Could it be that the international sanctions against Iran are hurting the Obama administration more than Iran itself? The argument over whether sanctions ever work is an age-old and never-ending debate, and to be clear, that’s not the one I’m trying to have in this column. But I do think it’s worth examining the negatives of Obama’s Iran policy, especially because it is likely to play out during this election season.
Let’s start with the background: Iran’s recent parliamentary elections went off without a hitch. No major protests (see: Russia), no violence, barely a blip in the Western media. Turnout on voting day was surprisingly high, even for the Islamist republic. That has a little to do with the fact that government is actually quite factionalized in Iran — Khamenei versus Ahmadinejad, yes, but also all sorts of high and midlevel bureaucrats — and each faction worked hard to drive turnout, to be able to pass the hot potato of blame should the election have gone poorly. Well, the election didn’t go poorly at all, and suddenly Iran’s government looks more legitimate, internally and externally, than it has in years. Reformists in Iran also picked up a large number of seats, and Iran has everything it did before the election — real economic wealth, a social safety net and huge oil resources that it can sell to every country that doesn’t adhere to the sanctions, of which there are plenty.
That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election, which is to say one that doesn’t exactly look deplorable to large parts of the global community — like Russia, China, nearly all of Africa and even much of the Middle East. The Iranians won’t be easy to demonize, and to get the sanctions lifted, they are even making concessions to the Europeans, suggesting in talks they’d be amenable to restarting inspections. They’ll play the razor’s edge, even as the uncertainty in the oil market and fear of a shock — like an attack by the U.S. or Israel — steadily drives up the price of oil around the globe.
Almost a year on from a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in its wake, it’s fair to say Japan has experienced a crisis unlike any other since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War Two.
Over 13,000 people died from the quake, many from drowning. The final death toll, which will include those who were unable to receive proper medical care during the disaster, will be even higher. An estimated 100,000 children were uprooted from their homes after the quake, along with some 400,000 adults. And in the areas affected by fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, cleanup work is really just beginning. With all of this coming in the teeth of the global economic crisis and Japan’s national industrial slowdown, the densely populated main island of Japan has not seen anything like this in decades.
Now Japan has to contend with the fact that its primary power supply, nuclear energy, is effectively verboten in the country. How will it rebuild its power infrastructure when the very idea of a new nuclear power plant is dismissed nearly out of hand? How will it rebuild when its costs for construction have skyrocketed thanks to the setbacks its industries have faced this year? How will it continue taking care of the thousands who have yet to return home, many of whom are living in fallout zones and may never even have the option to do so? The challenges facing the country are serious.
At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.
But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.
According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.’s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.
Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union’s gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.
DAVOS–If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012, at least where the World Economic Forum is concerned, is the year of the reckoning. Through the events of the Arab Spring, major power vacuums have been created in countries all over the Middle East. More governments, such as Syria’s, are likely to topple. But the time to start thinking about what’s next for countries like Egypt is already here.
The thing is, it’s coming at an inconvenient time for Western democracy. Having long held themselves as the global models for governance and economic structure, Western Europe and the U.S. have in recent years shown their warts as never before. That has opened the door for state capitalist models — like China’s — to take the stage. And the simple fact that new models for how countries and economies should work are even being considered is a blow to the Western world’s power and prestige. Obviously, well before the G-7 system broke down, China was already on a path of state capitalism, and that has turned out to be a successful course for that country to chart. But here’s the problem: While it has led to wealth and a rise in living standards for the Chinese, it hasn’t led to more democracy.
Here at Davos, and in capitals around the world, the paths countries should chart for themselves in the future is always topic A, and what we’ve learned over these last years is that transforming those countries and indeed the world is about a lot more than simply swapping out the players who legislate and lead. Look at the precarious situation in Egypt. Consider Putin’s long hold on power in Russia. For that matter, look at the situations in many countries on the euro zone periphery. Going down that list, nations that have simply replaced one power-grabbing leader with another are in trouble. (In Russia’s case, that leader has simply replaced himself.) Countries that have revolved leadership without addressing deeper institutional weaknesses are not setting themselves up for success in the long run.
A Russian Spring grows as the prospects of Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency loom. Ian Bremmer, Susan Glasser and Gideon Rose talk with Thomson Reuters Digital Editor Chrystia Freeland about the prospects of an uprising in Russia similar to what we’ve seen in the Arab world.
The media can’t help themselves when it comes to presidential politics, and that’s never been more in evidence than in the current Republican nomination battle. For the press, campaign season is its Olympics, the time when reporters’ bosses open their wallets to send them to far off places like Dixville Notch, New Hampshire and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and correspondents can make a career on how well they report on the race. Except this year, there is no race. Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and that’s been clear for months.
Yet here’s the lead from today’s Wall Street Journal recap of yesterday’s New Hampshire primary: “Mitt Romney is a long way from claiming the Republican nomination, but he leaves New Hampshire with significant advantages in a field where no single opponent seems well-positioned to stop him or become the obvious alternative to him.” While the reporter may merely be acknowledging the mathematics of the delegates Romney still has to win in primaries across the country, the hedging on Romney’s inevitable victory, to anyone who follows the day-to-day stories in the campaign, rings hollow at best.
With Gingrich, then Santorum, and Bachmann and Cain before them, news stories always turned to polls to explain the latest in the “anyone but Romney” vote. But the story the media should be telling is that polls during campaign seasons historically change the most and matter the least. Flawed methodology and small sample sizes make even the most rigorous polling little more than a one-day snapshot of popular sentiment, yet poll results are often reported as if they were all but recorded in the county clerk’s election rolls.
In a video for Reuters, Ian Bremmer discusses the biggest risks facing the markets in 2012 and says the next phase in the Middle East and the post-9/11 environment pose the greatest uncertainty:
As we begin 2012, political risks dominate global headlines in a way we’ve not experienced in decades. Everywhere you look in today’s global economy, concerns over insular, gridlocked, or fractured politics affecting markets stare back at you. Continuation of the politically driven crisis in the eurozone appears virtually guaranteed. There is profound instability across the Middle East. Grassroots opposition to entrenched governments is spreading to countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan that were thought more insulated. Nuclear powers North Korea and Pakistan (and soon Iran?) face unprecedented internal political pressure… Read the full top risks report here.
By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.
There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.
While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.
That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.