With a view to better understanding what might happen in the future between the Shi’ite Republic of Iran and the Wahhabi and Sunni stronghold represented by Saudi Arabia, we need to examine a wide range of geoeconomic, political, ideological, strategic and military data and conditions.
Both geopolitical players, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, may appear irrational to Western observers and decision-makers, but they are used to analyze their strategic equation down to the smallest detail.
Firstly, let us analyze the issue of oil prices and their geopolitical significance.
In principle, the oil price per barrel at around or below 30 US dollars should increase slowly, although Saudi Arabia has oriented and directed the rest of OPEC Sunni countries towards temporary overproduction, so as to further lower prices and damage Iran. And damage Russia, as well – a small simultaneous favor to the American friends which, however, is a very ambiguous token of friendship: at a price below 30 US dollars/barrel, the US shale oil is totally uneconomical and many US shale oil companies (reportedly 40%) are already on the verge of bankruptcy.
But none of OPEC members, let alone the US shale oil industry can go on – for a long period of time – with this pace of plant over-pumping, which reduces the life cycle of wells and leads to huge costs for crude oil storage, in a situation of low economic growth of oil consumers.
The United States have accepted this policy only to damage the Russian Federation, which has an economy still linked to the oil system.
If we look at data and statistics, in recent months Saudi Arabia has reached an extraction record level: 10.24 million barrels/day. And the more the economic crisis worsens, the more Saudi Arabia will be interested in pumping at full blast, so as to have the immediate cash and liquidity it needs.
Even Iraq, Kuwait and, oddly enough, Libya have increased the pace of their daily extractions. Apart from Iraq where oil is in Kurdish areas, they are the new region of Saudi hegemony – the conditioning to oil overproduction to destroy Shi’ite competitors and convince the United States to give up the shale oil extraction.
In geopolitical terms, the Sunni world tries to flood the Western markets with its oil, which will replace the oil of Iran and Shi’ite areas (including Iraq).
In the downward war of the oil barrel, the winner is the one that expels the opponent from the end markets – and this obviously tends to damage more the countries which are most dependent on oil flows.
Nevertheless, with so low oil barrel prices, all OPEC producing countries do not succeed in maintaining internal social peace, their military spending and their hard currency reserves.
With a view to earning an acceptable margin, Nigeria – for example – needs an oil barrel price equal to 122 US dollars. In order to survive, Venezuela – which now has a “Weimar-style” inflation – should price the oil barrel at 117 US dollars, while the Shi’ite Republic of Iran should charge an oil barrel price equal to 130 US dollars in order to cover costs and reach such an average margin of revenues as to allow the market allocation of the new capital in the domestic oil sector. The greater the damage by Sunnis, the greater the Iranian presence in proxy wars against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Obviously the Western investors will take action in this regard, now that the sanctions against Iran have just been lifted.
Iran, however, will always have a primary oil customer, namely China, while all analysts forecast an increase in Iranian oil extraction this year and next year. If China is and remains the first customer of Shi’ite oil and if, together with Azerbaijan – where oil extraction is less expensive than elsewhere – it is connected with Iran, the damage caused by OPEC to Iran will be limited.
This year the Iranian amount of oil will be 3,133 million barrels but, with a view to taking advantage of the new post-sanction situation, the government plans to reach 550,000 bpd, with a program for increasing its daily production up to 4-7 million bpd within 2020. This means that Iran wants to conquer almost all Saudi Western markets.
Hence a struggle between the two rivals to retain the new markets conquered, by reducing prices, and a struggle to prevail in maintaining the internal balance of power at a time of budgetary constraints. Finally a struggle to prevail in keeping military spending high and, above all, pushing the regional opponent in as many regional proxy wars as possible – wars which exhaust forces, deplete resources and force the players to sell oil at any price just to “make money” and have cash available.
In order to better understand this issue and this situation, Algeria should sell its oil barrel at 130.5 US dollars; Kuwait at 54, Qatar at 60, Saudi Arabia – as we have already seen – at 106 and Russia at 100. Currently no one really earns on oil sales, and everybody is strongly damaged by low prices, including consumers.
Russia is playing its game in Syria also for this reason.
It does not want to cut production because it needs liquidity, but its wells are aging and “getting obsolete” quickly. The extraction of Siberian oil has been decreasing since 2007, while Russia needs capital to play the card of Arctic oil.
Hence the Sunnis need the US production to decline and the oil extracted by Iran and its Shi’ite allies not to reach Western markets at a reasonable cost, in large quantities and competitive with the Sunni oil.
Incidentally, it is precisely the Mesopotamia’s axis, where Syria is present, which is the major corridor of Shi’ite oil and, in many respects, of Russian oil.
Therefore the proxy war between Daesh/Isis and Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russian forces, will last until the Saudi oil market stabilizes itself at an acceptable price which, according to the most informed and knowledgeable analysts, should be 80-90 US dollars per barrel.
The problem lies in that fact that – through regional wars – Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the Iranian oil benefitting from the same price increase.
Conversely, Iran wants to “retain” the Alawite Syria to secure the autonomous control of a channel for the transit of oil and gas not touching the Sunni-dominated areas.
The territories currently at war are and will increasingly be used as taps to be turned on or off so as to open or close the transit of their own or other countries’ oil.
Is this, however, the background of a direct confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’ites? Let us analyze the issue carefully.
Now that Iran is coming back onto the global economic scene, Saudi Arabia obviously wants to avoid the Shi’ite expansion into the Greater Middle East.
The 2011 uprising in Bahrain, in which a Shi’ite majority was brutally repressed by the Sunnis in power with the Saudi support, was probably the beginning of the final confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia for hegemony over the Middle East region.
The 2014 Shi’ite uprising in the Kingdom was then seen as a practice run for the likely Shi’ite secession in the Saudi universe, where the Al Hasa Shi’ite area was conquered by the Saudi security forces only in 1913, while the Shi’ites around Medina were eliminated later, in 1926.
In the Hejaz region there are still pockets of resistance to the Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalism, while – in the Eastern province of Al Islahiyyah – traditionalist groups, in good relations with the Shi’ites, have long been present and could unite the opposition to the Al Saud’s Kingdom, which has never succeeded in gaining fully hegemony over the Southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Osama Bin Laden’s hatred for the Royal Family dated back to long time ago and was related to his family’s origin from the Hadhramaut region, at the border with Yemen – a region which has never really submitted to the Al Saud family.
In other words, Iran, but also the Saudi Kingdom, has to manage Shi’ite or Sunni minorities or majorities in a situation in which, throughout the Middle East, States are actually falling apart or, anyway, hardly manage to face the severe threats posed to their survival.
Obviously, in this situation, each of the two major contenders tries to make the other collapse by initially destabilizing the peripheries of both areas of influence and, later, possibly hit the core of the enemy’s power, when the peripheral disintegration process is over.
Nevertheless Saudi Arabia is and will always be a Sunni-majority country, as Iran will always be a nation where the “Party of Ali” is almost completely present.
What about converting the enemy? It is a likely option. In Indonesia the Shi’ite refugees are forced to convert to the Sunni Islam line before having any other economic support, while Iran itself was converted to the “Party of Ali”, namely the Shi’a, only with the Savafid dynasty in 1501 – the same dynasty that rebuilt Iran as an independent State.
Formerly Shi’ism was widespread also in the areas of which the Iranian universe was composed within the Ottoman Empire, such as Dagestan and other Caucasus areas, which are now a stronghold of the Sunni jihad inside the area of Russian influence.
During that Savafid period also Azerbaijan was converted to Shi’ism, as well as most of Iraq, with the Shi’ite reconquest of Baghdad in 1624 which caused the destruction of the Sunni majority of its inhabitants.
Currently the number of fast conversions to Sunnism is remarkable also in Iran itself and it is obvious that the Iranian authorities regard this phenomenon as a deadly danger.
Furthermore the Wahhabi – and hence Sunni – Salafism is used in Iran as a tool for insurgency against the Ayatollahs’ regime.
The expansion of the Hezbollah linked to the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, from the Lebanon to Jordan, is a further factor destabilizing the Sunni universe.
In Iran, the Ayatollahs’ statements on the pan-Islamism which must characterize the Iranian policy have decreased for years. On the contrary all Sunnis are increasingly accused of being at the origin of the global jihad which, according to Iranian leaders, is targeted both against the West and against Imam Ali’s followers.
It is a zero-sum game which does not provide for a balance, except for the possible destruction of the areas through which both Sunni and Shi’ite oil transit – and this is the only reason why sometimes the war between the two Mohammedan traditions goes through slack periods.
In other areas, an expansion of conversions to the Shi’ite line is recorded as a tool of political fight against the local authoritarian regimes: in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, as well as in Islamic emigration or in the ancient Islamic Mohammedan communities in Canada or in the United States.
Both in the Saudi and Iranian cases, the expansion of conversions to either Islamic line is a direct tool for hegemony.
If this happens in the Middle East, the Shi’ite or Sunni conversions lead directly to the creation of minorities, sooner or later organized for the armed struggle, as currently happens in Yemen or in Syria.
Which is, however, the military potential of either lines of Koran interpretation and tradition?
Saudi Arabia increased its military spending by 14% in 2014, despite budgetary constraints, which is over 10% of its GDP.
If the pace of Saudi Arabia’s rearmament is maintained, and in the absence of new developments on oil markets, the Saudi military spending could lead to a severe economic recession in the Kingdom within 2017.
This is the reason why it is useful for the enemies of the Saudi dynasty to trigger off a small destabilization southward and eastward, as well as preserve the “small wars” in Yemen, in the Syrian Sunni area, as well as in Iraq or in the Pakistani Shi’ite areas in the near future.
In 2015 Iran spent 10 billion US dollars, 60% of which was allocated to the Revolutionary Guards.
Considering the Iranian specific situation and the economic crisis induced by a long regime of sanctions, the growth of military spending will be contained at around 10-15%.
If the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia turns into an open conflict, this will be the end of the Russian plans of regional hegemony to offset the US withdrawal. This could recreate a strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in view of a new and more difficult Iranian regionalization after the lifting of sanctions.
In this regard, Israel maintains covered and highly confidential – albeit fruitful – relations with both Islamic contenders.
It is worth recalling, however, that neither Islamic country has an interest in giving up the project of “wiping out” the Jewish State and, in a future phase of confrontation, both Islamic countries could create a casus belli for encircling Israel from the North, from Sinai and the PNA Territories, where the Saudi presence is increasingly significant.
Hence we need to rebuild – with the help of the Russian Federation and the United States – a status quo in the Middle East entailing the definition of new and more rational borders, as well as negotiations on regional disarmament and a new Summit – along the lines of the old Madrid Agreements – resuming and following up the policy to make Israel safer, by recognizing a new great power status to Russia and a new NATO’s intervention doctrine in the region.
The secret behind Trump’s moves in eastern Deir ez-Zur
Trump’s desire for Syrian oil has led observers to consider it as the beginning of occupying oil wells in other countries, including Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states.
The obsession of the U.S. president with money and oil is obvious for everyone and that is why U.S. military commanders have used this temptation by Trump to persuade him to keep some troops in Syria.
On October 28, Trump said, “We are keeping the oil — remember that. Forty-five million dollars a month? We have secured the oil”.
Last week, news sources reported that the U.S. president has agreed to develop military missions to protect oilfields in eastern Syria.
The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that the U.S. has established a new military base in the oil-rich parts of Deir ez-Zur in Syria.
In this regard, Trump announced the settlement of some U.S. companies in Syria’s east to invest in and exploit oilfields. It was a move that drew Russian backlash.
Russian opposition to Trump’s oil ambitions
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement in late October that the Syrian oil is the focus of U.S. attention. In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lavrov said it was important to refrain from “steps undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov also said, “This, what Washington is doing now — capturing and maintaining control through the use of arms over oil fields in eastern Syria — that is, to put it simply, international, state-sponsored banditry,” DW reported on October 26.
Konashenkov said tank trucks guarded by U.S. military servicemen and private military companies smuggle oil from fields in eastern Syria to other countries.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin also pointed to U.S. efforts to reinforce its presence in Syrian oil-rich lands, calling it an illegal act by Washington. Vershinin also said that Moscow will never accept the policy that the U.S. is pursuing in Syria.
The Russian Defense Ministry in recent weeks has also released satellite images of some areas in Syria showing that U.S. troops have created security guard to smuggle Syria’s oil. Earlier, images of eastern Syria were released documenting oil trucks were traveling across Syria-Turkey borders, an action which reveals the goals of those countries which support terrorism in Syria.
Syria’s oil reserves
In terms of oil reserves, Syria is in 32nd place after Malaysia and ahead of Argentina, with 2,500,000,000 barrels. Syria’s known oil reserves are mainly in the eastern part of the country in Deir ez-Zor, the second largest Syrian province after Homs. The rest of reserves are in other provinces such as Hama, Ar Raqqah and Homs.
Before the beginning of civil war in 2011, Syria was extracting 385,000 barrels of light crude oil with an approximate value of €3 billion, which were being transferred to Homs via pipeline. 89,000 barrels of the extracted oil were being refined and used for domestic uses. The rest was being exported through port of Baniyas.
Lebanon has uncovered some oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Syria can also explore some of these reserves as it has long coasts along the Mediterranean if it invests in its territorial waters.
U.S. actions in eastern Euphrates
Now that the defeat of terrorists is clear to everyone, the U.S. is seeking to create an economic crisis in Syria by using oil as a tool against Damascus. This is the reason why it is seizing the country’s oil reserves and also pressures Damascus to accept Washington’s conditions.
From our partner Tehran Times
Middle Eastern protests: A tug of war over who has the longer breath
Mass anti-government protests in several Arab countries are turning into competitions to determine who has the longer breath, the protesters or the government.
In Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, countries in which the leader was either forced to resign or has agreed to step down, authorities appear to be dragging their feet on handovers of power or agreed transitional power sharing arrangements in the hope that protesters, determined to hold on to their street power until a political transition process is firmly in place, either lose their momentum or are racked by internal differences.
So far, protesters are holding their ground, having learnt the lesson that their achievements are likely to be rolled back if they vacate the street before having cemented an agreement on the rules of the transitional game and process.
Scores of recent arrests on charges that include “harming national unity” and “undermining the morale of the army” have failed to deter Algerians who refuse to accept the military’s proposed December 12 date for elections.
Lebanon enters its second months of protests with the government going through the motions but ultimately failing to respond to demands for a technocratic government, a new non-sectarian electoral law and early elections.
An effort to replace prime minister Saad Hariri with another member of the elite, Mohammad Safadi, a billionaire businessman and former finance minister, was rejected by the protesters.
“We are staying here. We don’t know how long – maybe one or two months or one or two years. Maybe it will take 10 years to get the state we are dreaming of, but everything starts with a first step.” said filmmaker Perla Joe Maalouli.
Weeks after agreeing to resign in response to popular pressure, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mehdi appears to be increasingly firm in his saddle.
Much like what prompted US President George H.W.. Bush to first call in 1991 for a popular revolt against Saddam Hussein and then give the Iraqi strongman the tools to crush the uprising, Mr. Mehdi is holding on to power in the absence of a credible candidate acceptable to the political elite to replace him.
Mr. Mehdi’s position is strengthened by the fact that neither the United States nor Iran wants a power vacuum to emerge in Baghdad.
Backtracking on Mr. Mehdi’s resignation and refraining from appointing a prime minister who credibly holds out the promise of real change is likely to harden the battle lines between the protesters and the government.
The tugs of war highlight the pitfalls protesters and governments need to manoeuvre in what amounts to a complex game with governments seeking to pacify demonstrators by seemingly entertaining their demands yet plotting to maintain fundamental political structures that anti-government activists want to uproot.
Meeting protesters’ demands and aspirations that drive the demonstrations and figure across the Middle East and North Africa, irrespective of whether grievances have spilled into streets, is what makes economic and social reform tricky business for the region’s autocrats.
Its where what is needed for sustainable reforms bounces up against ever more repressive security states intent on exercising increasingly tight control.
Sustainable reform requires capable and effective institutions rather than bloated, bureaucratic job banks and decentralisation with greater authorities granted to municipalities and regions.
Altering social contracts by introducing or increasing taxes, reducing subsidies for basic goods and narrowing opportunities for government employment will have to be buffered by greater transparency that provides the public insight into how the government ensures that it benefits from the still evolving new social contract.
To many protesters, Sudan has validated protesters’ resolve to retain street power until transitional arrangements are put in place.
It took five months after the toppling of president Omar al-Bashir and a short-lived security force crackdown in which some 100 people were killed before the military, the protesters and political groups agreed and put in place a transitional power-sharing process.
The process involved the creation of a sovereign council made up of civilians and military officers that is governing the country and managing its democratic transition.
Even so, transitional experiences have yet to prove their mettle. Protesters may have learnt lessons from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Yet, this time round, protesters lack the broad-based international empathy that 2011 uprisings enjoyed and are up against more than domestic forces backed by conservative Gulf states.
Powers like Russia and China make no bones about their rejection of protest as an expression of popular political will.
So has Iran that has much at stake in Iraq and Lebanon, countries where anti-sectarian sentiment is strong among protesters, even if the Islamic republic was born in one of the 20th century’s epic popular revolts and is confronting protests of its own against fuel price hikes.
Iran’s next parliamentary election hinges on economic problems, US sanctions effective
It seems any faction focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections.
The eleventh elections of the Islamic Parliament in Iran will be on Feb 21, 2020 across the country. Seyed Salaman Samani spokesman of Interior Ministry said in an interview that has published on the official website of the ministry.
About 4 months have remained to the elections, but the politicians and parties have started to organize their campaigns and planning for victory.
The current parliament was formed from 41 percent Reformers and Moderates, 29 percent Principlists, 28 percent Independents and 2 percent Minorities, according to the ISNA News Agency.
In Tehran, capital of the country, all seats were gained by the Reformers, but some important cities such as Mashhad as the second city in the country, the Principlists were decisive winners.
But the majority of people and political activists are serious dissatisfactions concerning the function of the parliament, even some experts have emphasized on the famous slogan that says: “Reformer, Principlist, the story is over.”
This situation has formed, while Iran`s Parliament has been under control between two parties in the past years. So, some experts seek up the third faction for improving the country’s position, but so far the third faction has had not a leader and specific structure.
Due to the Reformers supporting of President Hassan Rouhani in the last presidential elections and lack of his rhetoric realization, the position of the Reformers has weakened increasingly. For example, Rouhani said during the contests of the presidential elections about 2 years ago in Iran television that If Iranians reelect me, all sanctions even non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted. But now, the sanctions against Iran have increased and the economic situation of the people has hurt extremely.
But recently, many celebrities of Iran have regretted concerning supporting Rouhani like Ali Karimi the former football player and Reza Sadeghi the famous singer, they demonstrated their regret on social media. So, some suggested that the victory of Principlists in the elections is certain.
“The Principlists need not do anything; they are comfortably the winner of the next parliamentary elections.” Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian academic reformist said in an interview with Shargh Newspaper.
“We have no chance for parliamentary elections and next presidential elections unless a miracle happens,” he added.
The Iranian Principlists are closer to Iran`s supreme leader and guard corps than the Reformers. A political face in the right-wing like, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf with the slogans “New Parliament ” and “Neo-Principlism ” has recalled young people to receive their ability to provide the elections list. Ghalibaf launched his third presidential campaign for the Iranian presidency on April 15, 2017, but on May 15, 2017, Ghalibaf withdrew, but he supported Ebrahim Raisi who is the current chief of Iran`s judiciary.
Another face is the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Some experts say Ahmadinezhad has a great plan for the next elections but so far he has not spoken about it. Recently he criticized toughly from the government of Rouhani and Iran’s Judiciary. Recently, some of his close activists arrested by Iran’s Judiciary, and they are in Evin Prison now. Some analyzers say Ahmadinezhad has high popularity, just as the people have welcomed warmly lately on his travels across the country.
JAMNA or “Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces” is another chance for Principlists in the next elections. JAMNA founded in late 2016 by ten figures from different spectrum of conservative factions, in the end, the party elected Ebrahim Raisi as a candidate for the presidential election but Raeisi defeated.
But Reformers are not hopeless, Mohammad Khatami as the leader of the Reformers, who served as the fifth President of Iran from 1997 to 2005 has said statements recently. He has wanted from the government to qualify the Reformers candidates for participation in the political event.
One of the Reformer’s big problems in the history of Iran `s elections has been the disqualification by the Guardian Council. According to Iran constitution, all candidates of parliamentary or presidential elections, as well as candidates for the Assembly of Experts, have to be qualified by the Guardian Council to run in the elections.
Some Reformers in reformist newspapers state that they will take part in the parliament elections on this condition the majority of Reformers’ candidates will be qualified by the Guardian Council.
Some analysts said the Iran parliament has not enough power in order to improve the country’s situation. Just as the parliament has approved the bill of “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” by a 126 vote in last year, but the Guardian Council has disagreed with it and its fate shall determine by Expediency Discernment Council, while the government has frequently emphasized on the bill. The government believes the approving the bill will cause to reducing the bans about the economic transaction with the world.
Generally, Iran`s economic position is very critical currently, tough sanctions by Trump administration and the defeat of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) has caused that Iranians to be under serious problems. The stuff prices and inflation are at the highest level since Iran`s revolution in 1979. So, it seems any faction that focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections. Also, the more important issue is the participation rate of people. If dissatisfactions about economic problems will be continued, hope and joy between people would reduce the rate of Participation in the next elections. Some experts say based on experiences in Iran, when the rate of participation in the elections is reduced, the Principlists has a more chance for the victory, because the gray spectrum that is not black or white, usually has a willing to the Reformers. the spectrum includes younger people even teenagers in the urban society.
Some political observers say the gray spectrum has not very willing to participate in the next elections. Some suggested that the future situation, especially in the economic field is very important to make the willingness about the gray spectrum to participate.
Analysts said the winner of the presidential elections 2 years later is the winner of the parliamentary elections on Feb 21, 2020. The majority of the next parliament will affect the political space across the country. This procedure in Iran has precedent. Like the victory of the Reformers in the last parliamentary elections that it caused the Rouhani victory about 2 years ago.
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