Forecasting Tensions in the Middle East
By Eduardo Zachary Albrecht on October 27, 2013
The line graph above is compiled using data from Recorded Future that measures the intensity of sentiment in the media concerning the topic of Iran. It allows us to quickly appraise rising and falling levels of news coverage of Iran over the past eight months. Peaks correspond to moments of light or no coverage, while troughs represent times of increased momentum in the news.
Each daily graph value is obtained by summing the number of occurrences in which a particular topic (in this case Iran) is mentioned in thousands of different online media sources. Recorded Future’s web intelligence platform sifts through these sources gauging the momentum and sentiment of articles published on any given day. Values are then synthesized to data collected through other sources and organized over time as a moving average.
Organizing Recorded Future data in this way gives us a picture of recurring patterns, and allows us to develop insights into how developments may unfold in the future. Lately, the line has been trending down. In fact, in the last several weeks the US and Iranian governments have initiated a round of talks concerning the Iranian nuclear program and the continuation of economic sanctions. As uncertainty over the outcome of talks increases, news media outlets have been increasing their coverage of the country, and the line has been trending down.
Recorded Future data can also be mixed with other data sets (for example, data that measures search trends or blog activity) to create signals that forecast whether media coverage is likely to increase or decrease over time. This may be done through the application of predictive algorithms to the data sets. The algorithms scan historical data in search of recurring patterns, register the effect of those patterns on future media coverage, and then look for similar patterns in real-time data. When similar patterns are found, a positive or negative signal is created.
These are represented by the red and green dots in the line graph above. The red dots on the chart correspond to negative forecasts, indicating that media coverage would increase, while green dots correspond to positive forecasts, indicating that eventually media coverage would decrease. Forecasts can also have different time horizons. The latest one concerning Iran relates to the next few months.
(For more information on how the algorithms work and the forecasts generated, please visit my crisis forecasting website.)
On October 9, 2013, a negative forecast was created, signaling an increase in media attention over the next few months. This tells us news coverage concerning diplomatic relations with Iran is likely to increase. An analysis of events unfolding at the time may complement the signal and help us rationalize the forecast. Here, too, Recorded Future software can be used in interesting ways.
The recent US-Iran rapprochement raised many eyebrows in the Middle East, and has left much of the international community quite perplexed. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the P5+1 meeting in Geneva attempted to reassure the world that Iran’s nuclear program is a harmless one. Iran has been struggling with recession in the past few years, and is trying what it can to get the UN to relax its crippling economic sanctions.
As the US and Iran table talks, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s political rival in the region, is getting increasingly nervous. From the Saudi point of view, US-Iran friendship is not necessarily a good thing. The Saudi delegation’s conspicuous silence at the United Nations General Assembly during that week’s events drew the point home.
Reuters quotes Abdullah al-Askar, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia’s advisory parliament, the Shoura Council, as saying, “if America and Iran reach an understanding it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.”
When we create a network visualization involving Saudi Arabia using Recorded Future, we see there is in fact a connection to Iran and the US. If we click on the link connecting the countries, a rather interesting piece of news comes our way.
Perhaps to appease Saudi angst over US-Iran talks, a multi-billion dollar weapons deal was pushed forward. A puzzling web of crisscrossing interests is forming in the Middle East. This web is made even more complicated by the fact Saudi Arabia and Israel, traditional rivals, have been cozying up to each other over there shared animosity toward Iran. RT news reports rumors of the two countries, perhaps prodded on by the US’s friendliness towards Iran, forming a potential alliance.
The US’s diplomatic brinkmanship, in addition to a Riyadh-Jerusalem axis, could indeed have dramatic effects for the region and on the current balance of power. This leads us to think something is bound to happen soon. When we sum this reasoning to the negative signal on the graph above, then we can conclude there is indeed a good chance tensions may rise in the Middle East soon.