By Professor Brendan Simms

If the past two years, which were largely dominated by the Coronavirus pandemic, can be described as extremely eventful, the twelve months ahead are likely to be no less so. The apparently imminent crisis of the Ukraine, which our Baltic geopolitics Fellow Donatas Kupciunas has written about at greater length in this newsletter, will give an indication of the Soviet Union used to call the correlation of forces in that area. Likewise, the direction of travel in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been addressed by Bill Hurst, our Deputy Director and senior East Asia expert.

There are, however, three other highly consequential confrontations that may come to a head this year. The first is the Iran nuclear issue. Here the pessimists argue that Iran is determined to achieve a deliverable nuclear weapons capability; the optimists argue that if only they can be brought back into the defunct JCPOA deal a better relationship will be possible. It is likely that this question cannot be finessed for much longer given that the six months long talks in Vienna are drawing to a close very soon. There is no formal deadline, but the general view is that the next two weeks will be critical. But even if there is an agreement the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has already said that his country will not be bound by it. The prospect of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities this year thus remains a distinct possibility.

The Centre for Geopolitics naturally hopes that the optimists are right because a grand bargain between Washington and Teheran and a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran are preconditions for the establishment of a comprehensive settlement along the lines explored in our Westphalia for the Middle East Project. We are planning some initiatives this year that may help the two sides to read each other’s intentions better.

The second issue is the post-Brexit ordering struggle between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The various departure ‘deals’ left important questions unaddressed, both the wider one of how the management of the continent should be shared and the more narrow one of where the border should run in Northern Ireland or whether there should be any border at all. These issues have been extensively ventilated by Barry Colfer and Eugenio Biagini in the Future of the Island of Ireland series.

Here the wild card is the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in early May. These could upend the Northern Ireland ‘Protocol’ negotiated between the UK and the EU, which effectively leaves the province within the EU Single Market and the Customs Union. This is because the Protocol permits an Assembly vote within four years to exit the arrangement. So far polls do not suggest a Unionist majority, but if one were to be achieved then the Protocol could well come to an end twelve to eighteen months later, with all the attendant implications.

Around about the same time, the fragile peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina may come under renewed threat. This is because the parliament of the Serbian ‘entity’ established by the Dayton Accords which brought the war to an end in 1995 decided just before Christmas to withdraw from major common institutions such as the army, security services, taxation system, and judiciary and set up what would be a separate state. This move is clearly a violation of Dayton, what the High Representative there, Christian Schmitt, calls ‘tantamount to secession without proclaiming it’. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s presidency, has been given six months by his parliament to implement their decision, which would make May-June 2022 the crunch point.

It goes without saying that the Centre has its eye on these and other potential crises and will try to provide historical background and present-day expertise the better to understand them.

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