Five stories to watch in 2012

The Iranian navy conducts war games in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday. Frida Ghitis says Iran is a story to watch in 2012.

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Global events that began in 2011 are still unfolding as 2012 begins
  • Big issues in 2012 will be power struggle in the Arab world, Iran standoff with West, she says
  • Ghitis: European crisis, Occupy protests and the outcome of democracy in Iraq also critical
  • Ghitis: There are more stories, and surprises to come, but these can affect the whole world
Every year ends with open questions. Every year begins with uncertainty. But 2011 left so many major dramas unfolding on the world stage, so many crucial unknowns, it seems 2012 is starting with more uncertainty in more dangerous regions than any time in recent memory.
It's impossible to rank the crucial issues, because any one of them could become the top story of the year; the one with the potential to affect all our lives. So, in no particular order, and with the understanding that events we cannot envision today will also surprise us, here are the top five stories to watch in 2012:
The Arab uprisings and the struggle for power in the Arab Middle East: Just one year ago, the phenomenon some labeled the "Arab Spring" burst to life. People who thought they had no say in the political future of their countries discovered they could topple entrenched regimes. And they did. Dictators fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is still fighting an uprising, and unelected leaders everywhere in the region have been put on notice.
But that's barely the first chapter. The struggle for power is just getting started. Unelected rulers will be more pressured to respond to popular demands. Where the dictators already fell, we will see the beginning of the second chapter. What will replace the dictatorship?
Islamist parties have easily dominated the political field in early elections. In Egypt, the military is fighting to preserve a major role. Everywhere, liberal groups that created the revolution find they can mobilize the masses, but cannot win elections. The future of freedom for hundreds of millions of Arabs hangs in the balance -- in a region of the globe that is crucial to the entire planet's peace and prosperity.
Frida Ghitis
The standoff with Iran: For years, we have heard that the moment of truth was arriving. The moment of truth is arriving. In some respects, it is here.
The international community, led by Washington, has spent a decade pressuring Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program, to no avail. At the end of 2011, with economic sanctions obviously hurting and mysterious explosions and a computer virus disrupting its nuclear facilities, Iran threatened to shut down the flow of Persian Gulf oil. The Obama administration warned it would not tolerate such a move.
Upping the ante even more, on Monday, Iran test-fired two missiles during naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. Tensions are rising as United Nations nuclear experts say Iran could be working on nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Israel say a nuclear-armed Iran is a risk they are not willing to accept. The risk of war is very real.
The European crisis and its impact on the world's economy: The European Union, once a utopian model for peaceful coexistence and high living standards, found that pursuing utopia is a perilous game. The discovery of staggering amounts of debt among some members created a crisis in the eurozone. Efforts to resolve it have been halting, and an emphasis on budget cuts has slashed economic growth. If the eurozone unravels, economic waves would smash the shores of the entire world.
The spring of "Occupy": It wasn't only Arabs who shook off their political apathy. The wave of Occupy protests spread around the world, from New York to Moscow. The cold weather sapped some of the fire from the protests, although toughened Muscovites seemed impervious. The test of whether Occupy was a blip in history or a change in the democratic process will come this spring, when we will discover if the groups will re-emerge. If they manage to remobilize and press for specific demands, they could become a global force that does, in fact, bring lasting change.
The teetering democracy in Iraq: After U.S. troops left, it took about 24 hours before the carefully constructed democratic project in Iraq started cracking. With Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, persecuting powerful Sunnis, the dreadful specter of new sectarian conflict looms again. That would be a tragedy for the Iraqi people and a disaster for the U.S. -- and for President Obama. With American military forces gone, the coming months will bring a test of U.S. diplomatic skill and muscle. In the worst case, a new civil war could erupt and an alliance between Baghdad and Tehran could develop.
There is much else to watch in 2012: North Korea, Afghanistan, the Chinese economy, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the fate of Vladimir Putin and, of course, a presidential election in the United States. The outcome of that vote is one of the great and most consequential questions we will answer this year. Whoever wins will have to deal with an uncertain, dangerous, fast-changing world. Happy New Year.