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.
Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war
After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.
This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies. This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.
A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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