Features

Countries to watch

2010 Preview | Here are seven countries in particular to watch in 2010

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

With wars and rumors of wars dominating international headlines in 2009, the year ahead promises more of the same. Dozens of hot spots all over the world will likely breed trouble, but some of the most difficult places on earth also hold out fragile hope for real progress. Here are seven countries in particular to watch in 2010.

Iran

If Afghanistan dominated U.S. foreign policy in 2009, the new year may bring a new fixation: Iran. The Islamic regime continues to taunt Western powers with refusals to curb its nuclear ambitions and with fantasies about wiping Israel off the map. With the country's nuclear capabilities growing-along with political unrest within its own borders-2010 may prove a turning point for a regime that seems to thrive on buying more time.

On some fronts, time may be running out. After an October revelation that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment facility, international leaders warned the regime could face UN sanctions as early as this month if Iranian leaders don't relent. Iran's reaction: Leaders said they would build 10 more uranium-enrichment plants.

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U.S. officials have spoken of tougher penalties that could follow if sanctions fail, but few have offered specifics. Meanwhile, the international community will keep an eye on Israel, where leaders have hinted at the possibility of preemptive strikes to cripple Iran's capability to attack the nation that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loathes.

Back in Iran, leaders will grapple with homegrown problems: After students and dissidents flooded Tehran's streets this summer to protest an election they believe was stolen by Ahmadinejad, the entrenched leader will likely face growing opposition that could undermine the stability of his iron-fisted rule. Late into 2009, protesters were still filling streets, chanting slogans like: "Iranian Republic, Not Islamic Republic!" They also looked for signals of support from the United States, with slogans like: "Obama, Are You with Us or with Them?"

In a December interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, was frank about his uncertainty over how Iran would respond to sanctions and penalties: "They think they can withstand anything the U.N. or the coalition of like-minded nations can put together. They might be right. They might be wrong."

Israel

If Iran thinks it can withstand international pressure, Israeli leaders are worried they can't withstand the consequences of Iran's unchecked nuclear capabilities. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has famously and defiantly denied the Holocaust, has also called for the eradication of Israel and has predicted that the nation will "soon be erased from the geographical scene."

Israeli leaders won't rule out a preemptive strike and will likely spend 2010 anxiously eyeing Iran's response to international calls to scale back its nuclear program. So far, the response isn't encouraging. Ahmadinejad told an Iranian crowd in December: "The Zionist regime and its [Western] backers cannot do a damn thing to stop Iran's nuclear work." In the background, crowds chanted: "Death to Israel" and "Death to America," according to the Reuters news service.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has another problem closer to home: a relentless conflict with the Palestinian Authority. The prime minister called for a 10-month freeze on new Israeli construction in the West Bank in November, but Palestinian leaders said the move didn't go far enough. Netanyahu rebuffed their complaints and didn't offer new concessions, leaving international observers wondering how-or whether-the peace process will progress in 2010.

Much of that outcome depends on Palestinian politics. An internal conflict between members of the dominant party, Fatah, and members of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, leaves Palestinian direction uncertain. Fatah leaders postponed elections scheduled for January after Hamas warned it wouldn't allow voting in the Gaza Strip. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he won't run again. Without a clear successor to Abbas, members of Fatah wonder who will fill the vacuum in an ongoing struggle with no end in sight.

Afghanistan

The grueling war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year. The world will be watching to see if President Barack Obama's order for an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan can bring the kind of success gained by a surge in Iraq, and whether Afghan leaders will take on more responsibility for protecting their own population.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus-architect of the troop surge in Iraq-believes a similar surge in Afghanistan can succeed, but he warned that conditions will likely grow worse before they grow better. U.S. military leaders predict an outburst of insurgent attacks during the spring and summer and are preparing returning soldiers for more difficult conditions.

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