Which events in the Middle East you should pay attention to in 2023
A guide by Mikhail Shereshevskiy
ANALYTICS 30 January 2023 - 19:47
The main events of 2023 will be the presidential and parliamentary elections in Türkiye, the uprising in Iran and the conflicts between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program.
The five Arab States of the wider Middle East are plunged into internal chaos and civil wars, partly as a consequence of the Arab Spring. Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are unstable. All of these countries do not play an independent role because they are in a state of half-life. Egypt, the largest Arab country and the former leader of the Arab world, has also not fully recovered from the events of the Arab Spring.
Three non-Arab countries - Israel, Türkiye and, to a certain extent, Iran - have become key players in the Middle East while the competition among them, as well as the course chosen by the leadership of those states, are at the centre of observers' attention.
The massive protests against the regime remain the main event in Iran. They have been going on since mid-September 2022, after police beat a young woman, Mahsa Amini, to death, arrested for wearing her head “improperly”.
The desperate state of the economy, the rise in prices by more than 50% and the poverty of the population, most of whom are living below the poverty line, have been the main cause of the uprisings. Poor governance (much of the economy being in the hands of corrupt and incompetent government officials or privatized in favour of their relatives) and sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States (which make large foreign investment and growth impossible due to outdated technologies) diminish any possibility for successful development.
Other factors that triggered the uprising are related to the deep political crisis that destroyed the legitimacy of the Iranian regime (Velayet-e-Fakih, the state of the supreme jurist and theologian). The country has grown a new young generation (“Zoomers”), formed by global networks of the Internet. It is a generation of modern people that do not accept Iranian theocracy at all and is completely alien to its values.
In fact, the majority of Iran’s population is tired of dictatorship. It has not only failed to put the economy back on track, but has also caused resentment through its repression, its attempts to control women’s clothing, and its interference with citizens' privacy.
Finally, the regime has completely falsified the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020 and 2021, eliminating all rivals of the ruling conservative group through administrative measures, and forcing millions of state employees to vote to support the candidates it wants. In principle, the Iranian President and Parliament have little power. The main power of the deeply religious state, the “system” (“nezam”), as it is called in Iran, lays with the lifetime supreme leader, his office and other religious and security structures, including the second Iranian army - the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). As former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami put it, “the president and the government only provide logistics for the supreme leader”, implementing his decisions in the economic and infrastructure sphere. But still, before the Iranians had at least been able to choose these people. The blatant disregard for what they considered their right aroused anger.
The majority of Iranians are negatively tuned about the regime, says Israeli military-political analyst Jonathan Speyer. However, the protests are mostly attended by young people and ethnic minorities. It seems that this is not enough to overthrow the regime at the moment. Moreover, the current repression (around 500 protesters killed and between 14,000 and 18,000 arrested, several of them executed) has set off a wave of protests in the capital and some other cities.
Yet, those who expect the Iranian regime to stabilize are likely wrong. This is proven by the strike movement, which included some enterprises of the oil industry and strikes of businesses and bazaars. The economic (growth of costs), moral, political, and environmental (drying rivers) problems of the Iranian regime are so great that protests will not disappear. They may fade for a while, but then they will get hot again.
Furthermore, there is another reason why the protest movement is weak - it has not yet been able to establish a solid organization or formulate clear requirements (although, in some regions, Kurdish parties are trying to influence the protests). By advocating the overthrow of the regime of the Islamic Republic and the authority of the supreme leader, the protesters have not yet been able to formulate a clear alternative. Perhaps, however, many prefer a parliamentary republic or a constitutional monarchy.
Israel- Iran confrontation and Iran’s nuclear program
Along with the Iranian uprising, the events surrounding the nuclear program should be monitored. The Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium and are accumulating the resource needed to build nuclear weapons. At the same time, the US halted negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal (the deal meant lifting the country’s sanctions in exchange for its refusal to attempt to create an atomic weapon). This is primarily due to the Iranian uprising - American officials are unwilling to help fund a regime that suppresses demonstrators. In addition, the Americans accused Iran of supplying military drones to Russia.
Iran’s nuclear program is being watched with growing concern not only by Washington, but also by Israel. American politicians have repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table”. Israel, for whom Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is a red line and seen as a threat to its existence, is discussing plans to bomb Iran together with the Americans. Such an attack could occur in 2023, although this is not inevitable.
The drone attack on the Iranian ammunition plant in Isfahan on the night of January 29 could be seen as preparation for a more massive operation. There were four explosions at the facility, where modern weapons were being developed, which could be seen even on social networks, with the damage going far beyond the “minor damage to the roof”, as declared by the Islamic Republic.
Aaron David Miller, a former US State Department analyst for the Middle East, and Steven Simon, a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, point out that Israeli policy could become central to the Middle East in the new year. The return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, the most right-wing, hard-line government that has emerged in Israel’s history, could cause a serious rise in conflict, both with the Palestinians and over Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel views Iran as its main opponent in the region, and this is reciprocal. It, therefore, has the most to lose from the emergence of a nuclear Iran and is increasingly nervous about Iran’s enriched uranium reserves.
When Israeli Defence Minister Benny Ganz prepared to leave office with the arrival of a new government, he said that the need for a military blockade of Iran’s nuclear program is what most Israelis, regardless of their party affiliation, believe. During an address to the new pilots of the Israeli Air Force, he said that for some Israelis the attack on Iran is their future. However, there are many political and military-technical obstacles to an Israeli attack.
First, the US has not yet agreed to an Israeli operation. Perhaps it does not want that. The US is deeply involved in the conflict in Ukraine, while it is confronting a new rising superpower in East Asia - China. Are they interested in another large-scale conflict in which they can easily be involved as Israel’s closest ally? This is very doubtful. Biden’s administration is very careful.
Secondly, it is not a fact that such a project is technically feasible at the present. It is one thing to send a few drones to drop bombs on the roof of a plant in Isfahan, and quite another to destroy Iran’s vast nuclear program.
Israeli military expert, Amos Harel, who is well-informed on security matters, and political publicist Ben Kaspitt point out that this is not a one-time small-scale action, but at least several waves of raids by hundreds of warplanes, meaning a full-scale air war. It is impossible to destroy Iran’s vast and decentralized nuclear industry otherwise, spread throughout the country. It is unclear whether Israel is prepared for such operations today and, more broadly, for a full-scale war on Iran, which is likely to strike back. In addition, a successful attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility, located deep inside Mount Fordow, requires special ammunition that Israel may not possess.
Most likely, only the US has the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. However, they may try to act together with Israel. However, this brings us back to the first point - it is not a fact that the Americans intend to do so, nor is it a fact that they are prepared to allow Israel to do so.
Another factor that adds uncertainty to this equation is Iran’s weak response to Israeli attacks such as the bombing of Isfahan on 29 January. Psychologically, Iran’s leadership seems to be slowly adjusting to the fact that the country is being bombed and that it is unable to respond with precise blows. This manifestation of weakness may give the impression that Iran can continue to be bombed with impunity. Theoretically, Iran is already able to respond to the Israelis with drone strikes and ballistic missiles, but in this case, it is likely to be subjected to new, more massive attacks. It’s bad to be weak in the Middle East..
The Israeli government includes representatives of radical parties, and supporters of “religious Zionism”, who not only oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, but also consider the West Bank to be holy Israeli territory.
In Israel itself, Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and Christians make up about 2 million out of approximately 10 million citizens. There are more than 2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, blocked by Israel, which is controlled by the “Hamas” movement. The West Bank, which Israel took control of after the Six-Day War in 1967, has about 700,000 Israeli settlers and about 3 million Palestinians; in fact, Israel retains control of the region, although there is an independent secular Palestinian Authority. Most Palestinians in the West Bank were in favour of independence, but many would accept Israeli citizenship, but Israel did not accept either.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new Minister of National Security, will have greater authority over the border police, which received an additional 2,000 troops taken from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Israel National Police. He will be free to change the rules of engagement and acceptable tactics, especially in cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations. He could redirect forces from the Palestinian West Bank to Negev (southern Israel) or Galilee (northern Israel) to quell Palestinian riots there. This will not only give him unprecedented power within the “green line” (the boundaries of the territories beyond which the zone under Israeli control, created after the 1967 Six-Day War) but will actually erase it, establishing unitary jurisdiction for Israeli law enforcement.
Bezalel Smotrich, the new Minister of Finance, will have almost full authority over the lives of the residents of Area C (which make up more than 60% of the West Bank) - about 400,000 Israeli settlers and 280,000 Palestinians - with responsibility for all infrastructure-related bodies, planning, construction, energy, electricity, environmental protection, and others. Smotrich’s strategic objective is to weaken the influence of the ministry of defence and to enforce Israeli civil law in these territories, effectively accelerating their annexation.
Such a policy would generate growing Palestinian resistance. The emergence of armed Palestinian youth groups in the cities of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank has been new. These structures, called the “Battalion” in Jenin and the “Lion’s Den” in Nablus, represent a new form of armed resistance. They, as Jonathan Spier notes, “are not initiated or controlled by any Palestinian group, but are assemblies of young people associated with various organizations or not connected to anyone, but have access to weapons and means of transport, as well as are ready to attack Israelis”. It is likely that the Palestinian Hamas movement that controls Gaza is helping them.
The problem, however, is that it is not only Smotrich and Ben-Gvir that wish to erase the borders between the Israeli territories and the Palestinian territories by permanently burying the idea of a Palestinian state and annexing the West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian clashes of 2021 showed that not only “Hamas” in Gaza and various groups of Palestinian militants in the West Bank, but also Arabs, who are Israeli citizens, are ready to take part in clashes with the Israeli government. This means blurring the boundaries between the territories that Israel took after the Six-Day War and the Arab citizens of Israel. This state of affairs leads to the possibility of a broad unified Arab rebellion against the government. The uprising by armed Arab youth in the Israeli city of Lod, a third of whose population is Palestinian, has become a symbol of a new era that has begun.
With the arrival of the new government, Israeli-Palestinian clashes are increasingly likely to intensify. This, in turn, will provoke a reaction throughout the Muslim-dominated Middle East. The borders between the countries of the region are porous, and as the US diplomat Robert Malley wrote, new ideas and social movements flow easily from one country to another, as they did with the Arab Spring, adopting a universal character. The Arab-Israeli conflict could cause outrage on a large scale.
Türkiye - Elections and foreign policy
The Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghose, along with a number of other political analysts, consider the upcoming election in Türkiye to be the main event of the next year, to be held on May 14. Their postponement (the elections were to be held in June) at the insistence of the incumbent president of the country, is linked to some important decisions, notably the increase in the minimum wage. Erdogan announced a 55% increase in the minimal wage from January 1, 2023, as Reuters reported, which will now be 8,500 liras (approx. $455) per month.
Inflation remains Türkiye’s main problem. Last year it reached 85% year-on-year, although it declined at the end of the year.
Another factor is migrants. The presence in the country of about 4 million Syrians who have fled from the civil war, raises more and more questions for the Turks. Between 60 and 80% of Turkish citizens are negatively tuned towards them and want them to leave. Migrants successfully compete with the local population by accepting any job, which further lowers wages, while Syrian businessmen who have opened tens of thousands of companies compete with Turkish ones.
At one time, polls showed a steady strengthening of opposition candidates. But the trend changed by early 2023: now Erdogan has strengthened his position and his chances of winning have increased significantly.
First, international instability has increased people’s uncertainty about the political future. Therefore, the demand of Turkish citizens for a strong leader has sharply increased. Many perceive Erdogan as the father of the nation and defender, but the opposition does not have such figures.
Second, Türkiye’s international role has increased dramatically, partly because it is mediating between Russia and the West. At the same time, Türkiye is successfully navigating between Moscow and Washington, using the situation to strengthen itself. This is noticed by a certain part of citizens, which further strengthens the image of Erdogan as the defender of the nation.
Türkiye has confirmed its role as America’s critical ally by closing the Black Sea to Russian warships. It strongly supported Ukraine by providing it with the latest weapons. James Jeffrey - diplomat, former US ambassador to Türkiye and one of the leading American experts on this country and the Middle East, notes that the US seems to have “finally realized that despite Türkiye’s serious shortcomings and significant interaction with Moscow, it is on the West’s side.
Since the conflict in Ukraine, its contribution to the security of the West has been unique, and the damage that Ankara could have done to this security had it changed its policy would have been enormous. In short, this is ‘realpolitik’...”.
According to Jeffrey, Türkiye’s main concerns are related to the possibility of strengthening Russia and rebuilding the USSR. Competing with Moscow in the Black Sea, Ankara does a lot to strengthen Ukraine. In addition, Türkiye is increasing its influence in the post-Soviet space such as in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia - in the traditional zones of Russian domination.
On the other hand, Türkiye has not joined the anti-Russian sanctions, and has benefited enormously from this, remaining the economic gateway of Moscow to the outside world. Trade between Türkiye and Russia more than doubled in 2022 to $60 billion, according to some estimates. Now, the figure that was recently named by both countries is a dream come true - $100 billion. This is not unrealistic at all. Russia supplies Türkiye with gas, covering about half of its needs for it and about a quarter of its oil needs, is building the giant “Akku” nuclear power plant and is even crediting this construction with 25 billion dollars invested in the Turkish economy. Russian financial infusions are not only important for Türkiye’s booming industry and infrastructure: they help stabilize the Turkish currency - the lira - and reduce inflation, which, as we have seen, is a key issue not only for the economy, but also for domestic policy.
In 2023, Türkiye will need at least $216 billion to meet its external debt obligations and its current account deficit. Retired Turkish diplomat, Hassan Gogush, points out that “the deficit is the main consideration behind Ankara’s new foreign policy orientation: Türkiye does not want to appeal to the IMF. Foreign investors are unlikely to arrive. So, all that is left is the funds and credits to be obtained from the rich Arab states and the Gulf countries”. Russian investments should be added here. Therefore, maintaining and expanding economic ties with Russia and the Gulf countries remains an important factor in Turkish policy.
Finally, the possibility of a Turkish operation in northern Syria against Kurdish militias affiliated with the PKK is linked to future elections. The objective of the operation is to oust these units and establish a Turkish-controlled safe zone 30 kilometres deep along the entire Turkish-Syrian border. In Türkiye, usually three-quarters of citizens support operations against the PKK, so these actions are popular. In addition, Erdogan positioned the future operation not only as an action against the PKK, but also as an attempt to return Syrian refugees home, which is very important to voters. They’re supposed to be relocated to the security zone. However, the US and Russia have their own armed forces in northern Syria, and have not yet agreed to such an operation.
Elections in Türkiye may have some impact on the country’s foreign policy. If re-elected, Erdogan is likely to continue on his current course. It is difficult to predict what the opposition will do if he does come to power. On the other hand, the role played by a country that is both in the world and in the Middle East today is so beneficial to the Turkish state, that it is doubtful whether there will be any radical changes to this sphere.
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