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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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Turkey and Trump’s sanctions-based “political economy”

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By the end of last year, the Turkish economy had slipped into a technical recession, boosting in 12 months by only 2.6%, despite the fact that a year ago the government expected GDP to grow by 3.8%. The slowdown is particularly striking against the background of sustainable development over the past seven years: in 2010, the country’s GDP grew by 8.5%, in 2011 – by 11.1%, in 2012 – by 4.8%, in 2013 – by 8.5%, in 2014 – by 5.2%, in 2015 – by 6.1%, in 2016 – by 3.2% and in 2017 – by 7.4%  This trend has turned Turkey into one of the fastest developing economies, earning it 17th position worldwide in nominal GDP and 13th in the GDP value regarding purchasing power parity.

The situation changed by the middle of 2018, when relations with Washington deteriorated to the point of a trade war. The Trump administration resorted to the much-practiced method of targeting the “dissenters”: it raised drastically customs duties on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey (which, however, did not prevent the United States from becoming the second buyer of Turkish metallurgical produce by the end of the year). On August 1 the US introduced sanctions against Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers. At that time, the main stumbling block (at least on the surface of it) was Turkey’s refusal to release American priest Andrew Brunson who was detained in 2016 on charges of  espionage and links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement along with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party. For some time Donald Trump’s propaganda slogans were dominated by the maxim “to save rank-and-file pastor Brunson”.

Turkey responded by slapping import duties on American goods: cars, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics. And, of course, it put two US ministers on its sanctions list.

But the forces were clearly far from equal. As a result, the Turkish lira collapsed. At the beginning of 2018 one dollar traded for 3.8 liras, whereas by the end of the year it sold for 5.3 liras. Moreover, at the peak of the weakening of the national currency, the dollar cost almost 7 liras. The Central Bank of Turkey was forced to raise the interest rate, even despite opposition from the country’s omnipotent president. Today, the rate has climbed up to the red level of 24%. Consequently, there has been a drop in the sales of real estate, cars, and a number of other industrial goods. Prospects for inflation have materialized too – in October, inflation hit a fifteen-year high, exceeding 25 percent.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the crisis on Turkey’s foreign ill-wishers. This time – with a lion’s share of truth.

In October, the court sentenced Branson to imprisonment for exactly the time he had already served. The pastor returned home, mutual sanctions were lifted, which partly calmed the markets. But only partly.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the country’s GDP increased by 2.6% by the end of the year. At the same time, the service sector grew by 5.6%, agrarian – by 1.3%, industrial – by only 1.1%. Exports, compared to the previous year, increased by 7% – to 168 billion dollars (a record figure in the entire history of the Turkish Republic). Foreign trade deficit, amid a boost of imports prices,  decreased by 28.4% to $ 55 billion, while imports proper dropped by 4.6% to 223 billion dollars. Tourism revenues increased by 12.3% to 29.5 billion

At first glance, the situation is far from critical, but, according to the TSI, over the year, per capita GDP dropped from $10,597 to $ 9,632; household expenditures, although going up by 1.1% on the year, went down by 8.9% in the fourth quarter. In December unemployment rate among the able-bodied population reached 13.5% – more than 4.3 million people.

Nevertheless, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Treasury and Finance of Turkey, sounded optimistic: “The worst days for the economy are over. The government is confident that the growth of the Turkish economy in 2019 will match the forecasts laid down in the New Economic Program. ”

In general, the above-mentioned program envisages the implementation of reforms that will protect export-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises, strengthen their competitiveness, stimulate the economy to secure a high level of added value. An important part of the document is a clause that stipulates cutting government spending on expensive infrastructure projects, often designed to foster the image rather than the economy.

Specialists differ in assessing the prospects for the Turkish economy: forecasts vary from a slight increase to a further decline. In particular, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Economists expect the cooling to continue. The OECD forecasts a further reduction in the economic growth of (Turkey-author) for 2019 to minus 1.8 percent.” So far, the trend is as follows: industrial production, for example, in January 2019 fell by 7.3% against January last year.

Among the chronic illnesses of the Turkish economy is a deficit of the balance of payments, which the government traditionally tries to compensate with foreign loans and foreign investment – these primarily provided economic growth in previous years. Now this source seems nearly exhausted as investors worldwide are growing increasingly wary of developing markets. The position of Turkey is aggravated by the uncertainty of foreign capital about the independence of the Central Bank, its concerns about the unpredictability of the country’s policy and the adequacy of its economic course (first of all, its adherence to ambitious projects with questionable economic efficiency).

Also, potential investors are deterred by the strained relations between Ankara and Washington. For many, President Trump’s recent treat to “ruin” Turkey for its policy on Syrian Kurds and his recent decision to abolish customs preferences for a number of Turkish goods came as signaling the continuation of a trade war. Significantly, these statements were made after the Turkish leadership confirmed its determination to acquire Russian air defense systems, thereby making it clear that pursued a course towards independence in strategic decision-making.

For Turkey, the United States is a fairly important trading partner, which in 2018 accounted for almost five percent of Turkish exports ($ 8.3 billion) and more than five percent of imports ($ 12.3 billion).

The recession in the Turkish economy has a certain negative impact on Russian-Turkish economic results. Last year, Turkey became Russia’s sixth largest trading partner. In particular, it accounts for a considerable share of Russian exports of metals, grain and, most importantly, energy carriers (the second, after Germany, importer of oil in the world). In February, according to Gazprom, the export of Russian gas to non-CIS countries decreased by 13% in annual terms. The company said the main reasons behind the decrease were the warm weather in Europe and the crisis in Turkey.

The Russian economy has succeeded in adapting to the extensive sanction pressure from Washington and, it looks like the Trump administration has now chosen to “attack from the flank”, targeting one of Moscow’s major foreign economic partners. It would not be a mistake to assume that the ability of the Turkish leadership to resist pressure from its “strategic ally” and NATO partner in the near future will largely determine not only economic, but also political relations between Moscow and Ankara. 

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Ambiguity in European economic leadership

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Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.

 This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.

The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.

 Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.

 In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!

The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.

 After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).

 Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.

 For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.

The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.

We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.

Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.

For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.

As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP

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