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.
Saudi sports diplomacy: A mirror image of the kingdom’s already challenged policies
Saudi sports diplomacy is proving to be a mirror image of the kingdom’s challenged domestic, regional and foreign policies.
Overlorded by sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi sports diplomacy, like the kingdom’s broader policies, has produced at best mixed results, suggesting that financial muscle coupled with varying degrees of coercion does not guarantee success.
Mr. Al-Sheikh, a 37-year old brash and often blunt former honorary president of Saudi soccer club Al Taawoun based in Buraidah, a stronghold of religious ultra-conservatism, and a former bodyguard of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is together with Saud al-Qahtani among the king-in-waiting’s closest associates.
Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s wealthiest investors, acknowledged Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ranking in the Saudi hierarchy when he made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC weeks after having been released from detention.
Prince al-Waleed was one of the more recalcitrant detainees among the scores of members of the ruling family, prominent businessmen and senior officials who were detained a year ago in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel as part of Prince Mohammed’s power and asset grab.
Prince Al-Waleed said on Twitter at the time that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”
Mr. Al-Qahtani, who was recently fired as Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar in connection with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was banned this week from travelling outside the kingdom. Mr. Al-Sheikh has not been linked to the Khashoggi murder.
Nevertheless, his sports diplomacy, exhibiting some of the brashness that has characterized Prince Mohammed as well as Mr Al-Qahtani’s approach, has largely failed to achieve its goals. If anything, it appears to have contributed to the kingdom’s growing list of setbacks.
Those goals included establishing Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse in regional and global soccer governance; countering Qatari sports diplomacy crowned by its hosting of the 2022 World Cup; projecting the kingdom in a more favourable light by hosting international sporting events; becoming a powerhouse in soccer-crazy Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation; and using the competition for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to bully Morocco into supporting the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar.
To be sure, with the exception of a cancelled tennis exhibition match in Jeddah between stars Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, most scheduled sporting events, including this season’s opening Formula E race in December and the Italian Supercoppa between Juventus and AC Milan in January, are going ahead as planned despite a six-week old crisis sparked by the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
Yet, if last month’s friendly soccer match in Jeddah between Brazil and Argentina and this month’s World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) Crown Jewel showpiece are anything to go by, major sporting events are doing little to polish the kingdom’s image tarnished not only by the Khashoggi killing but also the war in Yemen that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. The sports events have so far failed to push Mr. Khashoggi and Yemen out of the headlines of major independent media.
Mainstream media coverage of Saudi sports has, moreover, focussed primarily on Saudi sports diplomacy’s struggle to make its mark internationally. One focus been the fact that Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer body FIFA, has run into opposition from the group’s European affiliate, UEFA, to his plan to endorse a US$25 billion plan for a new club tournament funded by the Saudi and UAE-backed Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
If adopted, the plan would enhance Saudi and Emirati influence in global soccer governance to the potential detriment of Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia and the UAE spearhead a 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar designed to force it to surrender its right to chart an independent course rather than align its policies with those of its Gulf brothers.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to engineer a situation in which Qatar is either deprived of its hosting rights or forced to share them with other states in the region, a possibility Mr. Infantino has said he was exploring.
Mr. Infantino has also said he was looking into implementing an expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams already in 2022 rather than only in 2026. An expansion of the Qatari World Cup would probably involve including others in the Gulf as hosts of the tournament. Qatari officials have all but ruled out sharing their hosting rights.
Another media focus has been alleged Saudi piracy aimed at undermining Qatar-owned BeIN Corp, the world’s biggest sports rights holder, including the rights to broadcast last summer’s Russia World Cup in the Arab world.
Mr. Al-Qahtani reportedly played a key role in the sudden emergence of BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat that ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.
The piracy has sparked international lawsuits, including international arbitration in which BeIN is seeking US1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia. The company has also filed a case with the World Trade Organization.
FIFA has said it has taken steps to prepare for legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working alongside other sports rights owners that have been affected to protect their interests.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s effort to create with funds widely believed to have been provided by Prince Mohammed an international Saudi sports portfolio that would project the kingdom as a regional power broker collapsed with fans, players and club executives in Egypt furious at the Saudi officials buying influence and using it to benefit Saudi rather than Egyptian clubs.
“No one, no one at all — with all due respect to Turki or no Turki … will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” said Mahmoud el-Khatib, chairman of Egyptian club Al Ahli SC, one of the Middle East’s most popular clubs with an estimated 50 million fans. Mr. Al-Sheikh had unsuccessfully tried to use his recently acquired honorary chairmanship of Al Ahli to take control of the club.
Al Ahli’s rejection of his power grab persuaded Mr. Al-Sheikh to resign in May and instead bankroll Al Ahli rival Pyramid FC. He invested US$33 million to acquire three top Brazilian players and launch a sports channel dedicated to the team.
The club’s fans, like their Al Ahli counterparts, nonetheless, denounced Mr. Al-Sheikh and the kingdom and insulted the Saudi official’s mother in crass terms during a match in September. Mr. Al-Sheikh decided to abandon his Egyptian adventure after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ignored his request to intervene. “Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day. Why the headache?” Mr Al-Sheikh said on Facebook.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s attempt to form a regional powerbase by creating a breakaway group of South Asian and Middle Eastern soccer federations beyond the confines of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) collapsed five months after the formation of the South-West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) when seven South Asian nations pulled out with immediate effect.
The collapse of SWAFF and Mr. Al-Sheikh’s withdrawal from Egypt were preceded by his backing of the US-Canadian-Mexican bid for the 2026 World Cup against Morocco after he failed to bully the North Africans into supporting the boycott of Qatar.
Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
That was Mr. Al-Sheikh’s position six months ago. Today, men like Prince Mohammed and Messrs. Al-Sheikh and Al-Qahtani are seething. US President Donald J. Trump is proving to be an unreliable ally. Not only is he pressuring the kingdom to come up with a credible explanation for Mr. Khashoggis’ killing, Mr. Trump is also seemingly backtracking on his promise to bring Iran to its knees by imposing crippling economic sanctions.
Saudi distrust is fuelled by the fact that Mr. Trump first asked the kingdom to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran and then without informing it made a 180-degree turn by offering buyers generous waivers that keep Iranian crude in the market instead of drive exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh, drew his pro-American definition of Saudi Arabia First from the crown prince’s focus on the United States. Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh and other senior Saudi officials may be considering whether putting the kingdom’s eggs primarily in one basket remains the best strategy.
Whatever the case, Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sweep through regional and global sports has left Saudi leaders with little to leverage in the kingdom’s bid to pick up the pieces and improve its image tarnished first and foremost by Mr. Khashoggi’s killing but also by the trail the sports czar has left behind.
Paris Peace Forum: A missed opportunity for the Middle East
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the World War I armistice, the Paris Peace Forum (PPF) launched by French president Emmanuel Macron adopted a welcome approach to the root causes of contemporary conflict, including climate change and the double-edged sword represented by new technologies.
The forum, which took place from November 11-13, showcased projects that spoke to the innovation and collaboration critical to improving lives and reducing tensions across the globe.
Conspicuous by their absence
Even though the summit saw 65 heads of state from all over the world come together to launch the event, precious few of those leaders came from the Middle East – even though the region could benefit as much as any other part of the world from this “Davos for democracy.” While this first peace summit represented a promising start, any future editions need to find a way to make inroads with citizens in the countries where they are needed most. Of course, this is a two-way street, with leaders in those countries needing to participate in and draw lessons from such gatherings.
The Middle East’s most notable representatives at the event were Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Their presence was fitting: while so many of their neighbors jostle with each other to secure their own geopolitical ends, Qatar and Lebanon have faced down the instability surrounding them to protect themselves from dangerous regional currents. Unfortunately, the leaders who could have really used reminding of the importance of peace were absent from the stage.
An “island” of stability
Qatar, for its part, has been the subject of a regional blockade for the best part of 18 months. A coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all severed ties with the country since June 2017 for its alleged “support for terrorism” but more realistically for its willingness to deal with Iran against a backdrop of acrimony between the two sides of the Gulf. The Saudis, for their part, have gone so far as planning to cut Qatar off from the mainland with a new canal.
Far from buckling, however, Qatar has proven remarkably resilient and stuck firmly to a strategy of de-escalation with both sides of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Events since have rewarded that cool-headedness. Global markets nervous about the turbulence in Riyadh are now looking to Qatar as a regional investment driver instead. Ironically enough, none other than Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman praised the performance of the Qatari economy last month.
Delicate peace in Beirut
Lebanon has had greater difficulty insulating itself from the instability across its border with Syria, but Saad Hariri has nonetheless maintained a fragile domestic peace even after an apparent kidnapping and forced resignation (later rescinded) orchestrated by bin Salman in November of last year. Hariri was detained for two weeks and only released on the back of intense international pressure, apparently out of Saudi anger with the Lebanese premier for cooperating with his Shi’a Hezbollah rivals in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s torturous system of confessional politics, however, difficult compromises are the nature of the game. Hariri and his Sunni-led political movement have no choice but to negotiate with Hezbollah’s Shi’a faction over the balance of political power on an ongoing basis to keep the country stable. Hariri’s resistance to Saudi demands for aggression has helped keep the peace between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’a, preventing the sectarian fires that have torn Syria apart from jumping across the border.
External actors have key roles to play
Of course, none of the crises in the Middle East can be viewed in a vacuum. One key part of the program at the Paris Peace Forum summit – entitled Global Powers and the Middle East – focused on the responsibility of outside powers like the United States, Russia, China, Europe and India to find common ground and address the causes of Middle Eastern instability. Left unsaid: these same countries are often deeply involved in perpetuating these crises.
If American, European, or Russian leaders truly want to prevent conflicts in the Middle East, their first step should probably be a sort of Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” The arms trade is a notable case in point. The Middle East is responsible for 32% of global arms imports. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are three of the five largest customers; their primary suppliers are the US, UK, France, Italy, and Russia.
Rather than encourage stability, this supply of weapons has fed a volatile arms race. Much of that equipment has been used by the Saudi coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which has left eight million Yemenis are the brink of starvation and the country confronting the fastest growing cholera epidemic the world has ever seen. Russia has openly used the civil war in Syria as a venue for showing off its military hardware to potential customers worldwide, even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to massacre civilians.
Instead of helping their local allies arm themselves to the teeth, these outside powers should push Middle Eastern governments to change their damaging patterns of behavior and undertake the kinds of social reforms that are instrumental in easing tensions. Otherwise, systemic inequality and unaccountable leadership will continue to lay the groundwork for conflicts and crises. That might enrich weapons manufacturers, but it will do nothing to achieve the goals pursued in Paris this week.
The sanctions of a split
The tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran have aggravated conflict between Washington and its close allies. The European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have expressed regret over measures taken by American President Donald Trump and signaled the need to protect their companies. Simultaneously, eight countries have received a six-month “sanctions delay” from the United States, which produced a further negative effect on the balance of strength and set the scene for a further escalation of tension.
The United States announced the resumption of anti-Iranian sanctions, which ban the purchase of Iranian oil and oil products, on November 5. The US Treasury Department pointed out that they were the “toughest” in history: “These are the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as the energy, shipping and shipbuilding, and financial sectors. The United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
“The unprecedented financial pressure exerted by the US Treasury Department on Iran should make it clear to the Iranian regime that it will face ever-increasing financial isolation and economic stagnation until it radically changes its destabilizing behavior. From now on, the maximum pressure exerted by the United States will only increase,” – emphasizes US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin. Washington makes it no secret that the ultimate goal of the sanctions is to reduce oil exports from Iran “to zero.”
Over 700 individuals and legal entities have been put on the sanctions list, including the Iranian national air company Iran Air, more than 65 aircraft it owns, and several dozen ships of the merchant fleet. The sanctions prohibit the purchase of Iranian oil and are directed against port operators, shipping and shipbuilding companies, the financial sector, – primarily tanker insurance companies, – and also restrict operations with Iran’s banks and Central Bank.
Fines will be imposed on anyone who trades oil with Iran and works with its banking system. Secondary sanctions (fines and shutout from the dollar system) may be imposed on companies of third countries. The US also demanded that Iran should be cut off from the SWIFT international payment system. According to reports, on November 5 SWIFT suspended access of some Iranian banks to its system, but without reference to the US sanctions.
This step followed President Trump’s announcement in May this year about Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action on the Iranian nuclear program. Adopted in 2015 with the participation of Iran, the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the document envisages easing sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its measures to wrap up its nuclear program under the control of the IAEA. The US president dubbed it “the worst deal ever,” saying that it does nothing to stop Iran from pursing its nuclear and missile programs. After Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the other participants expressed their commitment to this document.
Two days before the sanctions package was put into effect, US President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States was ready to conclude a new agreement with Iran on more stringent conditions. “Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior, or continue down the path toward economic disaster”, – the US president said on November 3: “The sanctions will target revenues the Iranian regime uses to fund its nuclear program, development and proliferation of ballistic missiles, fuel regional conflict, support terrorism and enrich its leaders”. At the same time, according to Donald Trump, “the United States remains open to reaching a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran that forever blocks its path to a nuclear weapon, addresses the entire range of its malign actions, and is worthy of the Iranian people. Until then, our historic sanctions will remain in full force”.
Having introduced “unprecedentedly tough” sanctions against Tehran, Donald Trump, as part of his business approach to international affairs, left substantial “windows of opportunity” for the subsequent bargaining on a wider range of issues of the international agenda. The USA made an exception for eight states. China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea were allowed to buy Iranian oil temporarily. According to the London-based Financial Times, these countries will be able to import a limited amount of Iranian oil over the next six months.
Simultaneously, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that more than 20 countries have already cut down on oil exports from Iran, reducing purchases by more than 1 million barrels per day. Independent sources indicate that average daily oil production in Iran fell from 3.8 million barrels in May to 3.3 million barrels in early October. This is quite a lot: because of the reduction, Iran loses about 1 billion dollars a month.
Given that the above exemptions from the sanctions list are temporary, the United States will likely resume political and economic bargaining with the eight countries in spring, with a view to preserve a favorable regime for these countries. In the first place, it concerns China. President Donald Trump will try to use the “Iranian factor” in order to achieve maximum concessions on trade and economic issues from Beijing. Among other things, he will probably make an attempt to force the Chinese side to reconsider joint energy projects with Russia. In the meantime, China’s response to the US decision to resume the anti-Iranian sanctions has been markedly restrained. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on Washington to respect China’s trade rights and expressed “regret” that the United States relaunched sanctions against Iran.
A much more resolute response came from the European Union – whose trade and economic interests are affected by anti-Iranian sanctions first. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, as well as the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement in which they promised to protect their companies from restrictive US measures. “Our goal is to protect the subjects of the European economy that have legal commercial ties with Iran,” the document states.
In the meantime, the European Union is confronted with the problem of creating a specific structure that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran without risking falling under Washington’s sanctions. Brussels reported in October that a new mechanism of payment for Iranian oil exports should be legally ready by November 4, and would go into operation in early 2019. However, according to The Financial Times, by the time the current sanctions were introduced, the Europeans did not have even a legal foundation for the defense mechanism and had not come to agreement on the location of the corresponding “special purpose structure” (SPV). “Now we are actively discussing where the SPV will be located, who will participate in it, and are launching the process of registering it. Time is short, and given the complexity and sensitivity of this issue in the light of its geopolitical consequences, we see very rapid and effective progress,” – said a representative of the French Finance Ministry.
For Europeans, sensitivity of this issue lies in their unwillingness to come under tough Washington’s sanctions themselves – especially in the context of deepening trade and economic differences between the US and the EU. “The US authorities are demonstrating that they will act aggressively towards violators of sanctions, which boosts the effect,” warns partner of law firm Morrison & Foerster and former director of the Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury John Smith. “When the United States threatens to punish violators and does it in practice, examples of punished companies force others to think seriously,” he said in an interview published by the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal.
Without waiting for the sanctions regime to come into effect, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated that Tehran would be able to overcome it. “America wants to bring down Iran’s oil sales, but we will continue to sell oil to break through the sanctions,” he said.
Tehran could not but point out the fact that the resumption of the US sanctions package against Iran coincided with the anniversary of the capture of the US embassy during the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. Addressing his compatriots, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The goal of American sanctions is to cripple and restrain the Iranian economy, but the result we obtained in reality was the country’s striving for self-sufficiency.” “The main objective of the United States in all this is to regain the supremacy it had in the period of tyranny. But this will not happen,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
Meanwhile, Tehran does not attach any fundamental significance to the exclusion of eight states from the sanctions regime. “The Islamic Republic could sell its oil even if these eight countries were not excluded, we would still sell our oil,” said Hassan Rouhani in this regard.
The anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by Washington have not yet had a direct impact on Russia. The sanctions list published by the US Treasury contains only the Russian “daughter” of the Iranian Bank Melli – the Mir Business Bank, registered in Moscow (MB Bank). Its shareholder is Bank Melli Iran, which, according to the United States, provides multi-billion financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “Bank Melli enabled the IRGC and its related parties to transfer funds both inside and outside Iran,” the statement of the US Treasury said. JSC Mir Business Bank was registered in Moscow in 2002. Bank Melli Iran is its sole shareholder.
According to reports, the Trump administration has decided not to pursue the Russian direction in its pressure on Iran ahead of a new meeting of the presidents of Russia and the United States due to take place at the end of this year. The meeting could be held on November 11 in Paris, at events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, or — more likely — at the G-20 summit in Argentina in late November – early December this year. However, regardless of the outcome of this meeting, Russia should bear it in mind that its trade and economic ties with Iran, and in a broader context – relations with OPEC – will become the target of a new round of global games of the US administration.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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