US will grant vital Iran sanctions waiver: Iraqi officials

Iraq remains highly dependent on Iranian natural gas to meet electricity demands, especially during the scorching summer months. Above, Iran’s South Pars gas field facilities in Assaluyeh. (AFP)
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Updated 10 February 2020

US will grant vital Iran sanctions waiver: Iraqi officials

  • The decision comes amid strained US-Iraqi ties following last month’s Washington-directed airstrike in Baghdad
  • Iraq remains highly dependent on Iranian natural gas to meet electricity demands

BAGHDAD: The United States has signaled to Iraq its willingness to extend sanctions waivers enabling the country to continue importing vital Iranian gas and electricity imports, three Iraqi officials said this week, a move that would be a key test of Baghdad-Washington ties.
The decision comes amid strained US-Iraqi ties following last month’s Washington-directed airstrike in Baghdad that killed a high-profile Iranian general and a senior Iraqi militia leader.
A previous waiver, granted in October, is set to expire on Feb. 13. The three officials said the US State Department, which issues such waivers, has conveyed its readiness to extend the waiver for another three months — if Iraq is able to formulate a timeline by the end of the week, detailing a plan to wean itself off Iranian gas dependence.
“The American side has announced to us their readiness,” said one of the officials.
The officials interviewed are all senior members of Iraq’s government, including one who is close to the negotiations with the Americans. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter before it becomes official.
Iraqi officials said the new waiver would be a test of Baghdad-Washington ties after tensions soared following a Jan. 3 US airstrike near the Baghdad airport that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Since then, Iraqi Shiite political leaders have pushed a non-binding resolution through parliament to pressure the government to oust US troops from the country.
Washington has responded to Iraq’s requests to initiate troop withdrawals with blunt refusal, even threatening primary sanctions that could cripple Iraq’s economy. Tensions have cooled in recent weeks, with both sides stepping back from saber-rattling rhetoric. rival Iraqi blocs in parliament have also selected a prime minister-designate, Mohammed Allawi, to replace outgoing Premier Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraq remains highly dependent on Iranian natural gas to meet electricity demands, especially during the scorching summer months when imports account for a third of consumption. Late payments by Baghdad for Iranian power and gas have resulted in interruptions in recent years. In the summer of 2018, that was one factor that lead to destabilizing protests in the southern oil-rich province of Basra.
The US waiver enable Iraq to avoid penalties while paying Iran billions of dollars for energy imports. It has been granted successively since November 2018, when the Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran.
Washington has used the threat of sanctions as leverage to push the Iraqi government to build up domestic power supplies and reduce dependence on Iran. Iraq currently flares vast quantities of gas because it lacks the infrastructure to capture it. It also has two gas fields in Anbar and Diyala provinces but development of those suffered major setbacks after the Daesh group overran the areas in the summer of 2014.
The threat of sanctions had presented Iraqi officials with a difficult choice: end a vital source of electricity or be denied access to US currency. Iraq has billions of dollars in oil revenue at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Iraq’s state revenue.
The Iraqi Cabinet moved toward placating Washington’s conditions to renew the sanctions waiver in late January, by approving six oil contracts awarded by the Oil Ministry in April 2018 that would boost domestic gas supply in over two years, according to a Cabinet statement on Jan. 23.
The contracts were passed, “within the framework of the government’s efforts to enhance self-sufficiency in energy and reduce dependence on imported gas,” the statement said.
Iraq’s caretaker government approved the contracts, which would include fields that could produce over 750 million standard cubic feet of gas per day in 36 months, the statement added.
“We expect to sign soon,” said an industry official from one of the three companies awarded the contracts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to compromise ongoing talks with the government.


‘Social explosion’ in Lebanese camps imminent, warn officials

Updated 21 February 2020

‘Social explosion’ in Lebanese camps imminent, warn officials

  • Situation volatile as Palestinian refugees face economic crisis after US peace plan

BEIRUT: Authorities are battling to prevent “a social explosion” among Palestinian refugees crammed into camps in Lebanon, a top official has revealed.

Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, secretary of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions in Lebanon, told Arab News that urgent measures were being put in place to try and stop the “crisis” situation getting out of control.

“Conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are very difficult due to the economic crisis facing the country, and we are trying to delay a social explosion in the camps and working on stopgap solutions,” he said.

And Dr. Hassan Mneimneh, the head of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), said: “More Palestinian refugees from the camps in Lebanon are immigrating. Embassies are receiving immigration requests, and Canada is inundated with a wave of immigration because its embassy has opened doors to applications.”

According to a population census conducted in 2017 by the Central Administration of Statistics in Lebanon, in coordination with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), there are 174,422 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon spread across 12 camps and nearby compounds.

Mneimneh insisted the figure was accurate despite the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimating there to be 459,292 refugees in the country. He said: “The census we had conducted refers to the current reality in Lebanon.”

He added that he feared “increased pressure on European donor countries over UNRWA in the coming days after the unilateral implementation of the ‘Deal of the Century’ (the US peace plan for the Middle East) by Israel.

“Israel’s goal is to undermine UNRWA’s mission as a prelude to ending the Palestinian cause and, thus, preventing the return of Palestinians.”

Mneimneh held a meeting on Wednesday with two Lebanese and Palestinian action groups in Lebanon to discuss Palestinian asylum issues in light of the American peace plan. There were no representatives of Hezbollah or Hamas present at the talks.

He said: “This deal kick-starts an unusual stage that carries the most serious risks not only to the Palestinian people and cause, but also to the other countries and entities in the Arab region.

“The first of these is Lebanon, which senses the danger of this announcement in view of the clauses it contains to eliminate the Palestinian cause, including the refugee issue and the possibility of their settlement in the host countries.”

Al-Ardat said: “Palestinian refugees have no choice but to withstand the pressures on them to implement the so-called ‘Deal of the Century.’ What is proposed is that we sell our country for promises, delusions, and $50 billion distributed to three countries. Palestine is not for sale.”

He pointed out that “the camps in Lebanon resorted to family solidarity in coordination with the shops in the camps. Whoever does not have money can go to the shop after two (2 p.m.) in the afternoon and get vegetables for free.

“We have been securing 7,000 packs of bread to distribute in the camps and buying the same amount to sell the pack at 500 liras. But this does not solve the problem.”

He added: “The PLO leadership continues to perform its duty toward the refugees and, until now, we have not been affected by the restrictions imposed by banks in Lebanon, and refugees are still receiving medical treatment.

“However, our concern now is that Palestinian refugees do not starve, taking into account all the indications that the situation in Lebanon will not improve soon.

“Twenty percent of the Palestinians in Lebanon receive wages either from UNRWA — as they work there — or from the PLO because they are affiliated with the factions, but 80 percent are unemployed and have no income.”

The meeting hosted by Mneimneh agreed “the categorical rejection of the ‘Deal of the Century’ because it means further erasing the identity existence of the Palestinian people as well as their national rights, especially their right to return and establish their independent state.

“It also means assassinating the Palestinian peoples’ legitimate rights and supporting Israel’s usurpation of international justice and 72 years of Arab struggle.

“The deal includes ambiguous, illegal and immoral approaches that contradict all relevant UN and Security Council resolutions, especially with regard to the establishment of the Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and the inalienable right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and establish their state with Jerusalem as its capital,” a statement on the meeting added.

“UNRWA must remain the living international witness to the ongoing suffering and tragedy of the Palestinian people, and UNRWA must continue to receive support.”

Attendees at the talks also recommended “improving the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to strengthen the elements of their steadfastness until they return.” This was “based on the Unified Lebanese Vision for the Palestinian Refugees Affairs in Lebanon document, which includes the right to work.”