01/16/20

Daily Gas Pump Prices are Based on the Strait of Hormuz

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

Experts said Iranian officials are trying to demonstrate to the U.S. and its allies that the Islamic Republic is able to push back and gain leverage against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, which intensified after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the landmark nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions, making it difficult for Iran to export oil, the foundation of the country’s economy.

China, Russia and leading Western European countries have sought ways around the U.S. sanctions, but it has been difficult to bypass them.

“The message that Iran is sending is that it is capable of making international waters unsafe not just for the U.S., but for international trade,” said Reza H. Akbari, a program manager and Iran expert at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

These are the reasons for oil tanker seizures and attacks by Iranian limpet mines.

Tensions between the West and Iran bubbled to a historic height in recent days after the assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and Tehran bombed two Iraqi bases that housed US troops.

They have sparked fears of wider US-Iran attacks in the greater region, which could take place in and around the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow body of water linking the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, which feeds into the Arabian Sea and the rest of the world.

strait of hormuz jan 2020

A satellite image of marine traffic passing through the Strait of Hormuz as on January 9, 2020. MarineTraffic.com

While Iran’s leaders claim to have “concluded” their revenge for Soleimani’s death — and President Donald Trump appears to believe them — many regional experts and diplomatic sources say Iran could unleash other modes of attack, which include unleashing allied militias to disrupt the Middle East.

One strategy could include Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz, which would stop oil tanker traffic, disrupt global oil supply, and send prices shooting up.

Here’s what you need to know about this valuable strait.

Some 21 million barrels of crude and refined oil pass through the strait every day, the EIA said, citing 2018 statistics.

That’s about one-third of the world’s sea-traded oil, or $1.2 billion worth of oil a day, at current oil prices. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s crude exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz, meaning much of the oil-dependent economy’s wealth is situated there. Saudi state-backed oil tanker Bahri temporarily suspended its shipments through the strait after Iran’s missile strikes in Iran, the Financial Times reported.

Last June Iran shot down a US drone flying near the strait, and a month later a US warship — USS Boxer — also shot down an Iranian drone in the same area.

Shortly after Iran’s drone attack, President Donald Trump questioned the US’ presence in the region, and called on China, Japan, and other countries to protect their own ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump noted that much of China and Japan’s oil flow through the strait, and added: “So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation.”

While a large proportion — 76% — of oil flowing through the chokepoint does end up in Asian countries, the US still imports more than 30 million barrels of oil a month from countries in the Middle East, Business Insider has reported, citing the EIA.

That’s about $1.7 billion worth of oil, and 10% of the US’s total oil imports per month.

Iranian leaders, who have also vowed retaliation for the death of Soleimani, have threatened to close down the strait multiple times in the past.

If Iran followed through with these threats, it would likely cause a huge disruption to the global oil trade. As the strait is so narrow, any sort of interference in tanker traffic could decrease the world’s oil supply, and send prices shooting up.

Global oil prices have proven vulnerable to tensions between Iran and the West before. After the Trump administration said in April 2019 it would stop providing sanctions waivers to countries who purchase Iranian oil, prices rose to their highest level since November the year before, Axios reported.

How likely is Iran to shut down the strait?

Iran is more likely to disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz than to engage in an all-out conventional war with the US, which is much stronger militarily.

But doing so comes with high costs to Iran.

To close down the entire strait, Iran would have to place at least 1,000 mines with submarines and surface craft along the chokepoint, security researcher Caitlin Talmadge posited in a 2009 MIT study. Such an effort could take weeks, the study added. (taken in part from here)

01/16/20

U.S. Killed AQ Leader in a Taliban Stronghold

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

Asim Umar (1974/1976 – 23 September 2019) was an Indian militant and the leader of alQaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. AlQaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the creation of AQIS and introduced Asim Umar as its leader in a video posted online in September 2014.

Though the Taliban or al-Qaeda has not given an official confirmation of their own, the Afghan government has released pictures and confirmed his death alongside six other AQIS operatives in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation (Al Jazeera, October 8).

Umar was killed in an Afghan Taliban hideout in Musa Qila district, a known Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. The circumstances are indicative of long-running Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda ties and their collaboration in the Afghan insurgency. The idea that the Taliban would deny a safe haven to foreign fighters in Afghanistan after reaching a peace deal with the United States, as was suggested during negotiations, has been proven unlikely following Umar’s discovery in Taliban-held territory. More details here.

***

The U.S. Department of Defense suppressed a press release that would have announced the death of Asim Umar, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, because it “would complicate future negotiations with the Taliban,” military officials have told FDD’s Long War Journal.

The U.S. military killed Umar in the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan on Sept. 23, 2019. Umar was killed just two weeks after President Donald Trump canceled a possible deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. As part of that accord, the U.S. was willing to accept the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances.

The Sept. 23 raid exposed the ongoing ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda’s branch in South Asia. Among the 17 people killed was Haji Mahmood, the Taliban’s military commander for the neighboring district of Naw Zad, which is also controlled by the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has claimed throughout “peace” negotiations that the Taliban would sever ties with al Qaeda. But Umar’s presence with the Taliban cast further doubt Khalilzad’s claim that the Taliban is truly willing to split with its longtime battlefield allies.

Umar was not the only al Qaeda operative killed in the raid. Raihan, Umar’s courier to Zawahiri; Faizani, the AQIS chief for Helmand and an ‘explosives expert;’ and Madani, Faizani’s deputy, also perished during the raid, which including intense airstrikes that killed more than a dozen civilians.

Umar’s wife was identified as one of six Pakistani women detained during the operation. Fourteen other “terrorists” were also captured, according to Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security.

The NDS confirmed Umar’s death on Oct. 8, 2019, and released photographs of Umar, both dead and alive. AQIS itself had previously obscured images of Umar, likely due to its concerns over operational security.

Al Qaeda and AQIS have not released a martyrdom statement confirming his death, but have not denied that he was killed. The Taliban, which has a vested interest in hiding its ties with al Qaeda (although it occasionally slips up) called the reports of his death “a part of enemy fabricated propaganda.”

Umar’s presence with the Taliban was “inconvenient”

The U.S. military was aware of Umar’s death and the Department of Defense was prepared to announce it a week after the statement by the NDS, military officials and officers who are familiar with the events told FDD’s Long War Journal on condition of anonymity.

A press release announcing Umar’s death was drafted and currently resides at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, military officials have confirmed. Yet, three months after OSD drafted the press release, it remains hidden from the public.

FDD’s Long War Journal has contacted the OSD several times over the past three months requesting comment on the press release, but has not received a response.

The U.S. military has suppressed the report of Umar’s death as “his presence with the Taliban during the late stage of talks would complicate future negotiations with the Taliban,” one defense official said.

“Asim Umar, his staff, his courier to [Al Qaeda emir Ayman] Zawahiri, and even his wife, were embedded with the Taliban, in the Taliban’s heartland,” a military officer said. “When you want to sell a split between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, these facts become inconvenient.”

01/16/20

Putin to Lead Russia for Life?

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

In his annual state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia shook up the country and its political class by calling for constitutional changes that would give him a new path to holding onto power after his current — and, in theory, last — term ends in 2024.

With that, the entire cabinet, led by a long-serving Putin ally, Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, abruptly resigned. The head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail V. Mishustin — a little-known but skilled technocrat — will become the next prime minister.

The spate of moves offers some clues about Mr. Putin’s plans and priorities, but also raises questions about what may lie ahead for the Russian president. Here are the answers to some of them.

Mr. Putin with Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev last year.

Mr. Putin with Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev last year. Credit…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock.

What is Putin doing?

Mr. Putin’s hold on power in Russia is unrivaled, built up over the last 20 years in his posts as president and prime minister.

But Russia’s Constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive terms. To maintain his grip on power, as he has hinted he intends to do, Mr. Putin needs to find a way to engineer a leadership transition that will allow that to happen.

To that end, it appears, he has proposed changes to the Constitution that would weaken the presidency while increasing the sway of the Parliament and the prime minister.

He said, for example, that the president should in the future be required to accept the prime minister’s cabinet appointments. This and other changes could give Mr. Putin more leeway to find a position in which he can maintain power without violating the Constitution.

What position will he hold?

That’s not entirely clear.

Mr. Putin could become prime minister again, taking advantage of the position’s expanded influence. Alternatively, some analysts have pointed to a leadership maneuver engineered by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longtime president of Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic.

In 2018, Mr. Nazarbayev increased the power of Kazakhstan’s Security Council and made himself its chairman for life. When he resigned from the presidency last year in favor of a handpicked successor, his position at the helm of the Security Council allowed him to hold on to key levers of power.

On Wednesday, offering few details, Mr. Putin dangled the possibility of a similar move in Russia. The State Council — currently an advisory body made up of the governors of Russia’s regions — should have its “status and role” fixed in the Constitution, he said.

That quickly raised speculation among Russian political analysts that a revamped State Council could become a vehicle for Mr. Putin to maintain power if he relinquishes the presidency, particularly over the military and foreign policy.

Why doesn’t he just seize power?

Despite Mr. Putin’s immense sway, he’d be taking a risk if he simply declared himself president for life.

Mr. Putin served two consecutive presidential terms from 2000 to 2008 and then became prime minister. His announcement in 2011 that he would seek the presidency again, followed by parliamentary elections widely seen as rigged, helped trigger Russia’s biggest street protests since the 1990s.

This time around, Mr. Putin looks determined to orchestrate his next move in a slow-motion fashion that’s less likely to produce a backlash. The changes to the Constitution he called for give him several options to hold on to power — while affording him as much as four years’ time to set his course.

Is he really worried about public opinion?

“Our society is clearly calling for change,” Mr. Putin said at the beginning of his speech on Wednesday.

Indeed, over the last year, Russia has seen its most vigorous street protests since the anti-Putin rallies of 2011 and 2012.

Polls show that Russians increasingly distrust pro-Kremlin TV channels and are getting their news on the Internet, which remains largely uncensored.

And the Kremlin’s appeal to patriotism — so effective after Mr. Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 — has lost its visceral power, overshadowed by Russia’s economic problems.

All of this means that the Kremlin is likely to portray the resignation on Wednesday of Mr. Medvedev and every cabinet minister as a sign that Mr. Putin has heard Russians’ demand for change.

While Russians do increasingly blame Mr. Putin for their ills, many more blame the bureaucrats below him. Mr. Putin’s approval rating has fallen to 68 percent from 82 percent in April 2018, an independent pollster, Levada, says. But Mr. Medvedev is in far worse shape, with an approval rating of 38 percent.

What about his new prime minister?

Mr. Putin’s choice of Mr. Mishustin seems to reflect his concerns about Russia’s declining standard of living, which has contributed to the spasms of unrest over the last year.

Mr. Mishustin is widely seen as one of Russia’s most effective technocrats. He has headed Russia’s Federal Tax Service since 2010, modernizing a notoriously ineffective and corrupt tax-collecting system. The Financial Times dubbed the computerized, real-time approach to taxation he developed as “the taxman of the future.”

In his early years as president, Mr. Putin built his popularity on soaring living standards, which coincided with a period of rising oil prices. But with lower oil prices and Western sanctions, those steady improvements are now a thing of the past. Disposable incomes are still effectively below what they were in 2013.

Mr. Putin also used his state-of-the-nation speech to make a raft of pledges to improve Russians’ daily lives. For example: free hot meals for all elementary school students from grades one through four.

Unlike Russia’s more prominent economic reformers, the 53-year-old Mr. Mishustin has no political base of his own, reducing the likelihood that he might use the powers of his new office to chip away at Mr. Putin’s authority.

Could he be loosening his grip?

Not at all.

In theory, at least, Russia’s system of governance echoes that of France — a powerful presidency checked by an independent judiciary, by parliament and by a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister with his own locus of authority.

But Mr. Putin has steadily subsumed the authority of all those institutions, often justifying crackdowns on political pluralism as necessary in the face of external threats. He reprised that language in his speech on Wednesday, signaling that no political thaw is in the offing.

“Russia can be and can remain Russia only as a sovereign state,” he said.

That was an allusion to Mr. Putin’s frequent charge the West is fomenting political opposition to undermine Russian sovereignty.

To drive home the point, Mr. Putin proposed a constitutional amendment that offered the day’s clearest statement of how he views his successor: Russia’s future president, Mr. Putin said, may not ever have had citizenship or permanent residency in another country.

01/16/20

Trump Signs the Caesar Act into Law

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

America has a short memory yet war atrocities continue in Syria. For those that were very skeptical about the use of chemical weapons used in Syria by the Assad regime, here is the truth. Meanwhile. the Assad regime remains in power due to assistance from Russia and Qassim Soleimani was the wartime, military advisor to Assad.

Image result for caesar's photos of syria

He was once a military photographer in Syria. For two years, he took pictures of the emaciated and mangled corpses left behind by Bashar al Assad’s interrogators. Then he fled to Europe with 55,000 digital images on flash drives hidden in his shoes.

Even members of Congress know him only as Caesar. When he spoke to them for the first time in 2014, he wore sunglasses and a bright blue windbreaker with the hood pulled over his head. No one recorded his voice or took pictures of his face. The Assad regime would assassinate him if it could.

Image result for caesar's photos of syria

Two days after Christmas, President Trump signed into law the Caesar Act, a tribute to the man whose photographs have proven the war crimes of the Assad regime beyond the shadow of a doubt. When the FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory examined Caesar’s work, it found no signs of manipulation.

The bodies in Caesar’s images bear a striking resemblance to the ones in photographs of concentration camps liberated from the Nazis. Fittingly, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has had a selection of Caesar’s images on display since 2015.

The purpose of the Caesar Act is to put unprecedented economic pressure on the Assad regime. The United States and European Union put some tough sanctions on Mr. Assad and his henchmen in the early days of the war in Syria, but enforcement has been partial.

Whereas existing U.S. sanctions prohibit Americans from doing business with the Assad regime, the Caesar Act authorizes sanctions on the citizens of any country who work with Mr. Assad. The act specifically targets the Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries that have kept the Syrian dictator in power.

Although Moscow and Tehran have secured Mr. Assad’s grip on Damascus and other major cities, the war in Syria is far from over. An estimated 3 million Syrians are now crowded into the northwestern province of Idlib, which remains under the control of a variety of rebel forces, including extremists with ties to al Qaeda. As usual, Mr. Assad and his allies are targeting civilians, not terrorists. Hospitals are especially popular targets.

Thus, the Caesar Act still serves a pressing need. Economic pressure is one of the few means of holding war criminals to account for their actions. Sanctions alone will not bring down the Assad regime, but in concert with diplomatic and military pressure they should be part of any sound strategy.

On Twitter, Mr. Trump has made very clear that his administration is on the side of the Iranian people against their tyrannical regime. He should be equally clear in his support for the people of Syria. One can certainly object that Mr. Trump’s concern for human rights is selective, yet when the president of the United States speaks, the world pays attention. When the world is watching, war criminals hesitate.

The United States is not at war with Mr. Assad, but a U.S.-led coalition now controls about a fourth of Syria, which was formerly part of the ISIS caliphate. Twice now, Mr. Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops only to reverse himself under intense pressure from Republicans in Congress. This wavering only emboldens Mr. Assad, who wants to take back the resource-rich areas under the coalition’s control.

In terms of economic pressure, aggressive enforcement of the Caesar Act should be the first priority. Syria remains dependent on illicit shipments of Iranian oil. The Treasury Department has become more aggressive in its pursuit of sanctions evaders, but tankers of Iranian oil are still getting through.

With Russian help, Syria is also trying to revive its phosphate industry, which generated more than $100 million per year of export revenue before the war. Reportedly, Lebanese companies are buying the phosphates before reselling them abroad, likely after processing the raw material into crop fertilizer.

One entity beyond the reach of the Caesar Act is the United Nations, whose humanitarian agencies have been so deferential to the Assad regime that their aid has effectively become a subsidy for Mr. Assad’s war effort. Independent human rights organizations have produced lengthy reports on this travesty year after year, but donor states have not demanded accountability.

This is one area where further congressional action could make a difference. If there is a second Caesar Act, it should condition U.S. funding for U.N. humanitarian work on verifiable reforms. European governments should impose similar conditions.

Caesar demonstrated extraordinary courage by patiently collecting evidence of Mr. Assad’s war crimes. He saw his friends and neighbors among the dead, but he could say nothing. Had his superiors discovered his plans, his corpse would have been the next one in a photograph.

What Caesar deserves is not just a law, but a sustained American commitment to human rights in Syria.

*** From Human Rights Watch: The 86-page report, “If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities,” lays out new evidence regarding the authenticity of what is known as the Caesar photographs, which identify a number of the victims and highlights some of the key causes of death.

01/16/20

Can Hedge Funds Topple Trump?

By: Cliff Kincaid

President Donald J. Trump has a good conservative record, especially in regard to the courts, and he has strengthened the Armed Forces. His rallies are packed with supporters. But as we enter 2020, even some conservative Republicans in Congress seem scared to death. Debt is piling up and the Federal Reserve is propping up the economy through emergency loans. Some are asking: can hedge funds crash the economy?

George Soros isn’t the only donor to the Democratic Party who ran a hedge fund. A Democratic presidential candidate, San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, is a hedge fund manager who reportedly ran an offshore company advertised as a tax shelter.  One of the Democratic Party’s top donors, his fund invested in fossil fuel projects but he is now running on the dangers of “climate change” caused by fossil fuels.

Hedge funds can cause an economic downturn by targeting companies, countries, and currencies with short selling strategies.

With the debt and deficits high, such a threat is real. Conservative Republican Rep. Chip Roy refused to vote for the new $1.4 trillion spending bill, a “compromise” with House Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats, saying, “This bill borrows, and it borrows at a time when we can’t afford to borrow another penny. Our nation is $23 trillion in debt, now racking up more than $100 million of debt per hour.”

As part of the deal with the Democrats, Trump agreed to demands for paid maternity and family leave for 2.1 million federal workers, and his daughter Ivanka is pushing a similar nanny-state program for the nation as a whole, which could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The Eagle Forum group founded by the late Phyllis Schlafly, a Trump supporter, called these plans a form of federal baby-sitting.

Always eager to up the ante, we can expect liberal politicians to propose legislation to guarantee paid vacations and holidays, in addition to debt relief and student loan forgiveness.

“In many ways,” says Frank Lasée, President of the Heartland Institute, “America is at a crossroads. Will our nation embrace a European-style welfare state, complete with cradle-to-grave entitlements and the taxes that go with them? Or will Americans demand more freedom in the form of fewer taxes, more school choice, and less oversight from Washington, D.C. bureaucrats? I am hopeful the latter will triumph.”

He cites the dangers in the Green New Deal and the Medicare for All plans. Another danger was documented in the book Wizards of Wall Street by businessman Zubi Diamond. An African immigrant who came to America and became a successful businessman, Diamond says that George Soros and other hedge fund short sellers can undermine nations, their economies and currencies, and the global financial system as a whole.

While Trump recognizes the socialist menace, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that since his inauguration in January of 2017, Trump has signed legislation into law that will ultimately add $4.1 trillion to the national debt from 2017 to 2029. Setting a record, the Department of the Treasury reports that the federal government spent a record $1,163,090,000,000 in the first three months of fiscal 2020.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is intervening with tens of billions of dollars in bailouts in an “interbank lending liquidity crisis.” Is this traceable to hedge fund speculators and currency manipulators betting behind-the-scenes on the decline of the U.S. economy?

To stave off this possibility, Trump has signed a “phase-one” trade deal with Communist China, promising relief for America’s farmers and manufacturers. In addition, the Trump Administration is preparing a new tax cut proposal.

In another move, Trump bowed to Pelosi and Big Labor in securing passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade by inserting pro-United Nations elements into the pact. As a result, the USMCA establishes a regional North American bureaucracy, under the auspices of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, to manipulate and enforce labor standards between the three countries.  The deal undermines Trump’s proclaimed opposition to globalism and enables the Democrats to claim they improved the agreement to benefit workers.

The good news is that Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) has reintroduced his bill, H.R. 204, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act, to halt all involvement of the United States with the United Nations. Trump could endorse the bill and rally conservatives behind it.

While the economy is strong, Trump’s social and cultural agenda has achieved mixed results.

On abortion, Trump has pleased conservative Christians. During the campaign Trump posted an eloquent 600-word statement that notes that he did not always hold the pro-life position, “but I had a significant personal experience that brought the precious gift of life into perspective for me.” He previously had said that “what happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child.”

This kind of conversion is desperately needed on homosexual rights. Trump Ambassador Richard Grenell led an embarrassing effort at the U.N. to force Christian nations into accepting homosexual rights.  It’s only a matter of time before conservative Christians take note of what Grenell is doing in the name of Trump. They won’t be happy.

At the same time, many members of the old “Just Say No” anti-drug Reagan coalition are increasingly frustrated by the Trump Administration’s failure to take action against Big Marijuana and the phony claims from the related “hemp” industry about the supposed medical benefits of CBD.

A petition asks Senator Mike Crapo, chairman of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, to continue his valiant effort to stop the marijuana industry from getting access to the national banking system in order to launder its profits.

With the “progressives” taking advantage of every opportunity to broaden their anti-Trump coalition, including through an orchestrated impeachment campaign, the Trump Administration has some golden opportunities to reassemble powerful elements of the old Reagan Coalition.

From the perspective of the Trump campaign, a possible economic downturn, brought on by hedge fund short-sellers, should make expanding the base a matter of utmost urgency.

*Cliff Kincaid is president of America’s Survival, Inc. www.usasurvival.org