So let’s start out the new year with a look around at three issues that matter in international relations currently. My short list is: Interest rates in Italy; invective in Iran; and stalemate in Syria.
1. The euro debt crisis grinds on but is looking up a bit this week. Last week the Italian government successfully sold bonds at lower interest rates. When investors are willing to loan money to Italy at a lower rate, this is a signal that the market sees less risk of an Italian collapse. Italy, like Greece, has a new technocrat-led government. But unlike Greece, Ireland, or Portugal, which all recently received large bailouts to keep them from defaulting on debts, Italy is too big to bail out. So the edging away from a financial meltdown is important.
Italy’s success was followed by successful bond issues in the Netherlands and, today, Portugal and Germany. (Germany borrowed $5 billion at below 2 percent interest.) Europe’s financial situation remains tenuous, however. One big worry is that the austerity measures governments are taking to deal with debt will choke off economic growth and drive Europe’s economies into another recession.
2. Iran has been in the news a lot lately. The government keeps creeping closer to the ability to build a nuclear weapon, and Western governments keep tightening up the various sanctions that are supposed to pressure Iran to change course. The Iranian leadership has been turning up the rhetoric in response, most recently by threatening to close down the straits of Hormuz – an international waterway next to Iran that carries a truly huge amount of oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world. Iran has the capability to carry out the threat, but would be completely crazy to do so. It would be an act of war that would bring in a coalition of Iran’s enemies from Saudi Arabia to the United States, to turn the oil spigot back on.
Iran’s leaders must feel pressured, to be sure. The Stuxnet computer worm (apparently a U.S.-Israeli project) set back their uranium enrichment program, perhaps by a couple of years. Top Iranian scientists in the nuclear program have been attacked, one killed, on the streets of Tehran. A huge explosion, still unexplained, devastated a major missile testing facility and killed the head of the missile program. The United States has been flying drones deep into Iran to spy on activities there, as we all learned a month ago when one either crashed or was shot down by Iran (another case of “still unexplained”). The UN’s atomic energy agency has put out reports accusing Iran of pursuing nukes, and the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions, with much more serious sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries. The domestic opposition to Iran’s leaders was crushed after massive protests two years ago, but smolders still.
Will the pressure induce Iran to change course and give up its quest for nuclear weapons? This seems pretty unlikely, barring a change of regime in Iran (which itself falls in the “pretty unlikely” category). Military action (e.g. by the USA or Israel) might slow the process, but as of right now the single most likely outcome of this situation is that Iran will have nuclear weapons in a few years, and perhaps successfully deploy them on capable missiles in a few more years.
A less likely possibility, but an interesting one, is that regional negotiations could produce a nuclear-free zone in which Israel gives up its nuclear weapons and others such as Iran give up the idea of obtaining them. Before you dismiss this idea as utopian, have a look at the poll last month showing 64 percent of Israeli Jews actually favor it.
3. Syria continues to be extremely important but completely stuck in a rut. The latest hope was that an Arab League monitoring mission would induce the government to stop slaughtering protesters and opponents. But the killings continued. The Assad regime has enough support, including the solid support of the top ranks of the military, to hold onto power. But the opposition has enough support to continue its protests.
It is unclear at this point whether the Syrian situation will morph into a civil war as the opposition gives up on peaceful protest and puts its faith in armed insurrection under the Free Syrian Army. So far the armed attacks on the government have not constituted a serious threat – they are more symbolic and sporadic, albeit deadly – and the rebels do not control territory. There is no chance the international community will intervene Libya-style.
These three issues – European debt, Iran’s arguments with other countries, and Syria’s protests – are in different issue areas of international relations: political economy, security affairs, and domestic politics, respectively. There are also important developments currently in environmental politics, North-South relations, and information technologies, which I will blog about in the future. So the action in IR currently is spread across many parts of the field. That should make for an extremely interesting year. Admittedly, 2011 was a hard act to follow, but let’s see if 2012 can give it a run for the money.