November 6, 2023No Comments

Israel’s Possible War Scenarios: From a Temporarily Restrained Conflict to a Prolonged All-out War

Author: Omri Brinner - Middle East Team

With the beginning of its ground invasion into the Gaza Strip, Israel is at a crossroads it hoped it wouldn’t be in. It can be argued that any route Israel would take in this historic intersection would lead to regional escalation, even if only in the long-run. It is safe to assume, then, that even if there is no immediate backlash to the Israeli ground invasion, another front, sooner or later, will follow. 

The most popular Israeli approach in responding to the October 7 Hamas attack is that the IDF’s infantry and armored brigades would invade the Gaza Strip, backed by heavy artillery, actionable intelligence, and preceded by intense aerial bombardment (as is happening). Israel, it has been argued, must respond forcefully, or else it would project to its enemies that it would refrain from war at all costs. 

The ground invasion itself is meant to root out Hamas from the Gaza Strip and to disable its military capabilities. The other objective is the release of the 239 Israeli and foreign hostages, most of whom are civilians. Ideally – from Israel's point of view – the IDF would achieve its goals in the Gaza Strip without having to fight on another front simultaneously, as its capabilities in fighting multiple fronts at the same time are limited, and such a scenario will necessitate Israel to change its objectives. However, this is the least likely scenario. Total victory against Hamas is not guaranteed – and even unlikely  within the limits of military power – and the ground operation can last for months. What is more likely is that Israel would embark on a limited ground incursion (due to American pressure and the possibility of another front elsewhere), achieve some tactical victories against Hamas, and will force a ceasefire on better conditions – which would lead to the release of some hostages (most likely women, children, and the elderly). However, the restrained war efforts in Gaza will surely be followed by war and terror on other fronts, and possibly simultaneously.

One ongoing front is in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Hamas, armed militias, and lone-wolf terrorists take arms against Israeli civilians and security personnel. At the time of the Hamas attack on October 7, most of the IDF was stationed in the West Bank, demonstrating its symbolic and strategic importance to Israel. The latter would have to react forcefully to any significant development there. It is in Hamas’ interest to start a new intifada in the West Bank, and possibly in Israeli cities, in order to destabilize and weaken Israel.  

The other ongoing front, where Israel might face a full-scale war, is from the north. Hezbollah, with its arsenal of 150,000 projectiles (of close, medium, and long range) and army of approximately 100,000 soldiers, most of whom are well-trained and with some battle experience, pose a strategic threat – even bigger than the one Hamas poses. 

Thus far, Hezbollah – which is backed by Iran and serves as its most strategic proxy in the region – has been reacting to Israel’s limited ground invasion, albeit with restraint. While Hezbollah needs to show it is committed to the Palestinian cause, it aims to avoid an all-out war with Israel. 

Source: https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/1721014635623522767/photo/4

According to Israeli calculation, an all-out war is not fully in Hezbollah’s interests, nor is it in Iran’s. According to this theory, both Iran and Hezbollah would rather open an all-out war with Israel only once Iran guarantees applicable nuclear military capabilities, which, in the long run, seems inevitable. This means that from Israel’s point of view – and contrary to the best-case scenario described above – it would be better for Israel to engage with Hezbollah and Iran before the latter becomes a nuclear power. 

Israel, then, might choose to attack Hezbollah and either drag it into the war – and by so eliminating the surprise element of Hezbollah’s reaction – or, if Hezbollah chooses not to retaliate, to reestablish its deterrence up north.  While it may seem like an act of self harm, the Israeli public would view a Hezbollah surprise attack as another failure of the government, IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad. In a way, then, these institutions hope to project to the public that Israel is on the front foot, and that if a war with Hezbollah and Iran is inevitable in the long run, then better now than later. It is important to note that while Israel calculates that the two Shia powers would rather avoid an all-out war prior to Iran’s nuclearization, Israel’s working assumption that Hamas was deterred and would have opted to avoid an armed conflict fell apart with the October 7 attack. Therefore, there are no guarantees that any theory that existed before the attack is still relevant.

Would Iran and Hezbollah wait peacefully for an Israeli strike, or for it to finish its fighting in Gaza? Unlikely. From their point of view, Iran and Hezbollah are happy to let Israel keep guessing whether they would join the war or not. From Israel’s standpoint, it cannot afford to be surprised again. While it is less likely that there would be a ground invasion from the north following the one from the Gaza Strip on October 7, an extensive missile attack on central Israel would be just as bad.

But initiating war with Hezbollah – and Iran – would force the US into the conflict, as it would be extremely challenging – on the verge of impossible – for Israel to conduct an all-out war with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran simultaneously. At the same time, if US forces end up fighting alongside Israel, then it is likely that other Iranian allies would occupy the US forces elsewhere in the region (such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria). While a recent poll shows that the vast majority of Americans are against US military involvement in the Middle East, the US would feel it has to protect its allies and interests in the region. 

It seems, then, that the region is ahead of a long period – whether months or years – of an armed conflict.

January 23, 2023No Comments

The Middle East in 2023: From Revolution to Survival

Author: Omri Brinner and Chantal Elisabeth Hohe.

2022 brought about several game-changing developments in the Middle East and beyond. These events - from domestic political instability, through the weakening of American influence in the region, to the protests in Iran - will all leave a mark in 2023, a year that is shaping to be decisive for the Middle East’s future.

Of the many things to monitor in the region during 2023, four issues stand out the most, largely due to their international significance. These are the American involvement in the Middle East; climate change and the region’s efforts - or lack of - to counter it; the domestic upheaval in Iran and its global impact; and the economic situation across the region, with a growing number of countries in economic disarray (Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen).

Image Source: https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/protests-in-iran-the-regime-s-trail-of-blood-a-8775e064-e031-4f80-8a87-5ec4cb59246c 

The US in the Middle East

Going into 2023, the United State’s role in the Middle East is undefined. Had it been clear and obvious, American officials wouldn’t have to reiterate that their country will remain pivotal as it once was. The facts on the ground suggest less American physical involvement. There are less American troops in the region; American diplomacy has been weakened; and one is much more exposed to alternative soft power than before. In that sense we are expected to see declining American presence across the region. Diplomatically, the US is losing grip as well. While it largely has Israel on its side in its competition with China and Russia, other allies - most notably Saudi Arabia - are becoming less and less dependent on the US, fueling a multipolar world where the US is now one of many, rather than the one. The US can stay assured that it will continue to have leverage over several individuals and countries in the coming year, but all in all - and much due to the multipolar inertia across the region - this leverage is not infinite, and further distancing from American policies are likely to follow. This dynamic played out in the relations between President Biden and the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman, where the latter refused to give-in to American pressure on oil prices, proving that the American leverage on him and his country is limited. In other words, American superiority will not only continue to be challenged from afar, but also from within the region itself.

Iran

2023 might very well be the year of the Persian Spring. The revolutionary protests that began in September have the potential to spin the regime out of control and to create a new reality in the country, and the region. What started as a social protest against the state’s brutality and the killing of Masha Amini has developed into a full regime-change movement, with the slogan “death to Khamenei” gaining momentum and legitimacy on social media. It is of course possible that the harsh and lethal crackdown by the state will break the back of the revolution, but these past few months and the ones to follow will certainly change Iran and affect the region as a whole, whichever way the wind blows.

Furthermore, in light of the internal turmoil and the fact that the Iranian nuclear deal is all but alive, it is likely that Iran will push to both enrich as much uranium as possible and to create destabilizing chaos across the region in the coming months. All in all, what happens in Iran during 2023 will determine the near future of the Middle East.

Climate

After a rather unsuccessful COP27 failed to produce actionable policy solutions or real commitments from the international community, a decisive year lies ahead for the Middle East, where people will continue suffering from the consequences of the climate crisis. Most prominently, water scarcity will lead to an increasingly dire situation, fueling food insecurity, economic downturn, civil unrest, and violent extremism. That said, several innovative start-ups and promising technologies are on the rise, with the GCC countries upping the funding to accelerate developments in the field. Hope now lies upon the Abu Dhabi COP28, set to take place in November and, ironically, hosted by UAE’s National Oil Company CEO, with civil society organizations and academia urging for serious action.

Economy

A cleavage in economic performance is increasingly visible among Middle Eastern countries, with the oil-based GCC monarchies witnessing continuous growth - whereas others are facing economic decline, leading to or exacerbating existing socio-political turbulences. The economic outlook for 2023 indicates that inflation is likely to surpass 30% in numerous countries, with Syria at 63% and Lebanon at a staggering 167% . Further regional actors, such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Yemen, face economic hardship while also having to tackle political challenges, civil unrest, and violent conflicts. Overall, domestic and international factors - such as the war in Ukraine - are likely to deepen a looming recession and the energy crisis. While it is likely that wealthy GCC countries will continue to support struggling regional allies, countries such as Yemen, Libya and Lebanon will continue to be used as arenas for proxy wars, further deepening their economic troubles.

October 24, 2022No Comments

Ido Levy on ISIS vs Al Qaeda

Interviewers: Anna Lorenzini and John Devine.

Ido Levy talks about the deep conflict between ISIS and Al-Qaeda and its possible implications from a strategic point of view, the significance that they believe the West has within this scenario, and whether some recent events such as the war in Ukraine or the upcoming Israeli elections may affect terrorist activities. 

Ido Levy is an associate fellow working with the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program and a PhD student at American University’s School of International Service. His work focuses especially on Near East Policy on counterterrorism and military operations, particularly relating to jihadist groups.

July 18, 2022No Comments

Prof. Germano Dottori on Iran’s shifting role amidst developments in the Middle East

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.

Interviewer: Shahin Modarres

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.