By Michal Meidan
A growing economic juggernaut and rising political power, China has many reasons to look to the Middle East: to import oil, extend its diplomatic influence, diversify its trade ties, and undermine U.S. hegemony. In that context, it seems hardly surprising that Beijing (alongside Moscow) vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and set aside its commercial dispute with Iran to conclude an oil import deal -- undermining U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran.
But Beijing's Middle East strategy is hardly the coherent, well-thought-out doctrine that some believe. Instead, it's the product of a number of (sometimes competing) domestic interests that must be coordinated each time a crisis unfolds. Worryingly for Beijing, as China's commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region's politics. In the process, the risk of antagonizing an important commodity supplier, getting on the wrong side of Washington, or fueling unwanted domestic debates will become more costly and more complicated.
Some argue, simplistically, that when China blocks pressure on Iran to protect its commercial relations with that country, it pays no price for it. The reality is not nearly that simple.
First, Beijing's decisions on Iran and Syria have clearly irked Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the Syria veto "despicable." Moreover, ongoing oil trading between China and Iran has already led Washington to slap sanctions on a Chinese trader. In a year of presidential elections in the U.S. and political turnover in China, when both sides are trying to keep tensions at bay, Middle East politics will burden an already complicated relationship with an unwelcome irritant.
But Beijing has more than the United States to worry about. Take China's ties with Saudi Arabia, which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. Beijing's reluctance to support Western-led sanctions on Iran isn't going down well in Riyadh either. Nor has China's decision to veto the U.N. Security Council's Syria resolution, a choice that Beijing claims was intended to prevent the situation on the ground from escalating further.
Finally, several diplomatic principles -- non-interference in a third country's sovereignty, support for non-proliferation, China's rise as a responsible stakeholder -- are increasingly being called into question by other governments. The decision to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria may have been motivated by diplomatic principles of non-interference in a country's sovereignty and by Beijing's desire to prevent the situation from getting worse, but it has plainly damaged popular perceptions of China elsewhere in the region, and Premier Wen Jiabao's criticism of the Iranian nuclear program rings hollow to Western ears.
When thinking about its foreign policy goals, does Beijing really want to provide the security framework for the Middle East? These are difficult debates that Chinese leaders must have, but they will certainly want to postpone them until after Beijing's leadership transition is complete next year.
In short, the more deeply Beijing becomes involved in the Middle East, the more complicated its foreign relations and internal policy-making processes become -- and the more China has to lose. The choice between alienating an oil supplier, challenging an important trade partner and a global political power or opening up its diplomatic principles for debate is one that Beijing would like to avoid. But as its global reach extends, so will the trade-offs it has to make.
By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
Some of the outsiders inspired by last year's protests in Tahrir Square and the power of ordinary Egyptians to oust their long-time dictator expressed surprise when the country's transitional government began in December to target prominent NGOs as agents of foreign (read Western) governments. They shouldn't be. So far, the great lesson of Egypt's ongoing "transition" is that it remains awfully hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.
Egyptian authorities are now prosecuting more than 40 people for operating NGOs without licenses and for receiving "illegal foreign funding." Among the accused are 19 Americans, including the Washington-based International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The case is but one example of how far Egypt's revolution has unraveled. A year ago, after Hosni Mubarak's exit, even those Egyptian activists least willing to trust the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) believed that the generals understood that the country could not continue as it had for six decades, that power had to be shared, and that democracy demands much more than the conduct of hastily arranged elections.
The activists, and the rest of the country, watched the generals leap aboard the "January 25 Revolution" bandwagon and salute the struggle's young martyrs. Protesters believed they had an unspoken understanding with SCAF that the military would retain some political influence -- and some of the commercial assets they had amassed over the years -- in exchange for a willingness to pass political power to a pluralist civilian government following a period of transition, to reform state institutions, and to respect the rights of citizens to organize.
In the months that followed, minds changed and understandings evaporated. When the military killed more than two dozen Egyptian Christian activists in October, the illusion was publicly shattered. Clashes between activists and security forces in November and December upped the stakes. As 2011 drew to a close, it became clear that SCAF generals, who first rose to prominence via the intensity of their loyalty to Hosni Mubarak, shared their former leader's authoritarian worldview.
Over the course of 2011, SCAF froze out the protest leaders and struck a separate deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, one that gives various Islamist parties a dominant position in crafting Egypt's domestic policy while leaving the army in charge of foreign policy and key segments of Egypt's economy. Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, won about two-thirds of seats in recent parliamentary elections. The protesters, now marginalized, are becoming more confrontational.
The crackdown on NGOs reveals the understandings that are implicit in the Muslim Brotherhood-SCAF understanding. Credible allegations have emerged that Islamist groups have received foreign funding too, from Gulf Arab countries, but SCAF has taken virtually no action against them. It's the groups that lobby for human rights -- and who have criticized SCAF -- that have been targeted.
If these NGOs have indeed broken laws, they are Mubarak-era laws. SCAF has changed the rules on elections and the formation of political parties, but their unwillingness to tolerate civil society shows the limits of their willingness to change.
The generals' inflexibility bodes ill for Egypt's future. The Brotherhood, eager to finally enjoy a share of formal power, has become the army's enthusiastic partner. But neither group appears to recognize that elections alone will not guarantee stability. Their broader public popularity and the power of state television ensure that, especially outside of Egypt's largest cities, the military and Muslim Brotherhood represent the "silent majority."
But the vocal minority will keep pushing back, and the potential for violence is on the rise.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
By Scott Rosenstein
In November and December of 2011, two teams of researchers submitted papers to Science and Nature magazines, apparently revealing the mutations necessary to make H5N1 avian influenza (a.k.a. bird flu) easily transmissible among humans. In its current form, the virus is exceedingly difficult for people to catch. If a beefed-up version were to circulate outside a lab while maintaining its lethality, though, the ensuing pandemic would likely be devastating. The scientists' research launched a heated debate, and on Jan. 20, 39 scientists announced a 60-day moratorium on all avian flu transmission research. But in a world where rapid gains in technology and scientific knowledge have made virus manipulation available to an expanding cohort -- some with less-than-honorable intentions -- that probably won't be enough time for policymakers and scientists to strike a balance between security and pandemic preparedness.
As Laurie Garrett has detailed in Foreign Policy, security experts worry that the information in the pending papers, or even the existence of the mutated virus in a lab, poses a security threat that outweighs the possible benefits of identifying the pathogen strain early and developing vaccines and antivirals to beat it. Scientists, meanwhile, argue that censoring scientific inquiry sets a dangerous precedent, while doing little to diminish the capabilities of nefarious actors. One of the first questions to ask, therefore, is who might those actors be, and would bird flu really be their weapon of choice?
The most obvious candidate is al-Qaeda. The terrorist group is struggling to reassert itself after the death of Osama bin Laden and has expressed interest in staging a biological attack. Hillary Clinton, in her Dec. 7 speech in Geneva, singled out the group's recent call to arms for "brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction." But bird flu may not be the best choice here. Flu spreads fast, circumnavigating the globe multiple times a year, and making it a less-than-ideal weapon if your target is a specific population or geography.
If you were hoping to target all of humanity, bird flu could be more attractive. And since doomsday agendas tend to be associated with misfits and loners, it's worth asking: Would an individual be able to unleash bird flu alone? The details of the studies remain shrouded, but there is reason to believe that developing a lethal virus might be possible for those with access to the necessary technology and a relatively basic background in genetic engineering. Perhaps not the most common educational path for would-be terrorists, but the situation is worrying nonetheless -- particularly as the necessary technology becomes more widespread and easier to use.
Increasingly accessible technology presents another concern, one that doesn't require a nefarious actor: a lab accident. Virus leaks certainly happen, as demonstrated by an Ebola incident in Russia and SARS in Singapore. Both sides of the debate agree that we need better global coordination on bioweapons and biosafety. But the 1972 U.N. Biological Weapons Convention is outdated and mostly unenforceable, and the basic definitions and protocols for biosafety around the world are far from standardized, creating gaps that could allow negligent or suspect activities to go unnoticed.
So now what? Per the suggestion of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a U.S. agency tasked with issuing guidance on potentially dangerous experiments, both bird flu papers will likely be published soon, with significant methodological components redacted. This compromise has satisfied neither side, and in the meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO) is planning to hold a summit on the issue. But a two-month research moratorium and a WHO summit are unlikely to be sufficient. WHO is the most logical arena for the discussion and could help diffuse criticism that the U.S. is dominating the debate. But massive funding shortfalls at the organization and the security risks at play could stymie their efforts. So while the doomsday scenario remains a fat tail risk, improved international coordination will likely remain challenging, as a diverse set of actors navigate mostly uncharted political and scientific territory.
Scott Rosenstein is a director in Eurasia Group’s global health practice.
SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images
By Cliff Kupchan
On Sept. 16 and again on Sept. 19, the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas stated that his government would apply to the U.N. Security Council for full membership at the UN this week, a move which will further stoke already significant strains. The United States will almost certainly veto the application, however, amplifying ill-will among all interested parties.
Security Council approval requires at least nine votes and no vetoes; some international diplomats believe there is a chance that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will fail to secure the nine "yes" votes, obviating a U.S. veto. In any case, a membership application to the Security Council takes time, ranging from weeks to months. This would provide an interlude for other diplomatic actions, including a shift of focus to the U.N. General Assembly and efforts to return to the peace process, though that outcome is not likely.
Despite Abbas' statements, there is still a small chance that the Palestinians will go straight to the General Assembly and avoid the provocative Security Council option. Significant debate is ongoing within the PA, with Abbas and his senior advisor Nabeel Shaath favoring the Security Council route. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad favors a less inflammatory path. At the General Assembly, the PA would apply for non-member state status. Most observers believe the PA would need a two-thirds majority to attain that status, which appears to be within easy reach. The weight of that majority would be enhanced by affirmative votes from France and, probably, Britain. Again, the United States would vote against the proposal.
The Palestinians are taking the U.N. path because the PA has given up on the peace process in its current form. A high-level Palestinian recently visited Washington, delivering the message that leverage between Israel and Palestine had to be equalized and that U.N. membership or de facto recognition (non-member state status) was the only peaceful option. The PA leadership appears genuinely committed to a two-state solution, and does not believe its gambit will lead the Israelis to abandon further negotiations.
The biggest, and most likely, risk is of Palestinian unrest and violence directed against Israel, though casualties will likely be limited. The mood among the population in the West Bank is a mix of apathy and anticipation over the U.N. vote. PA officials have stated that they will prevent any violent reaction, though celebratory marches have already been planned. The population is likely to be emboldened, angry at the United States, and frustrated by lack of actual change on the ground following the vote, a factor that will grow stronger over time.
The combustible mix will probably lead to actions, peaceful or otherwise, against Israeli soldiers or settlers. In any case, a Palestinian mobilization will probably push Israel into a defensive crouch that could lead to preemptive actions. Israeli forces would probably curb movement by Palestinians and enter refugee camps and cities, settlers may commit hostile acts, and the government could withhold tax remittances. Palestinian security forces will likely seek to curb unrest, but at the risk of the PA's legitimacy. Fear of uncontrolled escalation on both sides will probably limit violence, but the West Bank could well remain unstable for a protracted period.
Any unrest would likely come in waves. Abbas is scheduled to address the United Nations and submit the Security Council application on Sept. 23, shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech; unrest could well occur on Friday. After that, disorder is most likely following Security Council or General Assembly action.
Cliff Kupchan is a director in Eurasia Group’s Middle East Practice
SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
By Cliff Kupchan and Jonathan Tepperman
Last week was a busy one in New York, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in town for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, kept the media spotlight focused firmly on Turtle Bay with his usual antics: absurd claims about 9/11, some casual Holocaust denial, a little pro forma denunciation of Zionism, and some reflexive chest beating directed at Washington.
But the president's performance distracted attention from where the really interesting action was taking place: in Tehran, where a possibly game-changing battle within the conservative elite has intensified in recent weeks. The tensions between clerics and pragmatic conservatives on the one hand and Ahmadinejad and his allies on the other has been brewing for some months, but recently reached a fever pitch.
At issue are several disputes. The first is an ongoing power struggle between the president and the parliament, or Majlis, which is dominated by his pragmatic conservative foes. This battle has finally crystallized around a surprisingly banal question: funding for the Tehran metro, which the Majlis has appropriated $2 billion to upgrade and the president refuses to spend.
Part of Ahmadinejad's reasoning is that the metro system is run by the son of one of his many enemies: In this case, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who supported the Green Movement in last year's contested election. But there is a deeper reason for Ahmadinejad's fight with parliament, and it explains some of his other recent moves as well -- the diminutive leader is trying nothing less than to reinterpret Iran's constitution by fiat, to push it from a system in which the Supreme Leader coordinates between the three branches of government to one in which the president calls more shots.
Ahmadinejad's creeping power play can be seen in another of his recent campaigns: to wrest control over Iran's foreign policy. The president has long distrusted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and sought to replace him. The problem is that Mottaki got his job from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So Ahmadinejad, like a deft infighter, has simply started working around Khamenei on this issue, appointing his own foreign policy experts -- in effect, establishing an alternate foreign ministry under exclusive presidential control. The new men include Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who now holds a brief as Middle East adviser, and five others. Khamenei has reportedly warned the president against setting up such parallel power structures, but so far at least, Ahmadinejad is ignoring him.
All of this might seem like good news for the United States, and in the long term, it probably is. Having successfully marginalized Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and the democratic Green Movement they led in last year's elections, the country's conservative elite is now turning on itself -- and if these battles keep escalating, they could eventually tear the regime apart.
The squabbling has also weakened the standing of Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who, by failing to intervene, is confirming his reputation for weakness and indecisiveness.
In the short term, however, the chaos will complicate relations between Washington and Tehran. For all his anti-Western rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has actually been one of the Iranian politicians to call most loudly for talks with the United States on Iran's nuclear program. But pragmatic conservatives will now do all they can to torpedo any outreach to the Great Satan, lest the president claim credit for a breakthrough. That means the chances of negotiation over Iran's advancing weapons program -- never high at the best of times -- have just gotten a little bit worse.
Cliff Kupchan is Director of the Russia and CIS team at Eurasia Group and an Iran analyst. Jonathan Tepperman is Eurasia Group's Managing Editor and a Correspondent for TheAtlantic.com.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
By Philippe de Pontet and Willis Sparks
Why would President Omar al-Bashir allow the southern third of Sudan to secede, taking 80 percent of the country's oil with it? Maybe he won't. It's far from a done deal. But for the moment, it appears his government might be willing to do just that.
South Sudan is hoping to hold a referendum on January 9 that will almost certainly lead to its independence from the government based in Khartoum. After years of negotiations, North and South remain far apart on issues that must be resolved if a credible vote is to take place, and if an independent South Sudan is to be truly viable. But incentives and pressure from outsiders may help bring this off.
Last week, the State Department formally offered the North some attractive conditions-based carrots. If Khartoum accepts the results of the referendum, Washington will lift restrictions on non-oil trade and investment. And upon fulfillment of the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war in January 2005 and "resolution" of the Darfur conflict, the US will give al-Bashir's government much of what it says it wants: sanctions removal, normalization of relations, and support for a multilateral plan to reduce Khartoum's astronomical $38 billion debt.
In return, the South will have to share some of its oil wealth with the North, moving gradually over the course of several years from the current 50/50 split to a smaller share for the North that's large enough for Khartoum to accept. The two sides will also have to demarcate the border and resolve the status of the oil-rich province of Abyei -- not easy tasks. On Friday, a U.N. summit on the issue will bring together representatives of North and South with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There are solid grounds for optimism beyond the persuasive powers of the diplomats involved. First, China, one of the few international players with real influence in Khartoum, wants a North-South agreement that averts any risk of a return to civil war, since most of the 480,000 barrels of crude oil that Sudan exports each day are bound for China. That's more than 5 percent of China's imported oil. A North-South conflict in Sudan would cost Khartoum and Beijing dearly.
Second, Washington will lean heavily on the South to compromise on the sharing of oil revenue and the border demarcation process. The South depends on support from the United States and the United Nations for the referendum and its independence. With billions of U.S. aid dollars spent, and billions more to come, it's high time that the United States put real pressure on the South to make necessary compromises, starting with oil revenue-sharing.
Finally, the North is not entirely vulnerable to southern control of oil. The South may hold 80 percent of the reserves, but the existing pipelines run north. The two sides must get along if either is to profit from the oil.
Last week, Hillary Clinton told a Council on Foreign Relations audience that Sudan is "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence," reminding everyone involved how much work remains to be done-and how easily negotiations could fly off the rails. The United Nations will offer to play a leading role (with the African Union) in preparing the referendum. That's critical since preparation time for such an ambitious vote is running short, in a region almost entirely devoid of infrastructure. Khartoum's response to this proposal will give some indication of its willingness to make compromises of its own, as it has grudgingly done on several occasions since the 2005 peace agreement.
The Obama administration has adopted an ambitious (and risky) strategy. Much of what it has promised Khartoum will depend on "resolution" of the conflict in Darfur, an issue not directly related to the North-South conflict. Khartoum will want clarity on what the word resolution actually means, balking at allowing the South to secede without knowing just how high a bar it must clear to claim the incentives Washington has promised. The United States, European Union, United Nations, and Khartoum's friends in China and Egypt will have to remain actively involved if talks are to remain on track.
In the end, despite hot heads and tough talk on both sides, North and South will probably move toward compromise on oil profits, the border, and Abyei during the six-month transition period between the referendum and the official birth of a new nation (whose name has yet to be determined). A return to civil war would serve neither government. An end to conflict and a stable environment for oil production would profit the two governments' most powerful foreign friends.
If things go wrong, either side could get aggressive. A breakdown in talks before the referendum could push the South to simply declare independence unilaterally -- not an auspicious start to nationhood in one of the world's toughest regions. Alternatively, the North could decide to seize control of the South's largest oil fields. It could also destabilize border regions -- though Khartoum knows well that any attempt to stoke a broader conflict across the South would invite a military response that could trigger a return to war that virtually no one wants.
But for the moment, there are solid grounds for optimism that one Sudan can peacefully become two. And that would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Philippe de Pontet is Director of Eurasia Group's Africa practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
By Jonathan Tepperman
The government of Rwanda reacted with fury last weekend when a leak revealed that a forthcoming U.N. report may charge Rwanda with genocide stemming from massacres of Hutu rebels and civilians by Tutsi forces in the next-door Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following the 1994 Rwandan civil war. Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, blasted the 500-plus-page draft report as "fatally flawed" and "incredibly irresponsible" and threatened to withdraw the thousands of troops Rwanda contributes to U.N. peacekeeping operations in multiple African countries if the United Nations moves forward and publishes the draft.
At first blush, it's easy to understand Rwanda's rage. It does seem a little rich for the United Nations -- which pretty much sat on its hands in April 1994 when Hutu extremists butchered some 800,000 Tutsis, ignoring the pleas of the United Nations' own head peacekeeper for reinforcements -- to now accuse the Tutsi government that stopped that killing of perpetrating a genocide of its own in the process. (The U.N. charges relate to a period of several years following Rwanda's civil war, when the victorious Tutsis chased rebel Hutus across the border into the DRC, then called Zaire.)
And yet Rwanda's livid reaction, and its refusal to even countenance the possibility that it too may share some blame for the mayhem, is another painful sign of just how badly things have gone wrong in that country since the Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame's very promising start.
SIMON MAINA/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.
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The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.