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Sweden is enjoying the flowers and Israel is knee-deep in the sea

24-8-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico: Russia tries to enter the oil market through the back door

Russia plans to use Iran as a backdoor to circumvent international sanctions over Ukraine if Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers comes back into force, Western diplomats say.

Moscow dispatched teams of trade and finance officials as well as executives from Gazprom and other companies to Tehran in July following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the Iranian leadership to lay the groundwork for closer cooperation between the two countries.

In recent weeks, Iran also sent two official delegations to Moscow focused on energy and finance. Among the senior officials in attendance were Iranian central bank chief Ali Saleh Abadi, Deputy Economy Minister Ali Fekri, and the head of the Iranian legislature's economy committee, Mohammad Reza Pour Ebrahimi. The Iranians spent several days meeting with their counterparts and private sector executives, according to the diplomats.

The principal attraction of Iran is that it provides a backup route to sell sanctioned Russian crude oil — the Kremlin's chief source of hard currency.

Russian oil exports face an almost total embargo from EU countries from December, but if an international nuclear accord is struck with Iran, that would provide a perfectly timed Plan B for Putin. Under what traders call a "swap" arrangement, Iran could import Russian crude to its northern Caspian coast and then sell equivalent amounts of crude on Russia's behalf in Iranian tankers leaving from the Persian Gulf. Iran would refine the Russian oil to sate its own ravenous domestic demand while, thanks to the nuclear pact, the Iranian oil exported from the south would be exempted from sanctions.

In addition, Iran could eventually use its fleet of tankers, once freed from sanctions, to pick up Russian oil in ports outside the Caspian.

This get-out-of-jail-free card depends on whether the atomic deal, under which Iran would limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, is renewed.

Many diplomats involved in the talks say a deal is close, though neither the U.S. nor Iran has accepted the EU's latest proposal.

Among the proposal's most vocal supporters is Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's ambassador to Vienna-based international organizations, including the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

This week, Ulyanov praised what he called Iran's "quite reasonable drafting suggestions" to the EU's proposal.

"Let’s hope that consideration of these proposals will not take long time in Washington," tweeted Ulyanov, who has attracted censure in recent months for his often unhinged social media posts about Ukraine.

In a sign of the importance now being accorded to Tehran, Putin's visit to Iran in July was his first to a country outside the former Soviet Union since the outbreak of the war. As a gesture of goodwill, Tehran and Moscow used the occasion to announce a memorandum of understanding on $40 billion-worth of joint projects, particularly aimed at developing gas reserves in the Persian Gulf and producing high-value liquefied natural gas.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has left little doubt that swaps are high on the priority list.

"We receive oil from Russia and Kazakhstan via the Caspian Sea to use it for domestic consumption and then we deliver oil in the same quantity to their customers in the south," he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency shortly after Putin's trip to Iran.

“Iran is a good partner in this endeavor,” one of the Western diplomats said. “Russia has a difficulty and Iran has a capability.”

In addition to the attractions of energy cooperation, several diplomats have noted that Moscow is also looking broadly across Central Asia, Iran and Turkey to find loopholes around restrictions on goods' imports. Sanctions are dramatically squeezing Russia's ability to rebuild its shattered military hardware as Moscow struggles to find vital imports, ranging from microchips to vehicle components, so it needs new supply lines.

Russia is well aware that Iran has a long pedigree in finding such alternatives.

Even as years of sanctions have hobbled Iran’s economy, Tehran has proven adept at finding ways to subvert controls, primarily by turning to China and other Asian partners.

Russia is eager to tap into that expertise and is betting that Iran would face few consequences for cooperating with Moscow because Western capitals would be at pains not to endanger a freshly reenacted nuclear accord.

That might be one reason why the U.S. has been slow to comment on, much less accept the EU's latest compromise proposal. Washington has been cautioning China against arming Russia as it wages war on Ukraine. Yet Iran is already preparing to deliver armed drones to Russia. If Washington agrees to resuscitate the nuclear deal, it would risk opening the door to an unrestricted flow of weapons from Iran to Russia.

The Guardian: Trump unwittingly confirmed FBI suspicions

Donald Trump appeared to concede in his court filing surrounding the seizure of materials from his Florida resort that he unlawfully retained official government documents, as the former president argued that some of the documents collected by the FBI could be subject to executive privilege.

Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The motion submitted on Monday by the former president’s lawyers argued that a court should appoint a so-called special master to separate out and determine what materials the justice department can review as evidence due to privilege issues.

But the argument from Trump that some of the documents are subject to executive privilege protections indicates that those documents are official records that he is not authorized to keep and should have turned over to the National Archives at the end of the administration.

The motion, in that regard, appeared to concede that Trump violated one of the criminal statutes listed on the warrant used by the FBI to search the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort – 18 USC 2071 – concerning the unlawful removal of government records.

“If he’s acknowledging that he’s in possession of documents that would have any colorable claim of executive privilege, those are by definition presidential records and belong at the National Archives,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent and former associate dean at Yale Law School.

“And so it’s not clear that executive privilege would even be relevant to the particular crime he’s being investigated for and yet in this filing, he basically admits that he is in possession of them, which is what the government is trying to establish,” Rangappa said.

A person directly involved in Trump’s legal defense noted – repeating parts in the filing – that the Presidential Records Act had no enforcement mechanism, even as they conceded that the justice department might pursue the privilege argument as a tacit admission.

Trump’s motion could throw up additional challenges for the former president, with additional passages in the filing laying out a months-long battle by the justice department to recover certain records in a pattern of interactions that could be construed as obstruction of justice.

The search warrant for Mar-a-Lago listed obstruction for the statutes potentially violated, though it was not clear whether that was obstruction of the investigation into the very retrieval of government documents from Mar-a-Lago or for another, separate investigation.

Yet the section in Trump’s motion titled “President Donald J Trump’s Voluntary Assistance” detailed the multiple steps the justice department took to initially retrieve 15 boxes in January, additional materials in June, and then 26 boxes when the FBI conducted its search.

The filing discussed how Trump returned the 15 boxes to the National Archives, and then – one day after the National Archives told Trump’s lawyers that those boxes contained classified documents – “accepted service of a grand jury subpoena” for additional documents with classification markings.

But despite taking custody of documents responsive to the subpoena, the justice department learned there may have been additional documents marked as classified, and issued a subpoena on 22 June demanding security camera footage of the hallway outside where the materials were being stored.

That subpoena for security tapes, as well as a subsequent subpoena for CCTV footage of that area from just before the FBI search on 8 August, suggests the justice department did not think Trump was being entirely truthful or forthcoming in his interactions with the investigation.

Those suspicions were well-founded: when the government retrieved materials from Mar-a-Lago on that second collection in June, Trump’s custodian of records attested they had given back documents responsive to the subpoena – only for the FBI to retrieve more boxes of classified materials.

AP: Sweden's nationalist party has replaced the torch with a flower and is rushing to power

The longtime leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrats says he’s hoping for a stronger role as a “blow torch” in Swedish politics after a parliamentary election next month even if he doesn’t get a seat in the next government.

Jimmie Akesson, who for almost two decades has sought to move his party from the far-right fringe toward the mainstream, has joined forces with a center-right opposition bloc in a bid to unseat the Social Democratic minority government led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

Akesson’s party already has had a significant impact on politics in Sweden. Both the center-left government and the opposition in recent years have adopted tougher stances on crime and immigration — core issues for the Sweden Democrats.

“Fundamentally, it is a good thing. We want to change society. We want to make things better. So we welcome when other parties adopt our policies,” Akesson, 43, told The Associated Press after a campaign speech Monday in the southern city of Helsingborg.

Because of its far-right roots, Akesson’s party was treated as a pariah by all other parties when it first entered parliament in 2010. The Sweden Democrats were seen as a threat to fundamental values in Swedish society, including tolerance toward asylum-seekers from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa.

But the debate on migration has shifted amid growing concerns about how well some immigrants are integrating, increasingly segregated cities and a rise in gang violence.

Polls show the the opposition neck-and-neck with a center-left bloc led by the Social Democrats. The Sweden Democrats are polling around 18%-19%, slightly better than the party’s 2018 election result of 17.5% of the vote.

Akesson told the AP that while he would prefer to be in government, he’s not at this stage demanding Cabinet seats if the center-right opposition win the election — as long as he can wield influence from the outside as a “blow torch, a watchdog that makes sure that they actually carry through” on their promises.

His party, which says it rejects fascism and Nazism, recently published a study into the roots of the Sweden Democrats. Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed the author was a party member. Nonetheless, the investigation confirmed that several of the party’s founders in the 1980s had links to fascist and neo-Nazi movements.

“Those who founded our party are no longer taking part,” he told the AP. “Most of them disappeared already after one or two years. So the Sweden Democrats today is something different from what was founded about 30 years ago.”

Akesson joined the Sweden Democrats in the mid-’90s and took over as party leader in 2005. He softened the party’s image, changed its official logo from a torch to a flower and expelled the most radical members.

Jimmie Akesson
Photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

But critics say the party’s roots shine through in the rhetoric of its top officials. Social Democratic and center-right officials criticized the party’s spokesman on criminal justice issues, Tobias Andersson, last week for a tweet regarding the Sweden Democrats’ campaign advertisement on the Stockholm subway.

Posting a picture of a train car covered in the party logo, Andersson wrote:

“Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul.”

Andersson refused to apologize for the tweet, saying it was mocking those who were offended by the party’s campaign posters. Social Democratic Justice Minister Morgan Johansson responded that the tweet showed the true nature of the group that center-right parties were trying to form a government with.

CNN: Israel will fill the Sea of Galilee to the brim

Despite its name, the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel is actually a freshwater lake, and it's one that has sustained life for millennia. Even today, the lake irrigates vineyards and local farms that grow everything from green vegetables to wheat and tangerines. Its archeology, hot springs and hiking trails bring tourism and livelihoods for local communities.

But this place of religious pilgrimage — where the New Testament says many of Jesus' miracles were performed — is facing a bleak future.

The climate crisis is causing huge fluctuations in the lake's water levels. Now it happens to be fairly full, but just five years ago, it hit a record low.

Climate change and unsustainable water management are leaving lakes dried up all over the Middle East and beyond, but the Israeli government is hopeful it has a solution: It plans to pump water from the Mediterranean sea, take the salt out of it and send it across the country to top up the lake when needed.

It's a dramatic change for the Sea of Galilee, called the Kinneret in Hebrew, which once pumped out nearly all of Israel's drinkable water. The water will now flow in the opposition direction.

Israel has plenty of expertise in desalination. As a water-insecure nation, it has for more than two decades been taking seawater from the Mediterranean and treating it through a process called reverse osmosis, essentially taking the salt out of the water to make it drinkable.

It's a process that other parts of the world, including California, have turned to in times of drought, but in Israel, it's an everyday reality. Five desalination plants along the coast now provide nearly all the tap water for the country's 9.2 million people.

One problem is that these plants tend to run on natural gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to the climate crisis, which only worsens the extreme weather that is causing the lake's water levels to fluctuate in the first place. But in time, as grids transition to greener energy sources, Israel's solution may become more attractive.

Israel has a long standing agreement with Jordan to sell tens of millions of cubic meters of water annually to the kingdom. In 2021, the two countries signed a new agreement where Jordan would receive 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water a year from Israel — about 20% of Jordan's water needs — in return for solar energy to help power Israel's electric grid. Emirati companies would build 600 solar power plants in Jordan to generate the energy.

Within months, the new $264 million pipeline is expected to be functional, and will be able to move 120 million square meters of water per year, but will only pump to the lake when necessary.

The need to do things radically differently hit home during the most recent, five-year drought, which ended in 2018. Despite a ban on pumping water from the lake, water levels here still reached a record low. But it's also what's to come with the worsening climate crisis that has pushed Israel's water authority to intervene now.

"They looked into the future climate change, and what's going to happen [with] rainfall in this area, and also looked at the increase in population and projected increase in demand of water," Gideon Gal, senior scientist and head of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, told CNN. "And they realized that 30, 40 years from now, there's going to be a serious problem in maintaining [water] levels in the lake, and maintaining water quality unless something is done."

But that something had never been done before. Even if salt is removed, the makeup of the water is also different in other ways, Gal said.

"We'll be bringing things to the lake that may not exist naturally."

But so far, Gal says their experiments show the new water won't cause a huge impact on existing species. In fact, it may even help the lake combat the effects of climate change by causing a higher rate of water turnover, which helps prevent too much bacterial growth, and could help cool the water's temperatures.

Even with the potential benefits, Gal said he wished the lake didn't need any human intervention.

"But given what we think we know about climate change, and what's going to happen in the lake," Gal said. "The risk of introducing desalinated water is a risk that is worthwhile taking."

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva