The possible creation of a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East may have snuck under the radar this holiday weekend. The continuing spectacle of the investigations into Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 Election and the continued naming and shaming of corporate leaders and politicians involved in sexual harassment (as well as Thanksgiving), may have overshadowed the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city (and thanked him for “saving Syria”).
Forecasting political unrest is a challenging task, especially in this era of post-truth and opinion polls.
Several studies by economists such as Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler in 1998 and 2002 describe how economic indicators, such as slow income growth and natural resource dependence, can explain political upheaval. More specifically, low per capita income has been a significant trigger of civil unrest.
Economists James Fearon and David Laitin have also followed this hypothesis, showing how specific factors played an important role in Chad, Sudan, and Somalia in outbreaks of political violence.
According to the International Country Risk Guide index, the internal political stability of Sudan fell by 15% in 2014, compared to the previous year. This decrease was after a reduction of its per capita income growth rate from 12% in 2012 to 2% in 2013.
The twentieth presidential election since the 1979 Iranian revolution has been characterized by an impressive voter turnout. Approximately 73% of the Iranian electorate went to the polls, re-confirming Hassan Rouhani as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran with 23,549,616 votes (57%) against the 15,786,449 votes (38%) for the principlist presidential candidate Ebraim Raisi. A pragmatist, Rouhani’s main achievement during his first four year in power was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark nuclear deal concluded in July 2015 between the Islamic Republic, the P5+1 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Russia) and the European Union . The re-election of Rouhani will safeguard the agreement and deliver a temporary setback to the powerful ultra-conservative factions, namely the bastions of the 1979 Islamic revolution: the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij and the judiciary.
Rouhani’s pragmatic agenda during his first mandate focused on the nuclear deal as a tool to boost economic recovery through the lifting of international sanctions. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Country Report published in February 2017, the ‘historic’ deal was successful as the economy was “boosted by the swift recovery in oil production and exports, real GDP grew by 7.4 percent in the first half 2016/17, recovering from recession in 2015/16”.
On May 19, the Islamic Republic of Iran holds presidential elections, the first following the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is running against five other candidates, approved by Iran’s Guardian Council to compete in the election. The race has centred heavily on economic policies for tackling high unemployment and growing inequality, together with how to reintegrate the country into global financial platforms following the rollback of sanctions in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.
Policy decisions in Iran are largely devised through consensus among the various leadership figures represented in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). The SNSC is headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the final arbiter on matters of national security, but the presidential role has proven capable of steering decisions towards moderate or radical positions. For European governments and businesses that have long dealt with the Islamic Republic, there is a clear distinction between the administrations of former presidents Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.
Ahead of the Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit this week at Mar-a-Lago, Taiwan is understandably anxious. Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency has injected uncertainty into the U.S. approach to China and Taiwan — an element of foreign policy that is traditionally carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the precarious cross-strait arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s unprecedented phone call with then-President -elect Trump in early December seemed to herald a new, more muscularly pro-Taiwan approach. This impression was subsequently belied by Trump’s suggestion that Taiwan could be traded away as part of a grand bargain with China. Speculation about Trump’s interest in upending this long-standing U.S. policy died down after the president affirmed his support for the “one China policy” in his first conversation with Xi. The next month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adopted China’s verbiage regarding a “new model of great power relations” during his trip to Beijing.
Whether and how Trump and Xi will address the one China policy remains to be seen. “We are preparing for every scenario,” one unnamed Taiwanese official told The Washington Post. Yet the underlying problem is clear. As Taiwan’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review argues, Chinese military power is increasing at the same time as the new administration’s plans for “the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategic direction and troop deployment” remain uncertain. These shifting geopolitical currents come at the same time as growing strain between Taiwan and China. Beijing regards Tsai’s traditionally pro-independence political party as antagonistic to its interests and, since her inauguration last May, has undertaken a campaign of increased economic, political, and military pressure.