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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.