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Press review: Iran raises nuke stakes and USAID plunges into crusade to malign Kremlin

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday, July 8


Media: Iran raises nuke deal stakes by increasing uranium enrichment

Russia insists that the United States should bear responsibility for its unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s (upper house) Foreign Affairs Committee, Senator Konstantin Kosachev told Izvestia on Monday. The senator stressed that should the United Nations Security Council start slapping sanctions on Iran for violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Moscow will demand that these measures must primarily target Washington. On July 7, Iran declared a new ultimatum and gave the Europeans another 60 days to start fulfilling the JCPOA. A source in the German Foreign Ministry told the paper that Germany, the United Kingdom and France were doing their utmost to launch the INSTEX special-purpose vehicle with Iran, as soon as possible, but so far, not a single payment has been carried out.

According to Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center specializing in nuclear non-proliferation, Iran’s key demand is to ensure free oil trade or the purchase of technologies from Europe. However, Europe is not ready to take any serious steps and violate US sanctions because most EU companies are private and the state cannot force them into trade with Iran, the expert explained.

The root cause of the current crisis is the relationship between Tehran and Washington, while the EU, Russia and China are deemed as unwanted players in this game, Leonid Isayev, a senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, told Vedomosti. According to the expert, Iran has many arguments not to make any concessions: Tehran was not the first to pull out of the deal and therefore it has strong positions in legal terms. "Certainly, Iran won’t sever all ties with the EU and will try to maintain normal relations. However, during this crisis, the Iranian leadership realized that Brussels is not an independent player and to a large extent, talks with it are a waste of time. Neither the EU nor Moscow will be able to give Iran any guarantees. Although they have made many populist calls for preserving the deal, they have not so far taken any real steps. Russian and European businesses are not ready to take risks and violate US sanctions for the sake of cooperation with Iran," the expert noted. Besides, from the very beginning, some members of the Iranian elite considered the JCPOA as a betrayal by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani because Tehran had been forced to make the biggest concessions. Therefore, there are neither external nor internal preconditions for a compromise with Europe, Isayev said.

Concession could be made only through direct talks with the United States, and both Tehran and Washington have made it clear that they are not ruling out such a scenario, but there will be "much tougher bargaining," according to the expert.


Kommersant: USAID to engage in propaganda blitz against Russia

Late last week, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) declared that it is launching a program "on countering malign Kremlin influence." The program’s goal is to help Russia’s neighboring states reduce their energy and economic dependence on Moscow, combat Russia’s "propaganda" and thwart cyber attacks. The Russian Foreign Ministry has described this document as "a voice from the past," which harshly contrasts with the constructive talks between the Russian and US presidents, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, in Osaka, Kommersant writes.

The document says the Kremlin’s strategy is aimed at using economic levers against Russia’s neighbors by taking advantage of their "historic dependence" on oil and gas supplies from Moscow. In its turn, the US is ready to provide Eastern European and the former Soviet Union states with financial assistance. One of the major points of the new program will be helping Washington’s partner states in joining "well-functioning local and regional energy markets." USAID has been carrying out this effort in Ukraine and Moldova and with the agency’s support, Kiev has been fulfilling a project on connecting energy systems with supplies from Central European countries. Another important area will be providing assistance in creating political parties and groups of civil activists and training them how to combat corruption. The paper notes that USAID had ceased its operations in Russia in autumn 2012 during Barack Obama’s presidency after a failed reset in Russian-US ties, as relations went down the tubes. Russia’s authorities said USAID’s activities were in contrast with the declared goals.

Vladimir Batyuk, Chief Research Associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for the US and Canadian Studies, told Kommersant that the new document will resonate amid the 2020 US presidential election campaign, which has been heating up. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly shown his readiness to cut expenses outside the US, which directly do not result in solving domestic problems. However, USAID’s strategy actually runs counter to Trump’s logic, the expert noted. During the presidential race, budget spending will inevitably emerge as an issue and Trump will have to again defend his position. "Meanwhile the key goal of the USAID report is to keep the confrontational model of relations with Russia for years to come regardless of who will be the next US president," the expert stressed.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US hybrid war against Syria, Iran may morph into major regional clash

The UK Royal Marines’ seizure of Grace 1, an Iranian supertanker carrying oil last week, was most likely a move, which had been thoroughly engineered by both London and Washington, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. It’s no coincidence that US National Security Adviser John Bolton was one of the first to react to the tanker’s seizure, describing it as "excellent news." According to him, the tanker was seized over violating the EU’s sanctions against Syria. Earlier, despite all sanctions, tankers had delivered oil from Iran and other countries to Syria through the Strait of Gibraltar without facing any hurdles, the paper notes.

Apparently, a turning point has dawned, and the US and its close allies have decided to crank up maximum pressure on Iran and Syria. The July 4 incident in the Strait of Gibraltar can be considered as a new stage of a hybrid war waged against Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Iranian leadership. Any military action by Tehran in response may spiral into real combat actions and even into a massive war in the Middle East, the paper warns. Iranian media claim that a Russian company owns the vessel carrying Iranian oil, although there is no official evidence of the fact.

Experts also believe that the June 22 explosions at five underwater pipelines off the coast of Banias in northwestern Syria had been plotted and carried out by a special ops unit of a major military power opposing Assad. So far, it is unclear whether the damaged pipelines have resumed operations, but it is evident that Syria is facing an energy crisis, the paper says.

"It seems to me that it’s high time Russia replaced Iran on the Syrian hydrocarbons market. The US and its allies are unlikely to impose a ban on Russian oil tankers heading to Syria," military expert Col. Shamil Gareyev told the paper. "Besides, Assad should be encouraged to step up domestic Syrian dialogue in order to handle the country’s political problems. Then, the US and other countries won’t have any arguments against the current Syrian regime."


Kommersant: Zelensky struggles to win support of Donbass voters

The election campaign in Ukraine has come to a turning point: two weeks ahead of the parliamentary polls the president’s front-running Servant of the People party and the pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life are struggling to amass votes in the southeast. President Vladimir Zelensky arrived in the Lugansk Region on Sunday accompanied by European Council President Donald Tusk, visiting the contact line with the LPR for the first time, Kommersant writes.

The president’s trip to the Kiev-controlled territory of the Lugansk Region came amid new reports about ceasefire violations. The LPR accused the 54th brigade of Ukraine’s armed forces of shelling a patrol of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission on the contact line near Zolotoye. Despite the reports, Zelensky stated that his trip’s major goal was to achieve peace and a settlement in the region.

The timing of Zelensky’s visit to Donbass coincided with the presidential party’s falling approval rating, the paper notes. However, no one in Kiev doubts that the Servant of the People party will call the shots in the new coalition in the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. The president’s party remains the frontrunner in the race, outperforming its closest rival from the Opposition Platform-For Life party by nearly 13%.

Zelensky’s Donbass tour shows that the presidential team is pinning great hopes on winning the southeast’s support, which is considered to be the stronghold of his party’s closest rival. In order to secure the votes of Donbass’ citizens, Zelensky even made a number of appointments, which were opposed by another political camp, the nationalists, the paper says.

According to Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko, besides the Servant of the People party, the new ruling coalition will also include the All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" party led by former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and the new Voice party of famous Ukrainian musician and lead vocalist of Okean Elzy rock band Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.


Izvestia: IMF Chief Lagarde poised to become ECB’s boss

Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund, is highly likely to get the post of the new head of the European Central Bank (ECB). She will become the first woman assuming this position and more importantly, the first chief without any work experience in the banking industry, Izvestia writes. For Lagarde - a lawyer by training - this may become both a curse and a blessing. After her nomination was announced, financial markets were upbeat about the news. In her earlier interview with The Guardian, Lagarde said: "I've studied a bit of economics, but I'm not a super-duper economist."

The position of the ECB chief is probably the most important in the European Union. The Eurozone is unique because while the member-states define fiscal and tax policy, they cannot control money and credit policy, which is subordinated to the single institution. This seriously complicates governance and coordinating steps, the paper notes. In theory, central banks in many countries are separated from their governments, but in fact, this is the case only in the EU and this leads to a constant conflict of interests. So, the ECB boss should be not only an experienced financier but also a strong politician.

Earlier, the IMF head had called repeatedly for a milder monetary policy and also supported negative refinancing interest rates. So, Lagarde is determined not only to continue pursuing but also develop the ECB’s current policy, and this may have a positive influence on the markets, the paper explained.

Given that the global cycle of the economic growth is nearing its end, the goal of maintaining economic stability for the ECB will be a tough nut to crack and will require special non-traditional steps and approaches. The fact that the new boss lacks experience in the financial sphere looks like a reason for both concern and hope, according to the paper.


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