behind the calls. At the same time reports have been registered regarding threats against Israeli citizens in Turkey and Thailand. Earlier Israel's minister of foreign affairs asked all citizens to evacuate Istanbul immediately because of a series of imminent threats against their lives.
On another proxy level, the shelling of Iranian infrastructures in Syria by the Israeli Air Force has been intensified. Drones trying to reach Israeli territories through Iraq's airspace have been shot and there have been reports of drone attacks on safe sites of Israel's intelligence operations according to Iranian authorities. Constant cyber war has been going on as well, every now and then, Iranian or Israeli hackers have been claiming victory by accessing infrastructures or personal data from the rival. A full encounter between the countries is now more threatening than ever. That is the main reason why both actors are reinforcing their teams in anticipation.
One of Iran's main bargaining leverages has been its regional influence. A military influent formed of mostly Shiite militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen running alongside vast support of Sunni groups such as Hamas for years gave Iran an upper hand to proceed with its regional proxy wars but what has changed? Iran's influence in the region has been limited mainly because of two reasons, a technological shift in the defense paradigm and a realistically Machiavellian perception of diplomacy. The aerial defense system known as the "Iron Dome" by Israel has definitely been a game-changer redefining traditional defensive methods through advanced approaches to countering missile attacks. On the diplomatic level, the "Abraham Accords" were none other than a realist perception of "my enemy's enemy can be my friend!" The growing angle of difference between Iran and Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia itself lead the tension between Israel and Arab countries to decrease gradually. Now a new form of an alliance is being formed between them. An alliance that some interpret as a Middle Eastern form of NATO; is METO.
A few days ago Israel's minister of defense called for a new alliance between Israel and its Arab partners against Iran led by the United States. It appears that the defensive circle against Iran is getting tighter but at the same time Iran has decided to deactivate the surveillance set by the IAEA within its nuclear facilities. President Biden's trip to the Middle East will happen soon during which he will visit Israel and Saudi Arabia. Against all odds, the Biden administration appears to be considering its foreign policy legacy none other than peacebuilding between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hence, his trips will play a crucial role that may affect and form Middle East's near future on different levels.
A Middle Eastern Treaty Organization(METO) on a dynamic scale may only live with the blessing of the United States. But on a regional level, actors are consciously trying to build an independent alliance as well. Almost each and every member of the new alliance at some point during the past two decades has been unhappy regarding US policies in the region hence traces of a collective will to have independent strong regional alliances are quite clear amongst actors. There is already talk regarding Israel sharing parts of its "Iron Dome" technology with Arab partners. Whilst wealthy Arab partners can generously invest in the Israeli technological and scientific R&D, all allies may benefit from the results.
On the other end, Iran has shown a Russo-Oriental turn towards developing military and security cooperation with China and Russia. Also, there has been a fast development of the county's Aerospatiale program, particularly in regards to ballistic missiles program, drones, and satellites. Even though the Iranian economy is facing its most fragile state expenses regarding the doctrines of "Defense and Influence" have indeed increased.
To anticipate the outcome of this equation we all need to think in a Machiavellian context, to simply interpret the equation based on each country's national interest. Will the US join the coalition to form METO? Will Russia and China support their supposed ally if Iran's nuclear program once again ends up in the United Nations Security Council? And eventually, the final unfortunate question is, will we face another devastating war in the Middle East?
Without doubt, security is the first and fundamental objective of governments involved in the building of a sustainable regional security in the Middle East but it is not the only one. On one hand, different actors are cooperating to counter the Iranian threat and the affiliated militias. On the other hand, multilateral cooperation is taking a way forward from the mere security interests, while economic and thus political aims are now being prioritized. One of the things that emerged especially in the last 20 years, is that the US role in the region is vitally important but it works much better when it is done through multilateral efforts of allies. In an ideal World one would see the inclusion of Russia and China in this multilateral work, but if not, it is up to the countries of the region, the US, the EU and other willing actors to try to take action to address the regional challenges. Up to now military action has played an important role—through aviation, maritime and border security; but we are moving toward an increased non-military cooperation.
In this frame, the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene has been shaken in recent years by a completely unexpected, almost paradoxical, convergence such as that between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In this case, the most significant episodes were perhaps the apparently repeated meetings, between 2016 and 2018, between the influential Saudi prince Turkī al-Fayṣal, former head of the secret services, and Tzipi Livni, co-secretary of the largest Israeli opposition party, together with General Amos Yadlinand his colleague Ya'akov Amidror, formerly head of military intelligence and National Security Advisor. Since those years, an intelligence-sharing program has begun between Saudi Arabia and Israel to monitor both the pro-Iranian non-state actors in the region, from Ḥizbullah to the ḥūṯī, and the advancement of the Iranian missile program.
In Riyadh, the hope is that Israel—through its influence on groups in Washington—will be able to coordinate robust pressure on the US political establishment to activate containment of Iran, by introducing or re-imposing sanctions, and possibly helping to reactivate Washington's commitment to defending the interests of all its traditional Middle Eastern allies. The Saudis therefore offered new demonstrations of loyalty to the United States, including a willingness to open a new chapter to secure Israel's future in the region.
Such normalization reflects nothing but the footsteps traced by Obama, Trump and Biden’s presidencies to leave responsibilities to local actors whenever US interests are not at stake. Also, it reflects a profound need for a sustainable regional security system that could develop simultaneously to the creation of ties of political and economic-financial nature and access to resources. An example is the announcement of the giant Dubai Port (Dp) World that it intends to settle in the Israeli port of Haifa or the maritime expansion strategy of the United Arab Emirates. This demonstrates a need for new funding and space to stay afloat in a crisis environment.
In this sense, the "Abraham Agreements" go toward this direction but do not come out of nowhere, in that they represent a tactical convergence between the interests of the actors involved. The Arab Gulf countries, including Qatar and Oman, have been cultivating economic-financial, intelligence and security relations with Israel for years, behind the scenes or in a semi-formal manner.
In 2015, the Emirates granted the Jewish state to establish diplomatic representation at the International Renewable Energy Agency based in Abu Dhabi. Together with Egypt, Qatar has been the main mediator between Hamas and Israel for years. In 2018, Oman formally received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the same year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that Israelis "have a right to have their own land" and that Saudi Arabia "has no problems with Jews". Also in 2018, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled ben Ahmad Al Khalifa even went so far as to take Israel's side against Iran. Commenting on the umpteenth air raid in Syria attributed to the Jewish State Air Force against alleged Iranian military bases, he stated that "Israel has the right to defend itself and eliminate sources of danger".
If the Turkish threat is added to the Iranian one, the Jewish state could be—together with Russia—a new factor of protection. Behind the curtain of the agreements also hides Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain has signed an agreement with Israel, it is because Riyadh has given the green light. Saudi Arabia then granted the opening of its airspace to air links between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. To do more, Mohammed bin Salman must wait to formally take power, so that his father - the over eighty and sick King Salman - passes away. Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition is to become the protector of all the holy places of Islam. Science fiction, at least for now.
Is this frame a solid basis for a sustainable regional security system? It is too early to answer and in the following 20 years changes will shape a new frame. As presented in this article, advances have been made and different actors are building a new unified front. Nonetheless, unanswered questions still remain. One of this concerns Iran and the future of the JCPOA. Should a comprise be found, and sanctions reduced, the unified front will undoubtedly accommodate the US. Nonetheless, the JCPOA works have proofed to be a failure in the past, and unexpected outcomes cannot be excluded. Moreover, the JCPOA will not be enough to tackle other issue but the nuclear one. While allies are talking to each other, and enemies are being included in such dialogue, religious and ethnic differences won’t be easily overcome through politics and economics.
For its second event of the 2021/22 Webinar Series, ITSS Verona members Martina Gambacorta, John Devine and Omri Brinner discuss Middle Eastern security with award winning journalist and political analyst Waqar Rizvi. In this truly interactive event, our chair and members explore particular dynamics pertaining to the three big players in the region, that is, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Operation Falcon Strike 21 was initiated from the Italian Military Air Force base in Amendola (FG), Italy on 6th June 2021. It was promoted by the Stato Maggiore della Difesa (Defence Staff) in partnership with NATO, mainly with the United States of America and the United Kingdom and Israel. The involvement of Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the twelve days of aeronaval training, its consequential collaboration with the Italian, American and British military forces gathered the Italian public attention and raised questions on the role of ethics in the decisions made by the NATO powers.
While there are not many details available on how the Operation Falcon Strike 21 originated, it facilitated the integration from airplanes between the 4th and 5th generation of fighters and increased the level of cooperation between powers in the logistic field and concerning the transfer of F-35 fighter jets. Thus, strengthening the interoperability of allied air forces and partners during joint operations. Exercises to master the use of the most advanced missile defence systems took place in between Sardinia and regions of Southern Italy (Il Manifesto, 2021).
As the Operation was initiated, an old debate on the role of ethics in military trainings emerged, due to the public fear for how the development of knowledge in the field could be exploited by Israel in its own military operations. Indeed, the participation of this Middle-Eastern Power in exercises that are strategically designed to test the firepower of new F-35 fighter-bombers provided. The debate in fact dates back to 2016 when IAF received its first F-35 fighter jets. Initial trainings with the collaboration with the Western military forces, in particular with the Royal Air Forces and the US Marines, started in 2019. It included the Tri-Lightning exercise and continued with the Enduring Lightning ones organised by Israel and the United States (Aviation Report, 2021).
Since the IAF received its first F-35 fighter jets, it has strived to obtain more of them to be added to its fleet in groups of twos and threes throughout the past years, reaching the current level of 27 planes in total. Additionally, by 2024 23 F-35 jets will be owned by Israel to meet the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) purpose of acquiring a total of 50 aircraft. The Israeli officials have also confirmed that they are planning to purchase more of these aircrafts (The Times of Israel, 2021).
Undoubtedly, the possibility of Israel deploying the acquired assets to fight its own wars within the Middle East generates an evident threat, which has indeed awakened concerns among the public. In particular, strikes have been organised in the areas close to the military air force base in Amendola, from where the operation was launched as pro-Palestine organisations have mobilized to show their disapproval for the partnership with Israel (Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo, 2021). The exhibited disagreement with practices strengthening Western powers relationship with Israel was further emphasised since a statement released by one of IAF senior officials claimed that the extensive training conducted in Italy would be a historic chance to train its pilots to future wars in the Middle-Eastern area, particularly in Iran (Il Manifesto, 2021).
Hence, the rise of concerns among pro-Palestine groups regarding the consequences of including Israel in the trainings is inevitable. Yet, this only seem to strike the attention of worried civilians, as indeed even after the IAF statement, the Operation was successfully carried out.
Operation Falcon 21 was arguably an implicit declaration that it is ultimately ethical to include powers such as Israel in advanced military training conducted by NATO powers, regardless of the knowledge that the former might use the abilities and means gained to fight its own wars. The United States, United Kingdom and Italy have inevitably provided Israel with an outstanding opportunity to improve its military capabilities by supplying it with arms and helping in the development of knowledge about their use. This comes as a direct contradiction of the values of human rights and peace-keeping that these Western Powers claim to uphold. It appears though that for the Western powers, the role of ethics in strategic military decisions is overshadowed where there is a need to build partnerships with key powers such as Israel.
The use of artificial intelligence may change how war is conducted
In 2020, amidst the biggest pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918, two ex-soviet states were battling over an area of just 4,400 km² in the mountainous region of Nagorno- Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan, so close and yet so far, are two mortal enemies sharing a common DNA.
This war, at first, seemed like a faraway regional conflict between two neighboring states, away from western Europe and even further from the United States. However, a closer inspection requires us to pay a lot more attention to the conflict. Indeed, this conflict is illustrative of how the extensive use of artificial intelligence-enabled drones can be instrumental in shifting the outcome of a war. Thus, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the military domain is disrupting the way we approach conventional warfare.
'Harpy' and 'Harop' loitering munitions (LM) are autonomous weapon systems produced by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a state-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer. A loitering munition or 'kamikaze drone' is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a built-in warhead tarrying around an area searching for targets. Once the target is located, the LM strikes the target detonating on impact. The significant advantage of these systems is that during loitering, the attacker can decide when and what to strike. Should the target not be found, the LM returns to the base. In addition, these systems are equipped with machine learning algorithms that can take decisions without human involvement, allowing them to process a large amount of data and decide instantly, revolutionizing the speed and accuracy of the actions.
Conducting Warfare through AI – Ethical Implications
Wars fought with lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) equipped with AI are not a vision of a distant future. These weapons are being deployed presently and are a huge game changer and, those 'market disruptors' will once and for all change the way the wars are fought. Former CIA Director and retired Gen. David Petraeus claims that “drones, unmanned ships, tanks, subs, robots, computers are going to transform how we fight all campaigns. Over time, the man in the loop may be in developing the algorithm, not the operation of the unmanned system itself.”
However, military operations conducted without human involvement raise many ethical questions and debates. On one side, supporters argue that LAWS with AI generate fewer casualties due to high precision, and thanks to lack of emotions, can even eliminate war crimes. On the other side, machine learning bias in data input may create unpredictable mistakes. AI decision-making may result in flash wars and rapid escalation of conflicts with catastrophic consequences. Thus, by lowering the cost of war, LAWS might increase the likelihood of conflicts.
Furthermore, the transfer of the responsibility of decision-making entirely to the machine will drastically distance a human from an act of killing, questioning the morality and ethics of the application of AI for military purposes. Lack of international laws and regulations created a Wild West with developed countries acting as both sheriffs and outlaws. Vigorous debates are already taking place among academics and military organizations in the western world as they are trying to keep up with the increasing technological developments. The resulting discussions triggered the creation of a group of governmental experts on LAWS at the United Nations in 2016. Despite ongoing United Nations discussions, international ban or other regulations on military AI are not likely to happen in the near term. Consequently, before we can fully grasp the consequences of applying artificial intelligence in the military domain and start creating "killer robots'', a more cautious approach should be recommended to limit the deployment of AI systems to less-lethal operations such as bomb disposal, mine clearance and reconnaissance missions.
For all the potential applications of AI to the military domain, the question stays: Will it help us sleep better at night or prevent us from sleeping at all?
By: Omri Brinner, John Devine, Martina Gambacorta and Angelo Calianno.
The most significant development from the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is the warming of relations between two rival camps in the Middle East, which is a hopeful sign of things to come. If developments such as the recent Saudi-Iranian negotiations and the seeming end of the civil war in Libya continue to characterize regional affairs, then the region might very well be on its way to rehabilitate from more than a decade of continued wars.
The two countries representing the rival camps are Egypt and Qatar. Regionally,Egypt is in league with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar is linked with Turkey and Iran. Egyptian-Qatari relations have significantly improved since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and the Qatari promise of increased financial support to the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Qatar are in a unique position to bridge geopolitical gaps through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Egypt as the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip and therefore controls the crossings to and fro Gaza; and Qatar as the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with the authorities in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Until recently, the two countries and their camps were on a head-on course of action, best characterized by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, which focused to a large extent on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and not by chance. Since its inception in 1928 the MB has challenged and at times terrorized the Egyptian state, with the rivalry climaxing in 2012 when the organizationwon the Egyptian elections and became the ruling party. However, the old regime soon retook power through a military coup and began persecuting, jailing and executing MB members.
A notable portion of Qatar’s support to the MB has been delivered to its Palestinian branch, Hamas. As a MB affiliate, in recent years Hamas has challenged Egyptian sovereignty by building underground smuggling tunnels and connecting with Egyptian terrorists in the border area. Egypt’s fierce anti-MB policies, which include a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, have resulted in Hamas’ dependency on Egypt for humanitarian support. Hamas is, therefore, willing to make concessions that will essentially, in light of its dire state, benefit both itself and Egypt. In other words, in coordination with Israel, Egypt decides when and what to give to the Gaza Strip.
However, Egypt has competition for both peacemaking and patronage in the Gaza Strip by one of its regional foes, Qatar. Qatar is in a distinct position as it is the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with both Israel (albeit unofficial) and Hamas. Other regional countries have either relations with the two parties or funds to spare, but not both. Therefore, Qatar has two prominent roles in supporting the Gaza Strip. The first is financial. Since 2012 Qatar has transferred to Gaza around 1.5 billion USD with Israel’s approval, with Hamas directly receiving the lion’s share. Despite this fact, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip will be politically and economically stable. Israel calculates that stability reduces the chances of a coup by more extreme local groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, and that Palestinians will want to maintain a relatively good lifestyle and low unemployment rates, as opposed to times of poverty and recurring clashes. The other Qatari role is providing Gaza with energy. With the electricity infrastructure all but functional, Hamas found in Qatar a patron for petrol -the latterbeing the world-leading exporter of liquefied natural gas.
So far, it seems that the shared interest of Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas to stabilize the Gaza Strip has strengthened relations between Egypt and Qatar. An indication for this state of affairs took place a day after the ceasefire agreement was reached, when the exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke from Qatar, thanking Egyptfor its role in brokering the ceasefire. It should be noted that Haniyeh could not have congratulated Egypt on Qatari soil without the authorities’ blessing. However, while Qatar has been in the driving seat with regards to financing the Gaza Strip thus far, Egypt is now challenging the former by organizing a regional donors conference. It also recently announced the allocation of 500 million USD of its own funds for the reconstruction of the strip. That said, Egypt needs to carefully calculate its financing schemes to maintain the Qatari-Egyptian cooperation in Gaza. Otherwise, it will push Qatar to either transfer more funds directly to Hamas or to stop the flow of cash altogether, leaving itself as Gaza’s sole provider.
When examining Egyptian-Qatari relations in a wider geopolitical perspective, it can be stated that each country represents its camp in terms of competition, but also cooperation and diplomacy. The improved Egyptian-Qatari relations signify improved relations between the camps. Other developments include Egyptian-Turkish talks, in which the sides discussed various disagreeable issues (such as Turkey’s favourable policies towards the MB), the apparent end of the Libyan civil war, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and, consequently and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the Yemenite civil war, the revival of the JCPOA and the end of the blockade on Qatar.
Comparing today’s regional state of affairs to that of a year ago will show that calculated and mutually beneficial diplomacy is arguably a better ingredient for regional stability and peace than hardline and uncompromising policies.