“I’m keeping a close eye on Iran,” warned Dr Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, speaking today at the London Defence Conference’s panel on major geopolitical risks to watch out for in the future. If war in Ukraine hadn’t happened, a lot more attention would go into monitoring developments in Iran’s nuclear programme, said Braut-Hegghammer, a professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo. 

Braut-Hegghammer wasn’t the only panelist keen to draw attention to developments in the Persian Gulf. “China is increasingly a player in the Middle East and it has strengthened relationship with Iran since 2020,” said Professor Helen Thompson, Professor of Political Economy, Cambridge University. 

Unsurprisingly, Thompson pointed to the Iran-Saudi Arabia peace deal, brokered by China back in March, as a sign of shifting geopolitical dyamics in the region. “There’s been no evidence over the last year that the Saudis want to keep as close to Washington as possible,” she added. On the contrary, “Saudi Arabia has aligned itself quite strongly with Russia, there’s been no break in Opec+ and they have moved to a tolerant position on Assad over the last few months.”

While the future threats posed by hostile states like Russia and China dominated much of the discussion, Dr Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, warned that we musn’t focus too heavily on bilateral relations and lose sight of indirect threats. Certainly when it comes to global supply chains, it’s vital to pay attention to the risk of developing indirect dependencies on hostile states. Ghiretti provided a salient example: It’s all very well to say that Europe will diversify from China by relying more on India for medical supplies but let’s not forget that India imports vast amounts of pharmaceutical ingredients form Beijing. 

What’s more, as we develop new supply chains by transitioning away from gas and fossil fuels, a whole new set of geopolitical tensions will emerge. “Even if we succeed in decarbonising, the amount of foreign metal dependency we will have is going to be huge,” warned Thompson.

We are already seeing metal nationalism emerge in Latin American, she added. In essence, “we are never going to have risk-free energy.”

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