There are no certainties, but conflict will intensify

Alan Philps looks at the year ahead: conflict intensifying, America's further retreat and economic turbulence

In Saudi Arabia, Ian Bremmer foresees  “destabilising discord". (Adam Jeffery / CNBC / NBCU / Getty Images)
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With the start of the new year, the pundits have given their forecasts for the world in 2016. Almost without exception they make grim reading, seeing more of the wars and lack of leadership that characterised the past 12 months.

Ian Bremmer, a US political scientist and doyen of global soothsayers, put it bluntly: the outlook was gloomier and more turbulent than at any time since he began publishing his predictions 15 years ago. “In 2016, conflict intensifies.”

Perhaps surprising to a Middle Eastern audience, the multiple crises in the region did not come top of the risk list issued by his consultancy, the Eurasia Group.

First was the weakening of US-European alliance, an anchor of security in troubled times; second came “closed Europe” where the bonds of solidarity among European nations are sundered by inequality, refugees, terrorism and populism; and third was China’s economic turbulence spreading around the world.

The first country to be listed, at number 5, is Saudi Arabia, where Mr Bremmer foresees a combination of “destabilising discord” at home and the challenge abroad of a resurgent Iran freed from sanctions, and all at a time of sharply declining oil revenues.

Any list of threats is by nature subjective and usually quickly overtaken by events. But what is indisputable is the common factor among them – the retreat of America from its role of global superpower and its economic superiority.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East where Washington under Barack Obama has stepped away from the region and left the Syria conflict to escalate until half the population are displaced and hundreds of thousands are heading north to Europe.

It is not quite true that Mr Obama has abandoned the region, however keenly Washington’s Gulf allies may feel this. He has focused his efforts on bringing Iran in from the cold, offering relief from sanctions in return for time-limited restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme which effectively rules out any development of a nuclear weapon for 15 years. The rapprochement with Iran has made America’s impotence over Syria, where grand aspirations have not been backed up by forceful policies, all the more suspect in the eyes of Gulf states.

In an election year at the end of Mr Obama’s second term, it is hard to find reasons to be optimistic about a renewal of US global leadership. Mr Obama makes no secret of prioritising the domestic agenda, as evidenced by his tearful announcement of his plans to restrict the sale of guns, following a spate of shooting incidents.

As the Republican Party goes about selecting its candidate for the presidency, the country appears to have taken a holiday from reality. The truth is that the United States – and indeed the western hemisphere as a whole – is spared the security threats that haunt the Old World. In fact, with Cuba and the US ending half a century of enmity and Colombia’s long-running insurgency close to ending, the region looks at peace as rarely before.

But the hot topic at the Republican debates is national security, and what the future president is going to do to stop ISIL conquering America and how high to build the wall along the Mexican border. Serious debate – rather than mythical threats – cannot be expected in an election season, but this bubble cannot last.

Given that Donald Trump, self-promoting property billionaire, is unlikely to be elected president in November, it is a fair bet that a reasonably sober administration will take office next year, with the aim of preventing real threats turning into war rather than fantasising about distant jihadists.

It is always dangerous to predict that the future will be a continuation of the past. The major surprises of the past two years – the ISIL capture of Mosul, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the mass immigration of refugees into Europe – were predicted by no one. So it may be that the commonly held narrative of resurgent Iran masterfully extending its influence throughout the region will prove to have been overblown.

Iran also has an election this year – in February – which is probably the most important in recent years. In addition to electing a new majlis or parliament, voters will choose members of the Assembly of Experts, the body which selects the Supreme Leader. In time, it is likely to choose the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76.

The future course of Iran is up for grabs. The battle is fought at the polls – in the Iranian case, only with a preapproved list of candidates – but potentially more significantly in the shadows, between those who want to open up Iran to the outside world and the hardliners who prefer to maintain their power and wealth by keeping Iran as a semi-pariah.

The biggest sign of this battle is the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to the execution of Nimr Al Nimr, a Shia cleric. By any standard this was an own goal for Iran.

Without this reckless violation of international law, Iran could have emerged looking more like a mature and responsible power, not one where the thugs are in charge. Saudi accusations of Iran being a disruptive force gained credibility. Not surprisingly, the president, Hassan Rouhani has condemned the attack as an “insult to Iran’s dignity and national security”.

Clearly there are powerful forces at work trying to disrupt the rise of the moderates and the nuclear agreement they have championed. With control of the levers of power at stake, it is possible that 2016 will be a year of internal strife for Iran.

There is no certainty in any forecast, but the prediction of Iran plagued by discord at home and imperial overstretch abroad is as valid as any. In the meantime, a new administration must take its place in Washington. It is unlikely to go to war, whatever tone is set by the Republican debates, but it will certainly want to reassess the Obama strategy of “strategic patience”.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps