Sunday, January 01, 2006

Crystal Balls

Happy new year to everyone. I hope 2006 is good to you all.

It's prediction time.*

2006 will be the year that Blair finally leaves office. This will probably be after a large scale Labour rebellion on his education reforms. It wouldn't surprise me if he's gone by late spring. Brown will take over and be depressingly similiar in his attitudes to many issues. He will make a huge effort to convince us that he is willing to listen to *and* react to public opinion. Whether this will be yet another New Labour public relations exercise or a genuine attempt to do things differently remains to be seen.

With Blair gone, the pressure to conduct a full investigation into his government's behaviour with regard to Iraq will become irresistable. (EDM 1088 already has 109 signatories at the time of writing.) An investigation will be launched and Blair, now safely out of commission politically, will be exclusively blamed for the failings of the Iraq policy in an attempt to clear the name of the many ministers still in government. It won't be pretty.

I think I've already covered my opinion as to what'll happen in Iraq this year. The Islamic fundamentalists of the United Iraqi Alliance will consolidate their power and start planning for the long term. They will ask the coalition forces to leave, most probably in the next two to three months. Bush will declare this a victory and start to withdraw the troops (this process will take many months to complete and will be very dangerous for the troops as the violence will not have abated). The Iranian government will be delighted.

Iran will be the biggest foreign policy issue in the coming year. Bizarrely, I agree with something Christopher Hitchens has said:
To most of them [Iranians], Iraq is not even a proper state, let alone a real country or nation. The very idea that they might see it as a model for any sort of emulation is absurd, if not faintly indecent.
Indeed. (He's still wrong about a great deal though.)

The Iranian government believe they are in a stronger position today than they have been at any time since the revolution. Sadly, they are probably right. President Ahmadinejad is going to cause a huge amount of consternation in the West with his rhetoric and his actions.

The US and UK governments will struggle to find policies to contain the Iranians as they exploit their position. Now that public support for the Iraq war has all but collapsed in the US and here in the UK, the prospect of military action against Iran is inconceivable in the next year or two and the Iranians know it (unless they do something really outrageous and I doubt they're stupid enough to do that). We can expect the Iranians to consolidate and build on their their military capabilities in the meantime. The US government will try to stop this but is likely to achieve only limited success.

Will they develop a covert nuclear weapons programme? It's impossible to be sure but it'd make strategic sense for them to do it right now for the reasons mentioned above. The Iranians know they have room to manouevre but they also know that it won't last forever. At some point in the future, they can expect the US and allies to come calling unless they develop a nuclear capability. The US never raises the issue of a military response to the North Korean regime and this does not go unnoticed among governments of other regimes the US classes as "enemies".

What can the West realistically do if they do go down that road? Can you imagine Bush or Blair/Brown successfully arguing for military action against Iran because of their covert WMD programmes? Not likely. Israel might attempt airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities but this would inflame public opinion in the Islamic world and further destabilise the region. In any event, the Iranians are likely to "dig in" their nuclear facilities to make them hard to spot and even harder to target from the air.

That is, I think, the most troubling aspect of the invasion of Iraq. It was sold as a bold decision to remove WMD from a dangerous part of the world. Saddam didn't have any so that turned out to be a busted flush. What's worse, in reality there's a very good chance that it's going to have precisely the opposite effect. Iran may well achieve a nuclear capability in the next few years and it's hard to see what anyone can do to stop them.

* Predicting the future is, obviously, not an exact science. This is just what I think is likely to happen in the coming year.

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