PEJOURNAL – The dossiers open on Joe Biden’s desk are not only those of his newborn administration but also and above all those he inherited from those who preceded him, who is not the only Donald Trump. In fact, there are specific political lines that change little from administration to administration and that reflect the interests of the American establishment and its vision of the world.
In the modern era it is the world that is the scene of the action of a Super Power like the United States of America but there are hotspots and fronts that are hotter than others or that are about to become.
To the “historical” confrontation with Russia are therefore added that with China (which has once again become a close ally of Russia) and that with Iran. In fact, Tehran tenaciously pursues its own policy of independence from Washington and wants the Americans to leave the Middle East, perhaps even forcing them with the force of a war of attrition. The Islamic Republic is also hostile to Israel and the intention of Iran to developing their own atomic industry puts them on an open collision course with Tel Aviv, which fears that Tehran wants to acquire nuclear weapons in addition to the powerful missile arsenal it already has.
To get a clearer picture of the situation, I interviewed the Italian analyst Paulo Mauri of InsideOver, reserving a final question about Italy and its international doctrine.
1) Could you remind to our readers of the main theatres of confrontation between the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other?
A) Currently, the main threats of confrontation between the United States and Russia are developing along the western borders of the Russian Federation. In particular, the hot fronts are those of the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland), of the Arctic region divided between the NATO countries and Russia and the Black Sea (considering Ukraine and Georgia, increasingly in NATO orbit).
Without forgetting the often heated confrontation in Syria, where the military forces of the two global powers are in close contact. As for China, the clash is mainly over the South China Sea and Taiwan. On the one hand, Washington is the guarantor of the international right to freedom of navigation to counter the slow but constant process of nationalization of the waters of the South China Sea by Beijing, on the other hand it has become the guarantor of the freedom and independence of the island considered by China as a “rebel province”.
2) The Arctic has recently seen an impressive deployment of both Russian and American men and equipment. Why this interest in an area of apparently eternal ice?
A) Global warming has radically changed the Arctic landscape. If, before, the pack covered the glacial seas for most of the year, now, thanks to the milder climate, two waterways that were previously impassable have opened. One of these, which is a cause of clash between Russia, the United States and China, is the so-called “Northeast Passage”, or “North Route” for the Russians. It is a link between the Barents Sea and the Bering Sea that shortens the travel times of ships that, to reach the Pacific Ocean from Europe, would otherwise have to cross the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
The control of accesses to this new and strategic route therefore becomes fundamental for any country animated by a feeling of global domination and, in fact, even China, which does not overlook the Arctic, has become very active in this area. Not secondary is the possibility, precisely due to the melting of the ice, to have easier access to the mineral resources found in the offshore fields and deposits of the Arctic continental shelf, mainly hydrocarbons.
There is talk of 90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of condensates and the astronomical figure of 47 thousand billion cubic meters of natural gas. These are the estimates provided by the USGS, the Geological Service of the United States, back in 2008, of the reserves present throughout the region; a huge region, whose offshore, calculated up to the maximum depth of 200 meters, measures 1,191,000 square kilometres, almost 4 times the total area of Italy, to be clear. The continental shelf, however, could hide other mineral resources that will become essential: these are manganese nodules and methane hydrates.
3) Is it correct to think that the confrontation is still between the United States and Russia, perceived as a threat in any case?
A) The confrontation, specifically, is not only between the United States and Russia, but between the West and the East. Precisely because of the presence of China and also because in the Arctic there is not only the United States to claim its “place under the sun”, but all the countries that overlook it and even some further away, such as Italy itself which recently implemented its scientific/oceanographic research activity in those regions.
In a general sense, two “globalist” visions collide: the classic US one, which sees freedom of navigation (of the seas and skies) as a fundamental element to be safeguarded in order to ensure control of routes and therefore the possibility of controlling commercial traffic and the other is the Russian/Chinese one which tends to nationalize large tracts of oceans but continuing to advocate a global trading system by establishing its own “bridgeheads” in foreign countries to offer an alternative to the American system.
That is why in Washington’s latest foreign policy guidelines, countries like China and Russia are explicitly referred to as a “threat” like North Korea and Iran.
4) What place does China occupy in Western analyses and, in particular, in those of the Biden administration?
A) The China dossier has been at the center of Washington policy since the Obama administration. Currently President Biden has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor by issuing executive orders and guidelines to counter Chinese expansionism. Think of the request for greater collaboration between the countries of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which includes Japan, India, Australia and the USA.
Or the recent order from the White House to review and improve the supply chain of essential goods for United States, including the Rare Earths, very particular minerals that are used in high-tech industry – even in defence – and of which China holds what is, in effect, a sort of monopoly as it supplies 97% of the world total of these important resources being the only one to have a supply and processing chain that goes from mining to refined ore.
Getting rid of dependence on China on Rare Earths means not only having removed a possible blackmail weapon for Beijing but also opening up the possibility of increasing the level of confrontation.
5) And the Iran of the Ayatollahs? Could there be a future for the JCPOA given that there are only a few months left for the elections in the Islamic Republic, most likely won by a conservative candidate?
A) Iran is one of the hot dossiers, indeed boiling, given the recent developments in Syria, of the Biden presidency. The new tenant of the White House, already in the electoral campaign, had said he was willing to recover the Iranian nuclear deal – whether it was the JCPOA or another made from scratch – but this does not mean that Washington will give in to the conditions of Tehran, which remain one of the stumbling blocks towards the return into force of the treaty.
Iran, for example, considers its missile program “untouchable”, while the United States believes it is one of the crucial issues for achieving regional stability, understood as not irritating for Israel – the true opponent of a new agreement – and avoiding an arms race between the Arab adversaries of Iran. We must not make the mistake, however, of considering the American will to find an agreement with Tehran as a change of course with respect to the contrast to Iranian activity in the Middle East: the recent US bombing in Syria against targets represented by pro-Iranian militiamen proves this, despite the decision to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia in its conflict against the Houthies in Yemen, supported by Iran.
Therefore, the outcome of the Iranian elections will not be so incisive, given that in any case, on this issue, a precise and irrevocable line has already been passed and I do not think that a possible conservative president has the interest of imposing a tougher line, for example by excluding any possibility of agreement, given the mathematical certainty of seeing the sanctions regime tightened.
6) How could this be a first strike against the Islamic Republic and how could Tehran respond to the aggression?
A) I don’t think the United States has any plans to attack Iranian territory directly. Trying to hypothesize it “absurdly” we can think of two scenarios. The low-profile first would involve a precision strike on Iranian nuclear sites, with highly penetrating armament launched by B-2 bombers to strike the armoured installations within the mountains.
The second scenario, but even less likely because it would involve open warfare, would be an attack on the model of the 1991 Gulf War: a campaign of massive air strikes, with all the assets that can be used for this purpose, to hit the vital ganglia of the Islamic Republic. Such as radar and air defence centers, military airports, command, control and communication centers and known missile sites.
Since the Iranian Navy is practically non-existent (it is equipped with numerous thin units for hit and run assaults), the U.S. Navy would have a relatively easy game in the activity of sea control: the small-sized missile boats could hardly hope to overcome the protective umbrella of the American CSG (Carrier Strike Group) escort ships, not being equipped with the latest generation armaments, but a mass attack could saturate their defences and deal some damage.
However, let’s consider that the early warning capability of the United States, with satellites, reconnaissance drones and AEW aircraft, is such as to make a surprise attack practically impossible to carry out. An Iranian response, therefore, could most likely be implemented using what would remain of its missile arsenal – with conventional warheads in order not to trigger a dangerous escalation that would easily lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction – on US targets in the Middle East and on Israel.
7) In the West, some believe that a war can be fought (and above all won) using mini atomic bombs, even against nuclear powers. Do you share this idea? Why?
A) Not just in the West. The use of tactical nuclear weapons has never gone out of fashion in the “East”. The Russian cruise missile Novator 9M729 (Ssc-8 in NATO code), which is believed to be able to mount a nuclear warhead and hit a target up to 2500 kilometres away, demonstrates that Moscow has never abandoned the idea of being able to use nuclear weapons in a tactical rather than a strategic context. Without considering that in the Russian arsenals there are free-fall nuclear bombs for fighter-bombers, in much greater numbers than in the NATO arsenals. What is actually destabilizing is the use of low-potential nuclear warheads on ICBMs or new IRBMs (since the INF Treaty is now defunct).
The idea of carrying out a precision, “tactical” nuclear strike with these vectors carries with it the serious risk of triggering a generalized atomic conflict. The idea of mounting conventional high-powered warheads on highly accurate long-range ballistic missiles is also potentially disastrous: an adversary cannot know whether incoming carriers are armed with nuclear warheads or not and would therefore opt for the worst possibility, namely that what is coming is a first nuclear strike. Then it would react using its own strategic nuclear arsenal.
The stability that had been obtained during the Cold War was obtained precisely from the assurance of mutual destruction and any change, whether with unconventional vectors (such as HGV warheads – Hypersonic Glide Vehicle), or by having an extended anti-missile defence and with some degree of effectiveness, it risks undermining this balance.
In reality we are already in a condition of “nuclear imbalance” precisely because of the US anti-missile systems, Russian and Chinese HGV warheads, Russian cruise missiles and nuclear-powered super torpedoes and the above stated regarding conventional ballistic missiles or low potential atomic warheads.
8) One last question, about our country. Italy also has its own military and geopolitical doctrine: can you describe the challenges of our country and whether the Italian armed forces are able to face them?
A) A monography would be needed to describe the geopolitical challenges of our country. I can quickly say that Italy has a fundamental challenge that it must win and that is to return to being the reference country for the Mediterranean area. The Mare Nostrum has long since returned as a crossroads of very important international strategic interests, so much so that even distant powers such as China are increasingly present there militarily.
The concept of the Wider Mediterranean must be the guide for every action in foreign policy of our ruling class: it is important that Italy recover its role of mediation between East and West, between Africa and Europe, which it has lost in recent decades by way of a growing past internal lack of interest. But also because the supranational bodies to which we belong (NATO and EU) and to which we have relied (too much), have never shown their willingness to take charge of the “southern front”.
Only now, something is moving in this direction, but now there are also other entities, such as France and Turkey, who have undertaken an assertive policy in the Mediterranean that is putting us in the corner, even confronting each other bitterly, as we know.
However, diplomatic dialogue is not and must not be the only tool to recover our sphere of influence in the Wider Mediterranean: there must be a soft power agenda, therefore establishing bilateral ties for the development of trade and infrastructures in the Countries in the concerned area, as well as a hard power agenda, which necessarily involves the strengthening of our Armed Forces and their capacity for projection of force. After all, even in 2021, the most effective method to demonstrate one’s importance and power is always “showing the flag”, whether on a military ship or on a fighter-bomber.