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Iran and the nuclear deal after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The first operational implementation of the Agreement between P5 + 1 and Iran, namely the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed on July 15, 2015, dates back to January 16, 2016.

The data from the latest quarterly IAEA written report on Iran’s nuclear facilities provides information about some interesting new topics: the construction of the heavy-water Arak reactor, for example, has been stopped by the Iranian government.

Moreover, the Shi’ite Republic has decided voluntarily not to continue the testing of the equipment needed to operate with the IR-40 centrifuges which had initially been designed for the Arak reactor.

Furthermore, the technological materials and the nuclear fuel that had to be used for the Arak reactor were kept in safe and sure places under the ongoing monitoring of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

Moreover, Iran has always and continuously informed the Agency of the presence and production of heavy water at the Heavy Water Production Plant in Khondab, near Arak, which is expected to produce approximately 16 tons of heavy water per year.

These are IAEA data and information, which are also confirmed by official sources and not by the Iranian Republic.

On February 11, 2018, the IAEA checked whether the Khondab plant was active and the total heavy water held by Iran amounted to 117.9 tons.

Furthermore, again according to the IAEA, the Shi’ite Republic carried out no suspicious activity at the Research Reactor near Tehran nor in the facility for processing radioisotopes of Iodine, Molybdenum and Xenon, also located north of the capital city – a facility which is the main one for Iran’s current nuclear production.

Again according to the Vienna-based Agency, Iran has not carried out any activity beyond the limits imposed by the JCPOA in any of the other nuclear facilities that have been inspected by the IAEA.

Moreover, considering IAEA’s accuracy, it would be very difficult for Iran to keep other nuclear facilities fully secret, undetectable and untraceable by IAEA experts.

In Natanz, however, there are still 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges arranged and installed in thirty “cascades”.

The IR-1 centrifuges extract 3.5% of the natural uranium used there, but always low-enriched one.

They are based on the old Pakistani technology of the P1 ones, relying on an old Dutch design.

Some old or broken centrifuges have been replaced; others have extracted isotopes to date, for a total of 300 kilos of low-enriched uranium (LEU).

Furthermore, six “cascades” of centrifuges totalling 1,044 units are still active at Fordow, but all the equipment of the Iranian nuclear systems have been checked regularly and repeatedly with the best technologies currently available to the Vienna-based Agency.

Therefore, as stated in the latest report on Iran available to the IAEA, the Shi’ite Republic has systematically adapted to the JCPOA demands, although having now refused Imam Khomeini’s policy line whereby nuclear power was the “product of the devil”.

Hence what sanctions does President Trump want to impose on the Shi’ite Republic of Iran?

First and foremost, sanctions on the Iranian government’s and Iranian citizens’ purchase and use of US dollars. Secondly, sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold and other precious minerals, as well as on the direct or indirect purchase or transfer to Iran of graphite and other processed or non-processed minerals, such as aluminium, steel and coal (which, however, is obviously not a metal). Finally sanctions on the transfer of software for whatever kind of companies in Iran.

Furthermore a new type of sanctions will be imposed on  relevant” commercial transactions (but nobody can precisely measure this relevance) and on the purchase of Iranian currency or on the holding of rial-denominated funds or deposits outside the Shi’ite Republic. Sanctions are also envisaged on the purchase or sale of Iranian government debt securities and other restrictive rules are imposed even on the Iranian automotive sector.

An automotive sector which last year manufactured 1.5 million cars.

Further sanctions are also envisaged on Iranian-made carpets, on traditional food (pistachios, in particular), as well as on Iran’s port traffics abroad and finally on all oil transactions.

And here we come to the core of Iran’s nuclear issue, i.e. the sanctions on financial transactions involving the Central Bank of Iran, as well on commercial information concerning Iranian banks and clients, on any kind of insurance and reinsurance and, finally, on the energy sector – Iran’s real the economic heart.

While the Iranian oil purchases have been reduced “significantly” by non-Iranian third parties – very dangerous vagueness and indefiniteness for Europe – the US Treasury could decide not to impose sanctions on third parties trading with Iran.

In other words, a clear blackmail to the EU.

The sanctions on Iran-exported oil were put in place, for the first time, in 2012.

The underlying reason for them was the notorious   “terrorism” perpetrated with a huge amount of means and militants from all Arab countries and Turkey, the second NATO armed force.

However, let us revert to the oil economy.

Sanctions are objectively imposed on 20% of the oil and gas produced by Iran – and the situation has not much changed with the new Trump’s Presidency compared to Obama’s.

In other words, a quantity ranging from 500,000 to a million barrels a day.

In financial terms, a loss of over 1.5 billion dollars every month at the current oil barrel price.

Before the new sanctions – foreseeing the climate imposed by the current US Republican President – Iran had already pushed its crude oil production up to 2.7 million barrels a day.

Meanwhile, the issues relating to the new sanctions on the Iranian Shi’ite Republic will never be fully “operational” as they were in 2012, only because there is complete disagreement between the EU and the USA. The time needed to impose said sanctions will predictably be longer than usual.

In the meantime, crude oil demand is growing, considering OPEC’s and Russia’s restrictions on new extractions, as well as the crisis in Venezuela.

The companies that will certainly be hit by the US sanctions are very important for the big business activities that were already shaping in 2017.

They include Boeing and Airbus – the latter has already delivered its aircrafts to Iran, but always a few compared to the 100 already programmed by Air Iran and Aseman Lines.

A contract worth 19 billion US dollars for the Iranian national airline and additional 17 for Aseman Lines.

General Electric, too, has obtained significant orders from its Iranian customers for oil infrastructures and for oil and gas fixed transport lines.

As easily expected considering President Macron’s recent explicit reactions, another company negatively affected in the vast global business community is the French Total.

The French oil multinational has a contract with the Chinese company CNPC, which is worth 2 billion US dollars, to develop the offshore oil and natural gas field of South Pars.

Total has already spent 90 million dollars to comply with the terms of the contract, while the Iranian state-owned company will obviously not reward foreign participants until production begins.

Other companies damaged are also Volkswagen and the French car group PSA.

As early as last year the Germans had again started to sell cars to the Iranians, but they will soon have to change their strategy in that very promising market.

However, the price of petrol and other fuels for transport or heating purposes will increase steadily all over the world.

Therefore, the game of restrictions and sanctions on Iran is now in the hands of Saudi Arabia, one of the real winners of the round of sanctions the USA has just imposed on Iran.

The Saudi oil Minister has already said that “he is committed to maintaining the oil market stability”.

Minister Khalid al Falih has added that the Kingdom will work with all those that, outside or inside OPEC – the clarification is subtle and very important – intend to mitigate any damage resulting from future limitations of oil availability.

Last April Iran produced approximately 3.8 million oil barrels a day, but no one can predict when and how oil extraction in that country shall really decrease.

Hence we are noting an artificial shift of energy markets from Iran to the pro-Saudi universe, which certainly also favours the US shale oil and gas producers that need quite high oil barrel prices to create margins and reinvest their capital, at least in the short term.

It also likely, however, that many Iranian oil and gas consumers will have little to do with this US round of sanctions.

China, for example, which is currently Iran’s largest oil customer.

But also European companies and some Asian countries could be damaged by US sanctions.

Damage that, however, would be limited, based on the indications provided by US documents.

In fact, they would affect fewer than 200,000 barrels per day up to reaching 500,000 barrels per day after six months since the implementation of President Trump’s sanctions.

Moreover, as already seen, other producers could quickly fill the Iranian void, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq or even Russia, while in 2019 – thanks to its shale oil and gas – the United States will reach a level of extraction equal to as many as 11.9 million barrels a day.

The US shale oil and gas standard applies only if the price per barrel is sufficiently high.

Almost paradoxically, only the predicted increase in US shale oil and gas would be probably enough to fill the void and gaps left by the sanctions against Iran.

Certainly Europe can do many things to definitively avoid becoming irrelevant at strategic and geo-economic levels.

Things it does not do because it is still slave to a World War II mentality that neither the US Democrats nor the Republicans currently have.

Moreover, its trade with Iran almost doubled in 2017 alone.

For example, Europe could give reliable and unambiguous signs to Trump’s Presidency by repeating – as sometimes happened – the blocking regulations within the EU market to prevent any European individual or company from being obliged to accept the US secondary sanctions, which must never depend on non-EU courts for their legal resolution and settlement.

Europe could also improve the financial conditions of European companies that operate also in relation to Iran, by protecting the lines of credit to the Shi’ite Republic, with liquidity always denominated in euros and not in US dollars.

Moreover, it would be very useful to centralize the operations for protecting the European business in Iran within the E3, i.e. the group of EU countries belonging to the P5 + 1 which already negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015.

The geopolitical issue mainly lies in the Iranian missiles, which may or not be armed with nuclear warheads.

This has been the strategic theme of President Trump and also of the most recent positions of the Israeli Prime Minister.

According to the statements made by Gen. Ali Jafari, the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, currently Iran’s military and scientific research focuses only on the missiles having a maximum range of 2,000 kilometres.

Said missiles, however, can hit Saudi Arabia, Israel and most of the US bases in the Middle East.

It is obvious, however, that they are missiles for conventional deterrence.

Moreover, also Saudi Arabia has a vast missile arsenal.

The Saudi Strategic Forces operate from five different bases, but above all from Al Watah, 200 kilometers south of the Saudi capital city.

There is also the Saudi base of Asir, recently hit by some Yemeni missiles, probably Iranian-made, launched at the beginning of last April.

Saudi carrier networks are often maintained by Chinese technicians and, considering the large Saudi participation in the Pakistani nuclear project, it is very likely that the Sunni Kingdom could now acquire nuclear warheads fairly easily.

Saudi missiles, too, should have a maximum range of 2,650 kilometres.

Furthermore, Iran does not yet have an air weapon capable of fully exploiting these missile networks and, in any case, the Saudi/Iranian ratio of military forces is still 5 to 1.

On January 29, 2017, Iran launched a medium-range ballistic missile and in March 2017 two other short-range ones. On June 18, 2017 there was the operational launch of eight missiles targeted to the Daesh-Isis bases in Syria, in response to a terrorist attack suffered by Iran.

On September 23, Iran fired a new missile followed by a carrier for launching Simorgh-type satellites, which, however, is not designed to return back to the atmosphere.

From 2006 to 2012, however, Iran set up and arranged five missile tests, all reported and already sanctioned by the USA.

Currently Iranian missiles are supposed to total approximately one thousand, all medium and short-range ones, with Russian or North Korean design and especially Chinese technical assistance.

The UN Security Council Resolution No. 2231, which accepted the JCPOA, also states that “Iran shall not test any ballistic missile”, while there are no UN official bans on the subject.

There are currently ten types of Iranian carriers, while spacecraft and satellites are launched by two types of two-stage carriers, namely Safir, and the aforementioned Simorgh, both using liquid fuel.

There are currently three types of Iranian cruise missiles: firstly, the KH-55 which can carry (even) fissile material up to 3000 kilometres – a missile obtained illegally from Ukraine in 2001.

Secondly the Khalid Farzh, which has a range of 3,000 kilometres and can carry a payload of almost 1,000 kilos. Thirdly the Nasr-1, a missile for anti-ship and anti-tank uses, capable of destroying targets up to 3,000 tons of weight – as Iranian sources maintain.

Between 2000 and 2002 Iran also exported many conventional missile carrier and many spare parts to Libya.

Nevertheless, since 2007 the UN Security Council has already forbidden Iran from selling or transferring conventional weapons. It has also prohibited third countries from acquiring any type of Iranian military supplies, unless this is permitted by a specific UN Security Council’s declaration.

From 2012 to 2015, however, Iran sent weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to Assad’s regime in Syria and, most likely, also to other countries in the Middle East.

In all likelihood, although having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, Iran keeps on producing chemical and bacteriological warfare agents.

Also the other primary geopolitical players in the Gulf and in Greater Middle East are doing so.

Nowhere as on the Middle East military theatre the Gospel criterion of casting the first stone applies.

Hence it is good to never believe that the problem of N and BC proliferation holds true only for Iran, because there are also Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which has dealt with weapons for Iran and above all North Korea – not to mention the new nuclear treaty signed on December 11, 2017 between Egypt and the Russian Federation for the construction of a nuclear reactor in El-Dabaa, 140 kilometres west of Alexandria.

Not to mention, finally, the Jordanian nuclear reactor inaugurated in December 2016, which was built in collaboration with the University of Seoul.

A few days ago, Saudi Arabia made it clear that if Iran manufactures its nuclear bomb – as the Westerners say – it will quickly turn to its military nuclear plan.

All these topics shall be discussed at the forthcoming UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament scheduled before the end of this year.

Therefore, the issue lies in developing a real nuclear-weapon-free zone throughout the Middle East, with specific characteristics and internal structures operating within the IAEA – and this is also an old Iranian proposal, clearly targeted to Israel.

Nobody, however, has a real interest in a nuclear zero-sum game in the oil area.

It is a serious mistake. A Russian, Chinese, Israeli and EU alliance could really change things in the nuclear system of the entire Middle East.

Nevertheless, we could also think of an agreement within the United Nations that can mutually guarantee – at the lowest possible conventional level – all the countries in the region.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Iran: What is in store for the JCPOA?

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The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) continues to be in the spotlight of global politics. And even though the “Iranian problems” go beyond the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is the “dying” JCPOA that is the main cause of tensions in and around Iran, be it the financial and economic blow of the United States, which uses the “oil baton” to strike at the Iranian economy, the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and tanker conflicts, or Iran’s geostrategic and regional position in general.

Regrettably, we have to admit that because of Washington’s destructive moves on the global scene the JCPOA is coming under corrosion and may well turn into dust in the near future. Such a negative outcome runs counter to the interests of Russia, China, and the European Union. Therefore, they are making tremendous efforts to preserve these agreements, even if in a slightly different format after the withdrawal of the US.

Political analysts reveal two conflicting views on the future of the JCPOA. Some are sure that the days of the nuclear deal are numbered. Others believe that it can still be “saved”, but this requires the concerted efforts of the countries participating in it.

On July 28, members of the Joint Commission on the Implementation of the JCPOA gathered in Vienna at the level of political directors to focus on pressing issues the JCPOA is confronted with. Participating in the meeting were delegations from Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Germany and Iran. They discussed the negative effect of Iran’s measures to curtail its commitments under the agreement thereby aggravating the situation in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s partners called on Tehran to refrain from further withdrawal from a number of obligations under the JCPOA. The Iranian leaders have announced that, starting from May 8, they introduce 60-day rounds to gradually curtail compliance with the requirements of the JCPOA . Early September will see a new, third phase of the Iranian struggle against US sanctions. The essence of such moves on the part of Iran is to force the European Union, and, first of all, Britain, France and Germany, to launch at full capacity the INSTEX settlement mechanism, which serves to guarantee the export of Iranian oil. Apparently, this presents a lot of difficulty and causes a lot of doubts among the founders of this financial mechanism.

Reporting on the Vienna consultations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said that “the meeting in Vienna did not give us any guarantees about the future the JCPOA.” He pointed out that Iran is not sure of the effectiveness of European efforts within the framework of INSTEX and, therefore, about maintaining the JCPOA. Iran will decide on further steps after the forthcoming ministerial meeting of countries that act as guarantors of the JCPOA, the diplomat said.

The head of the Russian delegation in Vienna, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, remarked in this connection: “We urged the Iranians to refrain from this [from the phased exit from the JCPOA, V.S.] and explained why: the more measures are taken to reconsider commitments, even if voluntary ones, the higher the political temperature and the higher the chances that some of the participants in the JCPOA may lose temper and trigger aggravation. ”

The Russian diplomat went on to comment: “Certainly, you can follow this course, but it is getting ever more precarious. If we want Iran to refrain, and we also talked about this, the rest of the countries must redouble their efforts in order to provide Iran with an acceptable level of oil export despite all the odds and set the stage for at least some normalization of foreign economic activity.”

To what extent is this possible amid the unprecedented US pressure on Iran? Federica Mogherini, head of the EU for foreign affairs, has cautiously suggested the possibility of intensifying the work of INSTEX. “The question whether INSTEX will deal with oil is currently being discussed by the shareholders,”- she said.

But it is this very issue that determines Iran’s policy, and the choice of the directions of this policy clearly correlates with the following possible developments regarding the JCPOA.

The first way is possible if the authors of the JCPOA, the European Union, and other countries concerned can provide an “acceptable level of oil export”. In this case, Iran will return to the meticulous fulfillment of its nuclear deal commitments. However, there are great doubts that Iran’s partners will be able to satisfy its oil export needs.

American officials have warned European countries that they risk violating sanctions against Iran if they promote a barter system that could allow the export of Iranian oil. A senior White House administration official told Washington Examiner that the US Department of the Treasury had contacted the INSTEX Council to “signal dissatisfaction with the creation of a tool that helps to dodge sanctions and the dangers associated with it.”

No matter how much European politicians and diplomats would like to support the JCPOA, it seems that European business is not ready to take chances with the US sanctions.

The American oil embargo has created a situation which is unparalleled, even compared to the tough international sanctions of 2012-2016. In July, the export of Iranian oil fell to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand barrels per day . In June, this indicator ranged between 300 and 500 thousand. In April 2018, Iran exported 2.5 million bpd , which is 25 times more than this July.

According to experts, to determine the exact amount of oil currently sold by Iran is difficult, since Tehran is using “gray” and other export options. However, the current estimates range within the above mentioned figures.

Thus, even if INSTEX begins to operate at its full “oil” capacity, even if oil is sold on a daily basis to China , Russia , and European countries, and even if the oil export is carried out with the use of all possible legal and semi-legal ways, it is unlikely that all this will compensate Iran’s losses in oil exports and, accordingly, in petrodollars.

However, even in the event of such a far from optimistic scenario, and even considering financial losses, Tehran will not profit from leaving the JCPOA, first of all, for political reasons.

The second option for Iranian policy, will most likely take shape in the context of the EU’s inability to circumvent US sanctions and thereby fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA. In this case, there could be two scenarios.

The first hypothetical option for Iranian policy amid INSTEX futility: Iran openly leaves the JCPOA. On July 29, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it demanded yet again that European countries act on the conditions of the JCPOA. Otherwise, the statement said, Iran would cease to pursue its obligations under this agreement.

As part of this option, Iran terminates the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the IAEA guarantees,  puts an end to the activities of the IAEA inspectors and control by the Agency, restores its nuclear potential and activates the implementation of its nuclear program under plans which were in force before the adoption of the JCPOA. In its most radical version, Iran withdraws from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Such a policy, in its best version for the Iranians, will lead to the complete isolation of Iran and the resumption of international sanctions, possibly under the patronage of the UN Security Council. At worst, it will lead to possible air and missile strikes by the United States and / or Israel at Iran’s nuclear facilities (let’s recall the troubled year 2012). Clearly, such a development does not suit anyone, first of all, Iran.

It should be borne in mind that the European Union (Britain, France and Germany), while opposing the United States on the JCPOA, backs Donald Trump and his team on other issues concerning Iran and its policies. These are as follows: Iran’s missile program, Tehran’s military and political activities in the Middle East, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and other Shiite groups, which are deemed terrorist in most Western countries. Therefore, in the event of the collapse of the JCPOA, the EU will concentrate all its political, diplomatic and propaganda campaigns and, possibly, military potential, on Iran.

The second possible political option of Tehran in the conditions of INSTEX incapacity is the continuation of the policy which is currently pursued by the Iranian leadership. On the one hand, there is a well-structured and well-thoughtout phasing out of obligations under the JCPOA, which does not envisage going beyond the “red lines”. On the other hand, bringing partners as close as possible and at the same time lifting tensions in relations with opponents with a view to set the stage for negotiations

On January 29, 2019, addressing a conference on defense and security in Iran, Chief Military Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Brigadier-General Yahya Rahim Safavi said that “the development of Iran’s strategic relations with global competitors of the United States, including Russia and China, is one of Iran’s major defense strategies.”

In June, China and Iran held joint naval exercises at the strategic Strait of Hormuz. In July, Iran unilaterally introduced a visa-free regime for citizens of China, as well as for residents of Hong Kong and Macau.

According to Iranian politicians and political analysts, Russia is Iran’s strategic ally in the region and elsewhere in the world. The Commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, has said that Iran and Russia intend to step up maritime cooperation. According to the admiral, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Moscow on naval cooperation and the two sides plan joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean before the end of the year. “By the Indian Ocean, we mean a vast area in the northern part of the ocean, including … the Strait of Hormuz, as well as the Persian Gulf.” Later, on July 30, the command of the Iranian Navy stated that Rear Admiral Khanzadi’s words about the location of the exercises were misinterpreted. He meant the northern part of the Indian Ocean and the Oman Sea.

On August 1, the Russian Defense Ministry did not confirm either the signing of any  document, or any plans for joint maneuvers of the Russian Navy and the Iranian Navy.

Judging by these facts, Tehran is trying to use Iran’s good relations with China and Russia for its political agenda and for an effective struggle against its antagonists.

Simultaneously, Iran is seeking to alleviate tensions with its opponents as part of its policy of moderate withdrawal from the JCPOA. A few days ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his country’s readiness for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most fierce rival in the Middle East. The two countries disagree on many issues and support parties that are at war with one another.

The most significant event of recent days is an appeal of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to U.S. President Donald Trump to settle the differences between the two countries through negotiation and not succumb to the influence of advisers and allies, who, in his opinion, are pushing Washington into war with Tehran. As Mr. Zarif said “diplomacy is tantamount to common sense, not weakness.”

The Iranian diplomacy is thus demonstrating political flexibility and, at the same time, pragmatism. It seems that Tehran is playing a simultaneous game with many parties and, an all likelihood, there are two major points for Iran to gain from these games.

The first is to prolong the time it takes to make drastic decisions. In any case, it will play for time until the presidential election in the United States, due to take place in November 2020, hoping for the victory of the Democrats and, accordingly, the revival of the JCPOA and the return of Iranian-American relations to the period of 2015-2016.

The second is to score as many points as possible on playing venues around the world to create favorable conditions for undoubtedly welcome future negotiations, in the first place, with the Americans, and, preferably, with a Democratic administration.

Despite its daring and independent position, Tehran has no other pragmatic choice but negotiations. In all likelihood, the American pressure on Iran under Donald Trump will not dwindle. Given the situation, Iran’s foreign policy of the near future will move along a thorny path full of unpredictable pitfalls and unexpected turns. But obviously, all these efforts are oriented at the only option possible – negotiations. Other ways are either unrealistic, or lead to war. And this, I dare say, is something no one wants, including the United States.

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U.S. – Iran tensions: Position of Baku Remains the Same

Asim Suleymanov

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The situation in the Middle East is still tense. First of all, because of the aggravating relations between Iran and the United States, that resemble a roller coaster. A temporary stabilization follows the next peak, but at a level below the previous aggravation. Then a new incident takes place or another ultimatum is given by one of the parties, and everything repeats again.

Tensions with Iran have steadily increased since U.S. President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Rouhani and other Iranian officials accuse the United States of engaging in “economic terrorism.”

The international community now is watching the development of the conflict between the US and Iran. The regular imposition of new sanctions on Iran, the start of tanker wars, the mutual threats of Washington and Tehran become a real threat to international security. The projects exempted from US sanctions include the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) and the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor.

It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz (which they did as part of the so-called “tanker wars” in the 1980s) or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine.

Meanwhile, anti-Iran sanctions hit considerably Iran’s partners. They are forced to look for mechanisms of evading these sanctions and to look for new formats of interaction in order to protect existing ones.

Today, many countries reject full economic cooperation with Tehran. But the format of cooperation, aimed primarily at the implementation of global economic and transport projects, continues to exist. The next trilateral summit of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran is clear evidence that this format of cooperation is beneficial. All the sanctions can’t hinder it.

If we imagine that the war between the USA and Iran will start, it will become an unconditional, non-compensating disaster for all its participants. That will be a war without winners. All the involved parties will lose.

As a neighboring country Azerbaijan will inevitably be drawn into the conflict. It can turn into a catastrophe, as refugee flows and extremists will head to Azerbaijan, especially from Iranian (Southern) Azerbaijan region.

So far, the President of Azerbaijan Republic Ilham Aliyev remains the most successful leader of the South Caucasus. He is confidently controlling the ship of the state. With its reasonable policy, Azerbaijan has already ensured its own place in a multipolar world. And this place does not mean that Azerbaijan will follow Russia and China instructions. The government of Baku will act in accordance with its own interests that ensures independence and a place in the future multi-polar world.

The main thing is to continue this course being afraid of nothing, but acting within the framework of international law, if some other country commits indecent acts. A real politician should not fall prey to intimidation, the psychological attack of the West countries. This politician weighs reality, facts, actions. If Azerbaijan succumbs to such an attack, the tested methods will be applied in response such as color revolutions, external pressure and etc.

For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First of all, Iran is the Azerbaijan Republic’s southern neighbor. The 2 states share about 618 kilometers of land borders. These two countries border each other in the Caspian Sea as well. Both countries share values from their mutual past and some elements of a common culture. Azerbaijan has the second largest Shi’i population in the world, after Iran. The membership of both countries in Muslim and regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic Conference and ECO, is an indicator of the countries’ affinities in terms of geography and religion.

The history of direct relations for the last 10 years shows that such positive and binding factors as neighborhood and the same religion are not enough to create close relations between them. Other important factors, which affect current relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, exist as well.

Azerbaijan is well aware that there can be no sovereign state in a unipolar world. This simple, but very sober and very courageous calculation dictated Aliyev’s policy of supporting the Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia format of cooperation.

The Islamic Republic of Iran plays an active role in the geopolitical struggle over Caspian oil. As major hydrocarbon exporters themselves, Russia and Iran view the new oil and gas producers in the Caspian region as a threat to their own economic interests. Just like Russia, Iran is deeply concerned over growing western capital investments and the expansion of foreign interests and presence in the region. Being unable to compete with US and European technology and capital in tapping the abundant Caspian natural resources, Iran and Russia have resorted to non-economic ways of influence in the region.

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Idlib: The clock is ticking

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On August 1-2, the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan was playing host to the 13th round of inter-Syrian talks, held as part of the so-called Astana format. The Russian delegation was led by President Putin’s Special Representative for the Syrian Settlement Alexander Lavrentyev, the Iranian – by the Assistant Foreign Minister Ali Asgar Haji, and Turkey was represented by the Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal. Iraqi and Lebanese representatives were taking part in the meetings as observers. The negotiations focused on the situation in Idlib, discussing not so much “who is to blame” for what is happening there, as “what needs to be done.”

There are more than a dozen different armed groups currently holed up in Idlib, the largest being the National Liberation Front – an alliance of pro-Turkish groups – and the “Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham” radical group, banned in Russia. According to various reports, there are an estimated 30,000 militants, including foreigners, now active in the province.

Since the accords, which Russia and Turkey reached last year, the diehard radical groups have significantly expanded the area under their control in Idlib, a fact blamed by many on Turkey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the 2018 agreement to separate the warring sides. Some, (including Russia), explain this by the complexity of the situation, while others – by Ankara’s reluctance to openly clamp down on Khayyat Tahrir al-Sham, even less so on its proxies. Observers often say that it is due to Idlib’s proximity to the Turkish border that the militants there are getting reinforcements, arms and money. As a result, the “de-escalation zone” has turned into a zone of a real escalation.

In the meantime, Damascus’ patience is running low, and with good reason too. The Syrian government is eager to liberate Idlib, which is the country’s last remaining radical enclave, while the radicals are trying to keep it as their only bridgehead in Syria. Regular militant attacks outside the “zone” are crushed by government forces, including by Russian airstrikes, which gives Ankara a reason to accuse Moscow of attacking “innocent civilians.”   Turkish military checkpoints have on several occasions come under fire by Syrian government forces, making Ankara see red. A few days ago, just before the meeting in Nur-Sultan, Turkey’s “semi-“or, rather, official Anatolian agency published an aptly-headlined article by the International Kazakh-Turkish University deputy rector, Cengiz Tomar. Titled “Russia’s position on Idlib is a threat to the Astana process,” the article accused Moscow of “failing to stop the attacks (by the Syrian army – AI) being launched against Idlib under the pretext of terrorists and radical groups allegedly present in the area.”

Mustafa Kemal Erdemol from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet thus explains why Ankara keeps clinging on to Idlib: “Turkey’s goal in Idlib is to maintain the status quo … Because as long as it remains there it can fight Kurdish units and, ultimately, create a Syria dependent on Turkey.”

In a July 11 interview with EurAsia Daily, Muset Ozugurlu, a columnist for the Gazete Duvar, said: “The first thing we need to know is whether Turkey wants to separate terrorists from moderates? Another question is whether there really are “moderates” in Idlib.” Muset Ozugurlu believes that as soon as the militants active in the province are defeated, Turkey will lose all the territories it now controls in Syria and the “last chance to be present” in the country.

During the talks in Nur-Sultan, Russia, true to its allied commitments, offered to help Turkey and the “moderates” climch a ceasefire. According to Alexander Lavrentiev, “Turkey has obligations under the Sochi memorandum. If they can’t fulfill them themselves, we can lend them a hand. Today we discussed this with the opposition representatives, telling them that if they are interested and need help in their fight against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, then they can count on us.”

Almost simultaneously, the Syrian news agency SANA announced a ceasefire in Idlib “in keeping with the Russian-Turkish agreement signed in Sochi in September 2018.” Most of the opposition delegates backed the initiative. The chief Syrian delegate, Bashar al-Jafari, said the truce was “a test for Turkey,” which should finally prove whether it is the real guarantor of the peace process “or just plays for the opposition.”

It looks like Damascus’ offer will be hard to turn down. It also gives the “moderates” one last chance to exonerate themselves. Alexander Lavrentyev made it clear that “demarcation” with the “irreconcilables” is no longer relevant: “The question here is not about demarcation, but about prodding the moderate opposition towards liberating these territories and take them under control.” As to the radicals, they “must be destroyed, simple as that.”. The message is crystal clear. As the Syrian political scientist Ali Al-Ahmad put it, “Turkey felt that Russia really means business, so I think they will start fulfilling their Sochi obligations, because if they don’t, then this goal will be achieved through military operations.”

Before very long, however, as if to prove their inability to agree, the militants broke the ceasefire shelling the positions of the Syrian army.

It now seems that very little can possibly be done to avert a military operation in Idlib, the only question being “when.”

Apparently realizing this, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that representatives of the US and Turkish military command would meet on August 5 to establish a “security zone” in northern Syria. Does it mean that, failing to accomplish their mission in Idlib, the Turks are now shifting their focus to the “Kurdish threat”? Or, true to their tactic, they are again telling (this time their partners in the Astana format) that they need room for maneuver and have a strategic alternative?

Let’s not jump to far-reaching conclusions though. Moscow, Ankara (and Tehran) have more than once demonstrated their ability to reach compromise solutions to difficult situations. Moreover, Turkey is a partner in the Syrian settlement process and its influence on the negotiable part of the opposition makes it valuable to Moscow. Turkey, for its part, certainly values good relations with Russia. That being said, it is still imperative to solve the problem of Idlib, and solve it quickly. Only then will it become possible to talk about building a peaceful future for Syria. By the way, Damascus has reportedly reached agreement with the UN concerning the composition of the constitutional commission.

Much will depend on the next summit of countries – guarantors of the Astana process, slated for September 11.

From our partner International Affairs

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