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U.S. Policy Towards Iran’s Economic Reintegration

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On July 14, 2015, the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran reached an agreement under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement stipulated that all UN Security Council sanctions as well as all multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program would halt in exchange for a commitment from Iran to roll back its nuclear activities.

Subsequently, on January 16, 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its first report finding Iran in compliance with its international obligations under the agreement thereby triggering the removal of sanctions. Since then, similar finding by the Department of State has further assuaged concerns that misgivings by the country may undermine the deal. Yet the initial agreement and its relative success, despite contributing to the softening of tensions between Iran and many of the European allies, have not convinced the new Administration to continue partnership with Iran. The new Administration’s approach to trade with China remains equally unresolved. Future viability of U.S. partnership with both countries relies on outlining government-wide missions that can take advantage of the newly created diplomatic and political space between the countries and ensure that U.S. national interest is best served. There is time for forging an alliance that today might seem as amorphous as the transatlantic alliance might have when General George Marshall sketched out the Marshall Plan.

The United States government can play a supportive role in assisting the regional allies that desire economic partnership with Iran and china; this policy should contain Iran and China’s geostrategic ambitions but attempt direct any post-sanction economic goals toward those ends that serve peace and stability in the region. One such opportunity will include determining the U.S. policy towards Iran’s decision to reshape its energy sector and reinvigorate regional trade. More specifically, Iran has shown desire to join the “international liquefied natural gas (LNG) club” and has expressed its ambition for finalizing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and developing the plans for the Iran-Turkey-Europe (ITE) natural gas pipeline. Cautious supervision of the post-sanction regime coupled with U.S. support for its allies’ participation in these projects can serve a number of U.S. objectives by (1) advancing American goals and commitments under international agreements regarding energy reform and climate control; (2) facilitating Iran’s transition toward friendly trade on the global stage; and (3) assisting the goals of energy security for U.S. allies by reducing Russia’s influence in the region.

Implementing a broad policy of economic reintegration for Iran through direct involvement by the U.S. government remains challenging because of the requirement for public and legislative support. Obtaining congressional approval for broad reforms in this area is still unlikely until Iran has shown true progress and firm commitment in implementing the agreement. However, more feasible short-term strategies for promoting economic reintegration can still be adopted.

Iran is the world’s top holder of gas reserves with 33.8 trillion cubic meters, and it has a high success rate of natural gas explorations, estimated to be at around 79% compared to the world average of 30%, rendering the country a uniquely attractive destination for European and American companies. Iran’s natural gas industry was negatively affected by American and European sanctions, but Iran has recently expressed a strong willingness to return to the international export arena. Traded gas is expected to expand globally by 30% by 2025, and the European Commission has suggested that Iran’s large gas and oil reserve can strengthen Europe’s energy security. In line with this trend, comes the timely affirmation that Iran has seized this opportunity in increasing its gas production to 5 billion cubic meters in the first five months of the current fiscal year.

International climate change agreements envision a healthy role for natural gas as one of the  primary fuels in combating climate change and compliance with recent agreements including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP21 or the Paris Agreement, requires favorable natural gas policies. Despite the current administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, senior officials have stressed the Administration’s willingness to support India and China’s role in combating climate change, including transition from coal to more efficient forms of energy. China and India have shown cooperation in this transition, and the International Energy Agency has projected that growth in natural gas demand will be mainly driven by China and the Middle East, attesting to the viability of natural gas projects in the region. Given these countries persistent reliance on the dirtiest forms of energy such as wood and coal, support for this project advances a sober idea purposed by energy scientists such as Vaclav Smil: Global environmental goals can most realistically be achieved through a system where every country moves one step up on the energy trade, with advanced economies switching to renewable energies, such as nuclear, and countries like Iran and China trading the least environmentally friendly energy sources like coal for cleaner forms of fossil energy. North Korea continues to be one of China’s main trade partners in coal, and supporting China’s transition to natural gas will inevitably lead to more cooperation with the Trump administration’s goal to isolate North Korea.

Aware of the opportunities in this growing market, Iran has expressed its intention to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which links the largest natural gas-producing region in western China with the Gwadar deep-sea port in Balochistan, running through Pakistan. Iran’s involvement will include connecting the pipeline to the Chabahar port in the Gulf region. Both the international sanctions imposed on Iran and Pakistan’s financial deficiencies originally delayed the progress of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, but, today, China’s initiative in financing parts of the project have brought the project closer to reality. Nonetheless, the Department of State’s unclear stance on how the remaining Iran sanctions and the possibility of a “snap back” in sanctions can affect the project has added to Pakistan’s hesitant approach in resuming the project. India also receives 70% of its electricity from coal and has previously shown interest in extending the pipeline to reach the country. India’s desire to join the project provides an opportunity for increasing peace and cooperation between India and Pakistan by relying on the economic interdependency that will result from the contract.

At the same time, Iran and Turkey have already laid the initial steps for an Iran-Turkey-Europe (ITE) pipeline, connecting Iran to Turkey’s border with Greece. In 2013, the Turkish government approved the urgent expropriation of land along the proposed route for the pipeline. Among the countries that rely on gas imports from Iran, Turkey is assessed to face the most significant supply challenge, should its trade with Iran be restricted. Both technical problems inside Turkey and spikes in domestic demand for gas inside Iran have recently caused instances of shortfall in gas exports to Turkey. This problem then reverberates to Greece, as Turkey attempts to remedy its shortage in gas by limiting its re-exports to Greece. Both countries, therefore, have more incentive to facilitate their trade with Iran, as their demand is projected to grow.

Additionally, other key American allies such as South Korea are likely to reap some of the economic benefits that might arise from a growing gas market in Iran. Qatar, another American ally in the region, is collaborating with Iran in developing 24 phases of one of the largest gas fields in the world, the South Pars, which will be fully operational in 2018. Currently 90% of Iran’s natural gas exports go to Turkey, shaping the incentives for the ITE pipeline that will extend this relationship to Europe. European demand for gas is projected to increase by 15-20% by 2025, and introducing an alternative market can reduce the European allies’ reliance on the Russian market. The geopolitical benefits of such transition for America is highlighted by the evident reluctance among European allies to enforce stringent sanctions on Russia for its recent recalcitrant behavior in Ukraine; a pattern that has its roots in the allies’ concern for Russia’s perceptible power in influencing the European energy market. If Russian provocations in Eastern Europe persist, the most likely victims are countries such as Belarus that have shown willingness to pivot towards the EU coalition but are partially tied back because of their energy ties to Russia. Belarus, as an example, is estimated to owe close to 15% of its GDP to trade transit activities linked to Russia’s transport of oil and gas to other European countries.

Iran has already taken affirmative steps in implementing domestic reform to its energy sector subsequent to the lifting of the sanctions.  The country recently introduced a new model petroleum contract that is intended to encourage more foreign investment in its energy sector by removing barriers for reimbursing foreign investors. Iran also agreed to amend its Gas Sale and Purchase Agreement (GSPA) with Pakistan to give the country more time to finalize the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project. Policies from the White House can reinforce these positive steps at normalizing trade security for American allies in the region. A U.S. policy favorable to finalizing these projects can also provide a platform for expanding negotiations with Iran beyond the nuclear issue.

The Administration has a number of different pathways available. First, the Department of State’s involvement can include an active engagement from high level diplomats and special envoys for international energy affairs in the Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR) to sensitize other regional powers such as Pakistan, India, and Turkey to the diplomatic benefits of proceeding with their prospective plans for partnership with Iran. The Bureau’s recent successful attempt as an intermediary in initiating and concluding the gas trade partnership between Israel and Jordan is surely a laudable precedent. The State Department’s success in brokering the gas trade between Israel and Jordan, despite the political pressure from inside Jordan to refuse the deal, attests to the ENR’s influential role in using diplomatic channels to bypass regional hostilities. Similarly, the Department of Energy’s role can be utilized through coordination of its USAID program and increasing support for private sector partnerships in Pakistan that can be tailored to encourage investments in natural gas and enhance the expertise and infrastructure in this field.

Finally, a more direct involvement by the Administration can entail consideration of relaxing specific sanctions pertaining to the exchange of advanced technology. LNG requires access to advanced technology that is only available from limited number of European and American companies. The Iran Sanctions Act which shaped the core of U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran’s energy sector originally did not cover investment in Iran’s development of its LNG program. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) later amended this language to sanction investments in Iran LNG’s sector.  In addition, other legal authorities sanctioning exportation of goods and technologies remain in place pursuant to the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR). The Administration preserves a waiver power under CISADA, and the Department of Treasury controls a general licensing program for providing exemptions from ITSR. In this context, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) can review its policy toward granting export licenses to U.S. persons and foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies that seek joint ventures or transfer of technology to Iran limited to the specific field of LNG exploration. OFAC most recently exercised this power to relax restrictions on exportation of commercial passenger aircrafts and related services to Iran.

 Finally, other attempts by the Treasury Department to further clarify the exact bounds of the Administration’s enforcement policy with regard to the remaining Iran sanctions can introduce more predictability and reduce uncertainty for foreign companies attracted to investment opportunities in Iran’s gas market. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has noted that “precise assurances” from the U.S. government to the European banks about engagement with Iran can ease some of the remaining uncertainty about Iran-EU joint ventures. As the most marvelous chapters in the history of American diplomacy, such as the Marshall plan, suggest, often the greatest achievements lie in the courage to envision the opportunities that can be unlocked through international economic partnerships. In an unlikely region and among unlikely partners, another opportunity for a grand American diplomatic bargain is waiting to be seized.

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Sustainable Agriculture in Modern Society

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Now everybody is seeing the world is changing fast in this 21st century and many industries and modern buildings are also developing all over the world. But the land areas for farming are becoming narrower and narrower. Moreover, the global population is increasing rapidly and the earth becomes a crowded planet. But the younger people who are interested in agriculture are becoming less and less. There might be some young people who even think that they get foods from grocery stores because the younger generation are used to buy many kinds of ready-made foods such as fruits and vegetables easily from supermarkets. Recently, in the developed countries, the average age of many farmers is over 50 years old and the numbers of young farmers are decreasing. The shortage of young farmers can become a crisis in the future of the developed world.

In modern days, most young adults cannot see the difficult lives of farmers beyond the curtain. The farmers have to pass their whole life through a tough living in farming and sell their products at very low profit to many profiteering companies because they don’t have much choices. It is a sad story for farmers but truly happening in these modern days.

Today I would like to point out that we should not forget the role of agriculture which is very fundamental and essential for building a nation. Farming is an age-old profession that supported the settlement of human beings for thousands of years to survive on this planet. Agriculture is very important for the development of a nation because it provides the trading and employment, supply the foods and textiles and that can lead to the rise in gross domestic product (GDP) of a nation. Agriculture plays a crucial role in economy of a developing nation where majority of population is in rural areas and agriculture is the main source of job in many underdeveloped areas. Many families in developing countries live depending on farming for their livelihood. So, it can be even said that developing agriculture is an important step to reduce poverty and hunger in many developing countries. Agriculture support nutrients rich foods that are essential requirements for our healthy life because nutrients rich foods provide energy for our body, essential nutrients for our vital organs such as brain and heart etc, and enhance our immune system. So, agriculture is necessary for a flourishing and joyful life of human being.

Especially let’s see my home country, as data from Food and agriculture organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “The agriculture supports 37.8 % of gross domestic product of Myanmar, contributed to 25-30% of total export earnings and employs 70 % of the labour force”. Humans cannot survive without agriculture. When there is no more agriculture, it will end with starvation and collapse in economy. It will cause a serious failure in modern civilization.

Nowadays, modern farming is largely evolved into industrial agriculture where many kinds of chemical fertilizers are being used to induce massive production. Industrial agriculture is beneficial to economic development because it can cause the crops growing faster than in the traditional agriculture. The industrial agriculture can provide more enough foods for growing population in modern civilization. However, it is not sustainable because it cannot protect the benefits of the society and our green planet in the long run. Chemicals used in agriculture are destroying the soil where is left with damaged soil fertility and this area can’t be reused in the future. This is a huge affect to sustainability of our green environment.

Modern agriculture has many issues related to water scarcity, soil erosion, climate changes and etc. To be sustainable in agriculture, we must focus on solutions of these issues. The sustainable agriculture will focus on three bottom lines that is environmental, economical and social.

The sustainable agriculture involves many practices such as using the organic fertilizers in farming, growing drought resistant crops, breeding biodiversity in farms, modified irrigation systems and others. Sustainable agriculture is more suitable to practice for the future of the green earth than industrial agriculture. It is very important to promote awareness of sustainable agriculture and issues related to environmentally toxic practices in agricultures among local farmers. And I believe that it can cause many advantages for economic development if farmers can work systematically with sustainable practices in their farming and the local authority can provide farmers with more technological skills and lending some funding to practice sustainable ways in agriculture. With the willingness to participate for environmental heath at the enough profit for incomes of daily living life, I hope famers will become socially responsible persons.

And another one more point, in this digitalization era, we should certainly apply digital technologies in sustainable agriculture. By developing digital farming, it will help farmers to get easier access to source of many information related to agricultural practices. Government in developing countries should support to develop digital farming as rapidly as possible for the poor farmers to get proper profits and to work in environmentally friendly practices. Since poor countries already have enough labour force, they just need many financial aid and technology supports to grow into sustainable agriculture.

I believe that it is a responsibility for our humans that we should not forget something that had supported our existence on this earth. We should work out for development of traditional agriculture into modern agriculture with the best sustainable ways. As being a part of this society, we must help each other, we must protect the sustainability of this green earth, Biodiversity and this is also beneficial for long-term existence of our human beings on this earth. Let me end this talk by suggesting everyone to promote sustainable agriculture in your surrounding local farming.

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The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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