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Rouhani in Rome: Italian-Israeli relations at risk?

Politics di


The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani begins his tour in Europe from Italy. It is the first time after the lifting of the international sanctions against Iran. A sign of openness towards the West, it also shows Iran’s willingness to restore and strengthen its relationship with European countries, such as Italy.


The Iranian leader’s trip to Italy has a triple meaning. From a political perspective, Rouhani’s visit comes at a significant moment both for Iran and for the Middle East. Indeed, the lifting of the international sanctions and the nuclear deal boost Iran relationship with the rest of the world, thus ending decades of political isolation. This gives also Teheran a chance to contribute to solving ME security problems.

Secondly, the religious dimension. The meeting between a Shiite Muslim leader and the highest representative of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is an important event in a time when the sectarian tensions and the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism make it difficult the coexistence between different faiths. In the Catholic Rome, Rouhani portraits the good side of Islam and the Vatican itself talks about “common spiritual values” and the importance of Iran for peace in the Middle East.

Final point on Rouhani’s agenda is economy. Seven institutional agreements have been signed, including an understanding between Mise and the Iranian Ministry of Industries and Mines. New business deals cover also energy and mining, constructions, shipbuilding and transport industries, reaching an amount of about 17 billion.

Despite criticism and controversies (as the one related to the covering up of naked statues in Capitoline Museum), Rouhani’s visit marks a relevant rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and Italy. An Italy that, while adhering to international sanctions, has maintained good relations with the Arab country, based -today as in the past- on mutual benefit.

Politically, strengthening ties with a European country means, for Iran, to be freed from the isolation of the past years and to project again the nation in the European and international environment. To be acknowledged a capillary role in restoring stability in the Middle East gives back legitimacy to a country that has been seen for decades as a threat to regional and global security. On the other hand, Italy acquires a vital ally in the fight against international terrorism and, by mediating the reintegration of Iran in world major fora, it can gain in terms of diplomatic influence.

Economically speaking, the lifting of the sanctions not only comes as a breath of fresh air for Iran, but it also paves the way for new investments in Italy. Iran has a young population, attracted by Western markets, especially those of luxury, car and fashion. Therefore, Iran can be an important partner to relaunch the “Made in Italy”.

However, what will be the reaction of the historic enemy of the Islamic Republic, Israel? Which repercussions could there be in the relationship between Italy and the Jewish country?

Historically, Italy has had good relations with Israel, based on cooperation in the political, economic, scientific, cultural and military areas. A promoter of the peace process in ME and of the creation of the State of Palestine, the Italian government has always worked in order to hinder the spread of anti-Semitism in the region and to facilitate the dialogue between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. The end of sanctions and the nuclear deal (with respect to which Israel has openly expressed his disagreement) have alarmed Netanyahu government about a possible resurgence of Iran. Seeing a traditionally friend state –as Italy- that strengthens its ties with the Islamic Republic, could actually create friction between Rome and Jerusalem.

The key factor in this balance may be the military element. The agreements signed between Rome and Tehran do not include the military sector, neither in terms of military capabilities nor of training. A similar low profile is presumably acceptable to Israel for a twofold reason. On the one hand, it does not affect Iranian military capacity; on the other, the actual opening to Iran is a positive sign for its allies (e.g. Russia). By contrast, a closing attitude towards Iran might stiffen the relationships between the West and Iran’s friends, thus undermining efforts to tackle other common threats, such as the Islamic State.

Hence, it is hard to believe that Italy could opt for an either-or option, which will exclude relations with one of the two countries in favor of the other. In his meeting with the Iranian president, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pointed out the importance of relations with Israel and the right/duty of the latter to exist as a State. Considering the interests at stake and Italian political traditions, it is more likely, therefore, that the government will opt for maintaining a balanced position: a strategic choice that ensures the benefits of trade with Iran without irritating Israel.


Paola Fratantoni


Iran-Saudi Arabia: the most dangerous fight

Politics di


The contrast between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a sort of Cold War for years, is likely to turn into a “hot” conflict. The rivalry between the two Middle East big powers is everything but new. However, latest events –the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the continuous drop in oil price and the end of international sanctions against Iran- have added fuel to the fire, thus causing concern about the regional and global stability.


The reasons behind tensions

The religious factor. Saudi Arabia, almost entirely Muslim, has a Sunni-majority population (the real family professes the Wahhabi ideology, a minor stream of Sunni Islam). Shiites, around 15% of the population, are concentrated in the eastern province of Al-Sharqiyah. They push for autonomy and the monarchy accuses Iran to foster their aspiration. By contrast, the Islamic Republic represents Shia Muslims, who are more than 90% of Iranian population. Self-proclaimed as protectors respectively of Sunni and Shia communities, SA and Iran stand for opposite tradition and interests, which result in a real sectarian conflict.

The black gold. SA is one of the biggest producer of crude oil and in 2014 the country has significantly increased its production, resulting in a price collapse which was aimed to target not only Iranian market and Moscow’s revenue, but also to make it economically inconvenient for the USA the extraction of shale oil. However, Riyadh’s plans haven’t gone perfectly, with US and Russia still playing a leading role in the energy market. A considerable setback for Saudi Arabia, at a time when the lifting of international sanctions against Iran pushes one of SA biggest competitor back in the game.

The regional hegemony. SA has a significant geopolitical weight, due both to its strong participation in regional and global affairs, but also to its relationship with the Gulf countries and the US. This position has often turned into an attempt to impose its political and religious leadership in the region. This fact not only raises friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) –for example with Qatar- but also makes it almost impossible a peaceful coexistence with Iran. On the other hand, in fact, the Islamic Republic, after decades of international isolation, aims to establish its supremacy in the Middle East, where SA, along with Israel-a Jewish country, friend to the US- curbs its ambition.

What future?

It is hard to believe that some form of cooperation between Iran and SA is possible, especially after the killing of the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who encouraged Saudi Shiites to take side against the government and along with Iran. The execution of the leader is a clear message to the population, while the following break of diplomatic relations is a clear political signal. The consequences are not late to come: the UAE, Kuwait, Sudan, Qatar and Bahrain have already ceased the relations with the Islamic Republic.

Similarly, an open conflict is unlikely to happen. With a budget deficit of about $100 billion, it would be illogical for the Saudi monarchy to undertake an armed conflict. Iran has just been freed from those sanctions that have hampered country’s development, while it’s showing openness towards the US. Declaring war to SA could play against its own interest, inevitably involving other powers-USA, Russia, Israel- and adding new instability to the already volatile game of power in the region.

This condition of “cold war” is the most likely scenario, with peaks of tension between the Iranian and Saudi capitals, and “hot” clashes confined to peripheral theatres like Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, where Tehran and Riyadh support respectively Shia and Sunni groups.

Unfortunately, another actor plays a key role in this context: the Islamic State. ISIS is spreading among Sunni community, thus worrying Riyadh, which is trying to preserve its influence among Sunni population. On the other hand, Iran is fighting ISIS forces but only to a certain extent. Indeed, Iran could benefit from a conflict between ISIS and SA, as this could gradually weakens both the actors, thus leaving Iran free to confirm itself as regional leader. However, the serious risk is that this game gets out of control, considering the support that ISIS is still finding locally and globally.

It seems that the instability in Middle East is doomed to persist. Moreover, these tensions might break out in a series of conflicts at several levels, involving several actors and following multiple and different political agendas. Will there be a second Iraq, with a vacuum of power and foreign powers ready to step in or it will be one of the regional rival to take the lead? Or will the most feared actor win and the entire Middle East fall under the brutal force of jihadist terrorism?


Paola Fratantoni


France: new NH90 for Operation Barkhane

Defence/Innovation/Politics di

The Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA), the French defence procurement agency, confirms the acquisition of six additional tactic transport helicopters (Caiman model) from NH Industries, the Italian-French-Dutch industrial group owned by Finmeccanica, Airbus and Fokker. The delivery has been scheduled between 2017 and 2019.


These new acquisitions are part of a more comprehensive renewal program to increase the helicopter fleet up to 74 Caiman units (44 of these to be delivered by 2019). The target is to reach, by the end of 2025, a fleet of 115 tactical NH90 helicopters, goal set in the Defence and Security White Paper in September 2013. As Guillaume Faury, President and CEO of Airbus Helicopters, highlights, “French armed forces have deployed the NH90 operationally in Mali, where its outstanding endurance, versatility and manoeuvrability have been greatly appreciated”.

The decision follows the request from the Army Air Corps to strengthen the capabilities of Operation Barkhane, in Africa. Last January, Gen. Oliver Gourlez de la Motte, chief of the Army Air Corps, announced the service goal to strengthen its forces, by providing 10 additional helicopters to the fleet, to be chosen between both attack and transport models. Last month, indeed, the DGA has ordered from Airbus Helicopters 7 Tiger attack helicopters, which will be delivered between 2017 and 2018.

The aim is to improve the capacity of French armed forces to conduct air-land operations in the Sahel region, in Sub-Saharan Africa. The NH90 has already been deployed in several operational theatres, showing capabilities and characteristics that make it an important resource for French forces engaged in Operation Barkhane. First of all, as already mentioned, its versatility. The NH90 can be employed in response to different tactical needs:

  • Troop and light armament transport, as it can carry up to 20 soldiers or 2.5 tonnes armaments;
  • Casualty evacuation with 12 stretchers;
  • Cargo airlift;
  • Combat, search and rescue operations.

Moreover, the additional equipment allows it to fit various needs that might arise in the operational theatre. The NH90 is provided with an automatic pilot and fly-by-wire (FBW) controls, a system that replaces traditional manual controls with an electronic interface. This reduces the workload for pilots, and makes the NH90 easier to manage. In addition, night vision sights, armor protection and electronic counter-measures make it suitable for combat operations.

These characteristics show how this vehicle becomes essential in an environment such as Sub-Saharan Africa. As we know, Operation Barkhane is a counter-terrorism operation, led by France in the Sahel region since August 2014, with Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad as participating countries. The aim is to contrast the presence of jihadist militants in the region, supporting the efforts of partner countries and to prevent the creation of terrorist sanctuaries. The 3000 soldiers engaged in the mission are based in two permanent fields, one in Gao (Mali) and the other in N’Djamena (Chad). Detachments are sent to temporary bases, located in the mission’s participating countries, from where missions to support their soldiers are launched. Therefore, it is clear how troop and armament transport is necessary to conduct the operation. Moreover, the particular environment –temperature, geographical and territorial conformation, etc.- is a key factor in elaborating interventions. The NH90 proves to be suitable for the African environment, given its endurance and versatility, which is essential in areas where difficulties and resource scarcity might undermine the aim of the mission and the lives of the soldiers involved. “The additional order of six NH90- says Guillaume Faury-…confirms the essential role that new-generation multi-role helicopters play in modern operations”.

It seem that attacks and threats to French nation and security have not changed its commitment towards foreign operations, in particular in missions targeting Islamic terrorism. By contrast, those elements, which proved to be effective, have been strengthen and pressure is made to the Government in order to reinforce French military capabilities. It is not just a matter of number of forces available but also – and most of all- of quality and technology, which have to be suitable for the type of environment and threat that soldiers are facing.


Paola Fratantoni




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