Trump’s Iran sanctions resolve faces test from oil-thirsty China, India

That pressure is putting the Trump administration’s hard line to the test and raising the possibility of bilateral deals to allow some buying to continue. (File/AFP)
Updated 29 October 2018
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Trump’s Iran sanctions resolve faces test from oil-thirsty China, India

  • With just days to go before renewed sanctions take effect Nov. 5, the reality is setting in: three of Iran’s top five customers – India, China, and Turkey — are resisting Washington’s call to end purchases outright
  • US President Donald Trump announced in May he would reimpose sanctions on Iran

WASHINGTON/SINGAPORE: Shortly after US President Donald Trump announced in May he would reimpose sanctions on Iran, the State Department began telling countries around the world the clock was ticking for them to cut oil purchases from the Islamic Republic to zero.
The strategy is meant to cripple Iran’s oil-dependent economy and force Tehran to quash not only its nuclear ambitions, but this time, its ballistic missile program and its influence in Syria.
With just days to go before renewed sanctions take effect Nov. 5, the reality is setting in: three of Iran’s top five customers – India, China, and Turkey — are resisting Washington’s call to end purchases outright, arguing there are not sufficient supplies worldwide to replace them, according to sources familiar with the matter.
That pressure, along with worries of a damaging oil price spike, is putting the Trump administration’s hard line to the test and raising the possibility of bilateral deals to allow some buying to continue, according to the sources.
The tension has split the administration into two camps, one led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who wants the toughest possible approach, and another by State Department officials keen to balance sanctions against preventing an oil price spike that could damage the US and its allies, according to a source briefed by administration officials on the matter.
The global price of oil peaked just below $87 a barrel this month, a four-year high. Because of that concern, the source said, the administration is considering limited waivers for some Iranian customers until Russia and Saudi Arabia add additional supply next year, while limiting what Tehran can do with the proceeds in the meantime.
Revenues from sales could be escrowed for use by Tehran exclusively for humanitarian purposes, the source, who asked not to be named, said – a mechanism more stringent than a similar one imposed on Iran oil purchases during the last round of sanctions under US President Barack Obama.
“If you’re the administration, you’d like to ensure you don’t have a spike in the price. So, you are better off from mid-2019 onwards to aggressively enforce the barrels side of reducing to zero and in the interim aggressively enforcing the revenue side,” the source said.
Such concessions could be problematic for the White House as it seeks stricter terms than under Obama, who along with European allies imposed sanctions that led to an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
The State Department declined comment for this story, but the administration has confirmed Washington is considering waivers. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Reuters that countries will first have to reduce purchases of Iran’s oil by more than the 20 percent level they did under the previous sanctions.
’A bit unpredictable’
US Treasury and State Department teams have traveled to more than two dozen countries since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal on May 8, warning companies and countries of the dangers of doing business with Iran.
US allies Japan and South Korea have already ceased importing Iran’s crude. But the situation is less clear among other, bigger buyers.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, and Frank Fannon, State’s top US energy diplomat, most recently met with officials in India, Iran’s No. 2 buyer, in mid-October after a US source said for the first time that the administration was actively considering waivers.
An Indian government source said India told the US delegation that rising energy costs caused by a weak rupee and high oil prices meant zeroing out Iranian purchases was impossible until at least March.
“We have told this to the United States, as well as during Brian Hook’s visit,” the source said. “We cannot end oil imports from Iran at a time when alternatives are costly.”
A US diplomat confirmed the discussions, saying limited waivers for India and other countries was possible.
India typically imports over 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian oil, but has reduced that level in recent months, according to official data.
Discussions are also underway with Turkey, Iran’s fourth biggest crude buyer, even though Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish ministers have openly criticized the sanctions.
An industry source in Turkey familiar with the talks told Reuters the country had cut Iranian imports in half already, and could get to zero, but would prefer to continue some purchases.
Obama’s administration granted a six-month waiver to Turkey, but the source said Turkey expected the Trump administration to impose tougher requirements for obtaining waivers that could potentially cover shorter periods.
“It could be for three months, or they may not get a waiver at all. It is all a bit unpredictable this time, as we understand a lot of things are up to Trump,” the source said.
The situation is least clear in China, Iran’s biggest customer, whose state-owned buyers are also seeking waivers. The country took in between 500,000 and 800,000 bpd from Iran in the past several months, a typical range.
Beijing’s signals to its refiners have been mixed, said the two sources. Last week, Reuters reported Sinopec Group and China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), the country’s top state-owned refiners, have not placed orders for Iranian oil for November because of concerns about the sanctions.
Joe McMonigle, energy analyst at Hedgeye in Washington, said he expected the administration would have to accept some level of Iranian oil buying from China, given its consumption.
“Of all the countries, I don’t think they think China is going to zero,” he said.
US State Department’s Fannon is scheduled to travel to Asia in coming days, with a speech in Singapore planned for Oct. 30; an official did not say if Fannon would use the trip to discuss Iran with China.


Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

Updated 33 min 6 sec ago
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Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

  • A Ramallah-based economics professor said the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel
  • Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian Authority faces a suffocating financial crisis after deep US aid cuts and an Israeli move to withhold tax transfers, sparking fears for the stability of the West Bank.
The authority, headed by President Mahmud Abbas, announced a package of emergency measures on March 10, including halving the salaries of many civil servants.
The United States has cut more than $500 million in Palestinian aid in the last year, though only a fraction of that went directly to the PA.
The PA has decided to refuse what little US aid remains on offer for fear of civil suits under new legislation passed by Congress.
Israel has also announced it intends to deduct around $10 million a month in taxes it collects for the PA in a dispute over payments to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails.
In response, Abbas has refused to receive any funds at all, labelling the Israeli reductions theft.
That will leave his government with a monthly shortfall of around $190 million for the length of the crisis.
The money makes up more than 50 percent of the PA’s monthly revenues, with other funds coming from local taxes and foreign aid.

While the impact of the cuts is still being assessed, analysts fear it could affect the stability of the occupied West Bank.
“If the economic situation remains so difficult and the PA is unable to pay salaries and provide services, in addition to continuing (Israeli) settlement expansion it will lead to an explosion,” political analyst Jihad Harb said.
Abbas cut off relations with the US administration after President Donald Trump declared the disputed city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital in December 2017.
The right-wing Israeli government, strongly backed by the US, has since sought to squeeze Abbas.
After a deadly anti-Israeli attack last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would withhold $138 million (123 million euros) in Palestinian revenues over the course of a year.
Israel collects around $190 million a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through its ports, and then transfers the money to the PA.
Israel said the amount it intended to withhold was equal to what is paid by the PA to the families of prisoners, or prisoners themselves, jailed for attacks on Israelis last year.
Many Palestinians view prisoners and those killed while carrying out attacks as heroes of the fight against Israeli occupation.
Israel says the payments encourage further violence.
Abbas recently accused Netanyahu’s government of causing a “crippling economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority.”
The PA also said in January it would refuse all further US government aid for fear of lawsuits under new US legislation targeting alleged support for “terrorism.”

Finance Minister Shukri Bishara announced earlier this month he had been forced to “adopt an emergency budget that includes restricted austerity measures.”
Government employees paid over 2,000 shekels ($555) will receive only half their salaries until further notice.
Prisoner payments would continue in full, Bishara added.
Nasser Abdel Karim, a Ramallah-based economics professor, told AFP the PA, and the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel.
The PA undertook similar financial measures in 2012 when Israel withheld taxes over Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition at the United Nations.
Abdel Karim said such crises are “repeated and disappear according to the development of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israel or the countries that support (the PA).”
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including now annexed east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Abbas’s government has only limited autonomy in West Bank towns and cities.
“The problem is the lack of cash,” economic journalist Jafar Sadaqa told AFP.
He said that while the PA had faced financial crises before, “this time is different because it comes as a cumulative result of political decisions taken by the United States.”
Abbas appointed longtime ally Mohammad Shtayyeh as prime minister on March 10 to head a new government to oversee the crisis.
Abdel Karim believes the crisis could worsen after an Israeli general election next month “if a more right-wing Israeli government wins.”
Netanyahu’s outgoing government is already regarded as the most right-wing in Israel’s history but on April 9 parties even further to the right have a realistic chance of winning seats in parliament for the first time.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014, when a drive for a deal by the administration of President Barack Obama collapsed in the face of persistent Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.