Thursday, May 23, 2024
 
 

Wider Middle East regional conflict must be avoided

Interview with Giuseppe Manna - Italian expert on Maritime affairs and Middle East issues

NE Global
Giuseppe Manna: Expert on Middle East issues and Maritime affairs

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In a moment of growing tensions in the Middle East, NE Global sat down for an interview about the Iran-Israel crisis with Giuseppe Manna, an Italian geopolitics expert focused on Middle East issues and maritime affairs. Manna is also a Member of the Scientific board of the Italian think-tank ItalyUntold, author of storiedimare.it and contributing author of Aspenia online.

NE Global: What should Israel and Iran do at internal level to get the support of the population and consolidate power?

Giuseppe Manna: All geopolitical analysts focus on the international aspects of the conflict between Israel and Iran. Nonetheless, the domestic front in both countries deserves particular attention. Tehran has adopted ferocious rhetoric against Israel, but it fears a large-scale conflict as the Iranian regime would immediately risk what it cares most about: its very survival. A prolonged war could result in an explosion of the social dissatisfaction. This has already led to unrest due to the economic problems and the limitation of civil and political rights.

The situation is made even more complicated because of armed groups hostile to the central government, especially in Iranian Azerbaijan and in the south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. These mines scattered throughout the country could explode in the event of a conflict, fatally striking the regime. The government’s support for the Palestinian cause has proved to be only partially successful in mobilizing public opinion. Iranian citizens remain largely disheartened and more worried about the harsh living conditions they are forced to tackle every day.

Israel is also affected by internal fractures that have prompted its enemies to defy its power. This encouraged Hamas to force the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza. However, the social fabric has proven to be resilient and able to put aside the deepest divisions in order to face threats perceived as existential. The free expression of dissent has not been compromised and, on the contrary, it finds a source of inspiration in the criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the actions of his government. The Iranian attack on April 13 strengthened the feeling of encirclement from which, paradoxically, Israel, since its foundation in 1948, has drawn energy to face threats.

NEG: On the other hand, what Israel should do to get the support of the U.S. on one side and Russia and China on the other side?

GM: Relations between Israel and the United States remain solid despite the tensions between the Biden administration and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. These tensions have clearly emerged in recent months due to the destruction and civilian victims in the Gaza Strip deemed excessive by the Americans. Nevertheless, every year the Jewish state receives on average between 3.5 and 4 billion dollars in U.S. military aid alone. Politicians in Tel Aviv know that, in case of extreme danger, help from the Americans will not be lacking. Even during the Iranian attack on April 13, U.S. planes and ships in the Red Sea from bases in the Middle East contributed significantly to intercepting drones and missiles before they reached Israeli airspace. This does not mean that Washington is not committed to exerting pressure on Israel to moderate both the use of force in Gaza and its desire to oppose the Islamic Republic.

As for Russia and China, I believe it is not in Israel’s interest to obtain their support as this would weaken the solidity of the ties with its American ally. Nonetheless, the Jewish state looks favorably on a possible cooling of the relations between the Islamic Republic and its Russian and Chinese counterparts. Tehran has not appreciated Beijing’s attitude in these weeks of open conflict with Israel. The Iranians expected much more substantial support from a political point of view and also on a financial and intelligence level. But the Chinese limited their action to calling for restraint and setting up initiatives within the framework of the United Nations Security Council, despite knowing that any resolution against Israel would be blocked by the United States.

NEG: Which role can the EU play in the Israel-Iran crisis?

GM: Even in this crisis, the EU has unfortunately demonstrated that it is not capable of implementing incisive actions to avoid a continuous increase in tension. This is the result of the fact that the EU still struggles to acquire strategic autonomy to accredit itself as an independent player on the international stage. Member states still prefer to face many challenges within their respective borders than in partnership with the European institutions in Brussels. I believe that serious reflection must be started on this issue because the risk is that the EU will continue to speak with an overall weak voice, while only coordination between its members and the rapid definition of an incisive external action policy will lead to effective decisions.

NEG: Which role can NATO play knowing that Turkey is opposing Israel?

GM: NATO is currently focused on monitoring the evolution of the conflict in Eastern Europe in order to face the ongoing Russian threat. The risk is that Moscow could take advantage of the international concerns about the Middle East to increase pressure on Ukraine.

As for the crisis between Israel and Iran, in spite of different nuances, all NATO member states expressed their support for Israel on the occasion of the Iranian attack on April 13. Only Turkey maintains a very critical approach with President Erdogan reiterating it almost on a daily basis. Immediately after the massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7, Ankara condemned Hamas, while also recalling the harsh living conditions of the population of Gaza due to the blockade imposed by the Jewish state. The position towards Israel has hardened in recent months as a result of the government seeking for consensus among citizens supporting the Palestinian cause.

Nonetheless, Turkey will not completely cut its ties with Israel. These relations improved between 2022 and the first months of 2023 so that a state visit by Netanyahu to Ankara was under discussion. The Jewish state has provided important military aid to Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally, allowing Baku to achieve important victories over Armenian-backed separatists in Nagorno Karabakh and eventually to conquer that territory. Israeli supplies to Azerbaijan continue and it is not in the interests of the Turks that their ally in the Caucasus risks finding itself in difficulty. Furthermore, Turkey shares a long border with Iran, and it would be against its interests to have relations with the Islamic Republic engaged in boosting its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. These would overlap and damage vital Turkish interests in the region. Therefore, Israel remains a very useful counterweight to Tehran’s ambitions and Ankara is not intent on its defeat in the event of an open conflict.

NEG: Which role can play Italy in the Israel-Iran crisis but also on Gaza issue?

GM: There is no need to remember that Italy is a founding country of the EU and a member of NATO fully integrated into the alliance system led by the United States. Rome has expressed its support for Israel on several occasions and condemned the terrorist massacre perpetrated by Hamas without forgetting the importance of humanitarian action in favor of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. In this regard, I would like to highlight that the support vessel Vulcano of the Italian Navy was involved in a delicate rescue mission in the area. Italian military personnel treated many wounded people from Gaza who had been admitted to Egyptian hospitals but needed delicate surgical interventions carried out in the very modern medical facilities present on board.

It is in Italy’s interest that tensions in the Middle East do not result in a regional conflict as the country’s security would be seriously damaged. This is why Rome is working to ease tension. However, Italy could better exploit its particular diplomatic position for much more incisive action. In fact, Italy has excellent relations with Israel and has a long tradition of friendly relations with Iran which has not been completely erased by the sanctions and the current conflict. Iranians consider their country the heir of the glorious Persian civilization and look at Rome as the main heir of the Latin culture. This conception leads Iranians to consider Italy as a particular and pivotal player in the European mosaic. This is an important potential that Rome could exploit also because a deeper engagement would be appreciated by the Americans, who are reluctant to face a regional conflict.

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