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Will Jonathan Pollard’s release sooth U.S.-Israel tensions over Iran?

Dimitris Giannakopoulos

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Welcome to the Caspian Daily, where you will find the 10 most important things you need to know on Caspian Sea Region. We appreciate ideas, reports, news and interesting articles. Send along to Caspian[at]moderndiplomacy.eu or on Twitter: @DGiannakopoulos

1Congress is due to finish its review of the deal and vote on it in September. If that process gets completed, by November — when Pollard will go free — Netanyahu’s calculations might be different.”If Netanyahu wanted to climb down from the tree, if he wanted to make amends with the U.S., the Pollard … release would be a great way to do it,” Sachs, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy said. [CNN]

2Why the Iran deal is huge for Obama’s legacy. “From the moment he took office, the Obama doctrine — to the extent that one exists — basically boiled down to this: Diplomacy with so-called enemy countries can be effective, said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institute and former State Department aide. Obama has been testing that theory on Iran literally since Day One, in part because nuclear nonproliferation has also been a central focus of his presidency. He became the first U.S. president to use the word “Muslim” in his inaugural address, offering to extend a hand to world leaders “if you are willing to unclench your fist.” [Washington Post]

3If Russia breaks up. “If Mr Putin goes and the money runs out, Chechnya could be the first to break off. This would have a dramatic effect on the rest of the north Caucasus region. Neighbouring Dagestan, a far bigger and more complex republic than Chechnya, could fragment. A conflict in the Caucasus combined with the weakness of the central government in Russia could make other regions want to detach themselves from Moscow’s problems” [Economist]

4Kazakhstan trade likely to bloom. A full picture of the Kazakhstani market and its business opportunities was unveiled at a forum held in Ha Noi yesterday. Viet Nam and Kazakh-stan signed a number of framework agreements on economic, trade, diplomatic, education, investment, labour and energy co-operation in recent years, said Vice Chairman of the Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) Doan Duy Khuong. According to Viet Nam’s General Department of Customs, trade between the two countries was almost US$230 million in 2014, with $219 million from Viet Nam’s exports, up 42 percent year-on-year. Exports consisted primarily of cell phones and electronic spare parts, machinery and farm produce. Imports, meanwhile, doubled, including ore and minerals.

5Navies of Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan has set to hold trilateral naval drills, RIA Novosti reported on July 30 with a reference to Igor Dygalo, the representative of the press service of Russian Defense Ministry on Navy.”As part of the preparations for the “Cup of the Caspian Sea – 2015″ competition, the ships of the Navies of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan will conduct a number of preparatory artillery shooting on small maritime targets, on air targets and on a floating mine,” Dygalo noted.Holding joint naval drills among the CIS member-states’ navies was agreed in Astrakhan on November 9, 2014. An international competition called “Cup of the Caspian Sea – 2015” is the first ever joint exercises in the Caspian Sea.

6Turkey is ready to distribute gas not only from Russia but also from Azerbaijan and Iran in Europe, general director of Russia’s National Energy Security Fund Konstantin Simonov said in an interview aired by the Rossiya-24 TV news channel on Thursday.”Turkey also plans to transit gas from Azerbaijan and Iran. It appears that it may take the same position regarding this gas,” he said when speaking about the intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Turkey on 2-4 lines of the Turkish Stream to deliver Russian gas to European states.

7President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov and President of Russia Vladimir Putin expressed confidence in the prospects of intensifying mutually advantageous cooperation during a telephone conversation. As part of the conversation, which was held in a businesslike, constructive manner, the highest attention was paid to the discussion of the implementation of earlier agreements, designed to serve the deepening of partnership built on principles of equality, trust and mutual respect.Among the significant vectors of cooperation, the sides mentioned the trade and economic sphere, transport and communication, urban development, agroindustrial complex and other spheres.

8Russia is modernizing its S-300 missile system to supply to Iran, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, RIA news agency reported. “It has partially been updated, separate elements are still being updated,” said Vladimir Kozhin, a presidential adviser on military matters, referring to the S-300 system. “It will be that very S-300 complex that Iran wanted to receive.” Russia says it canceled a contract to deliver the advanced missile system to Iran in 2010 under pressure from the West. But Putin lifted that self-imposed ban in April following an interim nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

9The commissioning of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway will further increase the importance of Azerbaijan Railways CJSC and Georgian Railway JSC in freight transportation within the region and will enhance their business profiles, said Fitch Ratings July 30.Fitch said that the freight rail transportation volumes continued to decline in most former Soviet Union (FSU) countries over the first five months of 2015 and it is expected that the rail volumes are to remain weak in the second half of this year on the back of lower GDP growth across the region.“FSU rail transport companies that are reliant on crude oil transportation are also under competitive pressure as crude oil traffic continues to switch to pipelines from rail,” said the ratings agency.

10Seven start-up projects from Kazakhstan along with two start-up projects from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have become winners of Technation acceleration program for start-up teams from CIS (post-soviet space), Europe and Asia. The winners will travel to Silicon Valley – a land of innovation and start-ups – in the United States in October 2015 for a one-month internship.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine. follow @DGiannakopoulos

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Renewables Increasingly Beat Even Cheapest Coal Competitors on Cost

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Renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published today finds. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants.

The report highlights that new renewable power generation projects now increasingly undercut existing coal-fired plants. On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely. Next year, up to 1 200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV, the report shows.

Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.

“We have reached an important turning point in the energy transition. The case for new and much of the existing coal power generation, is both environmentally and economically unjustifiable,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and get people back to work. Renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy.”

“A global recovery strategy must be a green strategy,” La Camera added. “Renewables offer a way to align short-term policy action with medium- and long-term energy and climate goals.  Renewables must be the backbone of national efforts to restart economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. With the right policies in place, falling renewable power costs, can shift markets and contribute greatly towards a green recovery.”

Renewable electricity costs have fallen sharply over the past decade, driven by improving technologies, economies of scale, increasingly competitive supply chains and growing developer experience. Since 2010, utility-scale solar PV power has shown the sharpest cost decline at 82%, followed by concentrating solar power (CSP) at 47%, onshore wind at 39% and offshore wind at 29%.

Costs for solar and wind power technologies also continued to fall year-on-year. Electricity costs from utility-scale solar PV fell 13% in 2019, reaching a global average of 6.8 cents (USD 0.068) per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Onshore and offshore wind both declined about 9%, reaching USD 0.053/kWh and USD 0.115/kWh, respectively.

Recent auctions and power purchase agreements (PPAs) show the downward trend continuing for new projects are commissioned in 2020 and beyond. Solar PV prices based on competitive procurement could average USD 0.039/kWh for projects commissioned in 2021, down 42% compared to 2019 and more than one-fifth less than the cheapest fossil-fuel competitor namely coal-fired plants. Record-low auction prices for solar PV in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (UAE), Chile, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and Saudi Arabia confirm that values as low as USD 0.03/kWh are already possible.  

For the first time, IRENA’s annual report also looks at investment value in relation to falling generation costs. The same amount of money invested in renewable power today produces more new capacity than it would have a decade ago. In 2019, twice as much renewable power generation capacity was commissioned than in 2010 but required only 18% more investment.  

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Palestinian Economy Struggles as Coronavirus Inflicts Losses

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An abrupt decline in economic activities and pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s finances have placed Palestinian livelihoods at high risks, as the impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to hit the economy hard. After growth of a mere 1% in 2019, the economy is projected to contract by at least 7.6% in 2020. Beyond the immediate crisis, lifting restrictions on the development of digital infrastructure and fostering better regulations could play an important role in stimulating an already faltering economy.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in its third month, the crisis is affecting Palestinian lives and livelihoods. The Palestinian Authority has acted early and decisively to save lives. However, several years of declining donor support and the limited economic instruments available have turned the ability of the government to protect livelihoods into a monumental task. Hence, external support will be critical to help grow the economy during this unprecedented period,” said Kanthan Shankar, World Bank Country Director for West Bank and Gaza.

The new World Bank economic monitoring report* highlights critical challenges facing the Palestinian economy. The economy may shrink by at least 7.6%, based on a gradual return to normality from the containment, and by up to 11% in the case of a slower recovery or further restrictions. The PA’s fiscal situation is expected to become increasingly difficult, due to a decline in revenues and substantial increase in public spending on people’s medical, social and economic needs. Even with reallocations of some expenditures, the financing gap could increase alarmingly, from an already high $800 million in 2019 to over $1.5 billion in 2020 to adequately address these needs.

Even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, more than a quarter of Palestinians lived below the poverty line. The share of poor households is now expected to increase to 30% in the West Bank and to 64% in Gaza. Even more striking is the youth unemployment rate of 38%, well beyond the Middle East & North Africa’s regional average. The economy’s potential remains confined by restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The report makes a case for developing a digital economy to help bridge this divide and create high-end jobs.

The digital economy can overcome geographic obstacles, foster economic growth and create better job opportunities for Palestinians. With its tech-savvy young population, the potential is huge. However, Palestinians should be able to access resources similar to those of their neighbors’, and they should be able to rapidly develop their digital infrastructure as well,” added Shankar.

The report emphasizes that digital infrastructure is foundational to the development of a digital economy. At a time when other countries are contemplating the use of 5G, the Palestinian territories are among the last places in the Middle East to launch 3G in the West Bank and 2G in Gaza. The operators are at a competitive disadvantage, facing restrictions on access to spectrum, sites for network coverage and import of certain telecom equipment. They compete against operators who can offer unlicensed 4G/LTE services in the West Bank and 3G in Gaza for those in proximity to Israeli networks (through pre-paid SIM cards).

The World Bank report recommends specific reforms to be made in collaboration with Israel, including the revival of the Joint Telecommunications Committee to resolve bilateral issues, agreeing on a timeframe for the allocation of 4G spectrum and ultimately 5G, lifting restrictions on equipment needed to introduce new technologies, and mitigating the effect of unauthorized telecom activity in the Palestinian territories.

It also calls on the PA to act on developing a comprehensive strategy for the sector, establishing an independent regulator and prioritizing the passing of a new telecommunications law in line with international best practice. The role of the donors is vital to provide support for the institutional development needed in the telecom sector, help with innovative financing schemes to mitigate the political risks and increase private sector investment.

*The report will be presented to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) during a virtual meeting on June 2, 2020. This will be a policy-level meeting for development assistance to the Palestinian people.

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How to promote the resilience of the food production sector during a pandemic

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A scientific roundtable, organized through a webinar, gathered food regulators and representatives of the food production sector from Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East. It was co-hosted by the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST), the Sustainable Food Systems Division of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Food Risk Analysis and Regulatory Excellence Platform(PARERA) of Université Laval, Québec, Canada. 

The roundtable enabled participants to share perspectives of the food production sector and  food regulators on the challenges they face, some of the solutions they have developed and the lessons learnt as part of their efforts to prevent the disruption of food production and to contribute to maintaining the safety of products and consumer confidence.

The roundtable highlighted key enablers to the food supply chain’s ability to cope with the pandemic, in particular the ability to adapt to the constraints of limited transportation and to diversify suppliers by introducing more local and/or regional providers, and to prevent and mitigate food and ingredient shortages while encouraging and supporting the local production sectors minimally affected by the consequences of the pandemic. 

Participants highlighted the importance of collaboration and partnerships established amongst regulators and between regulators and food producers to support each other in the development and dissemination of guidance related to COVID-19 mitigation measures and how they can be adapted and applied in the context of food production settings. The development of innovative solutions to execute food regulatory functions such as remote audits, inspections and assessments have contributed to limiting the constraints associated with the current pandemic. 

The roundtable concluded with agreement on the need to continue investments to address food production sector deficiencies, such as making available more localized processing operations in order to create more opportunities for the primary production sector and to contribute to its resilience. It also highlighted the need to further examine food supply chains towards a better redistribution between global and local/regional supply, while supporting additional efforts towards innovative operationalization of food regulatory requirements and functions by regulators and food producers alike.

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