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Will Iran be able to counteract US sanctions?

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American sanctions and how to confront them

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) today, as in the past 40 years of its existence, is in the global spotlight as the focus of major political and economic developments.

As you know, on May 8, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and the resumption of the sanctions regime against Iran.

On August 7, the United States introduced the first anti-Iranian sanctions package that envisages restrictions on the purchase of Iranian cars, gold and metals. The sanctions also affected Iranian companies specializing in aluminum, graphite, coal, and steel, as well as those manufacturing computer programs for industrial enterprises.

On November 4, the United States will launch a second package that will deal a blow to the Iranian energy sector, in the first place, to the oil and gas industry and related industries, and will affect major transactions, that is, the IRI’s banking system.

Undoubtedly, this is a major attack on the Iranian economy. If we recall the period from 2011 to 2016, back then such international sanctions nearly threw it into an abyss in just a few months. However, today the situation is somewhat different. The anti-Iranian sanctions announced by Trump have lost their international status.

Unlike in those days, when due to Tehran’s “nuclear” persistence the entire world rose against it, today Trump’s anti-Iran initiative is not supported by anyone. The White House administration counts only on the financial and economic pressure on the disobedient and the obstinate who do not want to join the campaign against the IRI.

And these turned out to be quite a few. As they met in Vienna in July, the five participants in the nuclear deal with Iran (Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany) agreed to protect the five countries’companies from the impact of US sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the parties had also agreed to establish methods of maintaining trade relations with Iran which “would not depend on the whims of the United States.”

On August 7, immediately after the introduction of American sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the European Union adopted the so-called ‘blocking’ regulation which invalidates American sanctions against Iran on its territory, bans European companies from observing them and prohibits the implementation of any foreign court rulings adopted on the basis of these sanctions.

The coming into force of this regulation also allows all European organizations to claim compensation in court for damage inflicted as a result of implementation of these sanctions from persons responsible for this (referring to US authorities).

In late August, the EU began to discuss the possibility of creating an independent payment system, which would protect the European business from US sanctions against Iran. The project may involve central banks of France and Germany.

Moreover, at the end of August, the European Commission (EC) approved financial assistance to Iran to the amount of 50 million euros to solve the “key economic and social problems” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first tranche amounted to 18 million euros, which will be channeled “for projects in support of sustainable economic and social development in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” with 8 million euros allocated to Iranian private companies. Measures to support the Iranian private sector include assistance to Iranian small and medium-sized businesses, development of production and marketing chains, and technical assistance to the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization. Though small, the sums are important.

The EU will support Iran as long as the country is committed to “full and effective” compliance with the “nuclear deal”, which stipulates the lifting of sanctions, the executive body of the European Union specifies.

Despite measures to support Iran, the desire to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the EU’s protests against anti-Iranian sanctions, large European and transnational companies do not really believe in the European Union being able to counteract the United States. Experts say that judging by the experience of the past, when the European Union put up resistance after unilateral actions by the White House, these not quite effective “threats” are about all the “resistance” Europe can mount, since the Iranian market, despite all its attractiveness, can not be compared with the American one. Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, former advisor to the US Secretary of State, said: “Foreign companies are already experiencing difficulty doing business with Iran, and if all these difficulties  – non-transparent rules, corruption, poor management, etc. – become aggravated further by the risk of being cut off from the US market and the US financial system, then no reasoning from  European politicians will work.”

Right now, three months before the Americans introduce the main portion of sanctions, many large companies are leaving the IRI. In the oil sector – this is the French oil and gas giant Total. [1]

Fully aware of the situation, the Iranian leadership relies on cooperation with small and medium-sized foreign enterprises which are not so connected with the United States. Goliam Reza Ansari, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs, said recently: “There are 23 million small and medium-sized businesses in Europe, and they could assist us in bypassing US sanctions.” We must use the potential of European enterprises to meet our economic needs in times of trouble. We are planning to create a working group of experts to promote such enterprises throughout the country. ”

Many countries back Tehran’s anti-sanctions measures. They are prepared to buy oil from Iran, to invest in projects, to provide know-how and technology. First of all, in the oil and gas sector.

The Chinese economic analyst Kingji Su sayvili said that the Iranian economy is able to overcome US sanctions with minimal difficulties, since these measures are not supported by the international community. The Chinese expert emphasized that after the arrival of sanctions many major economies, including European countries, China and Russia, retained or even strengthened economic relations with Iran.

Indeed, the director of the Department of International Cooperation of China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF) said that China will continue to import Iranian oil, despite US sanctions. He underscored that the Chinese market and many other Asian markets strongly depend on Iranian oil. According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the number one buyer of Iranian oil – China, which acquires about a quarter of its oil supplies, is unlikely to cut down on its purchases.

In turn, Investment Director of the Iranian National Petrochemical Company (NPC) Hossein Alimorad said that the amount of Chinese investments in the Iranian oil and petrochemical industry had not changed after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal. As Mr. Alimorad announced recently, the NPC has reached an agreement with a consortium of companies from China and the Philippines regarding a $ 7 billion investment in the petrochemical industry in Iran.

Moreover, Mohammad Mostafavi, Director of Investment of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), said that China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) together with the Iranian Petropars can take over from Total, which has 50.1% of the stake in the joint project for the development of the 11th phase of the South Pars gas field, if the French company leaves Iran.

German company ADL recently signed an agreement on cooperation in the oil refining sector with the Iranian oil company Sepahan (SOC). The goal is to share technical know-how and knowledge to improve the quality of products, including industrial oils and lubricants. ADL will begin to implement this ambitious plan in cooperation with its Swiss and Austrian partners.

South Korea (ROK) said in mid-August that Seoul will provide financial support to companies affected by new sanctions against Iran, and will look into the possibility of doing business in alternative markets so as to minimize losses to the local economy. It is clear that South Korea, having bought 147 million barrels of oil from Iran in 2017, is more than interested in expanding oil business with it.

Undoubtedly, international support for Iran as it tries to battle Trump’s sanctions is of great value. However, perhaps no less important are the internal economic measures that Tehran is taking to repel, or at least soften the blow to the key sector of its economy – the oil and gas extraction and processing industries.

Oil import substitution

Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran are stepping up measures to ensure import substitution. Thus, the Iranian Oil Ministry has banned the import of 84 types of equipment for the oil industry on the grounds that such equipment can be produced domestically.

Among the equipment and products prohibited for importation are wellhead equipment, desalination facilities, anticorrosive substances, sulfur recovery catalysts, wellhead control panels, and others.

Can the Iranians solve the problem of import substitution in the oil industry, while ensuring the necessary modernization of the entire oil and gas sector?

New sanctions against Iran have created severe challenges for Iran’s oil and gas production and its petrochemical industry.

However, it should be noted that the IRI, which was under American sanctions ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been developing its own production of oil and gas equipment. This kind of work was particularly intensive the period from 2010 to 2016, when anti-Iranian sanctions were the toughest.

The head of the Iranian oil company in southern regions Hamid Bovard said in 2013 that Iranian enterprises were producing oil and gas equipment and developing prototypes for launching into production of about seven thousand items. Mr. Howard expressed confidence that such oil and gas equipment as gas pumps, turbines, ball valves and compressors will be key to the restoration of Iran’s oil industry. By that time, eight hundred projects had been launched, with investments reaching about $ 15.5 billion. All of them aim to increase the recovery rate of crude oil and oil extraction.

Today, amid the increasing pressure from the Trump administration on Iran, measures to counteract sanctions are intensifying. According to Director of the Petrochemical Company Jam Said Shirdel, the company’s specialists, in cooperation with other Iranian companies, have developed and produced 1,000 types of products and equipment for petrochemicals which were previously purchased abroad. He added that in the next two years the company will produce 20,000 types of petrochemical products.

According to Reza Khayyamyan, head of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers of Iranian Oil Companies, the Iranian producers can provide technical services and produce 80% of advanced oil equipment for the development of oil extraction and processing projects. Mr. Hayamyan said this industry employs more than 50 Iranian companies. New contracts worth more than $ 6 billion will soon be signed with local oil extraction and refining companies.

Mr. Hayamyan made it clear that import substitution of oil and gas equipment is on the list of priorities of the Ministry of Oil, which is planning to roll out 14,000 major parts.

As we see, Iran is set on mobilizing its own resources. For one, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said recently that the Iranian private sector plays an important role in counteracting the economic war, which was launched against Iran by the Trump administration.

Mohammad Hosseini, member of the Board of Trustees of the National Development Fund of Iran (NDF), said that Fund will allocate 12% of financial resources to counter US sanctions against Iran.

However, it is too early to talk about a profound modernization of the entire oil and gas complex on the basis of state-of-the-art technologies. As it happens, the most advanced technologies, know-how, innovations in the oil and gas and petrochemical industry, which mark dramatic breakthroughs in this industry and its overall renovation, are concentrated and receive special protection in the laboratories of just a few of the largest oil and gas companies, which, alas, are not ready to share these technologies with Iran.

Economy and politics under sanctions

In general, the economic situation in Iran before Trump announced anti-Iranian sanctions regime was not in its best condition. But in connection with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action there were hopes and faith in a better future.

Now the situation has become worse because of sanctions. The rial rate has fallen, which provoked a rush for buying dollars. This further accelerated the collapse of the Iranian rial. Compared to January, when one dollar on the black market sold for 43 thousand rials, at the end of August it trade for 107 thousand. The official rate for this period decreased from about 36 thousand to 42 thousand.

In the meantime, the opposition is seizing on every opportunity to put the blame for the current situation on President Hassan Rouhani and his liberal reform Cabinet.

In late July, opposition MPs used their constitutional right to summon the president for making a report on the effectiveness of his activities. They gave President Rouhani a month to prepare the answers to their questions and explain to them why the government had done nothing to put an end of the smuggling of goods that damages production, what caused the fall of the Iranian rial, and what triggered economic recession and rising unemployment.

On August 25  President Rouhani addressed the Majlis. In particular, he said: “We are not afraid of America or economic problems. We will overcome all difficulties <…>. You can talk about unemployment, foreign currency, recession and smuggling. I think that the problem is people’s views on the future <…>. People are not afraid of the US, they are afraid of our differences. If they see that we are united, they will believe that the problems will be solved,” the president said. At the same time, he acknowledged that part of the country’s population “had lost faith in the future of the IRI and doubts its power”.

The president’s report did not satisfy Deputies of the Mejlis, who expressed their discontent with the work of Rouhani and his government. In addition to that, the MPs struck a blow to the government’s makeup by securing the dismissal of the Minister of Economy and Finance Masoud Karbasian, Minister of Labor, Social Welfare and Cooperative Affairs Ali Rabiyyi. Dismissed earlier was the head of the Central Bank, Valiollah Seif. Abdolnasser Hemmati was appointed instead.

Thus, the political situation in Iran is no longer stable being marred by visible signs of a schism within the ruling elite. However, it would be premature to suggest a crisis of the Iranian regime. The American sanctions have jeopardized the positions of only President Rouhani and his team, which was ready for a dialogue with the West. The growing political weakness of President Rouhani and his government has given a chance to his hardline opponents to strengthen their positions and exert a significant influence on the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at home and abroad.

For now, removal of Rouhani is not on the agenda. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, fearing an internal political explosion, is supporting the president. However, given the situation and increasing pressure from the opposition, Rouhani’s policies (both domestic and foreign) may change, though not in the direction of reforms and liberalization.

Whether Tehran will agree to new talks with Washington, to compromises on nuclear missile programs is difficult to predict. For today, it is 100% no. This would mean a ‘political death’ for Rouhani and for the supreme leader Khamenei as well. What will happen next is difficult to say. Much will depend on the ability to retain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and, most importantly, on the ability of all opponents of Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions to confront them financially and economically.

However, Ayatollah Khamenei is rather pessimistic about this. He said on August 29 that Iran should give up hopes that Europe will save a nuclear deal. In addition, he added two important things. First, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not a goal, but a means, and Iran, if it finds that the Plan has ceased to meet Iranian interests, will reject it. And the second: Iran has no intention of negotiating a new agreement with the US at any level because of the “obscenity” of such talks.

Indeed, there are no conditions and no incentives for Iran entering new talks on nuclear missile issues,

Even in case of the worst of scenarios, if the IRI economy faces serious problems, the most radical groups concentrating around the political opponents of Rouhani may come to power in Tehran. These forces will not even consider the issue of negotiations with the US. The Islamic Republic of Iran will yet again become a “besieged fortress”, but this is unlikely to affect foreign policy ambitions, especially in the region. On the contrary, they will grow under the leadership of anti-Western politicians and IRGC, forming a foundation for the military and political instability in the region.

  •  [1] Total is getting ready to leave Iran before November 4. The company is developing the South Pars gas field. Total has already invested in it app. 50 million dollars. The French make it no secret that they do not want to anger Washington. The $ 2 billion project is under threat, but these losses are nothing in comparison with the fines that could be imposed on the violators of sanctions by the US Treasury, and other consequences. The most serious threat is the “cut-off” from the US financial system. For many large companies, this threat is even worse than billions in fines. For example, over 90% of all financial transactions at Total pass through US banks.
  • [2] Wellhead equipment is a set of equipment designed for tying casing strings, sealing the wellhead (annular space, internal tubing cavity, well production diversion) during drilling, well workover and well operation mode regulation.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Middle East

Shifting Middle Eastern sands spotlight diverging US-Saudi interests

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A series of Gulf and Middle East-related developments suggest that resolving some of the Middle East’s most debilitating and devastating crises while ensuring that efforts to pressure Iran do not perpetuate the mayhem may be easier said than done. They also suggest that the same is true for keeping US and Saudi interests aligned.

Optimists garner hope from the fact that the US Senate may censor Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul; the positive start of Yemeni peace talks in Sweden with an agreement to exchange prisoners, Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Qatar to attend an October 9 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh, and a decision by the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut production.

That optimism, however, may not be borne out by facts on the ground and analysis of developments that are likely to produce at best motion rather than movement. In fact, more fundamentally, what many of the developments suggest is an unacknowledged progressive shift in the region’s alliances stemming in part from the fact that the bandwidth of shared US-Saudi interests is narrowing.

There is no indication that, even if Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani decides to accept an invitation by Saudi king Salman to attend the GCC summit rather than send a lower level delegation or not attend at all, either the kingdom or the United Arab Emirates, the main drivers behind the 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state, are open to a face-saving solution despite US pressure to end to the rift.

Signalling that the invitation and an earlier comment by Prince Mohammed that “despite the differences we have, (Qatar) has a great economy and will be doing a lot in the next five years” do not indicate a potential policy shift, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash insisted that the GCC remained strong despite the rift. “The political crisis will end when the cause behind it ends and that is Qatar’s support of extremism and its interference in the stability of the region.,” Mr. Gargash said, reiterating long-standing Saudi-UAE allegations.

Similarly, United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Sweden convened with the help of the United States may at best result in alleviating the suffering of millions as a result of the almost four-year old Saudi-UAE military intervention in Yemen but are unlikely to ensure that a stable resolution of the conflict is achievable without a lowering of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even humanitarian relief remains in question with the parties in Sweden unable to agree on a reopening of Sana’a airport to facilitate the flow of aid.

More realistically, with the Trump administration, backed by Saudi Arabia and Israel, determined to cripple Iran economically in a bid to force it to alter its regional policies, if not change the regime in Tehran, chances are the Yemeni conflict will be perpetuated rather than resolved.

To Yemen’s detriment, Iran is emerging as one of the foremost remaining shared US-Saudi interests as the two countries struggle to manage their relationship in the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. That struggle is evident with the kingdom’s Washington backers divided between erstwhile backers-turned-vehement critics like Republican senator Graham Lindsey and hardline supporters such as national security advisor John Bolton. The jury is out on who will emerge on top in the Washington debate.

The risks of the Saud-Iranian rivalry spinning out of control possibly with the support of hardliners like Mr. Bolton were evident in this week’s suicide bombing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, an Indian-backed project granted a waiver from US sanctions against the Islamic republic to counter influence of China that support the nearby Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Revolutionary Guards spokesman Brigadier General Ramadan Sharif suggested without providing evidence that Saudi Arabia was complicit in the attack that targeted the city’s police headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40 others.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Guards, said the attack was the work of Ansar al-Furqan, an Iranian Sunni jihadi group that Iran claims enjoys Saudi backing.

Iran’s allegation of Saudi complicity is partly grounded in the fact that a Saudi thinktank linked to Prince Mohammed last year advocated fuelling an insurgency in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that incudes Chabahar in a bid to thwart the port development while Mr. Bolton before becoming US President Donald J. Trump’s advisor called for US support of ethnic minorities in Iran.

In a bid to create building blocks for the fuelling of ethnic insurgencies in Iran, Pakistani militants have said that Saudi Arabia had in recent years poured money into militant anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on Sistan and Baluchistan.

The divergence of US-Saudi interests, agreement on Iran notwithstanding, was on display in this week’s defeat of a US effort to get the UN General Assembly to condemn Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s denunciation of Hamas as a terrorist organization and its demand that Qatar halt support of it, voted against the resolution.

The vote suggested that Mr. Trump may be hoping in vain for Saudi backing of his as yet undisclosed plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is believed to be slanted towards Israel’s position.

Saudi ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said the defeated UN resolution would “undermine the two-state solution which we aspire to” and divert attention from Israel’s occupation, settlement activities and “blockade” of territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.

Saudi Arabia’s changing status and the divergence of longer-term US-Saudi interests was also evident in this week’s OPEC meeting in Vienna.

To get an OPEC deal on production levels, the kingdom, once the oil market’s dominant swing producer, needed an agreement with non-OPEC member Russia on production levels as well as Russian assistance in managing Iranian resistance, suggesting

The agreement, moreover, had to balance Mr. Trump’s frequently tweeted demand for lower prices, and the kingdom’s need for higher ones to fund its budgetary requirements and Prince Mohammed’s ambitious economic reforms and demonstrate that the Khashoggi affair had not made it more vulnerable to US pressure.

The emerging divergence of US-Saudi interests in part reflects a wider debate within America’s foreign policy community about what values the United States and US diplomats should be promoting.

With some of Mr. Trump’s ambassadorial political appointees expressing support for populist, nationalist and authoritarian leaders and political groups, the fact that some of the president’s closest Congressional allies back the anti-Saudi resolution illustrates that there are red lines that a significant number of the president’s supporters are not willing to cross.

All told, recent developments in the Middle East put a spotlight on the changing nature of a key US relationship in the Middle East that could have far-reaching consequences over the middle and long-term. It is a change that is part of a larger, global shift in US priorities and alliances that is likely to outlive Mr. Trump’s term(s) in office.

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Qatar’s decision to leave OPEC

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The Emirate of Qatar will leave OPEC as from January 1, 2019.

The primary reason for this choice is the Emirate’s project to become the world leader in the natural gas market, raising its production from 77 million tons per year to 110 million tons. However, there is obviously also a geopolitical and energy decision underlying Qatar’s current choice.

This is the Emirate’s final response to the boycott and blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia on Qatar in June 2017, with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Maldives, the Libyan GNA, Egypt and Jordan – based on Saudi Arabia’s generic accusation whereby Qatar was supposed to sponsor and support “terrorism” on its own.

The blockade was imposed two days after President Trump had met as many as 55 Heads of Arab and Muslim countries to build a sort of NATO equivalent, always against “terrorism” – an alliance to be set up immediately to counteract, above all, the Shiite and Iranian danger.

Let us leave aside the twenty-eight pages taken from the report of the US Senate on September 11, which would definitively prove the connection between those Al-Qaeda operatives and the Saudi regime – as well as the many multiannual reports of private and public funding to the jihadists and finally the lines of credit opened again by eminent citizens of the Wahhabi Kingdom in favour of Al Baghdadi’s Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate.

The Saudis, however, are too rich not to be believed, especially by the USA – hence the great blockade on Qatar succeeded also with the support of some Western countries.

For the whole Middle East, their troops, like the US ones, reported to CENTCOM, at the Al Udeid base  having its headquarters precisely in Qatar.

The strategic characteristics of Qatar, which today wants to build its autonomous natural gas organization –  independent of the oil one of OPEC, which does not deal with gasand is, however, dominated by Saudi Arabia –  are many and particularly interesting: firstly, the Qatari people are probably the richest citizens in the world.

If we assume that the Americans’ average income is 100, that of Qatari citizens is 187.4.

Just about the size of the Falkland Islands, the Emirate has 1.9 million residents, with a very high and growing share of immigrants.

From 2000 to 2010 the Emirate’s economy grew by a 12.9% average per year.

Its future growth up to 2022 is expected to be 18% higher than the current one.

There is also an interesting geopolitical sign: Qatar  participated – with great commitment – in the Western operations against Gaddafi by supporting, in particular, the black market of Cyrenaica’s oil, together with the Turkish intelligence services.

Nevertheless Qatar supports also some “rebel” jihadist Syrian groups against Assad, thus doing half a favour to US allies – while hosting, since 2013, a political office of the Afghan Taliban, which is well known and also frequented by the US intelligence service operatives.

Qatar’s global industrial and financial investments, however, are manifold.

Through its sovereign fund, the Emirate owns significant shareholdings of the Agricultural Bank of China – and certainly the Qatari decision to leave OPEC has been blessed by China. It also has shareholding in the Airbus Group; the London Stock Exchange (15.1%); Volkswagen (17%); Lagardère, a large and diversified media and publishing company; the Paris St.Germain football club; the Virgin megastore;  the HBSC, one of the largest banking groups in the world; Credit Suisse (5.2%) and Veolia, a French water and gas utility and service company.

Not to mention the countless real estate operations: Porta Nuova in Milan; Westin Excelsior in Rome; Gallia in Milan; Costa Smeralda in Sardinia;  Deutsche Bank; Barclay’s; Royal Dutch Shell; Tiffany; Siemens; the Heathrow airport; Walt Disney and the Empire State Building.

In addition to many other shareholdings not mentioned in this paper.

However, it has also a 3% shareholding of Total, which for Italy is an extremely important sign; a majority shareholding of the Miramax entertainment and movie company, as well as shareholdings in Rosneft, the Russian giant of natural gas and raw materials, and in the big five-year project for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Germany and in the EU – a 30 billion US dollar project, of which 10 invested for Germany alone.

Therefore, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in the fight  between oil producers and natural gas extractors, there is a real war for the hegemonic conquest of technologically advanced areas and of Europe, in particular, with a view to definitely acquiring markets and using their diversification opportunities.

Moreover, Qatar is at least as rich in natural gas as Iran (and, together with the Shiite Republic, it participates in the exploitation of the South Pars II marine field), but also as the Russian Federation.

The new  Qatar-centred “gas OPEC” means, therefore, that there is no longer the US-friendly Sunni oil OPEC,  precisely the one that organized the great petrodollar recycling started after Egypt and Syria’s Yom Kippur war against Israel in 1973.

Oil recycling at a “high” price against the US dollars which, after the end of the Bretton Woods agreements, led to the new hegemony of the US currency and its inappropriate exchange rate, despite its internal fundamentals.

“The dollar is our currency, but it is your problem”, FED Governor Paul Volcker said to his fellow Governors of the European Central Banks.

At that time, there was not yet the weak and irresolute timidity of the Euro to make the picture more complex.

The European currency is not a lender of last resort, but it plays the game of the global currency as an alternative to the US dollar, with the operational results we can imagine.

It is therefore no mere coincidence that the only strategic uses of the Euro were the minimum Iranian ones, in the oil Stock Exchanges of the islands in the Persian Gulf, or the more paraded than real ones by Saddam Hussein.

In essence, reverting to the geopolitical sense of the very recent Qatari decision to leave OPEC, this means that the 600,000 barrels/day of oil extracted from Qatar are considered fully marginal by it and certainly can never compete with Saudi Arabia’s 11 million barrels/day of Saudi Arabia.

Qatar plays the game with its natural gas – it does not play its oil cards.

The current Qatari operation, however, implies a strategic choice in the near future, which could be the creation of a “gas OPEC” with Russia and Iran, in view of a doubling of the LPG prices in 2019, with China becoming the world’s LPG top consumer and the USA the world’s top oil extractor, albeit with the new and expensive shale techniques, which generate profits only with high oil barrel prices.

Or an economic and financial alliance between Qatar, China, Japan and Russia, which could marginalize the dollar area by reducing it to oil.

At geopolitical level, this will certainly mean greater instability – not necessarily fully peaceful – between the Emirate and the Saudi Kingdom, while the former will invest – also within the EU – in the industrial processing  of LPG, which mainly regards plastics, resins and all synthetic products from hydrocarbons.

If Russia – which also plays on the Saudi table – will be able to control its oil production, in line with the Sunni OPEC, the Qatari operation will be successful, but only for the creation of the new LPG market, and Qatar will not affect the positions already reached by Saudi Arabia and its  allies.

Conversely, if Russia and Iran increase oil production, the pro-Saudi OPEC will definitely collapse and the African, Indonesian and South American production areas shall  look for other regional cartels and, hence, for other geopolitical axes.

Furthermore, the bilateral relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia will be put to an end, given the new US production and oil power, its global exporting capacity and, finally, its autonomy from the Middle East political and financial cycles.

Moreover, according to the Emir’s policy lines, the Qatari economy  is focused on attracting and accumulating foreign investments, especially after the 2017 blockade, which has attracted much capital from Asia and the Middle East itself,  in addition to the opening of new ports and the creation of  new Special Economic Zones.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used the so-called Arab “springs” to broaden their personal power and create strong competition among the Gulf countries.

Moreover, Qatar has used the phase following the Arab “springs” to redefine its traditional expansion axes: the special relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its traditional link with Iran.

The Emirate, in fact, believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is the central axis of Arab politics and, hence, intends to support it.

While all the others repress it, in line with Saudi Arabia.

Even after the fall of the “Muslim Brotherhood” regime in Egypt – with the coup organized by Al Sisi in 2013 against Mohammed Morsi – Qatar keeps on supporting the fraternal Ikhwan or also Hamas and all the other organizations that have integrated into the global network of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi tension with Qatar also results from the Qatari geo-economic link with Iran and, above all, from Iran’s  economic growth after the 2014 JCPOA agreements on the Iranian nuclear capacity. Saudi Arabia wants to avoid said agreements leading to the economic, oil and military recovery of the Shiite Iran.

Furthermore it cannot be ruled out that, in the near future, Saudi Arabia – possibly supported by the USA, which now believes in every “counterterrorist” storytelling – even organizes a coup against Al-Thani and the current Qatari ruling elite.

The sequence of attempted and failed coups is already long.

It would be a geopolitical suicide, but it may happen.

Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries are now dependent on the remittances sent from Qatar by their fellow citizens to their homeland, even if, as countries, they sided with Saudi Arabia during the blockade imposed on Qatar in 2017.

Since the beginning, however, Tunisia refused to condemn Qatar (and Italy should be more careful to these infra-Islamic shifts), while Turkey – which operated with Qatar  during the Libyan jihadist uprising – does not accept the Saudi diktat. The same obviously holds true for Iran and – probably less intuitively – for Oman.

After an ambiguous phase, even the Russian Federation  – which had not well foreseen the internal conflict on Qatar within the Gulf Security Council in 2017 – has gradually  linked itself to the Emirate, even without questioning its ties with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the United States has even discovered it still has a large military base in Qatar and hence cannot afford a worsening of the infra-Arab conflict and, above all, of the infra-Wahhabi conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Obviously the issue of relations between Qatar and “terrorism”, or the link between Qatar and Iran, is a completely uncertain and widely manipulated issue.

The Emir’s speech that expressed support for Iran and Hamas and criticized the other governments of the region – a speech that allegedly was to be held on May 23, 2017 – was never delivered. There had been announcements widely publicized by the Saudi and Emirates’ news agencies, but the Emir’ speech had never been delivered.

In this regard, the official Qatar’s news agency in Doha talked about the hacking of Qatari websites, but not even this is certain.

There is also the issue of the one billion US dollars paid  as a ransom to “bandits” in Iraq by some members of the Emir’s family.

It is ascertained that part of that money arrived at the Syrian Al-Qaeda “section”, Jabhat Tahrir al Sham, with a share of funds that – not too strangely – later reached the Iranian government.

Certainly there is also the already-mentioned support for the Muslim Brotherhood and there are now ascertained links between the Ikhwan and some Iranian financial and political-military networks.

Everything is possible in the Middle East.

In Doha there is also a “historical” office of the Palestinians and also one of Hamas, which has always been an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood, while it is certain that large amounts of money were sent by Qatar to the Egyptian Brotherhood during Morsi’s government and that the Ikhwan militias from every part of the Middle East were trained in Qatar.

Obviously, at least initially, the guerrilla warfare in Libya after Gaddafi’s fall was a clash between the forces supported by the Qatari intelligence services and those organized by the other Emirates, with a specific role played by Turkey – a loyal ally of Qatar – above all at economic level.

Westerners’ stupidity did the rest.

Moreover, Qatar also sent its troops so that the Sunnis could regain control in Bahrain during the 2011 Shiite uprising.

Nor should we forget that, apart from the Al Udeid US base in Qatar, Turkey itself is building its base in Qatar for as many as 5,000 soldiers – a base located in Tariq bin Ziyad, south of the capital city.

However, how does the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the instrument of confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar – work?

Is it not affected – like OPEC – by an internal weakness that blocks it for any relevant decision?

The GCC was founded in 1981. However, the monetary union, which has been gradually abandoned by Oman and the Emirates, has never been reached.

And the GCC still regards Iran as an “imperialist” factor of radical destabilization of the Arabian peninsula, especially with the organization of Shiites in Saudi Arabia and in other areas of the Emirates.

The Shiites within the Saudi regime account for 15-20%, especially in the major oil extraction areas. Obviously the Saudi regime does not want to destabilize these areas and, above all, it does not want to break the link between the USA and the Sunni world of the Arabian Peninsula – a break that, in the near future, would lead to the victory of the Iranian  Shiites.

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Middle East

Iran: Which way to go?

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The US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), seriously hampered the chances for keeping the landmark accord in place.

The accord, signed in 2015 by the P5+1 group of countries — China, Germany, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — with Iran, requires Tehran to maintain a peaceful nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

According to the IAEA, Iran strictly abides by the terms of the JCPOA, while the international community is unable to do the same, no matter how much politicians in the EU and other countries would like to stick to its provisions – all because of US pressure.

Sadly, the United States has financial and economic levers to punish not only Iran, but also foreign companies doing business with the Islamic Republic. Given the choice of either maintaining business relations with the US and the rest of the world or with Iran alone, there is little wonder which of the two options they will go for. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do this under US pressure. Business always goes where the money is and sticking with the US looks a more profitable way to go. This is exactly what business-savvy Donald Trump is staking on.

In 2018, some 100 foreign companies, including big ones as Shell, Volkswagen, Daimler, Peugeot, Airbus, Total, PSA, Siemens, and Russia’s LUKOIL and Zarubezhneft, started pulling out of Iran even before the US sanctions, announced by President Trump in May, actually took effect. However, although bending under Washington’s pressure, the authors of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) as well as the European Union as a whole and many other countries around the world are still interested in keeping the nuclear accord alive. Why?

First, the JCPOA is a truly historic document which, possibly for the first time ever (not mentioning, of course, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – NPT) has curbed the nuclear ambitions of a particular country and put its nuclear program strictly in line with international laws and IAEA requirements. This is a vivid example of the world countries’ effective diplomatic work, which created a precedent of genuine confidence of the parties for the sake of preserving the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Secondly, Iran a leading player in the volatile region of Western Asia, which incorporates the Middle and Near East, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea zone, and Central Asia.

Thirdly, it should be borne in mind that Iran is a powerful source of hydrocarbons, and that its territory is an important transit route for oil, natural gas and other products to the world market. A well-educated population and a relatively developed industry and agriculture attract the attention of world business. In addition, the 70-million-strong Iran, which boasts one of the world’s biggest militaries, is an important factor in West Asian and world politics.

What needs to be done to resist US sanctions and, thereby, save the JCPOA?

To solve this complex task, Iran and all countries willing to preserve the accord, above all Britain, France, Germany and the EU as a whole, should work together. This is already being done now with the direct and active participation of Russia and China.

Today, the main priorities are:

Providing legal assistance to companies doing business with Iran. The practical implementation of the EU-declared blocking statute, which declares null and void US sanctions against Iran on its territory, prohibits European companies from observing them, as well as implementing any decisions by foreign stemming from these sanctions. The blocking statute also allows European organizations to take legal action to make up for the losses incurred as a result of the implementation of sanctions at the expense of persons who caused these losses (meaning the US government).

It is also necessary to establish an independent payment system that would safeguard European businesses against US sanctions on Tehran (a special purpose vehicle, SPV, to facilitate financial transactions with Iran) with the possible involvement, among others, of the French and German central banks.

The EU is creating a special legal entity to carry out transactions with Iran. Other participants will be able to join in, which will allow European companies to work with Iran in keeping with European legislation – something like the SWIFT banking system, only on a European scale and based on the euro.

This will be an extremely difficult task for Europeans, both from “political” (a real challenge to the US) and technical standpoints. EU foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, said: “The involvement of the Finance Ministers of the E3 [France, Germany, UK] is of key importance at this stage. They are working hard to finalize it. I cannot tell you a date, but I can tell you that work is continuing and is progressing in a positive manner.”

In his turn, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that this was fraught with problems.

“We need to redouble our efforts here and this is what we are doing now with both Europeans and Iranians.”

Meanwhile, the Iranians, who have so far been strictly implementing the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord, are losing faith in the EU’s ability to resolve the problem. Therefore, it may take several months to see whether this plan is really working.

Speeding up the process of shifting to the use of national currency in trade with Iran (primarily by Russia, China, India, Turkey, which have done this before) would be of much help to Tehran.

In order to move around the financial and banking hurdles erected by the United States, it would be advisable to enlist the help, whenever possible, of Islamic banks in Muslim countries for cash transactions to and from Iran. The Islamic banking system has its specific features that are hard to destroy from the outside, even by a financial superpower like the United States.

The same is true about small and medium-sized companies in Muslim countries used as intermediaries in financial transactions with Tehran. Moreover, it is small and medium businesses, and not necessarily in Muslim countries alone, that can play the main role in maintaining trade and other economic relations with Iran.

Therefore, it would be equally desirable for the EU to provide legal and financial assistance to small and medium-sized companies in Europe, which are willing to do business with Iran, and to shift the main load from big companies to medium and small firms for financial transactions with Iran in Euros. Even though they will hardly be able to completely replace the giant companies, small and medium-sized firms have all they need to offset at least part of the losses. According to Iranian estimates, Tehran hopes to establish business relations with many of the 23 million or so small and medium-scale enterprises in Europe in order to circumvent US sanctions. Moreover, Iran has good experience in getting around tough sanctions between 2012 and 2016.

What can Tehran do under these circumstances?  First and foremost, it should establish a business triangle of Iran-EU, Islamic banks and Islamic small and medium-sized businesses, build close trade and economic partnership with European and other small and medium-sized businesses. This is quite feasible because the Americans will find it hard to keep an eye on a huge number of enterprises, much less trace their transactions in Euros, especially if the European Union contributes to such cooperation with Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Economic Coordination Council recently allowed the country’s private sector to sell crude oil abroad as a way of circumventing US sanctions. This is the first time the Iranian private companies have been granted permission to trade in oil. Tehran should avail itself of this opportunity as soon as possible.

As for Iran’s time-tested methods of tackling sanctions like, for example,  the use of “ghost” oil tankers, which switch off their automatic identification system (AIS) transmitters not to disclose their route and destination, as well as selling “unrecorded” oil at reduced prices, I can assume that these methods have been used before and are being used today.

It seems that, in view of the situation at hand, Tehran should also recall its oil-for-goods project with Russia, prepared back in 2014, whereby Iran supplies oil to Russia (at least 100,000 barrels per day – about 5 million tons a year) in exchange for industrial equipment and machinery. Four years ago, the plan was never implemented in full because Iran, already withdrawing from the sanctions regime in keeping with the JCPOA, was no longer interested in it.

There was only one shipment made in November 2017, to the tune of 1 million tons. The project could be revived now. Russia’s Promsyryeimport, which is part of the Russian Energy Ministry and was created expressly with this project in mind, will implement the Russian side of the deal.

A program of developing two Iranian oil fields, Aban and Peydar, by Promsyryeimport (which replaced Zarubezhneft) and Iran’s Dana Energy Company, could also be considered.

Overall, the across-the-board cooperation between Russia and Iran against US sanctions could contribute very significantly to minimizing their impact.

Tehran will certainly put to maximum use the great potential of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which proved so effective during the period of hard-hitting sanctions of 2012-2016 and which controls between 25% and 35% of the country’s economy and 25% of all its capital.

In 2012-2016, the IRGC set up a large-scale system of circumventing the sanctions by controlling considerable “gray” financial flows to, through and out of Iran. IRGC intelligence was gathering information abroad about the “weak” spots in the sanctions system, about the most effective ways of circumventing sanctions, and was also obtaining data on new technologies Iran was not allowed to buy.

Iran and countries opposed to US sanctions against it are looking for ways to ease their impact. Even though completely neutralizing the negative effect of these sanctions will hardly be possible, a certain let-up is quite possible.

Well, the Iranian response to the US sanctions could at times be controversial, but Washington’s exit from the JCPOA and the US sanctions themselves are by no means legal either.

In October, President Hassan Rouhani warned that the previous four months had been a difficult time for the Iranians and that the coming few months would be equally hard. He said that the government would make every effort possible to tackle the situation. Meanwhile, Tehran says it will stick to the terms of the JCPOA as long as its other signatories (save for the US, of course) do the same. Can they do this?

The situation is complex and unpredictable. For Iran, much will depend on whether the JCPOA is kept alive without the US, if Tehran is able to maintain, albeit limited, financial and economic cooperation with foreign countries, primarily with small and medium-sized businesses, and whether it is satisfied with the results of this cooperation.

How will the sanctions, and especially the fall in oil production and exports, affect the national economy and the life of ordinary Iranians? A good question, given the impact the internal political situation can have on the alignment of political forces in the country.

The outcome of this struggle may not take too long coming. Maybe six months, when a European mechanism against Washington’s unlawful withdrawal from the JCPOA and the resumption of its sanctions on Iran is already in place and the deadline set by President Trump for the eight importers of Iranian oil has expired.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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