The Fracturing continues – from Tehran to Taiwan

Sykes Picot divides the Middle East

A friend of mine, who is also a successful sportsman (rower) once told me that he trains every Christmas day, just in case his competitors take that day off. It is a quirky piece of advice but one that I have long since borne in mind.

Thus, as I returned home from my Christmas morning run, I was interested to read that Russia, China and Iran – were using the Christmas period for a naval training mission in the Gulf of Oman. Presumably, like my friend, they thought the US and its allies were taking Christmas day off.

The exercise points to the emerging rivalries of the 21st century. China and Russia are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which readers of the Levelling will know that I consider to be one of the geopolitical ‘gangs’ of the future. Their rival regional gang is the ‘Quad’ (India, USA, Japan and Australia).

The significance of the SCO, and the recent exercise with Iran, has now been heightened by the killing of Iranian general Quassem Soleimani. Indeed, it is just one of many implications (by the way in my last missive before Christmas I noted that in 1998 Bill Clinton had responded to impeachment by launching an airstrike on Iraq, and that another President might try the same tactic).  

The immediate one is that the USA will find its moral and diplomatic power diminished, and both its allies and foes again demanding whether the White House has a coherent approach to policy making (Israel’s muted reaction was telling).

For example, the missile strike on Soleimani cuts across an increasingly successful financial and clandestine war against Iran that was producing inflation, unrest and a surge in crime across the country. The airstrike will now allow the Iranian regime to paint its socio-economic troubles as being generated by the hand of the CIA and MI6 (there is a long held, view across Iran that foreign spy agencies are behind political and economic turmoil in the country).  

The killing of Soleimani also means a likely diminution in the American presence in Iraq, that Americans are less rather than more safe, and an altogether more uncertain outlook for some of the smaller states in the region, notably Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While the tension between both Iran and the US is perceived to have diminished following the Iranian riposte, I think this dispute is not over, and the event itself will lead to a hardening of attitudes.

To return to the SCO, Soleimani’s death will underline the rationale for this grouping and we should expect to see it become more prominent. Russia in particular may now look to play a stronger role in the long term future of Iraq and Syria (potentially with the backing of Chinese capital).

Russians will underline how the Kremlin was both concerned and emboldened by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that it later took aggressive measures to defend what it perceived were threats to its hinterland (in Georgia and Ukraine).

At a grander level, the killing of Soleimani will cause tension within NATO, and will heighten calls by many for an EU army, that can at some stage have the capacity to act alone, though with the US under the NATO umbrella. It should also, at least in terms of the security and foreign policy push the UK towards rather than away from the EU, and in my view this partnership could well be one of the more stable pillars in the post Brexit relationship.

In sum, this critical event points to some near-term event risk, notwithstanding the apparent de-escalation (Iran’s public de-escalation points to stealth retribution), and an elevation of longer-term geopolitical risk (and by extension political risk in the US in the context of the election).

Geopolitical risk, or rather geopolitical events, rarely trouble broad equity and debt markets but my worry is that we are now seeing a fracturing of the world order (this weekend’s Taiwan election is a case in point and expect the newspaper pundits to talk of Taixit from Sunday), and the emergence of a one where geopolitical friction becomes the norm. Expect this to be increasingly reflected in the securities of pan-global companies, certain emerging market debt securities and in safe haven assets.

The real reason for calm across markets is central bank liquidity. They are the monetary battleships of the 21st century, more powerful than many armies. What might happen if they are deployed in a conflict?

Have a great week ahead,

Mike