Nuclear Showdown in Iran
2012 saw conflicting trends in Iran. The Obama administration won an important international success in the severest sanctions ever imposed on Iran, which caused the value of the Iranian rial to plummet and inflation and unemployment to skyrocket.
For the first time in the long nuclear standoff, Iran is paying a price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But Tehran isn't waving a white flag yet: Even as its standing in the region was weakened by the Arab uprisings, it nevertheless expanded its uranium enrichment program beyond the level needed for civilian reactors. And Israel continued to push for a war it could begin alone but could not finish, even as the politics of the U.S. election season made serious nuclear negotiations impossible.
Moreover, without ever explaining why, both American presidential candidates flatly insisted that containment of a nuclear Iran was impossible and unacceptable. Happily, however, an important area of ambiguity has been preserved around the difference between actual weaponization by Iran and an undefined "nuclear capability." This gray area could eventually be where an agreement is found. Meanwhile, Iran delayed a showdown this summer by diverting some of its growing stockpile of enriched uranium to civilian purposes, easing Israel's insistence on the need for an early attack.
The question is what will happen now. In Israel, much is in flux. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to re-evaluate his options in light of Obama's reelection and the public opposition to war by many of Israel's top military and intelligence leaders. Though his political opposition is weak, elections scheduled for January could also force adjustments in Israeli policy.
Tehran's position will largely be determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has made no secret of his disbelief in compromise. The single most important external determinant will be whether the U.S. and European governments will accept Iran's right to enrich uranium up to the low level needed for civilian purposes. If so, it may be possible to negotiate sufficiently tough safeguards, inspections, and limits on the size of a low-enriched uranium stockpile to insure that Tehran does not cheat. If not, any form of agreement is likely impossible.
Even if negotiations fail in 2013, Iran still has ways to make a military strike unlikely by choosing to mark time in its weapons program -- limiting the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and avoiding steps toward weaponization.
Life or Death for a Two-State Solution
Perhaps a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already dead. Many believe so. But even if there is still hope, it will not last much longer -- certainly not long enough for a protracted peace process. Moreover, with the changes the Arab Awakening has brought about, an Israeli-Palestinian accord is no longer enough: A regional, Arab-Israeli agreement is clearly needed.
Such an agreement would require a monumental effort on the part of the United States. The question is whether the Obama administration will choose to devote so much precious political capital to this potentially historic but so-elusive goal. That's a question only President Obama can answer, but after November's hostilities in Gaza, the odds of him making such a choice seem very long indeed.
Can Iraq Hang Together?
Within hours of the departure of the last U.S. troops a year ago, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused the country's Sunni vice president of treason -- an early indicator of the deepening sectarian fissures in the country. Since then, Iraq's political fabric has become steadily more threadbare. In the north, an unexpected -- some call it nearly miraculous -- rapprochement between Kurdistan and Turkey has transformed the relationship from active conflict to political warmth. Investment by major foreign oil companies has subsequently poured in, at the expense of Baghdad's rights. The economic divides are deepening: Today, Kurdistan gets 22 hours per day of electricity from its electricity grid, while Baghdad struggles with only four.
The good news out of Kurdistan only emphasizes the stagnation in the rest of the country. Iraq's Shiites receive most of the few services that Baghdad's divided and feckless government is able to provide, leaving the country's Sunni population increasingly angry and resorting to violence.
Elections in the early months of 2013 may indicate whether Iraq will be able to hold itself together. What unfolds in Syria will also heavily influence Iraqi Sunnis' decisions about how far to push their dissatisfaction. The chances of Iraq becoming a stable, unified country -- 10 years after the U.S. invasion, and with more than a trillion dollars spent -- are not encouraging.