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Unrest in Algeria: A blow against Russia?

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The political situation in Algeria has been aggravating as the number of the participants in protest rallies has amounted to one million and these are now being joined by representatives of the Algerian community in other countries – first of all, in France. Thousands of Algerians opposing the regime of incumbent President Abdelasziz Bouteflika have mounted rallies in a number of French cities while the most numerous demonstrations have been reported in Paris and Marseille.

About 200 protesters and the same number of policemen have been injured amid promises by rally activists to paralyze the country’s economic and political life by means of a nationwide strike. For Algeria, a country which has been the stronghold of stability in North Africa for nearly two decades, such a course of events could turn out to be a severe trial. However, what is happening is due to a whole range of internal and external reasons.

Among the internal reasons that have been fuelling tensions in Algeria is the refusal by many Algerians to acknowledge the decision by 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, to run for the fifth term in the presidential elections on April 18th.  What has caused a pubic outcry is not the president’s credentials (he played a significant role in the country’s struggle for independence and takes credit for securing an end to the bloody civil war in 2002), but the condition of his health. After surviving a stroke in 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been moving around in a wheel-chair and has been experiencing severe speech problems. He has been rarely seen in public over the past few years and had to send his representative to the Central Electoral Commission to register him as candidate to presidency from his ruling National Liberation Front. According to reports, at the time of registration the president was under treatment in Geneva and his condition has worsened of late. For this reason, many protesters announced that they had no intention of voting for an “empty place” alleging that the candidate in question barely understood what elections he would be taking part in.  «We don’t even know whether our president is still alive, or whether he is dead. We don’t know who is acting on his behalf», – the French Le Monde quotes one of the protesters as saying.

Nevertheless, shortly after the protests erupted the Algerian news media published the written version of the address to the nation by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in which the president made it clear that he had opted in favor of nominating his candidacy following «requests from the civil society and the political class». «Millions of Algerians have expressed their willingness to back my candidacy by collecting signatures and making their own personal contributions», – the president wrote. He praised the «feeling of civil duty», which, in his words, drove the participants in street protests: «I want to make it clear that I will not allow anyone to gain control of my country’s riches or its future in the interests of some underground influence groups».

Should he win in the elections, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to organize a nationwide dialogue so that citizens and political groups alike could discuss how to reform the system of government in Algeria and prepare the draft of a new Constitution which will be then put to vote at the nationwide referendum. On top of that, the incumbent president signaled readiness to step up struggle against corruption and assured the country’s citizens that the fifth term in office would in any case become the last for him.

In turn, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has called for peace and quiet having warned the street protesters about the destabilizing consequences of their actions: «People were offering roses to the policemen, which is good. But I would like to remind you that the turmoil in Syria started with roses too». «They say some are calling for nationwide strikes but I remember the strikes in 1991», – the prime minister said recalling the tragic events of Algeria’s recent history, – when the Islamists took advantage of the protest rallies and political instability in the country to launch their armed struggle for power.

However, political processes at home are not the only factor underlying the current protests in Algeria. Unlike its Maghreb neighbors, Algeria survived the turmoil of the 2011 “Arab Spring” in good condition and with minimum pain. The Algerians received an injection against mass protests when the disturbances of the late 1980s spilled into a decade of civil war, – says Karima Diresh, an expert on North Africa at the Paris-based National Scientific Research Center. In her words, this cost Algeria about 200, 000 killed, and dozens of thousands still unaccounted for.

That’s why what causes the greatest concern in the current situation is not purely internal processes, but the striving of external forces to take advantage of the protests and instill them with a particular urgency. According to reports, standing behind the protest movement are not only activists of the Algerian diaspora abroad but also certain groups within the leadership of the European Union and some in the United States, which are extremely annoyed with the Algerian leadership for faltering in two vital sectors –the military-political and the energy.

 In terms of military-technical cooperation, Algeria is one of Russia’s key partners – not only in Africa, but worldwide. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in a period from 2013 to 2017 Russia supplied Algeria with weapons for a total value of 2.4 billion dollars, which accounted for 59% of the Algerian arms imports. According to 2016 reports, Algeria came third in the list of buyers of Russian weapons ($ 923.6 million), running ahead of Vietnam and coming close to China ($ 958.8 million).

This is largely due to two major factors – firstly, the historical traditions of cooperation which go back to the days when independent Algeria was brought into being with the support of the USSR, and secondly – the country’s strained relations with neighboring Morocco over the Western Sahara. This conflict forces the Algerians to tirelessly strengthen their combat capability.

On the whole, trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Algeria has been developing progressively. According to the results of 2017, Algeria ranked second among African countries in imports from Russia, amounting to 4.6 billion dollars,  after Egypt (6.2 billion dollars). In 2016, the Russian-Algerian trade did not exceed $ 4 billion.

Significantly, all other African countries in 2017 accounted for a total of $ 3.9 billion worth of imports from Russia. According to preliminary data for 2018, the Russian-Algerian trade turnover increased to 5.4 billion dollars (of which only 10 million dollars accounted for Russian imports from Algeria).

In the course of his visit to Algeria in October 2017, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev discussed in detail with the country’s leadership the prospects for the supply of Russian technologies and knowhow in order to create a national atomic industry. “A trustworthy regulatory and legal framework has been set for cooperation in the nuclear power industry,” the head of the Russian government said back then adding that Russia is already preparing nuclear industry specialists for Algeria. “At the same time, we are ready to consider projects for the generation of “clean” power at wind and solar stations,”- Dmitry Medvedev said.

While cooperation between Algeria and Russia is rather a long-running source of headaches for the EU, NATO and the United States, the intention of the current Algerian leadership to re-consider gas supplies to the European market took Brussels by surprise and, according to reports, prompted an agenda that raised the issue of removing the incumbent leadership from power at an early date. A statement on gas supplies was voiced at the end of December 2018 by the Algerian Minister of Energy Mustafa Gitoni, who said that in the next five years his country will cut export gas supplies due to increased domestic consumption. In 2017, Algeria delivered 49.6 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe through pipelines and in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, according to the minister, gas consumption at home is growing at an ever faster pace, and therefore, the leadership will have to re-consider gas exports in 2022: “We have enough gas for our domestic needs only,” predicts Mustafa Gitoni. Algeria is currently producing 130 billion cubic meters of gas, half of which goes for domestic consumption. As for gas consumption in Europe, in 2017 gas supplies amounted to 560.5 billion cubic meters. Of these, 260.4 billion cubic meters of gas were provide by European suppliers  (including non-EU member Norway). The Russian Gazprom shipped 194.4 billion cubic meters to Europe in 2017, while another 105.7 billion cubic meters came from other countries.

Among them, Algeria (with 49.6 billion cubic meters of pipe gas and LNG) was a top supplier, significantly ahead of Qatar (24 billion cubic meters) and Nigeria (12.5 billion cubic meters). The United States accounted for 2.61 billion cubic meters.

Plans by the Algerian government to reorient gas supplies to domestic consumption caused an immediate negative reaction both from the European Union leadership and in the United States. Given the reduction of gas production in the Netherlands and Norway, it is uninterrupted supplies from Algeria that should largely ensure the energy security of Europe and thus allow it to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Another option is LNG supplies to Europe from the United States, but their volumes largely depend on the price and demand in European and Asian markets – primarily in China, where the situation has been following an unwelcome course, from the point of view of Europeans.

According to reports by the General Administration of Customs of China for 2018, the growth of China’s gas imports compared to 2017 amounted to 31.8%. By 2025, China’s additional demand for LNG will hit some 78 billion cubic meters, –  analysts at Vygon Consulting say: “In fact, this means gas imports will double, even without Taiwan, by the middle of the next decade.” “China will likely  continue to absorb the growth of supply on the LNG market as new terminals are commissioned, primarily in the US,”- says Fitch Corporation Director Dmitry Marinchenko. According to the company’s reports,  if the above trend persists, by 2024 the absolute volumes of the Chinese gas market will grow almost fourfold.

In the current situation, we should expect more intervention from the United States and the European Union in order to provide Algeria with a ruling politician who would act in line with Western interests. So far, this politician is believed to be the richest man in the country, the billionaire industrialist Issad Rebrab, who makes no secret of his orientation towards France. However, he is already 74 years old, which makes him a transition figure. “The nationalist government formed on the basis of the National Liberation Front deliberately restrained Algerian-French ties, although from the geographic point of view, France, or Italy, are the two most suitable trading partners for Algeria. The younger generation is different. There are a lot of pro-French and pro-American representatives among the opposition who know little about the role the USSR played in the liberation of their country,”- testifies Sergey Balmasov, an expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs.

In addition, the current situation plays into the hands of Islamists who will undoubtedly try to replay the scenario of the civil war of the 1990s with more gains for themselves. And this is fraught with a new escalation of tension in  North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

Peter Iskenderov, senior research assistant at RAS Slavic Studies Institute, candidate of historical sciences

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Middle East

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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Middle East

The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Middle East

Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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