June 18, 2022No Comments

Will METO be the new NATO?

Author: Shahin Modarres.

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. 

Image Source: https://www.bakerinstitute.org/center-for-the-middle-east/

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?  

April 6, 2022No Comments

Security Relations between Italy and the Middle East (Italiano)

By: Sarah Toubman and Filippo Grassi.

Italian state security has become evermore intertwined with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in recent days, as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has highlighted the need for Europe to secure a renewable, multi-origin energy supply, as well as the importance of European food supplies in North Africa. The impact of war on Ukrainian and Russian harvests has not only caused wheat shortages in European markets, but also devastated grain imports across the MENA region, such as in Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. European sanctions on Russian oil and gas have also sent the cost of energy soaring, leading European leaders to seek other sources of fuel, including in the Middle East. War in Eastern Europe could see Western Europe and the EU seeking out a stronger partnership with the MENA region in both trade and diplomacy. However, Europe and the MENA region would have to overcome historic and contemporary tensions in order to achieve closer collaboration.

Currently, Egypt imports 54.5% of its wheat from Russia, while Tunisia imports 47.7% of the grain from Ukraine. With this year’s harvests rotting in warehouses in Eastern Europe as war rages, the Middle East and North Africa must seek alternative supplies to feed their populations. Numerous EU countries could stand to benefit. France is a huge global wheat producer, growing 30.1 millions ton of the grain in 2020--less than Russia’s 85.9 million ton harvest, but more than the 24.9 million tons Ukraine raked in the same year. Germany also produced a competitive 22.2 million tons in 2020. Although Italy grew a more modest 6.7 million tons, the country did export over $24.8 millions in wheat in 2020. Thus, Middle Eastern and North African nations could reasonably seek to procure more EU and Italian grain exports.

European leaders are already considering the increased purchase of oil and gas from the MENA region. Such measures would ensure energy diversity and security for the continent, and further damage the Russian economy, which the EU hit with a package of sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. For example, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks with officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on March 27th on possibly increasing energy purchasing from the Middle East. The Foreign Minister also held a similar discussion withQatar's Minister of State for Energy Affairs, Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, on the 28thConsidering the increase in calls for joint European energy procurement, such a move by France could also strongly influence Italian oil and gas purchasing habits.

Further Western European importation of Middle Eastern and North African gas and oil would serve to strengthen a pre-existing trade relationship between Italy and MENA. While the EU as a whole imported 27, 41, and 47 percent of oil, gas, and coal, respectively, from Russia in 2019, it also imported 9% of oil from Iraq, 8% of oil from Saudi Arabia, 8% of natural gas from Algeria, and 5% of its gas from Qatar. While Italy also imported roughly 44% of natural gas from Russia in 2016, its imports from the MENA region vastly exceeded that of the EU, with 37% of gas coming from Libya or Algeria.

However, in order to establish mutual food and energy security, Italy and the MENA region would have to build stronger ties in both the trade and diplomatic spheres, working through historic and contemporary tensions. To this day, Italy’s relations with the MENA region are still damaged by the country’s legacy of colonization in Libya and the Horn of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well its support for France’s colonization of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco

More contemporary events have also impacted the relations between Italy and MENA. The migrant crisis which began in 2010 and intensified in 2015 saw millions of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East fleeing to Europe following conflicts at home. At some points in the crisis, the majority of migrants were crossing over from North Africa into Italy, regardless of their country of origin. This created a situation of mutual blame and distrust between Libya and Italy, as foreign migrants were often either denied entry to Italy and left to drown at sea, or detained and mistreated at centers in Libya. Italian politicians such as former Prime Minister Matteo Salvini often made inflammatory comments about immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. At one point, Salvini defended a colleague for shooting a Moroccan immigrant, and even faced kidnapping charges for detaining a boat of 147 refugees.

Tensions between Italy and the MENA region have also flared due to incidents involving Italian researchers and businesspeople on the African continent. In 2015, Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Cairo after allegedly being extorted for money. In December 2021, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student at the University of Bologna, was finally released after being unlawfully detained and beaten in Mansoura, Egypt, for almost a year. Marco Zennaro, a Venetian entrepreneur, was also detained in Sudan for almost a year before his release.While these events have weakened the diplomatic relationships between Italy and the MENA region, some hostilities in recent memory have actually served to strengthen their strategic ties. While they did not meet their strategic goals, Italian peacekeeping troops in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s have been lauded for their “sustained neutrality, respectful behavior and minimal [use of] force.”

In a 2017 article, scholar Elisabetta Brighi observed that in the Middle East, “Italy has pursued a number of strategic interests—in the areas of migration, energy, security, and geopolitics—in parallel to, yet sometimes in open contrast to, a set of normative commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.” Italy has also had to contend with “the peculiar role of corporate interests—particularly those of oil and energy companies—in the country’s definition of ‘national interests.’ The need for Italy to balance strategic, human rights, and energy interests in the Middle East and North Africa has only become more crucial in recent weeks and will only continue to grow in coming years. As Italy and Western Europe seek diverse and secure energy sources outside of Eastern Europe, North Africa may too turn their grain purchasing power to the West. In order to create such a relationship of mutual security between the two regions, leaders must seek diplomatic solutions to long-standing strategic and human rights concerns.

Image Source: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/08/19/world/19Migrants2/19Migrants2-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp

ITALIAN TRANSLATION

La sicurezza dello stato italiano è diventata negli ultimi giorni sempre più legata alla regione del Medio Oriente del Nord Africa. Infatti l’invasione dell’Ucraina da parte della Russia ha evidenziato, da un lato, la necessità per l’Europa di assicurarsi un approvvigionamento energetico rinnovabile e diversificato, dall’altro ha posto l’accento sull’importanza delle forniture alimentari europee in Nord Africa. L’impatto della guerra sui raccolti ucraini e russi non solo ha causato carenze di grano nei mercati europei, ma ha anche colpito duramente le sue importazioni in tutta la regione MENA, così come in Tunisia, Marocco e Libia.

Inoltre, le sanzioni di Bruxelles sul petrolio e sul gas russo hanno causato un’esponenziale crescita del costo dell’energia, portando i leader europei a cercare nuove fonti di carburante, in particolar modo anche in Medio Oriente

A tal proposito, la guerra in Ucraina potrebbe spingere l’Europa occidentale e l’Unione Europea a formare una partnership più forte con la regione MENA sia a livello commerciale che diplomatico. Per raggiungere un livello di collaborazione più stretta, è necessario tuttavia che l’Europa e i paesi del MENA superino le tensioni storiche e contemporanee che pervadono nei loro rapporti internazionali.

Attualmente l’Egitto importa il 54,5% del suo grano dalla Russia, mentre la Tunisia importa il 47,7% del grano dall’Ucraina.  Con i raccolti di quest’anno che marciscono nei magazzini dell’Europa dell’Est, mentre infuria la guerra, il Medio Oriente e il Nord Africa si devono adoperare per individuare forniture alternative per sfamare la propria popolazione.  

Questa situazione rappresenta un’opportunità per numerosi paesi dell’UE di coprire il vuoto lasciato da Russia e Ucraina.  La Francia, per esempio, è un grande produttore globale di grano con 30,1 milioni di tonnellate raccolte nel 2020, meno delle 85,9 milioni di tonnellate russe, ma più delle 24,9 milioni dell’Ucraina nello stesso anno. Anche la Germania, seppur in modo minore, contribuisce alla produzione europea di grano, avendo prodotto nel 2020 circa 22,2 milioni di tonnellate. Un altro paese che potrebbe giocare un ruolo importante nella regione si tratta dell’Italia. Nonostante questa abbia raccolto “solo” 6,7 milioni di tonnellate, il paese ha esportato oltre 24,8 milioni di dollari in grano nel 2020. Il sostegno dei paesi europei garantirebbero quindi  ai paesi del Medio Oriente e del Nord Africa la possibilità di attingere dal mercato europeo e di soddisfare la propria domanda interna.

Dall’altro lato, i leader europei stanno già considerando di incrementare il proprio acquisto di petrolio e gas dalla regione MENA. Tale misura infatti garantirebbe una diversificazione del mercato e una sicurezza energetica per il continente europeo, danneggiando contemporaneamente l’economia russa, che l’Unione Europea ha già colpito imponendo dure sanzioni dopo l’invasione dell’Ucraina. Diverse azioni sono state quindi intraprese dai governi europei. Per esempio, il Ministro degli Esteri francese Jean-Yves Le Drian ha avuto colloqui con alcuni funzionari dell’Arabia Saudita e degli Emirati Arabi Uniti il 27 marzo su un possibile aumento degli acquisti di energia dal Medio Oriente. Inoltre il Ministro ha avuto anche una discussione simile con il Ministro di Stato del Qatar per gli affari energetici, Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, il 28 dello stesso mese. Considerando l’aumento delle richieste di acquisti congiunti di energia in Europa, una tale mossa della Francia influenzerebbe fortemente anche le abitudini italiane di acquisto di petrolio e gas.

Un’ulteriore incremento nell’importazione di gas e combustibili fossili dal Medio Oriente e Nord Africa servirebbe a rafforzare una preesistente relazione commerciale tra l’Italia e il MENA. Nel 2019 l’Unione Europea ha nel complesso importato il 27,41 e 47% di petrolio, gas e carbone rispettivamente dalla Russia, ma ha anche importato il 9% del petrolio dall’Iraq, l’8% dall’Arabia Saudita, l’8% del gas naturale dall’Algeria e il 5% dal Qatar. In linea con i dati europei, l’Italia ha importato quasi il 44% del gas naturale dalla Russia nel 2016, mentre le sue importazione dalla regione MENA hanno superato di gran lunga quelle dell’UE, con il 37% del gas proveniente dalla Libia o dall’Algeria.

Tuttavia, al fine di stabilire una reciproca sicurezza alimentare ed energetica, l’Italia e i paesi del MENA dovrebbero perseguire nuove forme di collaborazione economica e diplomatica. Ad oggi le relazioni dell’Italia con la regione del MENA risentono ancora del passato imperialista di Roma, in particolare della colonizzazione della Libia e del Corno d’Africa nel XIX-XX secolo, e del sostegno alla colonizzazione francese di Algeria, Tunisia e Marocco.

Ad aggravare lo status diplomatico tra Italia e paesi del Medio Oriente e del Nord Africa si aggiungono anche eventi più contemporanei come la recente crisi migratoria. Questa, iniziata nel 2010 e intensificatasi nel 2015, ha visto milioni di rifugiati provenienti dall’Asia, dall’Africa e dal Medio Oriente fuggire in Europa in seguito alle guerre scatenatesi nei loro paesi. In alcuni momenti della crisi, la maggior parte dei migranti stava attraversando l’Italia dal Nord Africa, partendo specialmente dalla Libia. Questo ha creato una situazione di tensione e sfiducia tra i due paesi e a livello internazionale, dal momento che ai migranti stranieri veniva spesso negato l’ingresso in Italia e lasciati annegare in mare, oppure detenuti e maltrattati nei centri di detenzione in Libia. I politici italiani come l’ex Primo Ministro Matteo Salvini hanno spesso lanciato commenti infiammatori sugli immigrati provenienti dal Medio Oriente e dal Nord Africa, aumentando le tensioni e suscitando forti attriti tra le diverse comunità multietniche. Un esempio è la dichiarazione con cui Salvini difese un collega reo di aver sparato a un immigrato marocchino, oppure il processo che l’ex Primo Ministro ha dovuto affrontare  per le accuse di rapimenti di 147 rifugiati, impossibilitati a scendere in Italia dalla barca della ONG Seawatch.

Tuttavia, le tensioni tra l’Italia e la regione MENA sono esplose anche a causa degli incidenti che hanno coinvolto ricercatori e imprenditori italiani, in particolar modo nel continente africano. A tal proposito è necessario ricordare come nel 2015 il dottorando italiano Giulio Regeni venne rapito, torturato e ucciso al Cairo dopo una presunta estorsione di denaro. Allo stesso modo nel Dicembre 2021, Patrick Zaki, uno studente egiziano dell’Università di Bologna, è stato finalmente rilasciato dopo essere stato detenuto illegalmente e picchiato a Mansoura, in Egitto, per quasi un anno. Alla triste lista si può aggiungere anche Marco Zennaro, un imprenditore veneziano, tenuto prigioniero in Sudan per quasi un anno prima del suo rilascio.

Mentre questi eventi hanno indebolito le relazioni diplomatiche tra l’Italia e i paesi del MENA, alcune ostilità di recente memoria sono in realtà servite a rafforzare i loro legami strategici. Nonostante non abbiano raggiunto i loro obiettivi strategici, le truppe di pace italiane a Beirut durante la guerra civile libanese negli anni ’80 sono state lodate per la loro “neutralità sostenuta, il comportamento rispettoso e il minimo uso della forza”.

In un articolo del 2017, la studiosa Elisabetta Brighi ha osservato che in Medio Oriente “l’Italia ha perseguito una serie di interessi strategici – nelle aree della migrazione, dell’energia, della sicurezza e della geopolitica – in parallelo, ma talvolta in aperto contrasto con una serie di impegni normativi per i diritti umani, la democrazia e lo stato di diritto”. L’Italia ha dovuto anche fare i conti con “il ruolo peculiare degli interessi corporativi – in particolare quelli delle compagnie petrolifere ed energetiche – nella definizione di interessi nazionali del paese”. La necessità per l’Italia di bilanciare gli interessi strategici, dei diritti umani e dell’energia in Medio Oriente e Nord Africa è diventata più cruciale nelle ultime settimane e continuerà a crescere nei prossimi anni. Mentre l’Italia e l’Europa occidentale cercano fonti energetiche diverse e sicure al di fuori dell’Europa Orientale, anche il Nord Africa potrebbe rivolgere il proprio potere d’acquisto di grano in Occidente. È necessario quindi che si instaurino nuove forme di collaborazione e che i leader cerchino soluzioni diplomatiche a problemi strategici e di diritti umani di lunga data.

March 21, 2022No Comments

Interview with Nawres Arif

ITSS Verona's Middle East Team interviews Nawres Arif, an Iraqi entrepreneur, where he discusses the problems facing Iraq, the region, and the entire world.

Interviewing Team: Angelo Calianno and John Devine.

November 18, 2021No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “Middle East Security: The Big Three” featuring Waqar Rizvi

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.

July 23, 2021No Comments

Jasmine El-Gamal on Middle East Relations, ITSS Verona

Jasmine M. El-Gamal talks about the shifting relations between the Middle East and the EU. El Gamal discusses with our ITSS members the approach of the EU to the Middle East. She also talks about the aftermath of the Syrian War, non-violent Islamism and terrorism. Jasmine el Gamal is a political analyst, writer and speaker, currently working at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Interviewers: Giovanni Rasio, Alessandro Spada and Sonia Martínez

This is ITSS Verona Member Series Video Podcast by the International System Team, UK & EU Team.

ITSS Verona - The International Team for the Study of Security Verona is a not-for-profit, apolitical, international cultural association dedicated to the study of international security, ranging from terrorism to climate change, from artificial intelligence to pandemics, from great power competition to energy security.

May 3, 20212 Comments

China’s Footprint in the Middle East: Strategic Partnership with Iran

By Carlotta Rinaudo et al

Iran and China sign a 25-yearlong "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership" on March 27, 2021.

Late March this year the foreign ministers of China and Iran signed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in Tehran. According to a leaked draft, this 25-yearlong agreement would allow China to invest in many Iranian sectors, from banking, telecommunications, healthcare, railways, to information technology. In return, Beijing would secure a discounted supply of Iranian oil and easy access to Iranian islands and ports. In particular, the port of Jask, which sits outside the Strait of Hormuz, would provide a strategic gain for the so-called ‘String of Pearls’, a network of Chinese naval bases that stretches from Mainland China to the Horn of Africa. Additionally, the agreement would also allow enhanced military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries.

Following the announcement of the agreement, alarm bells rang on many Western media outlets. In a hardly surprising move, analysts were quick to label the two countries as the “New Axis of Evil”. It also raised qualms among the Iranian population, which fears that the deal would be a “sellout of Iran’s resources”, with some Iranians calling the agreement as “the new treaty of Turkmenchay”. This is an expression that describes an unjust settlement, and that recalls the treaty that forced Qajar Iran to cede large parts of its territory to the Russian empire in the 19th century. 

This reaction, however, might be considered an exaggerate speculation. In fact, a more cautious viewsuggests that the deal could be more symbolic than we think. It may also resuscitate Iran from its diplomatic isolation – and give Tehran more bargaining power in renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

An analysis of the historical relations between the two countries can explain why prudence will be preferred over risk. China and Iran are two ancient cultures whose cooperation is rooted in time. In the 80s, Beijing and Tehran collaborated to shield themselves from the external pressure imposed by the US and the USSR, condemning external violation of sovereignty and interference from big powers. Over the past decades, the two have developed a Great Power – Middle Power Partnership, where Tehran has often been dependent on Beijing. However, it needs to be noted that China does not want to be involved in Iran’s disputes, and it is also well aware through experience that doing business with Tehran is no easy task. In 1987, Iran attacked a US tanker with a Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship missile. To Beijing, using Chinese weapons against an American target was an irresponsible provocation. Furthermore, Iranian sanctions have also been a burden for China to bear. In January 2017, Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile for the fifth time since the nuclear deal. In response, the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on 25 individuals and companies, among which there were two Chinese firms and three Chinese citizens. A risk-averse China would not want these past events to be repeated, which is why Beijing is carefully moving forward in its relationship with Iran. Thus, analysts should not reach quick conclusions and apply the “New Axis of Evil” label, because today’s Sino-Iranian relations are aiming for prudence and caution.

China is using these Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships as a regular instrument of foreign policy, which means that Iran is not its only partner in the region. Beijing has signed similar agreements, for example with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both rivals of Iran and allies of the US. This is why it is also careful that its relations with Iran do not not jeopardize the balance of power in the Middle East – and, more importantly, the influence it has gained in the region. 

Like in the 80s, Iran and China continue to collaborate today to ultimately balance American regional dominance. The US under the Trump Administration decided to withdraw from the JCPOA and introduce the policy of “maximum pressure on Iran”. However, this only forced Tehran to look towards East. Trump’s decision created a vacuum – a vacuum that China was eager to fill, to emerge as the new major player in the Middle East today.