The second quarter of 2007 will brim with fury and froth as two states attempt to challenge the geopolitical order imposed by others to stem their expansion, in hopes of regaining their long-lost position as major powers. Throughout the quarter, these two states will seek a louder voice and a stronger hand. The real conflicts, however, will come later.
For the first country -- Iran -- the more aggressive tone is part and parcel of the diplomatic dance with the United States. Both countries realize that their ideal for Iraq -- unified and pro-American for Washington, unified and pro-Iranian for Tehran -- has slipped from the realm of possibility. The two will now negotiate furiously to keep their respective worst-case scenarios -- for the United States, a shattered Iraq in which Iran controls the south; for Iran, a Sunni-run and American-armed Baghdad -- from becoming reality.
In these negotiations, neither side has a particularly strong hand. The Bush administration suffers from a lack of mandate and an overstretched military that is flat-out incapable of imposing security on Iraq. Iranian goals are utterly dependent upon the Iraqi Shia -- who, were they able to unify for any purpose, would have at least at some point in Iraq's history been in charge of their own region (they have never been). Tehran and Washington both can wreck Iraq to ruin each other's plans, but neither wants to live with the consequences. Both can work toward a compromise but are afraid of the domestic backlash of being seen publicly talking to one another. And of course there is that niggling detail that their national interests on this issue really are very close to incompatible.
The result is that each side is trapped at the negotiating table, threatening the other and hoping that something will change on the ground to give them a decisive advantage. Of course, when something appears to be that key event, the other feels obliged to change the equation. Thus the United States seizes an Iranian Consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, or Iran detains 15 British marines and sailors. Such events will proliferate throughout the quarter as the two powers position and reposition for best effect versus each other. Expect other powers to attempt to leverage Washington's preoccupations to their own advantage -- with the Russians, by dint of influence in Iran and opportunities in Ukraine, likely to achieve the most.
This struggle will not resolve itself in the coming quarter. However, it not only will dominate the news, but also regularly will put Washington and Tehran on an equal footing in the public mind. This will not be a permanent feature (indeed, it is not even remotely accurate once one looks past the headlines) but it undeniably entrenches Iran's return as a major regional power that must be reckoned with.
Yet while Iran's rise is not guaranteed -- the negotiations with the United States could yet take a disastrously wrong turn -- the second state returning to the status of great power will be far more successful than Iran. That country is Germany.
For the past 60 years, French ideology has demanded that Paris play the pre-eminent role in European events and use that control to project power globally. Yet in late April and early May, the French will choose from among a battery of candidates one who will be their next president. For the first time since the 1940s, there is not a single candidate on the list who subscribes to the principles of former President Charles de Gaulle.
For those same 60 years, Germany has been locked in to the structures of the European Union and NATO, and has been flatly disallowed from holding nationalist ambitions independent from Europe (which in Paris' mind translates as "independent of France"). That time has passed and Germany has re-awakened. For now, its interests do continue to parallel broadly those of its neighbors, but there are clearly changes in tone and objective that identify Germany as a European yes-man no longer. With elections in France, the period of French exceptionalism will end -- this is not simply the changing of a president, this is a change of regime -- and Germany will formally take over as the leading political and economic power in Europe.
This German rise is independent of Germany's continuing terms as president of the European Union and chair of the Group of Eight -- positions that enable Berlin to set the agenda both on a regional and global level. Such institutions, which have rotating leadership, are not the true source of Germany's return to the limelight. But the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is using them to pole vault Germany to prominence. Yet, even should Germany fail disastrously in these leadership positions and squander the opportunity, the fact that Germany is back is undeniable. And should Merkel and her team succeed, Germany will have its cake and eat it too.
Elsewhere, the world -- while not sleeping -- might seem strangely quiet (except Afghanistan, of course, which is always noisy in the second quarter of the year). For most of the world, the second quarter will be one of introspection and consolidation. The long internal transition struggles in Nigeria, France and the United Kingdom will finally conclude with new leadership even as South Africa, Russia and China begin wrestling with similar changes. Thailand, Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador will all seek major constitutional changes, while governments of both Pakistan and India will attempt to shore up support after last quarter's setbacks. The renegade Serbian province of Kosovo -- after eight long years in the political wilderness -- seems set to achieve a final status that will look more or less like independence. Even the global economy is in transition as the United States struggles -- we predict, successfully -- to throw off a looming recession.
The second quarter will not be the window in which the major conflicts erupt. It will be a time for preparing, positioning, maneuvering. The real fights will come after all concerned emerge from their cocoons.