Major Powers, Except US, Try to Keep Iran Nuclear Deal Alive

Nations that struck the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, except for the United States, meet on Monday in what many diplomats fear may prove a quixotic effort to keep the agreement alive after U.S. sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports resume in November.

Ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran will gather in New York at 8 p.m. EDT on Monday (0000 GMT Tuesday) to grapple with U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the deal and restore the full force of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Their delicate, and perhaps unrealistic, task is to build a case for Tehran to respect the deal’s limits on its nuclear program even though Washington has pulled out, depriving Iran of many of the economic benefits it was promised.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “needs arguments to defend the deal in the face of the radicals. He needs us to give him ammunition,” said a senior European diplomat, referring to Iranian hard-liners who oppose the agreement.

“We are trying to give him ammunition, but what we can do, to be honest, is limited,” the diplomat added.

The crux of the deal, negotiated over almost two years by the Obama administration, was that Iran would restrain its nuclear program in return for the relaxation of sanctions that had crippled its economy. Trump considered it flawed because it did not include curbs on ballistic missiles or regional activity.

The United States began reimposing economic sanctions this summer and the most draconian measures, which seek to force Iran’s major customers to stop buying its oil, resume Nov. 5.

Their impending return has contributed to a slide in Iran’s currency. The rial has lost about two-thirds of its value this year, hitting a record low against the U.S. dollar this month.

The European Union has implemented a law to shield European companies from U.S. sanctions. Still, there are limits to what it can do to counter the oil sanctions, under which Washington can cut off from the U.S. financial system any bank that facilitates an oil transaction with Iran.

‘Hurt them more than us’

Many European companies are withdrawing or have withdrawn from Iran because of U.S. sanctions that could cut them off from the American market if they stay.

Iran believes the United States acted in bad faith by withdrawing from the deal even as Tehran has adhered to its terms and has rejected U.S. overtures to meet.

The most recent confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, found Iran had stayed within the main limitations imposed under the deal, whose formal name is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have begun arguing that if the Europeans cannot preserve trade with Iran, perhaps Tehran should reduce, but not eliminate, its compliance with the accord.

On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted as telling Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that Iran could “reduce its implementation” and possibly increase uranium enrichment activities if the deal was jeopardized by “the actions of the Americans and the passivity of the Europeans.”

European diplomats wish to avoid this. Hoping to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check, they have told Tehran that if it stops carrying out the deal to the letter, they will have no choice but to restore their own sanctions.

“They keep telling us the situation is horrible, they are going to leave the accord or just keep partially implementing the deal. It’s the same old music, but for now they continue to implement the JCPOA,” said a second senior European diplomat.

“We [are] warning them that if they were to pull out it would hurt them more than us,” he added.

 

 

Refugee, Migrant Children Face Dire Conditions on Greek Islands

More than 7,000 refugee and migrant children are living under horrible, unsanitary conditions on the Greek islands, the U.N. children’s fund reports. It says more than 850 children, on average, make the dangerous sea journey to Greece every month only to end up in facilities that are congested and lacking all basic necessities.

UNICEF’s country coordinator in Greece, Lucio Melandri, says he was appalled by what he saw on a recent visit to centers on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, where he met refugee children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

“The vast majority of the children are deeply traumatized,” Melandri said. “Many have lived through war and they have had to flee their homes. They have survived, but now find themselves living in horrible conditions with no end in sight. For many children, they simply cannot cope.” 

Melandri says housing on the islands is unacceptable, noting that the Moria Center on Lesbos hosts nearly 9,000 people in a facility meant for 3,000. In addition, he says the center on Samos was built for 650 people, but houses 4,000. He says staff is overwhelmed and services in the centers could collapse in the coming winter months.

All refugees and migrants living in the centers, especially children, must be transferred to the mainland without further delay, according to UNICEF. It says these vulnerable people must be given adequate accommodation, protection, health care and other basic services.

Lawyer: Ukraine President Suing BBC for Libel

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko is suing British broadcaster BBC for libel over an article that said Kyiv paid $400,000 to secure a meeting with US leader Donald Trump last year.

Poroshenko issued the libel claim, seen by AFP, over an article published in May this year that said Kyiv paid Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen a “secret payment of at least $400,000” to “fix talks” between Poroshenko and Trump in the White House in June 2017.

The claim, filed through a British law firm, says the news story damaged Poroshenko’s “political and business” reputation and caused him “substantial distress and embarrassment”.

It added that the allegation of “serious corruption” was especially damaging because of Poroshenko’s “promotion of a number of anti-corruption measures in Ukraine”.

A spokesman for the BBC told AFP that it “cannot comment on this ongoing case”.

The article, which was also used in a televised report, was based on “sources in Kyiv close to those involved”.

It said a “high ranking Ukrainian intelligence officer” told the BBC the payment was made as Kyiv’s embassy in Washington “could get Poroshenko little more than a brief photo-op with Trump”.

Poroshenko met with Trump in the White House in June 2017.

There was speculation ahead of the meeting that Trump would refuse to meet the Ukrainian leader.

Washington did not announce the sit-down in advance — as is customary — and when it was described, the White House called it a “drop-in” with the US president.

For three years, ties between Washington and Kyiv have been dominated by efforts to contain a destabilising Russia-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The crisis has left 10,000 dead and heightened tensions between the West and the Kremlin.

Kyiv has been concerned by Trump often appearing reluctant to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to solve the crisis.

Ukrainians are scheduled to go to polls to elect a president next March.

Poroshenko, who took office in 2014, is widely expected to run but has not yet made an official announcement.

Corruption was among the top reasons that prompted Ukrainians to take to the streets and oust a Kremlin-backed regime in early 2014.

But Ukrainian and Western observers have repeatedly questioned pro-Western Poroshenko’s resolve to reform the country’s kleptocratic system.

US Demands Freedom for NASA Scientist Imprisoned in Turkey

The Trump administration on Thursday thanked Turkey for its reduced sentence for an imprisoned U.S. scientist but continued to demand his immediate release.

The State Department said there was no “credible evidence” in Turkey’s case against NASA scientist Serkan Golge.

Turkey sentenced Golge to 7½ years in prison in February on charges of belonging to an outlawed group that Turkey blames for attempting a coup that failed in 2016. The verdict was appealed. A court in Adana threw out the conviction, ruled instead that Golge had aided the group, and reduced the sentence to five years.

Golge’s lawyers said they would appeal his case again to a higher court.

Golge is a research scientist with the U.S. space agency. He and his family were visiting his native Turkey in 2016 when the coup attempt was carried out.

He was swept up in the mass arrests of tens of thousands of people suspected of playing a part in trying to overthrow the Turkish government.

Golge insists he is innocent. His wife says that he was arrested because he is an American citizen and that Turkey is holding him hostage.

The Golge case and that of another jailed U.S. citizen accused of participating in the failed coup, clergyman Andrew Brunson, have caused tension between the United States and Turkey.

EU Envisions New Joint Border Force

An ambitious plan for a European Union Border and Coast Guard force was unveiled at a special meeting of the European Council in Austria this week.

European Commission officials have told VOA that they want the project approved before European elections next May, in which immigration is expected to be a central issue.

The project is being pushed by the EU’s current rotating president, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who used the summit to criticize southern European countries for failing to fully register immigrants entering through their borders. He said that EU officials who didn’t work directly for any state might be less susceptible to “distractions.”    

While officials meeting in Austria doubt that the border force plan will go into effect with the speed and reach suggested by the European Commission, a senior Spanish diplomat says that EU leaders “have to give the impression of advancing on immigration control and that some steps will be taken towards creating of a joint border force as long as it’s flexible and complimentary to member states.” 

Long-standing suggestions for a joint border force have gained urgency recently as differences on dealing with the ongoing influx of immigrants threatens to divide the EU and generate support for populist and nationalist politicians running on anti-immigrant planks.

Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell said this week that the future of European integration rests on developing a joint policy on immigration. Forming a border force to give teeth to the EU’s understaffed and underfunded border control agency would further the goal, according to European Commission president Jean Claude Junker.

He has asked for $1.5 billion to be budgeted over the next two years to reinforce Europe’s main border control agency FRONTEX with a standing force of 10,000 guards capable of responding to new emergencies. 

Based in the Polish capital Warsaw, FRONTEX has until now operated as a coordinating and information exchange mechanism between European security services. Its capacity to engage in prolonged field operations is limited by its dependence on voluntary contributions from individual government.

Junker has warned of growing migration pressures from Africa, which, he said, could soon hold 25 percent of the planet’s population. EU analysts also fear a new flood of refugees from Syria as the Assad regime threatens an offensive against the last major rebel stronghold bordering Turkey.

“I want a standing corps of 10,000 in place by 2020 ready to support the over 100,000 national border guards in their difficult tasks. We need to establish a genuine, efficient EU border guard — in the true sense of the word. For this to happen, we also need equipment. We need more planes, more vessels, more vehicles,” Junker recently told the European parliament.

A legislative proposal issued on Sept. 12 by the European Commission projects an eventual budget of $15 billion over seven years beginning in 2021, to establish a network of surveillance centers, frontier check points as well as permanent sea, air and land patrols which would be armed and equipped with latest technology. 

The plan contemplates “dynamic” border protection by which the EU force would be deployed and moved around “hot spots” as requested by member states, as well as exercising a degree of “executive powers” in responding to emergencies “autonomously.”

The force would also be tasked with the removal of migrants who do not qualify for EU protection under existing international treaties, according to the European Commission briefing presented at this week’s summit.

Some EU governments such as Italy have been seeking the creation of “regional platforms” in third countries for returning migrants. 

Officials tell VOA that while setting up such facilities is not contemplated as a border force mission, the return of immigrants to countries outside Europe is the type of task which an EU unit might perform more effectively than single governments.

Pressures for a border force follow a series of immigration crises over the past year which have seriously tested European unity. In his speech before the European parliament last week, Junker referred to an episode in which Italy defied the EU by refusing entry to a ship ferrying African migrants.

He blamed the incident on a lack of mutual “solidarity” which could have been resolved with a common coast guard to direct the ship.

Spain expelled 166 African migrants who forced their way through border fences with Morocco over the protests by EU officials while Austria and Hungary have similarly engaged in unilateral expulsions and closed their borders in defiance of the EU Shengen treaty.

Distrust of Europe’s ability to police frontiers was also a factor in Britain’s decision to “Brexit” from the EU through a referendum two years ago.

An EU immigration expert working in Spain’s foreign ministry has told the VOA that creation of an EU Border and Coast Guard will probably gain support in a series of meetings between interior and justice ministers over the next few months.

But the proposal put forward by Junker is likely to undergo major changes before it goes up for a vote before the European parliament, according to the source.

A summit between EU, Arab and African governments to further cooperation on immigration is being held in February according to European Commissions’ high representative for foreign affairs and security, Federica Mogherini.

An EU force composed of security units from different member states is already operating in the Sahel region of northern Africa. 

Marine Le Pen Ordered to Take Psychiatric Evaluation

French far-right politician Marine Le Pen has been ordered to undergo psychiatric testing after tweeting graphic images of Islamic State executions, the leader of France’s National Rally party revealed Thursday.

“I thought I had experienced everything, but no! For having denounced the horrors of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the terror organization), the court has ordered me to undergo a psychiatric evaluation,” Le Pen wrote on Twitter.

The court order, which Le Pen also tweeted, was dated to Sept. 11. The images that led to to the order were originally posted in December 2015, weeks after coordinated terrorist attacks killed 130 across Paris on Nov. 13. 

Le Pen said she originally tweeted the images after a journalist compared her National Rally party, then called the National Front, to the Islamic State. Among them were photos of the body of James Foley, an American journalist who was beheaded by the Islamic State in 2014 after being captured in Syria. Le Pen later deleted that tweet at the request of Foley’s family.

Le Pen was charged by authorities for spreading messages that “incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity,” and had her parliamentary immunity stripped in 2017 after an investigation. If Le Pen is found guilty, she could face up to three years in prison and fine of roughly $87,000.

Le Pen later said she would skip the test. “I’d like to see how the judge would try and force me do it,” she told reporters.

Le Pen’s National Rally is noted for its populist policies and anti-immigration sentiment. She lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron last year.

UN Official: Buffer Zone in Syria’s Idlib Province Averts War for Now

A Russian-Turkish agreement to create a demilitarized buffer zone between the Syrian army and rebels inside Syria’s northern Idlib province has averted a war for now, according to a senior United Nations official.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to set aside a large area along the border between Turkey and Idlib to potentially protect some 3 million civilians from attack. Turkey already shelters more than 3 million Syrian refugees and fears a massive exodus into its territory if Idlib were under attack.

Jan Egeland, a senior adviser of the U.N. special envoy for Syria, says he was informed of the agreement’s details during a meeting of a U.N.-backed task force on humanitarian access in Syria. Egeland says he feels relieved the countdown to war was stopped at the “11th hour.”

Egeland says the threatened military onslaught by Syrian and Russian forces to retake Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria, would have risked the lives of the civilians, including one million children. 

He says the Russian-Turkish agreement bought more time for diplomats and politicians to protect civilians inside the buffer zone and avert a catastrophic humanitarian disaster.

“What I understand is that the so-called war on terror is not called off,” Egeland said. “On the contrary, there will be in the future, air raids against the listed organizations. There will also be fighting between armed groups, armed actors and the so-called terrorists, the so-called radicals.” 

Under the deal, Egeland says only al-Nusra and other U.N.-listed terrorist groups can be attacked. These groups, which number about 10,000, will be moved outside the buffer zone, he says, adding that other “more moderate fighters” supported by Turkey will not be attacked.

Egeland warns that the terrorist groups will be scattered in different parts of Idlib, which is cause for alarm. Many of the groups vow to fight to the end, he says, but efforts will be made to reach out to them to try to get them not to fight to the last fighter and not to fight to the last civilian in their areas.

Turkey Looks to Germany for Help on Deepening Financial Distress

Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak heads to Berlin Friday to meet with his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, as Ankara struggles against an emerging financial crisis.  Turkey’s currency fell 40 percent this year and discussions on potential financial support from Berlin are expected to be on the agenda.

Albayrak, speaking in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace Thursday, unveiled his much-vaunted medium-term economic plan. He promised to curb debt-fueled growth, enforce financial austerity and undergo a reshaping into the “value-added” economy investors have been clamoring for for years.

The Turkish lira surged before Albayrak’s speech, fueled by rising expectations. However, once delivered, the currency fell sharply with investors criticizing the plan for lack of details, along with concerns over the exposure of Turkish banks to foreign debt.

 

The Turkish corporate sector is estimated to owe over $100 billion in foreign denominated debt in the next 12 months.

“We are talking of a five or six percent drop in the economy, to pay off debt by contracting imports and expanding exports at any cost,” analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said. “It’s going to be extremely painful, really painful. The IMF(International Monetary Fund) can take some of the pain.”

During Turkey’s economic crises in the 1990s through to the early 2000s the country depended on bailouts from the IMF. However Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly ruled out IMF support.

“There is a stigma attached to the IMF given that the government has repeatedly said that one of its biggest achievements was to end Turkey’s dependence on the IMF, “ said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research group Edam.  “So for these reasons Erdogan does not want to return to the IMF for support. “

The IMF might be unwilling to provide funds to Turkey given the current animosity between Ankara and Washington, warns international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul.

 

“The bill that was passed in (the U.S.) Congress to ask American agencies to block multi-international economic institutions, to actually block any kind of loans or favorable terms for Turkey was a very significant and very hostile move,” Ozel said.

The bill Congress passed was in response to the ongoing detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges. Washington claims the allegations are baseless.  

Analysts point out while the United States does not have a veto on IMF funding decisions, Washington could delay or complicate any deal with Ankara.

 

The European Union and in particular Berlin, observers suggest, is seen by Ankara as a politically acceptable source of international financial support. “…That is certainly an idea that is being openly discussed in some of the European capitals, analyst Ulgen said.

“The EU could be an alternative to the IMF, but that is an open-ended question,” he added, “because we don’t have examples of the EU acting unilaterally. Even in past cases related to Greece, for instance, the EU was part of a consortium that also included the IMF.”

Analysts suggest Ankara is likely to be banking on its strategic importance. “Turkey plays an important role in keeping the refugee flow outside the EU. That is a starting point,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said.

Two years ago Ankara and Belgium signed a migration agreement that resulted in a big reduction in the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants a year that once entered the EU.

The continuation of the migrant deal, analyst Ulgen argues, is viewed as a necessity by Berlin.  “From the German perspective, there seems to be a fear that the economic instability in Turkey could end up affecting the overall political stability of the country so possible jeopardize Turkey’s ability to stand by its commitments on the refugee deal,” Ulgen said.

However, given any financial assistance to Turkey would likely be in the tens of billions of dollars, there is skepticism about whether Berlin and the rest of the EU would be prepared to act alone.

“Regarding the European funding, the indications are so far they would want an IMF involvement,” chief economist Inan Demir of financial services company Nomura International said.

“Even if there is no IMF involvement in the (financial support) package,” he added, “that funding would come with conditions similar to those that would come from the IMF.  I am very skeptical that those conditions would be acceptable to the Turkish government.”

Analysts suggest measures including ending Erdogan’s prestige mega-construction projects would likely be demanded in any financial assistance deal, along with calls for reform to ensure an independent judiciary, a concern of many foreign investors. The Turkish president has until now resisted such reforms.

 

EU Leaders Seek to Overcome Stumbling Blocks to Brexit Deal

European Union leaders have gathered in Salzburg, Austria, for an informal discussion of key issues, including the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc. Britain’s conservative government has lost a majority and with it the mandate for a so-called “hard Brexit,” in which Britain would leave the EU’s single market and customs union. It is now seeking a compromise. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Macedonian Court Rejects Bids to Scrap Name Referendum

Macedonia’s constitutional court has rejected two bids to declare illegal and unconstitutional the upcoming referendum on renaming the country “North Macedonia.”

The vote on Sept. 30 has been hailed by western officials as a major chance for the small Balkan country to launch the process of joining NATO and the European Union.

Judges voted 7-2 on Wednesday to reject the two bids, filed by the World Macedonian Congress, a Skopje-based diaspora group, and the small, left-wing Levitsa party.

Renaming Macedonia is a key element of a deal with neighboring Greece to end a decades-old dispute. Greece says Macedonia’s current name implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.

If the deal goes ahead, Greece will lift objections to Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.