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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bad news all round

The post-cold war peace is - as the Americans would say - soooo over. On just one day you have good examples of three different levels of new threats – a failed state, a rogue state and a newly assertive great power.

Firstly, it looks like a Horn of Africa conflict could be in the offing, with renewed war in Somalia now seeming "more likely than not", according to the Foreign Minister of the transitional government. He claimed that “the ICU (Islamic Courts Union) is not a partner in peace, it's not a partner in bringing it about". Peace talks in Khartoum look set to break down, and the two sides seem to slipping towards open conflict. Eritrea (backing the ICU with arms supplies) and its old enemy Ethiopia (currently occupying a border town within Somalia) could also be drawn into fighting one another through their proxy war.

One Western diplomat has warned of the potential for an “Iraq-style situation” developing in the region, possibly even spilling over into Kenya. It’ll also be interesting to see how Tehran reacts to any escalation in fighting in the Horn, and whether it might see an opportunity to extend its influence along a new axis, given that the Red Sea is a strategically significant point for global energy flows.

Also concerning energy, this story appeared on the BBC website today – Gazprom is planning to hike gas export prices to Georgia to over double their current levels. Although it was clear before, this is another good example of Gazprom’s commercial strategy and the Kremlin’s political strategy once again working in perfect harmony. Should we be considering letting them buy into the UK?

The EU has been horribly split in its approach to Russia. On the one hand verbal condemnation of Moscow’s bullying of Georgia - but then on the other, a collective attempt to play nice in order to get Russia to guarantee supplies - and then again, a race by some member states to do individual deals.

The bottom line? The EU isn’t going to do anything to stop Russia pursuing its interests in its own ”near-abroad”. The screw is likely to tighten further - Russia may be reliant on European energy demand for now – but will soon be able to sell to China instead, giving it further leverage to exert itself using energy.

Maybe worst of all - ten days of Iranian war games have begun, mainly in the Gulf and Sea of Oman. The drills are codenamed "The Greatest Prophet". State television reported that "Dozens of missiles were fired including Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles. The missiles had ranges from 300 km (190 miles) up to 2,000 km (1,200 miles)" – potentially far enough to hit Israel.

We had an interesting chat to Ian Bremmer about all this earlier in the week. He’s amazingly well plugged in. His take was that theo-conservatives in Tehran are intentionally ratcheting up international tension to shore-up their position at home. His suggestion - to try to get the price of oil down (via Saudi), and take away the regime’s opportunities to blame the outside world with some serious d├ętente. “Invite them to the ranch – they won’t come”.

Even then he thought that the chances of a successful outcome to the diplomatic process were low. Israel sees the situation as “an existential threat”, and people who favour a tougher approach are now steering things in the Israeli government. Bremmer reckons there’s a 60% chance it will launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran within the next two years…

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