Iran announced with great fanfare today that it had sentenced the young Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death for spying. Mr. Hekmati's family said he's merely returned home to visit his grandma.
While his background (he served as a translator with the US military) suggests a return to his birthplace was unwise, giving the surging tensions between the US and Iran and the Islamic Republic's tendency to arrest Iranian-Americans – if recent history is anything to go by, Mr. Hekmati probably isn't a spy. Instead, he's just become the latest pawn in a long-running game: Iran, fueled by domestic paranoia and understandable concerns about US sabotage efforts, arrests Iranian-Americans as one of the few ways to lash out at a far more powerful foreign foe.
"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA are simply untrue," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wrote in a statement. "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."
Since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 was resolved, the detention of Americans in Iran was a rarity until 2007, when a new form of hostage-taking began that was apparently designed to pressure Washington.
Hekmati would appear to be one of at least 10 US citizens arrested and held for political reasons in Iran since then, particularly at times when foreign pressure and domestic fear were on the rise – such as the summer of 2009, when the Green Movement threatened briefly to become a popular uprising that might sweep away the Islamic Revolution.
Now, with the US and Europe threatening to target Iran's oil industry and an Iranian public worried about a shaky economy and attacks from outside, Iranian-Americans headed for Tehran should tread with care. The good news is that many are eventually released. The bad news is that women and Americans without Iranian heritage appear to fare better than Iranian-American men.
For instance, the three young Americans who strayed across the Iranian border in 2009 while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan were arrested and held on espionage charges. But the conditions of their detention were reasonable. The lone woman amongst them, Sarah Shourd, was released after a little over a year and the two men were released after a little over two years.
Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi was detained in January 2009 – yes, again on espionage charges – and released in May of that year. In May 2007, female Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was arrested and held on espionage charges and was released in late August of that year. Ms. Esfandiari was tied to the US-based Wilson Center think tank at the time, working on Iran democracy issues and had returned home to visit her mother. She was one of three Iranian-Americans detained that year.
One of those detainees has fared far worse. Kian Tajbaksh, another Iranian-American academic and an urban planner, was arrested in 2007. Mr. Tajbaksh was sentenced in 2009 to 12 years in prison for spying, and remains there today. Described by friends as apolitical, he had been coming and going from Iran for years on consulting jobs at the time of his arrest.
Iran claims it has strong evidence on Hekmati. Last month state television aired what it said was a confession from Hekmati, claiming he had been dispatched to Iran by the CIA to spy on its intelligence agencies.
Iran has tortured political opponents in the past, or threatened their family members with harm, in order to coerce television confessions like the one given by Hekmati. Photos of opposition cleric Mohammed Ali Abtahi before and after his 2009 detention eloquently make the case of the kind of treatment political prisoners can receive in Iran.
Hekmati's case appears to be complicated by his military ties. And the swiftness of his death sentence, when other American targets have simply been given jail time, is cause for concern. A US spy drone that either crashed in Iran or was hijacked by the country in December was evidence of the intense US espionage effort against the country's nuclear program. Fresh sanctions signed by President Obama at the end of last year targeting the country's central bank, has put both politicians and average citizens on edge about the stability of the economy.
Iran has responded as it usually does – by claiming it will disrupt global oil supplies passing through the Strait of Hormuz if it comes to war. And, perhaps in the case of Hekmati, by arresting an American.
In late December, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs, charging that they were illegally receiving foreign funding. Among them were two of the United States' biggest democracy promotion groups.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), though independent, have close ties to the US government, with most of their funding coming from the National Endowment for Democracy. Their local operations were shuttered, and their computers, documents, and cash were hauled away by armed Egyptian government agents. The US-based Freedom House, the Konrad Adenauer Institute of Germany, and a number of NGO's working on judicial reform and democracy were also raided.
It was a stark illustration of the fact that while Hosni Mubarak is gone, much remains the same in Egypt, where a military junta, suspicious of outsiders and jealously protecting its own prerogatives, is currently running the show. I helped write a couple of pieces on the recent raids and noted, briefly, that IRI and NDI were shut down in 2006, largely over the same kinds of complaints that Egypt's junta is making today: They aren't licensed and their foreign funding amounts to harmful meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.
Though the two groups are connected to the major political parties in the US, their work abroad is similar and the domestic political differences between Republicans and Democrats are irrelevant to IRI and NDI. They focus on voter education, teaching political parties how to craft platforms, conduct focus groups, and much of the other grunt work that goes into political campaigning. But Egyptian officials (indeed, officials in many other countries) have frequently complained about their efforts, portraying them in some cases as subversive.
I was living in Egypt in 2006, and wrote briefly about the problems for the US NGOs then, which started after IRI Egypt director Gina London was quoted in a local paper in May 2006 saying they were carrying on with their work there despite the failure of the government to grant them a license. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit personally called the State Department to complain and the two groups' operations, as well as the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) were shut down for a number of months.
So I was surprised, and a little worried, to see a press release from NDI on Jan. 2 that sought to clear up "numerous false or misleading allegations related to NDI's status in Egypt" and that said among other things that "at no time was NDI asked to stop its work or close its office" in Egypt between the time it submitted an application in 2005 and late December of last year. The group also complained that "it is regrettable and ironic that the money taken from NDI’s Cairo office was to be used to support an international election delegation that was accredited by the Government of Egypt to witness the third stage of the People’s Assembly elections."
Had I remembered wrong? Or been told something that wasn't true in 2006? (I hadn't spent much time on this.) I emailed NDI's Washington-based head of public relations Kathy Gest and asked: "Are you absolutely sure NDI has never been asked by [Egypt] to suspend work before? I'm fairly sure that happened in 2006, though IRI's relationship with the Egyptian government was worse."
She responded: "NDI has never received any formal communication from the Egyptian government telling it to cease work or leave the country." I replied to that: "How about informally? I was told they were quite sternly told to back off at the time." Ms. Gest responded to that: "NDI has never been told previously, formally or informally, by any Egyptian official to close our office or leave the country."
I started asking around, since I'd have to make a correction to two stories if this were so. Two friends from Egypt remembered events much as I had, and one suggested that I search the US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks. There were numerous cables related to the incident.
One from September 2006 says "The (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) official in charge of registration of foreign NGOs has said the freeze on activities by IRI, NDI, and IFES, as well as the issue of their pending legal registration in Egypt, could best be resolved by a "high level" overture from the (US government) to the (government of Egypt)" and that "IRI's May public relations activities were the proximate cause of the GOE's June freeze on IRI, NDI, and IFES." Another cable from March 2007 says Egyptian government "officials have stopped short of formally expelling the institutes, but have said that "any activities" by the organizations in Egypt are now "unacceptable.""
That cable goes on: "prior to the June 2006 freeze on activities, the institutes had operated openly, albeit with a minimal media presence, with the tacit approval of the (government of Egypt), while awaiting a formal decision on the registrations. After the June 2006 freeze, prompted in large measure by an IRI media event, the institutes dramatically scaled back their operations, but continued to build contacts with Egyptian civil society and otherwise position themselves for the relaunch of regular operations."
In August 2007, the US embassy reported that the groups were setting up operations outside of Egypt to work with Egyptian groups. "NDI and IFES also continue to explore the limits of the possible within the limited space that the (government of Egypt) has permitted for them. NDI staff has been meeting with advocacy groups and civil society organizations outside of Cairo in preparation for planned offshore activities to build their capacity," says that cable.
NDI and IRI eventually worked out a modus vivendi with the Egyptian state and its security services. A September 2008 cable reports: "An National Democratic Institute (NDI) resident representative Lila Jaafar told us September 16 that in spite of NDI's lack of official registration, the organization provided training and publications to local NGOs over the past year by adopting a low-profile posture and informing State Security Investigative Services (SSIS) of NDI activities in advance."
All this background is a reminder that democracy promotion in Egypt was controversial under Mubarak – and to the generals now running the country, at least, it remains controversial. I'm not sure why NDI doesn't remember all this. But six years later, neither NDI or IRI have their licenses approved.
A massive explosion ripped through central Damascus today as tens of thousands of Syrians turned out across the country to peacefully protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The apparent target was a bus full of military police.
The contrast between the protests and the carnage in Damascus is a reminder that the struggle for Syria is now a two-front war. Though driven by unarmed citizens demanding that Mr. Assad leave power, there is an increasingly armed component.
The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from Assad's military, is now standing with protesters – and threatening to escalate the conflict if the Arab League observer mission fails to produce satisfactory results in the coming days.
Perpetrator still unclear
What really happened in Damascus today? Speculation is thick on the ground, hard facts about the perpetrator almost nil.
The government claimed the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. Syrian State TV was quick to leap on the attack for propaganda purposes, carrying a montage of pictures of the carnage with ominous, minor-key music and the word "terrorism" emblazoned across the screen.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, insisted that they hadn't carried it out, and some even speculated the bombing was a false-flag operation carried out by the regime to make the opposition look bad.
That seems unlikely. But Assad's government has repeatedly sought to frame the uprising against his family's 40-year grip on power and the Baath Party he heads as the work of foreign agitators and terrorists – a carbon copy of the tactic used by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, with limited success.
But in the case of Syria, the presence of Islamists who might drive the country's conflict in an overtly sectarian direction can't be ignored.
Syrians fought with Al Qaeda-aligned militants in Iraq, and the country's confessional balance – a Sunni majority, a significant Christian minority, and the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to dominating the upper echelons of the security services and the government – could prove explosive if the conflict drags on. Today's attack in Damascus followed an even deadlier blast in December,
In the late 70s and early 80s, Syrian Islamists waged a low-level insurgency against the government of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father and predecessor. Dozens of officials and Army officers were assassinated, with Alawites – a heterodox Shiite sect – particularly targeted. The violence culminated in the Hama massacre of February 1982 almost exactly 30 years ago. The town was a bastion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the elder Assad's forces swept in to Hama, and killed at least 10,000 residents in a scorched earth campaign that mostly targeted civilians.
Though there have been no massacres on that scale during the current uprising, tens of thousands of citizens have been detained and dozens of bodies have turned up later bearing signs of torture. The UN says that at least 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began last January.
While the situation in Syria looks more and like a civil war, the sheer numbers of people willing to take to the streets and protest, given the risks, is a reminder of the shaky ground the regime is resting on.
There were large protests in at least a dozen places in Syria today. Two Youtube videos of today's protest are below, the first from Idlib and the second from Damascus.
A big battle is coming in Egypt, as the third round of parliamentary elections wraps up today.
On one side is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose superior organization, brand recognition, and public trust made it the big winner in the first two rounds of voting. On the other side is the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak was forced from power, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
With the third round of the vote nearly done (though runoffs are still to come) the question is: Will the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) take an outright majority of parliament? And will SCAF continue to seek to limit the power of the parliament to write a new constitution?
SEE ALSO: Egypt elections
The FJP, founded after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last year by Egypt's popular uprising, won 40 percent of the vote in the first two rounds and by some counts 48 percent of the available seats. They are expected to do well in today's final round, given as it's being held in smaller towns and rural areas. Depending on how this round shakes out after runoffs, and how potential legal challenges are dealt with, the Brotherhood could go over the 50 percent threshold.
If it doesn't make it, it will have to work with either the Salafis (Islamists who favor an austere application of Islamic law that they believe prevailed at the time of the prophet Muhammad) or secular parties to form a government. But either way, what will it matter?
The Brotherhood has said it should be up to the democratically elected parliament to decide on the membership of a committee to write the new constitution, while the military has been pushing for appointees to be involved that would likely water down the Brothers' influence.
That Constitution will set the rules of the game for the new Egypt (for at least as long as it stands), and could have profound effects on the evolution of the state by what it says about the role of Islam, protections of minority rights versus the will of the majority, and how much civilian control can be exercised over the military.
Generals have been the most powerful de facto politicians in the country since the '50s, with both Mubarak and his two predecessors drawn from the officer corps. The military has been eager to maintain control over its own budget – and over its vast array of business interests.
The military's ability to get its way, however, is unclear. Writing at the Middle East Research and Information Project Issandr El Amrani argues that the military, due to a variety of missteps since February, has squandered a lot of popular support. He writes:
The military’s claim to be guardian of the revolution has been weakening since soon after Mubarak was toppled. The SCAF was slow to arrest kingpins of the old regime, and its military police maltreated protesters in March and April, as with the infamous “virginity tests” of women. The protest movement’s mounting dissatisfaction culminated in the reoccupation of Tahrir Square in July. Another turning point was the October 9 confrontation at the state broadcasting headquarters, known as Maspero, in which 25 protesters for Coptic rights died at the hands of army troops. (The SCAF claims that an unknown number of soldiers were also killed; [blogger Alaa] Abdel Fattah is accused of murder in this connection.) If many Egyptians accepted that these deaths resulted from panic among the soldiers, the SCAF’s grip on public sympathy has slipped badly amid the clashes of November and December.
But that does not necessarily mean that the Brotherhood will have it all its own way. During the popular street protests this fall, the Brotherhood stood apart, afraid that unrest could lead to a cancellation of elections and a loss of its chance to seize power. In that, it looked like it was backing the military. The movement will be somewhat constrained by the reality of the military's power within the country – and the chance that its opponents, particularly some of the secular parties, will look to the military to protect their own interests.
In the months ahead, we'll find out if the Brotherhood is willing to cut deals with the current powers that be (it has in the past). But either way, this election, with all its flaws, has shown a movement that was still officially outlawed when Mubarak fell is today the most popular political force in the country.
The simmering dispute over Iran's nuclear program has threatened to boil over in recent weeks, with Iran directing its threats at the freedom of the seas off its coast, particularly in the Strait of Hormuz, a shipping lane for much of the oil produced in the Persian Gulf.
The latest came from Army boss Ataollah Salehi. He issued a fairly direct threat today to the US Navy, which has readied itself to patrol the Strait of Hormuz since Iranian officials began declaring they have the power to close the strait. "I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once," he said.
Iran said it recently spotted a US aircraft carrier in the Strait. While Iran didn't name the vessel, and the US has not disclosed whether it was there, the USS John C. Stennis of the 5th Fleet was recently in the Gulf, a short steam from Strait of Hormuz.
The freedom of the high seas for both shipping and the US Navy is about as sacrosanct a directive as there is for US admirals, and the chest-thumping from Iran is almost certain to draw a response. The 5th Fleet, based out of Bahrain, exists to keep the oil lanes through the Strait open and oil pumping to the world's economies. Being told they can't go somewhere is an invitation for the naval equivalent of "oh, yeah?"
It's worth remembering that US ships repeatedly crossed Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's so-called "Line of Death" after he declared international waters off the Gulf of Sirte as his own in the 1970s.
While Iran is no match for America's conventional military ability, something Iranian war planners should be well aware of, the increasingly strident threats and counter-responses are increasing the chances of fighting in the area. After Qaddafi's forces reacted hostilely to the US Navy presence in the Gulf of Sirte in 1986, a brief engagement ended with two Libyan ships sunk. In 1987 the USS Stark, on a mission to protect oil tankers during the so-called "Tanker War" between Iraq and Iran, was hit by Iraqi missiles, with 37 crewmen killed. Saddam Hussein's Iraq insisted that the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
All of this should be a reminder that tension and posturing can lead to casualties. And those casualties could lead to broader conflict. Iran is clearly worried about the increasing bite of economic sanctions and is seeking to remind the US and other potential antagonists that the cost of confrontation will not be born by Iran alone. The tough talk today saw benchmark brent crude jump 3 percent to more than $111 a barrel in early trading.
Iran's riyal tumbled as much as 12 percent against the dollar yesterday on speculation that legislation recently signed by President Obama threatening to sanction businesses and governments that do business with Iran's central bank will cut the country off from world commerce. Though AFP reports that the riyal made back most of its loses today, others in Tehran reported long lines at some local banks and merchants seeking to move cash abroad. The currency remains down about 30 percent in the past month.
The economic vulnerability of Iran, combined with the regime's continued insistence that it won't abandon its nuclear program (which it says is for peaceful purposes only), is likely to continue to drive threats like the one made today. While we're a long way from open war, rumors of war and threats of war have a way of leading to the real thing.
A report released today by Iraq Body Count -- an anti-war group that compiles statistics on confirmed deaths from violence in Iraq -- estimated that the death toll from the start of the Iraq war to the end of 2011 was approximately 162,000 people.
That figure includes US and other foreign troops, Iraqi government forces, members of militias both local and foreign, and civilians. The group found that a minimum of 114,212 civilians have been killed in the Iraq war to date.
The group's methodology almost guarantees an under-count of civilian deaths for the arc of the war, since it records only deaths reported in the press and in the US military logs leaked last year by Wikileaks.
But as a measure of trends in violence, their work has provided a useful snapshot of the toll in Iraq since the war began. This year's report both underscores the good news from Iraq -- that violence has collapsed from its 2006-2007 peak -- while also raising questions about persistent, albiet low-levels in violence, that are now a kind of background radiation to the country's political scene.
Since the full US withdrawal in December, sectarian political tensions have been on the rise, with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki working to oust Sunni rivals from his government. His Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was alleged to be behind a death squad a few days after the US pullout, and has since fled his arrest warrant to autonomous Kurdistan. Mr. Hashemi has dismissed the charge as politically motivated.
It remains possible that the departure of the US from the domestic political scene will lead to an end to the kinds of violence that marred 2011, but that doesn't seem likely as political rivalry in the country heats up and at least some Iraqi groups stake out maximalist positions. On New Years Eve, the Badr Organization -- a key Shiite backer of Mr. Maliki's ruling coalition which has its own armed wing -- raised banners praising deceased former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei in the city of Basra. That will not have reassured Iraq's Sunni Arabs.
Violent deaths in the IBC data base for 2011 were virtually unchanged from 2010, with 4,064 civilians killed compared to 4,045 the year before. The civilian toll for 2009 was 4,713.
Due to the way the database is compiled, determining responsibility for most killings is impossible. From the killings where a perpetrator was clear, the IBC says anti-government attacks accounted for 1,172 civilian deaths in 2011 (from 888), Iraqi security forces accounted for 140 (up from 96) and US troops were responsible for 19 civilian killings in 2011 (down from 32 in 2010).
Since the start of the war, the group found that "60,024 of the civilian dead were reported killed by small arms gunfire; 37,840 by explosive weapons (such as IEDs, suicide attacks, and aerial bombardment); and 5,648 by airstrikes (including cannon-fire, bombs and missiles)." The IBC said at least 9,019 Iraqi police have been killed since 2003, "by far the largest toll of any professional group." The group said that "14,705 (13%) of all documented civilian deaths were reported as being directly caused by the US-led coalition."
Prediction is a losing game. But 2012 could prove as momentous for Middle Eastern politics as 2011. Egypt and Libya will be fighting to establish new orders after years of autocracy, Syria's war to oust Bashar al-Assad could erupt into an even more violent conflict, and the pressure for change from Bahrain to Iran remains unmet.
Below is an incomplete list of trends and stories I expect to spend time watching and writing about in 2012.
1. Egypt: The country's stunning uprising in early 2011 pushed Hosni Mubarak from power. But the powerful military quickly stepped in to run the country's transition. The country's Parliamentary elections (a three-stage affair that will trundle on for another week yet) have been far fairer than under Mubarak or his predecessors. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has, by far, done the best of all the contenders. But what this will mean for Egypt's mid-term future will only begin to be sorted out in the year ahead. The military retains enormous power and has signaled repeatedly that it won't tolerate efforts to bring it under full civilian control. Whether democracy -- or even a true revolution leading to something less than democracy -- is possible while the military continues to hold itself apart from, and above, Egypt's political process is an open question. The current schedule is for a Presidential election in mid-summer, and a new Constitution to also be written this year, and perhaps be put up for a referendum by the fall. The military and its allies have been seeking to limit the new Parliament's authority to write that document, and the activist hard core remains furious that the Mubarak-era emergency law, used to try civilian activists in military courts, remains in force. The year ahead is likely to be marked by the battle between civilian and military control, and it could well be bloody again, if the recent military-backed crackdowns on protesters and NGOs are anything to go by. With a Parliament seated that is likely to have Islamists as the largest bloc, there is also going to be a lot more clarity about the direction they'd like to take Egypt, with frequent promises of tolerance and inclusion finally tested against the legislation they pursue.
2. Libya: What is going to happen in Libya is even more of a mystery than what comes next for Egypt. Beyond its Oil Ministry, the country had few functioning institutions under Muammar Qaddafi. Since his defeat and murder at the hands of angry revolutionaries this fall, Libya's array of militias, tribal notables and politicians have struggled to arrive at a consensus on how to transition to accountable institutions. Over a dozen regionally-based militias who fought against Qaddafi remain armed and outside any kind of central government control. In late 2011 there were a handful of brief skirmishes between armed groups who fought against Qaddafi for control of government installations (like the Tripoli airport) and the risk of open warfare remains. The good news for Libya is its vast oil wealth, particularly relative to the size of the population. But elections are as yet unscheduled and dealing with decades of grievances, as well as the question of how much former Qaddafi loyalists will be allowed to participate in public life going forward, remain explosive issues that will have to be addressed in 2012.
3. Israel. The Israelis have a lot on their plate. An Iranian nuclear program that many of their political elite publicly view as an existential threat, political change in Egypt that has called into question the durability of the 30-year cold peace underlined by the Camp David accords, and an increasingly militant religious right at home that is calling into question the very notion of what it means to be Israeli. While the likelihood of continued saber rattling both from and directed at Iran (high) is a pretty safe bet, Israel's relationship with neighbors is far harder to predict. Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising star of post-Mubarak Egypt, have expressed opposition to the treaty with Israel while referring to Israel as a "criminal entity" and the like. But the organization, seeking to consolidate its influence inside Egypt and wary of any moves that might give the powerful Egyptian military a pretext for a crackdown, is likely to move cautiously in the matter. Perhaps most interesting to my mind is the internal debate in Israel over how to handle religious extremists, who have used so-called "price tag" operations (burning mosques, for instance) to oppose giving up control over parts of the West Bank, and have engaged in minor stone throwing attacks on Israeli military posts that have carried great symbolic weight. An incident of ultra-orthodox activists spitting on an 8-year-old Jewish girl walking to school (for the crime of not wearing sufficiently modest dress) in December reignited the national debate. In 2011, the country's parliament passed laws restricting free speech, by seeking to criminalize calls for boycotts of products produced in West Bank settlements, and sought to restrict the independence of the judiciary.
4. Iran. Last year the Iranian nuclear program suffered setbacks, from the Stuxnet computer virus that damaged the country's ability to enrich uranium, to the Obama Administrations successful effort to impose far tougher financial sanctions on the country. Global oil markets grew increasingly nervous about the possibility of war, particularly towards the end of the year as Iran began to threaten to close to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital conduit for Gulf oil to the rest of the world. While Iran couldn't turn off the spout, and if it tried war would probably become inevitable, a major crisis would almost lead to a sharp spike in oil prices. New sanctions on Iran's central bank could lead to economic chaos in the country. Iran's currency, the riyal, lost 10 percent of its value to the dollar after President Obama signed into law a bill sanctioning the country's central bank and international entities that trade with it. That raises the prospects of not just financial turmoil in Iran, but sharp increases in poverty and questions about the government's ability to deliver on subsidies that millions of Iranians rely on. If that happens, will Iran's leaders meekly concede on their nuclear program, or begin seeking means to strike out against their external enemies? Increasing the tension is US electoral politics; a number of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have openly said they'd consider military action against Iran as commander in chief.
5. Iraq. Many Americans are already putting the war, and the country itself, in the rear view mirror. But 2012 will be crucial for understanding the Iraq that's emerged as a consequence of the 2003 invasion. With the American combat role conclusively over, the country's Sunni and Shiite Arabs and its ethnic Kurds are going to vie for power and influence without the overshadowing presence of Uncle Sam. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasted little time after US troops left in December before he targeted one of the country's most important Sunni politicians, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, for arrest on charges of running a death squad, an allegation that Mr. Hashemi dismissed as politically motivated after fleeing to the relative safety of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Iraq watchers closed out the year deeply worried that a return to sectarian war is possible -- though there are also powerful disincentives against that, not least the over 100,000 people that have died already in Iraq's war. Even if open warfare is avoided, the risks of a new autocracy solidifying -- this time a Shiite Islamist one, rather than the secular Sunni-led Baathists of Saddam Hussein's era -- are real.
6. Syria. The country's war over the regime of Bashar al-Assad grew ever bloodier as 2011 went on, with at least 6,000 dead in political violence over the course of the year. A small group of monitors sent to Syria in December by the Arab League to verify an end to bloodshed appeared to have little effect, with Syrian human rights groups claiming over 200 fresh killings after they had arrived in the country. For the short term, the outlook is grim. Mr. Assad has given no indication of being willing to step down, and there have been worrying reports of sectarian killings carried out by some of his opponents. His regime draws on the minority Alawite sect Assad belongs to for support, and both Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad have targeted Sunni Islamists with ferocity over the decades. There is a lot of dry sectarian tinder on the ground there. While many are loathe to say Syria is in a civil war, it already has thousands of violent deaths in the uprising and a group calling itself the Free Syrian Army, composed of army defectors, targeting the regime. If 2012 continues the trajectory of 2011, civil war looks very likely -- which could effect the stability of neighbors.