France flips. The European Union will vote Friday on whether to give the European Commission greater influence over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and according to Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung, France has flipped sides and now plans to vote in favor of the changes, meaning they will likely be passed. The commission wants to separate the gas supply from the pipeline operation of Nord Stream 2, which would send Russian gas through the Baltic Sea to Germany upon completion later this year. The U.S., as well as Central and Eastern European governments, has opposed the project, and these changes would add a new obstacle to its completion. Anonymous French government officials told the German newspaper that the pipeline increases Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and hurts the interests of Poland, Slovakia and others. But none of this is new information, so it’s unclear whether it was U.S. pressure or something else that spurred the change of heart in Paris.
OPEC tries to hike oil prices, again. OPEC members and a 10-nation group led by Russia are going to discuss a formal partnership to influence global oil prices on Feb. 18 in Vienna, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. A final deal wouldn’t come until at least April. The two sides first tried coordinating in late 2016, and in December, they agreed to combined production cuts of 1.2 million barrels per day. Saudi Arabia also tried recruiting Russia into OPEC during the December talks, but Moscow refused and Iran and other OPEC members protested, fearing the organization would be dominated by the Saudis and Russians. Between the internal wrangling and the fact that the U.S. production boom makes it all but impossible for cartels do anything more than arrest the fall in prices, the effort looks more like a desperate measure than a market disrupter.
China goes fishing in Iranian waters. The commander of Iran’s Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Iran would seize all Chinese fishing trawlers spotted inside Iranian territorial waters. The threat came during a speech to local fishermen in Jask, a small port near the Strait of Hormuz. This issue first cropped up in public last August, when Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization said Chinese ships had been granted permits to fish in Iranian territorial waters. The Iranian Fisheries Organization denied the existence of such a license and said any Chinese nationals present in Iranian territorial waters worked for Iranian ships, and in December, Iran seized two Chinese ships along with their crews. Local Iranian fishermen strongly oppose the presence of Chinese ships, but then, Iran’s list of potential friends has grown short in recent years, and oil-hungry China is an ideal strategic partner for Iran. The conflict over fishing won’t change the course of history, but it is a sign of the growing challenges China faces from other countries.
Hezbollah looks for help from its friends. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday in a televised address that he would consider asking Iran to supply Lebanon with air defense systems to defend against Israeli aircraft. Israeli and Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has been covertly flying precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah and setting up factories in Lebanon to build such missiles since the second half of 2018. Israel has said this is a red line, but airstrikes, its usual go-to in similar situations in the past, are unlikely to eliminate Hezbollah’s full precision-guided weapons capability, and Israel is loath to launch a ground offensive. Lebanon’s acquisition of air defenses from Iran wouldn’t change the game, but they would raise the stakes of an Israeli intervention.
- The European Commission dropped its growth forecasts for the eurozone to 1.3 percent from 1.9 percent for 2019, and to 1.6 percent from 1.7 percent for 2020.
- British Prime Minister Theresa May will delay next week’s vote on the EU withdrawal agreement until the end of the month. Unless it leaves without a deal, the U.K. will have to seek an extension of talks and will still be part of the EU after March 29.
- The U.S. suspended military assistance to Cameroon, a partner in the fight against Islamist group Boko Haram, over human rights violations.
- According to the head of the U.S. Central Command, Uzbekistan presented the U.S. with a list of American military systems and equipment it would like to purchase. He said this was a chance to pull Uzbekistan away from Russian influence.