Making predictions about the Middle East is a black art. A year ago, anyone predicting the demise of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen would have been laughed out of the room. Similarly, few would have predicted that the Assad regime in Syria would face its toughest challenge in 2011.
So it is with humility and trepidation that one attempts to predict what the next 12 months will bring. Nevertheless, here goes.
No attack against Iran (probably). There will be much huffing and puffing over Iran’s nuclear program, but no bombing. U.S. President Barack Obama clearly does not want it, especially in an election year. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu (and his allies on the American right) are keen for Washington to do it, but he is, on balance, unlikely to do it himself – although I would not bet my mortgage on that.
Tougher, but not decisive sanctions against Iran (likely). There is increasing appetite in the West to cut Iran off from the world economy – partly as a punishment for Iran’s nuclear program and partly because it is a convenient substitute for military action. But Russia and China will not sign up for the toughest sanction of all – the refusal to buy Iranian oil. This will render Western sanctions increasingly painful, but not decisive.
No Iranian nukes (in 2012, anyway). Much has been made of U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s remark that Iran could have a bomb within a year, but few go on to cite the rest of what he said – that this is true only if the Iranians decide to do so, and there’s no evidence they’ve made that decision. Much has also been made of Mr. Panetta’s statement that Washington will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Again, however, few make the unspoken connection; that the United States can live with an Iran that’s close to a nuclear weapon, but not an Iran that begins the final sprint toward one. Does this signalling mean that an Iran-U.S. understanding is possible over this issue? Perhaps we shall find out in 2012.
No peace between Israelis and Palestinians (quite likely). If the Americans are not going to attack Iran in this election year, neither are they likely to press Israelis and Palestinians to make the painful concessions necessary to advance their interminable peace process. Moreover, both peoples’ governments are, in different ways, increasingly beholden to violent religious minorities with absolutist aims. Far-sighted, courageous leadership is required on both sides, and it is in short supply.
Civil war in Syria (likely). Bashar al-Assad’s regime has nowhere to go. Representing a despised minority, it realizes that relinquishing power will invite a bloodbath – so it would prefer that bloodbath on its own terms, in hopes it can survive. But the regime won’t survive, so the big questions are what will emerge afterward, and how many thousands will die to get there.
No democracy in Egypt, but no religious dictatorship either (probably). Egypt will not produce democracy, but neither will it see a descent into religious dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood will win the most seats in the new Parliament, and the hard-line Salafists will win the second-most – but they will not be able to work together. Instead, the Brotherhood will work, uneasily, with more secular political parties to challenge the continued heavy involvement of the Egyptian military in the government. The military will do its utmost to hang on, as billions of dollars in privileges depend on it. Look for messy, argumentative politics punctuated by continued skirmishing on the streets.
Something close to civil war in Iraq (likely), and the breakup of the country (possibly). The complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, insisted upon by the Shia political leadership, and the fact that the creation of the new Iraqi federation was a reality more on paper than in anyone’s heart, mean that renewed fighting will intensify in many parts of the country. While the Shiites and Sunnis go at each other, the Kurds in the north will continue to quietly head for the exit.
American influence in the region will continue to decline, but there will be nothing else to take its place (likely). As all this unfolds, the United States, consumed by political and economic problems, will have less influence in the region. Middle East issues will remain the subject of domestic debate, with Republicans loudly accusing Mr. Obama of not “leading” – all the while conveniently forgetting that it was ill-advised Republican war-making in the region that so bankrupted Washington that it can no longer lead. Meanwhile, no one else will be able or inclined to assume the American role. However, everyone will be very happy to complain about the mess the U.S. is making of things.
So there they are: predictions for the Middle East in 2012. Cut them out, pin them up on the wall and watch how events prove most or all of them wrong over the next 12 months.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.