On June 17, the United States began implementing the Caesar Act (the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”) following a six-month grace period that was granted to the administration so that it could prepare secondary sanctions against foreign citizens for cooperating with Damascus in oil, gas, aviation, defence and construction. The original sanctions list was made up of 39 Syrian individuals and legal entities, including Bashar al-Assad, his wife and his brother and sister. Paradoxically, however, not only do the new restrictive measures create difficulties, but they also form prerequisites for mobilizing Syria’s internal resources and expanding Russia’s economic presence in the country.
Factors Aggravating the Socioeconomic Situation in Syria
The COVID-19 Pandemic
At first glance, Syria does not appear to be a coronavirus hot spot. The country has a population of over 16.4 million, yet the Ministry of Health has reported just 496 cases, 25 deaths and 144 recoveries as of July 17. Humanitarian NPOs reported the first case of COVID-19 in the mutinous city of Idlib on July 9 — it had been previously noted that the number of COVID-19 cases could have been greater by an order of magnitude due to the lack of quarantine measures. The Kurdish Self-Administration identified two more cases in northeast Syria back on April 28.
Initially, Syrian experts thought that the country’s marginalization in the global economy would make it less vulnerable to the pandemic. The authorities established a governmental headquarters and deployed a standard set of measures to combat the infection: borders were closed, air travel was suspended, people arriving in the country from abroad had to quarantine, a curfew was introduced, travel between governorates was restricted, public events were banned, and schools, universities, markets and restaurants were closed. The elections to the People’s Council (Parliament) were rescheduled for July 19, 2020. In order to support the population and businesses, the Ministry of Labour launched the “National Campaign for Social Emergency Response,” while the Ministry of Tourism approved a plan for supporting the tourism industry. The government abolished the 40-per cent import deposits and allowed private enterprises to import flour. Sugar, rice, tea and fuel were distributed at subsidized prices under the “smart card” programme. In late May, the government followed the example of other countries around the world, started to relax the protective measures: the curfew was abolished and government agencies resumed their regular operations.
However, it should be noted that, according to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the conflict in Syria meant that the country was poorly prepared to handle the pandemic. The lack of consensus among foreign actors on how to provide aid to Syria did not help — the country’s additional needs totalled USD 385 million, according to the May 7 briefing of UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric. Damascus had to be content with donor deliveries from China, India and Russia. The sanctions took away the competitive edge of the local products due to high prices on energy, diesel fuel and gas and the shortage of raw materials and skilled labour, which played into the hands of commercial monopolies.
The pandemic nullified the government’s effort to present the reconstruction effort as a “prize” for investors, since all exhibitions, including the 62nd Damascus International Fair, were rescheduled for 2021 (despite Washington’s warnings, 38 countries participated in the 61st Fair, including business delegations from the United Arab Emirates and Oman). The coronavirus paralyzed trade with Iraq through the Abu Kamal — Qaim border checkpoint that was opened on September 30, 2019, and on which both parties had pinned great hopes.
The falling living standards produced an upsurge in protests: in January and June 2020, the Druze population in the relatively calm southern governorate of As-Suwayda held rallies demanding the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. To defuse social tensions, the President dismissed the unpopular Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who had been in office since 2016.
The Lebanese Crisis
The crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, which was particularly acute in October–November 2019 and April 2020, had a far greater effect on Syria’s economic situation than the pandemic. By early 2020, Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks had reached USD 40–50 billion — a quarter of all deposits. Tighter control over cash withdrawals and banking transactions made it harder to transfer assets out of banks and diminished the effectiveness of the Intervention Fund for Supporting the Syrian pound established by the Syrian government. Wire transfers from Syrian diasporas abroad also dropped, which impacted the state’s foreign currency revenues and narrowed the domestic investment base. Syria’s total net wealth (USD 21.1 billion as of June 2019, according to Credit Swiss) is still many times less than Lebanon’s (USD 232.2 billion), not to mention that of Saudi Arabia (USD 1.56 trillion, making it the richest country in the Arab world).
The Caesar Act immediately delivered a blow to the banking cooperation between Damascus and Beirut, as Lebanon’s CSCGroup stopped servicing Syrian ATMs. On June 23, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria Walid Muallem spoke about coordinating efforts to prevent secondary American sanctions, but never received a clear response from Lebanon.
Devaluation of the Syrian Currency
The high demand for U.S. dollars on the back of the devaluation of the Lebanese pound (the exchange rate had long sat at around LBP 1500 to the dollar, but has now fallen to LBP 2200 to the dollar) accelerated the depreciation of the Syrian currency. By mid-January 2020, the Syrian pound had dropped below the record figure of SYP 1000 to the dollar, while the pre-war exchange rate was SYP 47 to the dollar. The situation was also negatively affected by Turkish liras circulating in Idlib and northern regions that are formally controlled by the opposition’s “transitional government” formed with Ankara’s support.
In an attempt to keep control of the situation, on January 18, Bashar al-Assad issued Order 2/2020, introducing harsher punishment for illegal transactions in foreign currencies. In February, the government capped currency imports at USD 100,000, with currency in excess of USD 5000 subject to declaration. Currency exports by Syrian citizens were capped at USD 10,000. The government took the unprecedented step of allowing a private company to put an e-currency (lira) into circulation starting on January 1, 2020, which was to be tied to domestic accounts nominated in Syrian pounds, but it could be used abroad as an alternative to the dollar in order to finance imports. The idea was that it would stimulate demand for Syrian pounds since participants in such transactions would buy them in order to exchange them for liras.
The Fragmentation of Syrian Territory
Thus far, Bashar al-Assad has failed to keep his promise to “liberate every inch of the Syrian land.” Approximately 40 per cent of the country, including Idlib, the north, and the trans-Euphrates territory is not under Damascus’ control. The lawyers at the Syrian Law Journal website hit the nail on the head when they noted that the Caesar Act is intended primarily to isolate government-controlled regions, which will inevitably result in the growth of “shadow” commerce. In October 2017, Herbert McMaster summed up the gist of the American approaches, “We should ensure that not a dollar […] goes to reconstruct anything that is under the control of this brutal [Syrian] regime.”
Discord in Syria’s Top Echelons
The economic crisis was compounded by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, the most prominent of the “state bourgeois” whom Syrians nicknamed the “children of the power” (Awlad alsulta), falling out of favour. Last year, he was rumoured to have been placed under house arrest for his refusal to donate the bulk of his 5-billion-dollar fortune to advance the Syrian President’s personal efforts to involve the private sector in the reconstruction of the country. Foreign commenters put forward an ambiguous version claiming that Makhlouf had a complicated relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma, who was planning to create, together with Samer Foz, another “child of the power,” Syria’s third cellular service provider to compete with Syriatel, the flagship of Makhlouf’s “empire.”
The Caesar Act as an Aggravating Factor
While the Department of State insists that secondary sanctions do not extend to the humanitarian sphere, they cannot but have an effect on regular Syrians, since they aggravate the economic crisis in the country. This is an apt place to quote Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Vershinin who said at the IV Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region on June 30, 2020, that the Caesar Act ignores UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call to suspend restrictions in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Along with its destructive influence on the situation inside Syria, the Caesar Act is clearly intended to scare away those who may want to invest in the country’s reconstruction efforts. This applies primarily to Washington’s Arab allies, even against the backdrop of positive signals sent to Damascus, such as the telephone conversation between Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bashar al-Assad, when the parties discussed aid to Syria in combating the COVID-19.
The Caesar Act and Russia’s Economic Presence in Syria
Nothing Good Can Come of it for Moscow?
Despite the obvious obstacles that the Caesar Acts creates for Russian companies, the are a number of examples where the reverse is true in terms of Syria leaning more and more towards Russia economically. Russian business has experience in dividing up the roles with Iran, the leading economic player in Syria. For instance, the global media took notice of the agreement to jointly develop the phosphate fields in Palmyra, which was liberated from ISIL by pro-Iranian units.
New sanctions will most likely postpone China’s involvement in the reconstruction effort, since China was already somewhat cautious, confining itself to humanitarian aid on a rather modest scale by Chinese standards (on March 4, an agreement was signed for Beijing to provide a 14-million-dollar grant). Lebanon’s domestic crisis rendered the possibility of non-sanctioned Lebanon acting as an intermediary, suggesting that China invest in the Tripoli port in order to transform it into a “hub” for entry into Syria, moot.
The potential of Abkhazia and Crimea, which have already been hit by sanctions, to act as intermediaries is objectively increasing. For instance, the Agreement between the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Crimea and the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade of the Syrian Arab Republic on Trade and Economic Cooperation as part of plans to create a joint trading house to export grain and industrial products to Syria with payments to be made in roubles, and the Agreement on Cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic in the Field of Trade Promotion and Economic Cooperation may be injected with specific substance.
The Caesar Act may prompt Syrian IT sector operators to choose Russian analogues or unique technologies instead of the American software they previously used, thus bypassing the sanctions, or instead of cooperating with India. The first sign that this may be the case was the launch of the Electronic Signature Certification Centre with the assistance of RusinformExport LLC in September 2019.
Russia’s Economic Strategies in Syria
There are two emerging approaches concerning Russia’s participation in Syria’s post-war reconstruction effort. The “broad” concept entails involving large- and medium-sized business with financial and administrative governmental support and under the auspices of the Permanent Russian–Syrian Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation (which held its 12th in Moscow meeting on December 23–25, 2019). The Commission prioritizes energy, transportation and the IT sector.
The “narrow” strategy entails putting the “Syrian dossier” within the purview of a very narrow circle of entrepreneurs who have experience of working in Syria in peacetime and wartime, such as Gennady Timchenko’s Stroytransgaz JSC (STG), which assisted in the construction of two gas-processing plants and now focuses on ensuring the end-to-end cycle of producing, processing and exporting phosphates. STG’s bodies have leased the Syrian port of Tartus for 49 years as a result.
Given the appearance of the Caesar Act, it would appear that Moscow will choose the “narrow” option in order to avoid secondary sanctions being imposed on Russian businesses, many of which work in Europe and with the member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. Companies such as STG are used to operating under sanctions and dealing with security issues. They have a “financial security margin” for investing and wealthy local partners. They could help recoup the money spent on the military operation in Syria by mining valuable minerals on exclusive terms.
Russia’s Prospective Role in Restoring Economic Ties
Moscow is prepared to act as an intermediary in implementing projects throughout Syria by using summit-level dialogue with Turkey, connections in Kurdish business circles, and the presence of the Military Police of Russia in Syria’s northern regions and other parts of the country. It should be remembered that Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed that Turkey, Russia and the United States jointly manage oil fields in the Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, which he believes would benefit all the parties to the conflict, including the Syrian authorities, the opposition’s “transitional government” and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Possible Responses of Damascus to the Caesar Act
Complicated Relations with Iran and Russia
It is no secret that Damascus has to manoeuvre between Moscow and Tehran, as they pursue different interests. Iran banks on proxy militias as it advances its influence “beyond the Syrian state” as part of its anti-Israel “Shia Crescent” project. These actions open up the Syrians to U.S. sanctions and make them a target of Israel’s surgical strikes. They also allow Tehran to claim a special role in the reconstruction effort, which, once again, prompts a harsher retaliation from the United States. Russia, on the contrary, is interested in bolstering the official institutions of “al-Assad’s Syria” which, by ousting non-state actors, would monitor business projects, primarily those related to valuable minerals.
If there is a shortage of commercially profitable projects, we cannot rule out the possibility of Russia rigidly protecting its interests by keeping Damascus from escalating the conflict and getting too friendly with Iran. Western media reported some backstage agreements between Syria and the United Arab Emirates that entail Syria continuing the operation in Idlib in exchange for “financial compensation” and in contravention of Russia–Turkey arrangements. It was against this backdrop that the Russian media ran stories of Moscow’s discontent with Bashar al-Assad this past May.
Paying for Russian and Iranian Aid with Valuable Minerals
Heeding the imperative to provide its main allies with access to its mineral resources, the People’s Council of Syria ratified three oil field development agreements in December 2019, just as Donald Trump was signing the Caesar Act. These agreements were concluded between the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and Mercury Limited (units and 19) and Velada (unit 23). Since little is known about these companies, it was speculated that they are a front for an entrepreneur with ties to the Kremlin. In an attempt to maintain a balance between Moscow and Tehran, the Syrian parliament opened discussions in May on giving unit 12 near Abu Kamal to the Iranians as partial repayment of loans received from Iran in 2013–2019. A new military agreement with Iran was signed in Damascus on July 8, 2020. Adviser to the President of Syria Bouthaina Shaaban called it the first step to defeating the Caesar Act.
The Syrian Government’s Dialogue with Kurds
Despite the fact that the Syrian government does not recognize the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, it did not interrupt its commercial and economic contacts with the Kurds. In June, the government approved an increase in the purchase price of wheat from SYP 225 to SYP 400 per kilogram, as opposed to SYP 315 per kilogram paid by the local authorities, in order to purchase maximum amounts of wheat in Jazira (in the north-eastern Al-Hasakah Governorate) known as Syria’s “grain stores.” This showed that Damascus was ready to restore economic ties before the political settlement of the Kurdish problem had been achieved.
The EU’s Stance on the Caesar Act
Much will depend on the stance that Europe takes on the Caesar Act, and this is a complicated matter. In May, Brussels once again extended its sanctions against Syria for another year. On the other hand, Europe is debating adjusting its approaches to the Syrian reconstruction effort. The German expert Muriel Asseburg notes that the European Union’s consolidated standing is eroded by differences between the United Kingdom, Germany and France on the one hand, as they favour preserving the hard-line approach, and Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland on the other, as they are ready to expand their economic presence in “al-Assad’s Syria.” The proposal is to become involved in the reconstruction effort in the areas controlled by the authorities, thus raising living standards under the slogan of “sustainable stabilization” and refraining from completely normalizing relations with Damascus.
To sum up, even though the Caesar Act is a challenge for Syria and its allies, there is real potential there for neutralizing its consequences through the mobilization of Syria’s internal reserves and strengthening economic cooperation with Russia.
From our partner RIAC
Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.
Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.
During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers. The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.
Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.
Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).
Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.
Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan. She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.
Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.
During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world.
In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.
Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.
Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.
Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.
Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:
” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”
On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:
“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
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Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas set the bar high for President Joko Widodo as well as Nahdlatul Ulama,...
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