Stratfor, the private intelligence organisation, assesses that the global geopolitical environment in 2021 will be shaped by two factors: the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts by the Biden administration to restore collaborative relationships around the world.
On the vaccine front, Stratfor expects it will take most of 2021 for Western countries to vaccinate their populations, while the rollout in developing countries could go well into 2022.
On the Biden front, we can look at one relationship he is expected to prioritise - that with Iran, in particular the restoration of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) bestablished by the Obama administration when Biden was vice-president. The JCPOA tightly restricted what Iran could do within its nuclear program and established an intrusive IAEA inspection regime in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Parties to the JCPOA were Iran and the P5 + 1 (China, France, Russia, the UK and US + Germany) together with the EU. President Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018 at the urging of Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, who claimed Iran had been covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. President Trump also restored US sanctions.
There were several adverse developments for Iran during 2020, including the killing by US drone of revered Iranian general and statesman Qassem Soleimani, the arrival of COVID-19, the sabotage of the Natanz nuclear facility, the normalising of relations between the Arab Gulf states and Israel, and the November killing of chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Throughout the year, US sanctions continued to cripple the Iranian economy.
The perpetrator of both the damage to Natanz and the killing of Fakhrizadeh was almost certainly Israel, because it will not tolerate another nation in the Middle East having a nuclear program that could lead to a weapon - particularly not Iran, whom it sees as an existential threat.
The death of Fakhrizadeh led to Iran announcing it would start to enrich uranium to 20 percent - shortening the lead-time to producing a nuclear weapon. However, Iran is still allowing IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordow.
Iran's response to the events of the past year has generally been restrained. Following the killing of General Soleimani it conducted a limited ballistic missile attack on two US military bases in Iraq, seemingly planned to avoid casualties but play well to an Iranian domestic audience demanding revenge. Iran then scored an embarrassing own goal when it mistook an outgoing Ukrainian airliner for an incoming US Tomahawk cruise missile, resulting in the loss of 176 lives.
Iran's leadership is now under public pressure to retaliate forcefully again on the anniversary of Soleimani's death and for the killing of Fakhrizadeh. The uranium announcement could be intended to offset some of that pressure.
Tehran is well aware it faces a dangerous period while President Trump remains in office. President Trump could no doubt come up with a convincing reason to mount a devastating attack on Iran. He has ample means to do it, with the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the Persian Gulf, B-52 strategic bombers deployable, and the submarine USS Georgia carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles apparently located off the southern coast of Iran.
A strike against Iran would please Trump's supporters, Israel, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf states, and negate any prospect of President Biden being able to restore the JCPOA relationship in the early part of his presidency.
Worryingly, there is no legal provision to stop an outgoing president from ordering an attack on whomever he chooses. President Trump would not need the agreement of the military or the Congress before launching a nuclear or conventional attack.
STRATCOM Chief Admiral Charles Richard acknowledged last week that he would "follow any legal order [he is] given".
According to the Congressional Research Service, land-based nuclear missiles could be launched within two minutes of the President's launch order, while submarine-launched missiles could be despatched within 15 minutes.
Removal of President Trump from office before January 20 is unlikely to happen, because there is no legal way to do so in the short time remaining without the cooperation of Vice-President Pence.
We have to hope, therefore, that President Trump remains more focused on his domestic US problems than on the rest of the world.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the Australian National University's Centre for Military and Security Law.