On May 8, 2018, President Donald J. Trump announced that The United States would unilaterally withdraw from the July 2015 JCPOA Treaty.
The P5 + 1 Treaty had defined a strong limitation of Iran’s production of fissile material, in exchange for a partial lifting of trade sanctions, not only in the oil sector.
On November 5, 2018, the USA reintroduced a vast series of sanctions against Iran, with the obvious and immediate effect of pushing the Brent barrel price to 73.17 US dollars.
It should be recalled that the Brent Crude is one of the three oil price benchmarks, which derives from the trading criteria of the oil extracted in the North Sea, for which there are other types such as Forties, Osemberg and Ekofisk, known with the generic name of BFOE.
Brent is the easiest oil to refine and also to transport and is therefore the most commercialized type.
The other benchmarks are the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and the Dubai-Oman. But there are also others, which are less widespread and commercialized.
Hence the criterion of US sanctions against Iran – which have never been so harsh – is eminently political.
This happens despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the UN agency located in Vienna, which monitors the proper implementation of the JCPOA, from which the USA has unilaterally walked out -maintains that, before the US withdrawal, Iran did not infringe the rules of the 2015 agreement on the extraction and production of enriched uranium and plutonium.
Therefore the United States wants to reach an economic crisis of such intensity that the Iranian people themselves cannot fail to turn against the Shiite regime to overthrow it definitively.
Hence an “Arab spring” in a non-Arab country, triggered not by returning jihadists – as happened in Cyrenaica against Gaddafi’s Libya – but by a very severe economic crisis.
What if the oil sale crisis triggered a new production mechanism in Iran? And what if the energy geopolitics of Central Asia were not so prone to US wishes?
As certified by the International Monetary Fund, Iran went into recession precisely because of renewed US sanctions.
Can we believe that, in the Internet era, the Iranian people do not know it?
Vaste programme en effet, as General De Gaulle used to say. A vast program indeed was the one of the “Arab spring” induced by the economic crisis – like all the others, which failed miserably. As demonstrated by Germany in the 1930s, by the USA after 1929, by Italy after the Euro, by Argentina after Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo and by many other dollarized and later abandoned countries, the political effects of a severe recession are never predictable.
President Trump and his ruling class said they wanted “to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero”.
Well, but how? Preventing the USA, China, Russia and India from buying the Iranian oil, right now that oil contracts denominated in renmimbi are starting in China – some of them precisely with Iran?
What would happen if – as history has taught us, even recently – the people united even more with the Iranian political elite?
This could also happen, considering that the sanctions enable the Iranian Shiite regime to become the only de facto distributor of prebends, income and support for all the Iranian crowds.
Only with tolerance for the parallel shadow economy, which is already thriving in Iran, can the Shiite regime stay in power without much trouble.
On top of it, the project of the Iranian Shiite regime could be to widen the already great divide between Europe and the United States, so as to later use the EU to avoid the US sanctions altogether.
France, Germany and Great Britain have recently registered a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to avoid the US sanctions.
How does this SPV work? In essence, it is a company specialized in a securitization operation.
The SPV becomes the transferee of groups of homogeneous securities to be allocated to the service of what it issues to fund the operation itself.
The INstrument in Support of Trade EXchanges (INSTEX) concretely operates to provide services that favour trade between the EU and Iran.
It is not a bank, but it coordinates all EU payments to Iran, given that the Iranian exporters want and buy Euros to trade, obviously, with the EU, but the European banks are very reluctant to accept Euro funds originated in Iran.
Considering that the US sanctions affect anyone who trades with Iran, the EU banks are in fact afraid of being totally excluded from the North American market, as would actually be the case according to the rules recently enacted by President Trump.
Certainly the European States, which are always so fearful of the USA, even when it would not be needed, have not set up such a company for nothing.
And indeed, in early 2017, European food exports to Iran were worth 298 million euros, while EU similar imports from Iran totaled 292 million euros.
EU medicine exports amounted to 951 million euros and imports were slightly lower.
In short, INSTEX should work well, although for small amounts. However it will operate, above all, as a mask for EU contracts with Iran and as supplier of euros to Iran, after the creation of derivatives.
Will this be enough? We do not believe it.
But let us revert to oil.
With the new US sanction regime, the United States has accepted – with a six-month renewal to be negotiated at each expiry date – that only six countries can still buy oil and its by-products from Iran.
These countries are China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Greece and Italy.
Italy – a diligent child with some need for US funding and political support to avoid being sanctioned – has already canceled purchases from Iran.
Iraq hasalso been given a specific 90-day time limit, as from March 2019, to keep on buying energy from Iran, considering the stable electricity and energy crisis in that country.
It should be recalled that, in 2017, the above mentioned six countries received over 75% of Iranian oil and by-products exports of that year. Nevertheless, after the second cycle of US sanctions, only three countries have continued to buy much oil from Iran, namely Turkey, China and India.
Thus Iranian oil production fell from 3.8 million barrels a day in May 2018 to 2.7 million barrels a day in December 2018.
We will analyze the current data, which has strong geopolitical relevance.
Cui prodest? Probably only Russia.
In all likelihood, the growth of oil exports requested to OPEC by President Trump will be accepted both by Saudi Arabia, which always needs to sell, and – above all – by the Russian Federation, which follows the fluctuations of the Saudi OPEC and also needs to cash fresh liquidity quickly.
Japan, however, is satisfied with the pace of oil imports from Russia.
Furthermore, China is also right in expecting an increase in Russian natural gas imports via the “Power of Siberia” pipeline.
We cannot still rule out the possibility of a further pipeline bringing Russian gas from the North, through North Korea, to South Korea.
Another piece of the Iranian puzzle, given the excellent relations between North Korea and Iran – also at military level.
The bank assets frozen as a result of the current US sanctions are above all 1.9 billion US dollars of the Central Bank of Iran in US banks, as well as additional 50 million US dollars strictly owned by diplomats. Also the proceeds of the British Assa Company, which controls the interests and stakes of Bank Melli in New York, are still frozen in the United States, with many real estate properties owned in various US States, as well as the funds to compensate the victims of Iranian terrorism – an asset which is worth 46 billion dollars.
After the second and current cycle of sanctions, in the USA there are still 38 entities, mainly dealing with oil and gas, which are officially and collectively named Execution of Imam Khomeini Order (EIKO).
However, the “policy line” of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that dominate much of the Iranian economy is still in place.
It should be recalled that the Pasdaran policy line is to widen the economic and political gap between the EU and the USA.
In fact, shortly the Iranian government will announce that it has granted to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as many as five of the seven oil exploration areas not yet officially disclosed.
One of these areas will be a substantial portion of the large oil site of Yadavaran.
With Sinopec, China has already stopped oil exploration in Yadavaran, because it wants Iran to pay all the fines that may possibly be imposed by the USA for any breaking of sanctions.
Obviously the funds coming from the exploitation of the new section of the Yadavaran oil site can be used by the Pasdaran to finance the Hezbollah and all the other Shiite guerrilla activities in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.
It should be recalled that the Pasdaran control as many as 27 Iranian oil companies and the Revolutionary Guards’ network also controls as many as 200 Iranian companies, which have many different goals.
The idea of the above mentioned European “vehicle” will be the main instrument of the Pasdaran operation on oil and natural gas.
They will accumulate euros in the EU importers’ coffers to reach such a level of EU currency to be received in bilateral trade as to stimulate Iran’s economy, including the oil-based one.
From the substitution of imports to the substitution of the trading currency – this is the Revolutionary Guards’ project.
The EU, however, has always maintained that Iran has never broken the terms of the JCPOA Treaty and this is what also CIA states.
The triangular trading system, however, has already been organized.
The USA has promised Germany – the actual EU leader – that, if Europe accepts US sanctions on Iranian oil, it will never impose sanctions on Iran’s natural gas, which is also the EU’s real commercial target.
Hence if the gas and petchem trade between Iran and the EU increases, the likelihood of a US military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran will decrease proportionally, unless the USA materially closes the strategic route of the Iranian oil and gas trade, namely the Strait of Hormuz.
Otherwise, the way out for Iran would be standard sales to Russia, with a 50 billion US dollars of annual payments by the latter, to have preference over Iran’s entire oil and gas sector, as well as increase military collaboration, and finally achieve Russia’s de facto control over Iran’s oil and gas production.
Iranian exports, however, keep on rising.
In March, Iranian oil exports reached 1.7 million barrels a day, with a 70% increase compared to the previous three months.
The peak was reached in April 2019, with 2.8 million barrels a day – an average of 2.4 million crude oil barrels per month over the previous three months.
One of the main reasons for this peak in Iran’s oil is the Chinese demand – oil that China can now buy at a discount thanks to the US sanctions.
With the second cycle of US sanctions China is allowed to buy 360,000 crude oil barrels.
Obviously it will continue to buy what it needs even after the US sanctions being fully effective.
However – as the Saudi intelligence services claim -whatever happens, at the end of the sanction regime, the reduction in Iranian oil sales is expected to be40% on oil and by-products.
This is a minimum, but stable limit for the Iranian Shiite regime to stay afloat.
But this will not substantially change the relations between the Shiite government and the big crude oil importers that will still be able to change, divert and silence the new US sanctions.
Beyond Being Friends: Russia and China Need an Exclusive Trade Deal
RIAC’s 6th “Russia and China: Cooperation in a New Era” conference in early June showcased once again the will of the two countries to develop exclusive relations. Over the past 1,5 years, during the global COVID crisis, both sides have even strengthened mutual trust. In December 2020, Russia and China extended their agreement on notifying of missile launches for ten years. The document was first signed back in 2009. In March, the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation was prolonged, an agreement that has been cementing relations between the two countries for the past 20 years.
Economy contrasted with diplomacy
However, despite the long-sustained foreign policy rapprochement, Russia and China are far from fully utilizing their bilateral economic potential. In 2020, according to the Russian Federal Customs Service, China accounted for 15% of Russian exports, slightly more than the CIS (14%), but significantly less than the European Union (41%). In the structure of Russian imports, China is also behind the EU (24% versus 35%), although European food producers have been excluded from the Russian market since 2014.
In turn, Russia’s share was only 2% in Chinese exports in 2020 (with the U.S. share at 17%), and only 3% in imports (compared to 7% for the U.S., according to the ITC).
The same proportions are typical of mutual investments. By the beginning of 2020, according to the Bank of Russia, China accounted for less than 0.1% of accumulated direct investment from Russia (with the share of UK and Germany at 4.7% and 2.2%, respectively). As for the accumulated direct investments in Russia (private equity and debt instruments), China’s share reached only 0.8% in early 2020, while the share of France stood at 4.5%.
State support and guarantees
So far, Chinese investments are mainly focused on energy projects, directly or indirectly supported by the state. Yamal LNG plant is a good example (20% owned by CNPC, 9.9% by Silk Road Fund): to launch construction, Novatek raised a loan from the NWF (the sovereign National Wealth Fund). Another example is the Amur Gas Chemical Complex (AGCC) of Sibur (40% owned by Sinopec)—the project will enjoy tax benefits as a resident of one of the Far Eastern territories of priority social and economic development.
Ensuring guaranteed demand is equally important, as is the case for AGCC, which is located in close proximity to the world’s largest consumer of polyethylene and polypropylene, the basic petrochemical products. It is no coincidence that Sinopec acquired the share in the Amur GCC in December 2020. By that time, it became obvious that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic would not undermine China’s growing demand for petrochemicals and gas chemicals: according to the ICIS forecast, China’s share in global polyethylene imports will grow from last year’s 35% to an even more impressive 43% by 2030.
Looking for viable opportunities
The lack of proper state support and guarantees restrains export in a number of other industries that could have enjoyed demand in the Chinese market. This is apparent in trade frictions between China and the U.S. (in 2019, China imposed a 25% duty on methanol imports from the United States) and Australia (in late 2020, China stopped buying Australian coal). And vice versa, it is possible to increase exports by searching for opportunities in the market niches where Russia’s sales potential is coupled with absolute competitive advantages, such as in helium market, where Russia may become one of the leading suppliers in the coming years.
Another option is the supply of Russian hydrogen, which may allow China to partially replace petroleum imports from other markets.
In 2018, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), some 1,790 hydrogen-fuel vehicles were operated in China out of 12,952 vehicles globally; the Chinese fleet grew to 6,180 out of 23,354 units by the end of 2019. And by 2025, China plans to increase the number of buses and trucks utilizing fuel cells to 50,000, jumping to 1 million by 2030.
Moreover, in 2035, according to the official plans of the Chinese authorities, half of vehicles sold should be climate-neutral, while the other half should be powered by hybrid engines or fuel cells. A similar shift will have to occur in Japan, where the IEA forecasts the number of fuel cell vehicles to increase from 3,633 in 2019 to 200,000 in 2025 and to 811,200 in 2030.
Russia has its competitive edge in hydrogen energy development, taking into account both global leadership in natural gas reserves (used for blue hydrogen stored in ammonia) and 50+ years of experience in nuclear and hydropower, needed for production of yellow and green hydrogen. Understanding these advantages is already reflected in regulatory plans: for example, according to the Energy Strategy adopted last year, Russia will increase its hydrogen exports from 200,000 tons in 2024 to 2 million tons in 2035.
Towards a New Trade Deal
We need to admit though that a long-term strategy requires long-term investment, while the latter requires secure return. To ensure there is a horizon for planning your business, you do not have to necessarily rely on budget support: this is where exclusive trade agreements can step in. This is exactly what the Trump administration did in January 2020, concluding an agreement that obliged China to boost U.S. imports by $200 billion above the 2017 level within two years, including energy ($52.4 billion), industrial production ($77.7 billion) and agriculture ($32 billion). The deal, among other effects, has revived the U.S. oil exports to China: supplies grew to 482,000 barrels per day (bpd) after a drop to 137,000 bpd in 2019 amid trade wars.
An exclusive trade deal between Russia and China could be smaller in volume and longer in tenor (aiming to increase the trade turnover by $100 billion in at least five years) to help resume, for example, the Eastern Petrochemical Company project, in which ChemChina planned to participate previously but which remained on paper. In return, Russia could extend the tax benefits, which are now granted to residents of the territories of priority social and economic development (TOSER), to all projects with Chinese shareholding. Thus, the success story of cooperation between Sibur and Sinopec in the Amur GCC would be replicated and should provide a new impetus to bilateral relations.
From our partner RIAC
Emerging Global Market: The Arctic on Sale
The Arctic Region has been on a journey of geographical transformation induced by Climate Change. There has been an unprecedented percentage of what can be called as ‘Arctic metamorphosis’, witnessed as deterioration of climate twice as rapidly as in any other parts of the globe. There has been a decline in permafrost, sea ice, icesheets on ocean and glaciers in Canada, Alaska and Greenland. There has been a notable decrease in the snow cover that earlier occupied the land. These alarming changes in the physiography were first recorded in the 1980s, and have been on a surge ever since. Around 1 million sq. miles of sea ice has shrunk over the past 50 years, halving the size of Arctic icecap. The transition has been so dramatic that it actually cut the turf to Asia, revealing the fabled North West Passage that European voyagers sought for shipping, for over centuries. As of now, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ will the Arctic Passageway open for regular marine transportation and when would the exploration of lucrative natural energy-resources deposits be possible.
The regressing ecosystem has been the least of the concerns of our capitalist, market-oriented, energy-hungry world economy. The melting ice caps and glaciers are paving way to access the 13% of globe’s undiscovered oil and 30% of globe’s undiscovered natural gas lying at the Arctic Ocean seabed, a home for world’s largest unexplored hydrocarbon resources. These percentages translate to 1,669 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil. The economic potential for these energy resources exceeds $2.7 trillion for Russian and American Arctic claims alone. Moreover, there are massive reserve potential for rare mineral resources also referred to as “strategic minerals” including palladium, nickel and iron-ore which might prove to be a greater economic driver than the energy resources. Apart from these, Arctic has tremendous new opportunities for high sea fisheries. The Ocean has vast stocks of marine resources including shrimp, pollock, crab, pacific salmon, squid, scallop and halibut. It would prove to be a new arena of industrial-scale commercial fisheries.
Whether the sought resources are hydrocarbon or mineral, they must procure their route via pipelines or shipping routes to the receptive markets. Along with the transitory passageways, there would be need for improved icebreakers, satellite and communication and navigation, deep water ports, double-hulled shipping vessels, operational search and aviation infrastructure development.
An even better incentive would be the inception of new sea-lanes initiated by the great Arctic melt. The shipping shortcuts of Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route would reduce the nautical transit times by days, saving the shipping corporations thousands of miles. The sailing distance between Yokohama and Rotterdam on the Northern Route would be reduced from over 11,200 nautical miles to 6,500 nautical miles, in comparison with the current Suez Canal Route which would amount to the savings of up to 40 percent of shipping expenses. Likewise, the voyage from Rotterdam to Seattle would be trimmed by the North West Passage by over 2000 nautical miles, reducing the distance up to 25 percent in comparison with the current Panama route.
Taking into consideration the fuel costs, canal fees and various other miscellaneous charges that amount to lofty freight rates, these alternative passages will cutback the charges of a single voyage down to at least 20%, saving around $17.5 million, saving billions of dollars per annum for the shipping industry. These savings would be far greater for the megaships that have to sail all the way down to Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope.
The world’s shipyard’s have already started building ice-capable ships, beginning with the groundwork for the navigation through these sea-lanes and for the transport of Arctic’s natural gas and oil. Billions of dollars are being invested by the private sector for the fleet of Arctic tankers. As of now, around 496 ice-class ships have been built worldwide. The gas and oil markets are investing in development of the avant-garde technology and assemblage of advanced ships, possessing double-acting tankers, that have the dual technology of steam bowing through open waters and proceed stern to smash through deep ice. These ships are capable of sailing unobstructed to Arctic’s burgeoning gas and oil fields independent of ice-breakers. These breakthroughs will turn previously unviable commercial projects into booming businesses.
Of all the Arctic States, the largest stakeholder with greatest intrinsic interests in the region is Russia. A significant 20% of Russia’s GDP comes of Russian North, and accounts for 22% of all exports. The resources of Arctic are of strategic importance for Russia; therefore, it has been so far the largest investor in the region. It has invested in the fleet of nuclear-icebreakers, the only of their kind in the world. Further, Russia is planning on increasing this fleet of 4 to 13 with a cost of over $1.5 billion. Moreover, Russia has endeavored to aim for 92.6 million ton of cargo by 2030. These hefty investments indicate the importance of Arctic as a market. Russia aims at charging for providing the sea-routes since it has the largest geographical proximity to the ocean as well as providing shipping and infrastructure in the region. The claims of oil and gas reserves are only an addition to the gains Russia has planned to make.
Considering the economic and strategic importance of Arctic and its potential to add to the world’s oil, gas, minerals, fisheries and shipping reserves makes it an alluring marketplace. The region itself has been divided among the ‘Arctic States’ that include Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and United States. Instead of making efforts to preserve the deteriorating environmental conditions and the physiographic challenges, these states are only in a race of dividing the resources among themselves and reaping as much assets as they can. All domains of Arctic are on sale; including the sea, land, sea-life, mineral resources, and fossil fuels. The world has turned a blind eye towards the environmental consequences for the region of the planet which will surely cost more than the gains. Putting nature’s commodities on sale have never worked in anyone’s favor.
Covid-19 and food crisis
COVID-19 has hit at a time when food crisis and malnutrition are on the rise. According to the most recent UN projections, the pandemic-induced economic slump would cause as many as 132 million people to be hungry. This would be in addition to the 690 million people going hungry now. At the same time, 135 million people suffer from acute food insecurity and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Although the pandemic’s transmission has slowed in certain countries and cases have decreased, COVID-19 has resurfaced or is spreading rapidly in others. This is still a global issue that needs a worldwide solution.
This epidemic threatens both lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 has had a wide-ranging and disruptive influence on the agriculture system. We fear a worldwide food crisis unless we act quickly, which may have long-term consequences for hundreds of millions of children and adults. This is mostly due to a lack of food availability — as wages decline, remittances decline, and in certain cases, food prices rise. Food insecurity is increasingly becoming a food production concern in nations that already have high levels of acute food insecurity.
Agriculture continues to serve a reliable and major part in world economy and stability, and it remains the primary source of food, income, and work for rural communities, even in the face of a pandemic. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agricultural system and sector has been wide-ranging, causing unprecedented uncertainty in global food supply chains, including potential bottlenecks in labor markets, input industries, agriculture production, food processing, transportation and logistics, as well as shifts in demand for food and food services.
The COVID-19 epidemic not only created a new sort of agricultural catastrophe, but it also occurred at a difficult moment for farmers. In most years during the last few years, global commodity output has exceeded demand, resulting in lower prices. In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicted decreased global agricultural output growth due to limited agricultural land development, rising production costs, expanding resource restrictions, and increasing environmental concerns.
An expanding global population remains the main driver of demand growth, although the consumption patterns and projected trends vary across countries in line with their level of income and development. Average per capita food availability is projected to reach about 3,000 kcal and 85 g of protein per day by 2029. Due to the ongoing transition in global diets towards higher consumption of animal products, fats and other foods, the share of staples in the food basket is projected to decline by 2029 for all income groups. In particular, consumers in middle-income countries are expected to use their additional income to shift their diets away from staples towards higher value products. Meanwhile, environmental and health concerns in high-income countries are expected to support a transition from animal-based protein towards alternative sources of protein.
When people suffer from hunger or chronic undernourishment, it means that they are unable to meet their food requirements – consume enough calories to lead a normal, active life – over a prolonged period. This has long-term implications for their future, and continues to present a setback to global efforts to reach Zero Hunger. When people experience crisis-level, acute food insecurity, it means they have limited access to food in the short-term due to sporadic, sudden crises that may put their lives and livelihoods at risk.
However, if people facing crisis-level acute food insecurity get the assistance they need, they will not join the ranks of the hungry, and their situation will not become chronic
It is clear: although globally there is enough food for everyone, too many people are still suffering from hunger. Our food systems are failing, and the pandemic is making things worse.
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