Quick Take: What the assassination in Iran means

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hey everybody. Ian Bremmer here, have your quick take. Plenty going on this week. I could of course talk about all these new Biden appointees, but frankly, there's not that much that surprising there. Moderate, lots of expertise, not very controversial, almost all of which could get through a Republican controlled Senate, presuming that markets are going to be reasonably happy, progressives in the Democratic party somewhat less so. But no, the big news right now internationally, certainly about Iran. The Iranians started this year with the assassination by the United States of their defense leader, Qasem Soleimani. Everyone was worried about war. Now, closing the year with the assassination of the head of their nuclear program and historically the head of their nuclear weapons program.


That's quite something. It's almost certainly at the hands of the Israelis as opposed to the US, but the timing in terms of President Trump's transition is certainly relevant. The Israelis opposing the return of the United States and Iran to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal. And so on the one hand, if Iran were to react in an escalating way, it would make diplomacy with the incoming Biden administration much more difficult. And even if they don't, and by the way that is my presumption here is that they won't do anything that will derail diplomacy, that you have a hit to the Iranian nuclear program which won't stop them but will slow them down. And the Israelis do that all the time.

By the way, a few months ago we had, just the summer, a successful attack against Iranian centrifuges at their Natanz nuclear facility, a bombing, and to the best of our knowledge, not only did not make big headlines in the West, but there was no real Iranian response. This is a huge embarrassment for Iran. They're not good at defending their scientists. They're not good at keeping Israeli and US intelligence out, and they're not really great at hitting back. And so, the real story for Iran this year has been about everything that could be going badly for them is going badly for them. The oil and gas prices are low. There's on top of that a major economic recession. On top of that, the United States has snapped sanctions back on them with the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

And even though American allies don't support that, the US matters a lot more to them than Iran. And so they're going along with those increased restrictions with the exception of some humanitarian aid. So it's been a horrible year for the Iran economy. It's been a horrible year for coronavirus. The Iranian government, you may remember, was one of the first to have truly mishandled the outbreak of coronavirus, lied to their people about the level of transmission because they were trying to get lots of people to come out and vote in parliamentary elections. That wasn't very successful. And meanwhile, thousands of Iranians died and they covered it up and lied about it.

Of course you may remember that the Iranians even knocked a plane, a civilian plane out of the sky, killed a couple of hundred people and lied about it to their people, then apologized and said, "No, it was really us." I mean, pretty much everything that could be going badly for Iran, short of mass social demonstrations leading to the government collapsing, and by the way, in some ways that would be a good news story, is going wrong this year. And the good news for Iran, the only international good news is that Biden won the election. And so they're hoping that that means that there's an opportunity for them to get back to a renegotiated nuclear deal.

It won't be easy, it won't be immediate, but they know that the incoming Biden administration, people like Jake Sullivan who worked on the original nuclear deal and now will be national security advisor, incoming secretary of state, Tony Blinken is also well disposed towards negotiating a path back into an Iranian nuclear deal with some changes, with some tweaks. That's their best hope at this point. That is one that both the Supreme leader and the Iranian president would like to see a path to get back. And they understand that taking a whack against Israel at least in a way that was big would potentially derail all of that. So I could see them going after targeting individual Israeli officials in a tit for tat kind of way. They've done some of that historically. But again, both given their lack of capabilities as well as the constraints of their geopolitical position, there ain't much that I see going on.

I also see that, of course, the Saudis and the Israelis, Mohammed bin Salman and prime minister Netanyahu meeting in Neom just a couple of weeks ago with secretary of state Mike Pompeo, they aren't normalizing relations yet and I don't think that they will immediately, at least not without some progress on Israel, Palestine. Doesn't mean a deal, but means progress. And we're not quite there yet, but could be in a Biden administration. But still all of this from Iran's perspective, horrible news, right? I mean, their key enemies at least had also been fighting each other. That's no longer the case. Whether it's the UAE or Saudi Arabia or Israel, they're on increasingly the same side because they're all most worried about Iran. Okay.

One more thing I would at least mention, and that is the warfare itself. This wasn't Israeli operatives on the ground. This wasn't bombs from the air. It was actually a remote-controlled machine gun that fired on this nuclear scientist, his car and his security. In other words, there was no one directly there. We've not seen assassinations like this outside of the movies and I suspect we're going to see a lot more. Look, advances in war fighting is making the field of operations much more dangerous, making asymmetric warfare more effective. Think about the advances in drone technology. And that really changed the military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Azerbaijan's favor and meant that the Armenians thinking that they would be able to repel Azeri attacks as they have historically suddenly faced the collapse of the entire territory they were holding, Nagorno-Karabakh, and had to effectively sue for peace on Azeri terms, terms that were much more sort of favorable to the Azeri government. Could end up leading to the collapse of the Armenian government.

I mean, you've got that. There's also increasingly moves towards lethal autonomous drones. There's no international agreement to ban them. We could really use one. You may remember it was almost 10 years ago that Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, there was a drone that came within I think it was about 10, 15 feet of her just taking her photo. But if that had had a lethal device on it, that's it for the German chancellor. Can't stop it. You really don't want this capacity being developed because, I mean, rogue states and non-governmental terrorist organizations will have much more destabilizing capabilities. Plus, you have cyber and the fact that a foreign government with cyber capabilities to disrupt critical infrastructure as they get inside those capacities in different countries; I mean, the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the Israelis, maybe Iran, all have those capabilities.

One of the reasons the US has been so assertive against Chinese companies like Huawei, ZTE, even TikTok, is the idea that those systems would be able at the order of the Chinese government to shut down key components of critical infrastructure of the United States and its allies irrespective of whether that's the intention, irrespective of whether that's the capability that resides inside those companies thinking today, the very fact that that's a possibility, that's something that Chinese government would be able to do if they wanted to, creates a security vulnerability we haven't seen before. So I think that I'm less worried about these strikes in Iran in terms of the regional balance of power and what's happening on the Iranian nuclear deal. But I'm much more concerned about what changes in warfare actually mean for the geopolitical balance of power as well as the sovereignty of states. That's something we should be thinking about and perhaps trying to govern towards a lot more than we presently are.

That's it for me, I'll talk to you all real soon.

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