Note: Today is the eighth in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013
The dangers emanating from the ongoing shadow war with Iran are greater than many observers believe. This struggle has consisted of several components, including a cycle of mutual killings and cyber attacks. While there is no hard proof, it is a reasonable assumption that Israel and Iran (or at least some officials in Iran) are responsible. The final theater is the ongoing proxy war in Syria.
In early 2013, the West will also become engaged in an effort to negotiate a solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Western countries, led by the U.S., would very much like a peaceful resolution, while Iran sorely needs relief from stiff economic sanctions. Talks will be intensive but on balance the talks will probably fail by late spring. The Iranian elite have an almost existential commitment to the nuclear program, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei possesses a deep seated enmity for the U.S.
As a result, the West and Iran will probably return to escalating sanctions and shadow war, with two drivers boosting the ferocity of that struggle. First, the Iranian regime will feel compelled to show resolve and retaliate in the face of new sanctions. Second, the regime faces a period of profound economic weakness, though it will not collapse. But weak governments are prone to lashing out, both to rally domestic support and to portray an image of strength.
These new drivers will likely intensify the shadow war and could lead to new fronts. The chance of miscalculation and overreaction on both sides would rise, especially in the face of provocations such as a successful assassination plot in the U.S. similar to the alleged attempt against the Saudi ambassador in October 2011 or an episode such as the 2008 swarming of U.S. Navy frigates by Revolutionary Guard boats.
Iran's nuclear program is the second area of concern in 2013. Israeli rhetoric will remain at a high pitch, but is intended to increase diplomatic leverage and economic sanctions. Still, the probability of an Israeli attack in 2013 is low because Iran's nuclear program is unlikely to pose an imminent threat this year. Also, Israel can inflict only limited damage on Iran's nuclear facilities and there will be a lack of consensus among its political leaders about the wisdom of a strike. Polling also shows the Israeli public firmly opposes unilateral action. Finally, the U.S. would likely attack only if Iran tries to acquire a nuclear weapon and that is unlikely.
There are, however, a number of worrying scenarios. Developments at the Fordo enrichment facility make up one. Iran will have enough medium-enriched uranium to make a bomb by early summer, but weekly IAEA inspections leave enough time for detection and action. The central question is whether the Israeli government will trust the U.S. or strike on its own. Israel is unlikely to attack, but this dilemma slightly boosts the chance of Israeli strikes during 2013 (to roughly 20 percent).
A scenario involving a detectable Iranian breakout would probably elicit a U.S. attack. Yet Tehran has been very cautious and slow. Iran probably wants to become a latent nuclear power; that is, the world knows it could develop a bomb quickly. But Iran's threat perception will become more dire this year, making an irrational dash to a bomb, and a U.S. attack, slightly more likely.
Next week, we'll profile Risk #9: India
IIPA via Getty Images
By Jennifer Lee
The new, young regime in North Korea surprised more than a few observers when it agreed last week to a moratorium on its nuclear activities in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid so soon after Kim Jong Un assumed leadership. Instead of the legitimacy-building provocations expected from the young Kim (who is in his late 20s), the world got a measured concession from a totalitarian regime that demonstrated a degree of consensus and decision-making ability. In some ways, it was the story of the young son continuing his father Kim Jong Il's efforts to improve relations with the U.S. prior to his death.
There is general optimism surrounding the agreement, which stalls North Korea's uranium enrichment program, and nuclear and long-range missile tests, and allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Last week's step forward, however, does not necessarily presage a more substantive shift in North Korea's posture. The agreement allows North Korea to possibly address its immediate concerns (economic sanctions) and affect domestic politics in South Korea, without ceding its ability to provoke or flip the switch (again) on its nuclear program.
While it is easy to think that the U.S. food aid "carrot" must have been the main reason behind North Korea agreeing to this deal, it is unlikely the case. North Korea is not known for being particularly concerned about the hunger of its people (allegedly more than one million people died during the famine in the 90s, and food security has been dismal for the past few decades); and the totalitarian nature of the regime means that its leaders are not very concerned about their approval ratings.
North Korea is more concerned about the economic condition of the state and the long-term implications of sanctions (North Korea's version of the statement mentions that it would want to discuss the lifting of sanctions and provision of light water reactors if the Six Party Talks resume). The current move is probably a gambit to see if it can resume the Six Party Talks and have sanctions lifted without giving up the nuclear program. The deal is also likely an effort by Pyongyang to slight the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, which it views with hostility, in the hope of increasing the chances of the liberal parties in South Korea's presidential election in December.
The U.S. and South Korea both have presidential elections this year. The agreement is likely North Korea's way of buying time for a year or so until the South Korean administration changes, while trying to extract concessions from an Obama administration that does not want any more conflicts on its hands during an election year. This is also a moratorium that is to last only while "productive dialogue continues." Everything North Korea has promised is reversible if it decides to back out. And it certainly has set a precedent for doing so. Furthermore, this moratorium applies only to the Yongbyun nuclear facilities; it is widely believed that there are several other nuclear development sites throughout North Korea that will be out of reach under this agreement.
It should not be forgotten that North Korea's nuclear capability has been extolled within North Korea as Kim Jong Il's most important legacy. It is undoubtedly seen as the single most powerful card that North Korea has, and with the recent leadership transition to a young new leader, there is little chance that the country will completely forgo this leverage, especially after the NATO operation in Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi.
There is still a possibility that this could turn into something positive and lasting for U/S.-North Korea relations or North Korea's future behavior. Last week's agreement demonstrates that the totalitarian regime in North Korea was able to take a rational step for its self-interest. But it does not demonstrate that North Korea is contemplating giving up its nuclear weapons, or that it is on the verge of changing its behavior.
Jennifer Lee is an associate in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
By Damien Ma
In the midst of strident declarations that the global nuclear renaissance is over, it is worth pointing out that in China at least, the rebirth of nuclear power is for all intents and purposes a done deal, especially now that Japan's nuclear crisis seems to have turned a corner. Many thought Beijing's immediate announcement of a safety review and a freeze on new approvals meant the industry was effectively on life support. But that's not true. Nuclear power features prominently in the 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) as an essential base-load alternative to coal. And because there are no easy substitutes, nuclear power is a key part of achieving China's clean energy goals.
The recently ratified 12th FYP contains binding targets to have non-fossil fuels account for 11.4 percent of China's primary energy mix and for a carbon intensity reduction of 17 percent by 2015. Those goals are likely to be reached only by meaningfully expanding nuclear power because renewables alone (including hydro) are unlikely to be sufficient in offsetting coal and meeting the plan's objective. Nuclear capacity is expected to quadruple from the current 10.8GW to around 40GW by 2015. The State Council has reportedly already approved 34 plants totaling 36.9GW, with work on 25 of those projects (totaling 27.7GW) having already started. Even if the new regulatory review delays construction of the remaining nine projects on the drawing board, China's nuclear power capacity would eventually still be just shy of 40GW.
The review process will have some effect though. Yet-to-be approved projects may be shelved. Existing projects and those yet to break ground could temporarily see delays or receive more scrutiny to determine whether they need to be retrofitted. But decommissioning reactors seems unlikely. China's fleet of reactors is relatively young, compare to the 40-year-old ones in Fukushima. Siting future plants in interior China, such as in Chongqing and Hunan, may also be reconsidered because of their proximity to notable quake zones. It is also worth noting that though China stated in 2010 that it is aiming for 70GW-86GW of installed capacity by 2020 (with some proposing total capacity as high as 100GW), that figure could ultimately err on the conservative side once Beijing reassesses its energy needs for the 13th FYP. But even at 70GW, China would be one of the largest nuclear markets in the world.
The support for nuclear energy reflects the political strength of its champions in the Chinese government. Top energy officials, such as former National Energy Administration (NEA) head Zhang Guobao and current NEA chief Liu Tienan, have publicly stated in recent days that China needs to develop its nuclear industry, with safety as a prerequisite. Other officials from the environment ministry, which has a hand in managing the nuclear sector, have also argued that China needs nuclear power to ensure energy security amid growing demand. Indeed, energy security and clean development have been invoked as compelling arguments. The head of the China National Nuclear Corp., one of the country's two nuclear giants, recently pointed to data indicating that China's existing nuclear capacity reduced annual emissions (67 million tons less of CO2 and 250,000 tons less of SO2) compared to equivalent coal-fired capacity.
Yet the effusive support elides legitimate concerns about whether China can produce a sufficient number of properly trained operators and managers that can keep up with the expansion of plants. (The Chinese obviously would prefer technicians like those handling the Fukushima crisis.) And the Japanese crisis has lent ammunition to some critics of the pace and scope of China's nuclear pursuit, with some likening it to a "great leap forward." The episode could perhaps inspire a more open debate about China's nuclear trajectory. It is also possible that bottom-up populism, particularly in a more "progressive" province such as Guangdong, could fight local governments over future plant sites. But ultimately, a sudden reversal of the civilian nuclear program that began in earnest 20 years ago seems unlikely.
Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
2009 Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer
With all the upheaval in the energy-rich Middle East, it's easy to forget that North Korea remains the world's single biggest security threat. And as he's proven many times over the years, Kim Jong-Il doesn't like to be ignored.
After a quiet couple of months, North Korea appears to be preparing for the next round of trouble. Recent talks with the South broke down almost immediately. A row over refugees has begun, with North Korea demanding the return of 31 people who crossed into South Korean waters in a fishing boat and South Korea insisting that four of them have asked for asylum.
In addition, published reports suggest North Korea could be preparing a third nuclear test.
Pyongyang is threatening missile strikes against the South Korean mainland if balloons carrying propaganda leaflets continue to cross the border. There's nothing new about threats
from the north, but the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette and the
shelling of a South Korean island last year provide an unusually hostile
North Korea has plenty to feel vulnerable about. The toughest winter in decades has damaged this year's rice crop, and North Korean officials are reportedly asking for food aid even as they threaten to drown South Korea in a lake of fire. And the hastily-coordinated transition to Kim Jong Il's all-but-unknown 27-year-old third son continues.
Don't forget the North Koreans. They have a way of reminding us they're still there.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon
Individual hackers and organized crime organizations have targeted businesses for years, but cyberattacks have rarely created political risk. They do now. The centralization of data networks -- both in energy distribution (the move to the smart grid) and information technology more broadly (the shift to cloud computing) -- is increasing the vulnerability of states to potentially debilitating cyberattacks. As governments become more directly and actively involved in cyberspace, geopolitics and cybersecurity will collide in three major ways.
First, new cyber capacity allows governments to project power in a world where direct military strikes are much more costly and dangerous. There have been plenty of stories about well-funded efforts from inside China to manipulate access to the Internet, but it's the almost-certainly state-sponsored Stuxnet attacks on Iran's industrial infrastructure that provide the clearest early glimpse of what tomorrow's carefully targeted state-sponsored attack might look like. When a missile is launched, everyone knows where it came from. Cyberattacks are a very different story.
Second, we'll see more cyber conflicts between state-owned companies and multinational corporations, providing state capitalists with tools that give them a competitive commercial advantage. China and Chinese companies are by far the biggest concern here. Throw in Beijing's indigenous innovation plans, which are designed to ensure that China develops its own advanced technology, and this is probably the world's most important source of direct conflict between states and corporations.
Third, there is the increasing fallout from the WikiLeaks problem, as those sympathetic to Julian Assange unleash attacks on governments and the corporations that support them in targeting WikiLeaks and its founder. In fact, the principal cybersecurity concern of governments has shifted from potential attacks by al Qaeda or Chinese security forces to radicalized info -- anarchists undertaking a debilitating attack against critical infrastructure, a key government agency, or a pillar of the financial system. Whether attacks are waged for power (state versus state), profit (particularly among state capitalists), or for 'the people,' (as in the WikiLeaks case), this will be a wildcard to watch in 2011.
On Friday, we'll talk about Top Risk no. 4: China -- and why its policymakers will frustrate much of the international community this year.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group. David Gordon is the firm's head of research.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
For the sixth time in less than four years, the U.N. Security Council has voted to impose new sanctions on Iran in connection with its nuclear program. Nothing new there. U.S. officials wanted stronger measures, but the Chinese in particular pushed back hard. Nothing new there either. The sanctions, which are still significantly tougher than earlier models and include tightened restrictions on arms sales, new headaches for Iranian shipping, and an assault on the finances of the Revolutionary Guard and about 40 Iranian companies, will not persuade Iran's government to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Nor is there anything new there.
The real news is that Turkey and Brazil voted no. That's a diplomatic coup for Tehran, which in five previous UNSC votes had won virtually no support. Qatar voted no on the first round of sanctions in July 2006. Indonesia abstained on the fourth round in March 2008. Support from regional heavyweights like Turkey and Brazil (and an abstention from Lebanon) give Iran something tangible to build on as its embattled government works to ease its isolation and to persuade other governments to resist U.S. and European calls for further sanctions outside the U.N. process.
President Ahmadinejad's recent dance card-a Russia/Turkey summit on security just before the sanctions vote and a trip to Beijing just after-illustrates the value of that strategy.
But there's a larger point here about the current state of international politics. It's getting harder for Washington to exercise international leadership. With 10 percent unemployment, an ambitious legislative agenda, an oil spill, and mid-term elections to worry about, President Obama has limited time and energy to invest in grand strategy on foreign policy. Managing geopolitical risk has also become much more complicated in a world that has shifted from a G7 model of international leadership to a G20 model that brings countries like Brazil and Turkey to the international bargaining table. And there is no emerging power willing and able to fill the gap left by new limits on American power and resources, because European powers, China, Russia and others who might lead on key transnational issues are likewise occupied with complex challenges at home.
In other words, no one is really steering this ship, and we can't expect it to sail smoothly through troubled waters.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
By Willis Sparks and Geoff Porter
As the world focuses on the diplomatic tug of war over Iran's nuclear program, Israel lives with the worrying hum of all those centrifuges spinning just a thousand miles to the east. Yet, Benjamin Netanyahu's government knows that if Israel launches airstrikes, there's a limit to how much damage can be done and how long Iran's progress can be delayed. It therefore has to persuade the Obama administration -- and anyone else who might help slow Iran's march -- to see the risks from Iran as Israel sees them.
It helped that Iran recently revealed the existence of an undeclared nuclear site near the city of Qom. At the very least, that revelation of Iranian dishonesty might have made it a little more difficult for Beijing and Moscow to justify continued resistance to sanctions. Yet, Israel remained quiet. Suddenly it appeared Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and National Security Advisor Uzi Arad might have a wind at their backs. Though they'd like the wind to blow a bit more steadily and to get them to their destination quicker, they can't risk the rhetoric that might label them as blowhards.
But now there's talk of a diplomatic breakthrough. Following talks in Geneva with negotiators from the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany, Iran has signed on to a tentative "interim agreement" to accept a U.S.-Russian proposal (that has been on the table for more than a year) to ship much of its low enriched uranium outside the country for reprocessing. Ensuring that this uranium is processed outside the country would help verify that it's used for civilian, not military, purposes. And then over the weekend, Iran ostensibly agreed to allow IAEA inspectors into the Qom facility on Oct. 25.
This leaves the Israeli government in a bind. First, because the details have yet to be worked out and Iran could renounce a completed agreement at any time, Israel can't take much comfort from it. Second, the fact that others treat it as a potential diplomatic breakthrough makes it even less likely than before that Israel could justify military strikes or that the US can persuade Russia and (especially) China to support sanctions tough enough to make any difference in Iran's strategic planning.
Israel has no faith that the potential for diplomatic détente between Iran and the US and EU is anything more than an Iranian stalling tactic, buying Tehran more time to speed toward the nuclear finish line. Likewise, Israel doesn't believe that sanctions -- no matter how tough they are -- will back Iran down. For Israel, diplomacy and sanctions are merely different forms of delay, but Netanyahu has little choice but to wait them out.
He'll be waiting for some time. First, diplomacy has to run its course. Following the tentative agreement in Geneva and the announcement that Iran will allow inspection of its Qom facility, the diplomatic track seems to be gaining momentum. Once that momentum slows and stalemate resumes, sanctions will be debated and some of them will be implemented. That won't happen before spring 2010 at the earliest.
In the meantime, Israel has little choice but to sit on its hands. Netanyahu knows that strikes on Iran's nuclear sites during delicate negotiations would inflict much more damage to Israel's international reputation -- and its relations with Washington, in particular -- than to Iran's nuclear program. Nothing brings this home more clearly than the U.N. Human Rights Council's report investigating Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, which came very close to launching a legal process within the UN that could have produced a referral to the U.N. Security Council -- and possibly a war crimes tribunal. That's not going to happen, but it underscored already shifting international attitudes toward Israel.
Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has said 2010 would be the year of sanctions. His government was hoping for a year of action. Instead, Israel will wait.
Willis Sparks is Global Macro Analyst and Geoff Porter is Middle East & Africa Director at Eurasia Group.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer
A lot of people continue to ask me if I could explain how and why British and French nuclear submarines collided in the Atlantic last week. What are the chances of such a thing happening? And what interesting questions does it raise -- like why do Britain and France even have nukes anymore?
First, this is not as unlikely an accident as you might think. These subs tend to pass through regions of the Atlantic where the Gulf Stream is strongest and they're, therefore, hardest to detect.
Second, both countries are extremely secretive about the positions of their submarines. On board, only the captain and senior officers generally know with much precision where they are. France will finally rejoin NATO's military structures this April, but that's unlikely to make them any more forthcoming about the nuclear submarine force.
Finally, stealth sonar technology works. Neither of the submarines would have detected the other--even at close quarters. These are the main reasons why this collision was merely really, really, really unlikely rather than virtually impossible.
Now for the much more interesting question: Why do Britain and France continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent? The two countries now have just four nuclear strike submarines each. The UK abandoned its airborne capability in 1998 and is now dependent on these subs. France still has an airborne capability, but this is steadily reducing, and its submarines now carry 80 percent of its nuclear weapons.
Yet, France has maintained its total nuclear weapons stockpile at around 400. Britain has probably halved its stockpile from 350 to about 170 since the end of the Cold War -- a level that is now smaller than Israel's estimated force and roughly equal to those of India and Pakistan. But the British government announced in March 2007 that it would spend 20 billion pounds to replace its nuclear sub force when it becomes obsolete a decade from now.
So this collision did not amount to a serious accident, but it may prod some to question why France and Britain would spend billions to maintain a nuclear weapons deterrent, a symbol of prestige more than a security guarantee, in the midst of a global recession.
I'll leave that question for French and British officials to answer.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.