There is no question that some things will happen in the forthcoming year that generally will surprise foreign policy and defense analysts. Of course most of these worthies will never admit they hadn't had at least a brief thought about these contingencies. In reality many nascent situations already show their potential and should surprise no one.
Perhaps Iran is the most obvious venue for the unexpected to occur, even though any confirmation it has perfected a nuclear weapon would be anticlimactic. Ahmadinejad already has proven himself capable of surprising even his short list of friends. The real opportunity for the "I wasn't ready for that one" award must arise from the ongoing covert operational environment that Iran's internal politics presents. The gathering of information as well as covert action against computer networks that occurred in Iran in 2011 can be expected to continue and grow during 2012. The result could be Iranian counter-action in the form of a stepped-up cyber and sabotage campaign of their own against American installations in the Gulf, while at the same time signing a mutual non-aggression pact with Iraq. The threats to close the Straits of Hormuz will continue, but that surprises no one and the U.S. Navy already has its contingency plans.
North Korea always surprises observers because it maintains such an effectively closed society. Next year can be expected to be no different. In fact the biggest surprise would be to have no surprise at all. Interestingly there has been none of the usual quick analysis/propaganda coming out of Beijing that one would have expected in regard to the death of Kim Jong-il and the impact of the ascendancy of Kim Jong-un. The suspicion is that the Chinese believe the Obama administration wants a foreign policy victory so badly for this election year that it will be amenable to a deal with North Korea on terms it otherwise wouldn't consider. In addition it is reasoned that Kim Jong-un and his regents recognize they need an early victory to solidify the power transition in Pyongyang. This combination of factors could produce a diplomatic breakthrough even though it would be at the expense of North Korean military cohesiveness on the General Staff level.
Pakistan provides a good chance for a surprise next year – though it seemingly does that every year. This South Asian nation has been in the midst of political turmoil ever since General Musharraf was booted out and Benazir Bhutto assassinated. Once again no strong civilian leader has emerged, so it would seem to be time for another coup. This time the army has a very good reason to take over once again. Pakistan's economy cannot make ends meet without external aid. At the same time Pakistan's internal civilian politics does not allow for the continued close relationship with the Americans that brings in the extra money. It's a perfect setting for another military coup surprise. And who knows, it might just spur Washington to an even earlier departure from Afghanistan. At least that's what some Pakistani generals might argue.
In the field of military coups, Egypt would have to be high on the list of possibilities. This would be one of those surprises that was definitely in the "I told you so" category. The unexpected aspect would be the strong Islamic alignment of the coup. Ever since the coup against the monarchy in 1952 the military has been the éminence grise of any secular government. The military was the instrument of the original revolution and the ultimate defender of Arab socialism under Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1956. The opening now exists for the army to split apart with allegiance to their faith overriding allegiance to non-religiously aligned military tradition. The creation of an "Islamic Army of the Republic of Egypt" partnered with a Moslem Brotherhood and Salafist-dominated parliament would create a new dynamic, not only in Egypt, but the Sunni Arab world in general.
If these "surprises" are not destabilizing enough for one to contemplate, it might be well to consider exactly how far the street reaction will go in Russia against Putin's reelection as president. The nearly twenty percent (19.2%) of votes obtained by the Communist Party in the parliamentary election was the second largest single block after Putin's own party, United Russia. The Communists may not be a major political factor at this time, but it is not something to disregard. Certainly Putin has to take the numbers into consideration in close votes in the Duma, but, more importantly, a rejuvenation of the Communist Party has the potential of stirring popular reaction. A repeat of Moscow's police forces' instinctive reaction to violently put down demonstrations could spread dangerously next year throughout Russia's urban centers. That would be destabilizing within Russia and internationally.
There certainly are other areas of potential problems, but at least these few show what national security analysts have to consider. In a presidential election year, however, how much attention will the upper levels of the current administration in Washington pay to these potentials?