The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of Iranian pro-democracy groups, has held a number of online conferences in recent months with the goal of expanding the content of Western policy discussions with respect to the Islamic Republic.
The NCRI’s lead constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), has been a major driving force behind nationwide uprisings inside Iran over the past three years, and the conferences regularly point to this trend as an opportunity for the United States and the European Union to help the Iranian people affect large-scale change in their homeland.
The latest such conference took place on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, organized by the Friends of the Free Iran (FOFI) in the European Parliament, and was specifically focused on the “correct policy” and the “political and ethical obligations” for European nations in the face of “ongoing crimes against humanity.” Accordingly, it featured approximately three dozen members of the European Parliament, from different political groups who took a critical view of the current EU policy on Iran.
They warned about the detreating human rights situation in Iran, in particular in view of the new wave of executions against Iranian dissidents and protesters, most notably the hanging of Navid Afkari, the Iranian wrestler who was hanged for taking part in the recent wave of anti-regime protests which have rocked Iran in the past two years. MEPs urged a more robust policy on Iran with a focus on human rights.
A number of participants pointed to the important role the Iranian Resistance has played by referring to the 2018 Free Iran gathering in Paris, when Iranian regime operatives attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on that gathering, which was organized by the NCRI. Though the terror plot was foiled with cooperation from multiple European authorities, it arguably went a long way toward exposing the close overlap between Iran’s terrorist financing and its official foreign policy activities. And in so doing, it also seemed to demonstrate the extent to which the clerical regime views the Resistance movement as a genuine threat to its hold on power.
Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), also addressed the online summit and proposed a three-pronged policy, which included, “Human rights for the people of Iran, comprehensive embargo of the religious dictatorship, and recognition of the Iranian people's Resistance for freedom and democracy,” the adoption of “a binding legislation, to expel the Iranian regime’s agents from the European soil, shut down the regime’s embassies in all EU member states, and designate the IRGC and its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other countries as terrorist groups,” and “an independent international mission must investigate the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran and the slaughter of more than 1,500 protesters by Khamenei during the November 2019 uprising. The mission must also investigate the condition of prisons and prisoners in Iran, particularly the political prisoners. We demand the release of all political prisoners.
This was certainly a message adopted by a number of participants in Wednesday’s virtual conference, many of whom emphasized the significance of November 27 as the forthcoming start date for a trial in Belgium of the Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi. The third counselor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, Assadi was identified as the mastermind behind the 2018 terror plot, which was to involve the smuggling of high-explosives and a detonator into the NCRI rally, with the intention of killing the coalition’s leader Maryam Rajavi, as well as any supporters in her immediate vicinity.
Had the plot not been foiled, the list of casualties would have almost certainly included high-profile European and/or American dignitaries, possibly including some of the MEPs who also contributed remarks to Wednesday’s conference. Naturally, those participants are taking a personal interest in the Assadi case, but their latest commentary mostly emphasized the importance of holding the Iranian regime as a whole accountable for its long history of terrorism, terrorist financing, and human right violations both at home and abroad.
Assadi’s trial will be the first to formally implicate a professional Iranian diplomat in such terrorist activity, and supporters of the Iranian Resistance are hopeful that it will set the stage for a broader pattern of legal and diplomatic pressures on those who have played a direct role in some of Tehran’s most serious malign activities. For those supporters, and certainly for the Resistance itself, no such pressures are more important than those which might lead to accountability for participation in the regime’s massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.
That massacre has been the focus of countless action statements by the NCRI and by Western political groups that support the coalition’s pursuit of justice. The 32-year-old crime against humanity began when “death commissions” convened in numerous Iranian prisons with the goal of crushing opposition to the theocratic system. The MEK, in particular, became the focus of interrogation by those death commissions, and after a period of several months its members came to comprise the overwhelming majority of the approximately 30,000 victims.
To this day, no one has been held accountable for these killings. Quite to the contrary, leading perpetrators have been rewarded repeatedly by their own government while being effectively ignored by Tehran’s supposed foreign adversaries. Today, those perpetrators include both the head of the Iranian judiciary and the nation’s Justice Minister, alongside a host of other officials. And those figures now play a significant role in guiding the regime’s strategy for confronting a Resistance movement that it failed to destroy 32 years earlier.
Wednesday’s conference highlighted this situation in order to suggest that it is in Western nations’ own interest to confront Tehran’s current and past crimes, because an enduring sense of impunity prompts hardline officials to make further attempts on the lives of Resistance leaders, risking collateral damage among Western nationals in the process. But conference participants also insisted that even in absence of such clear threats to their own security, Western governments would still have a responsibility to sanction and diplomatically isolate the Iranian regime for violently cracking down on the democratic Resistance.
What’s more, the “correct policy” recommendations that emerged out of the conference included formal recognition of that Resistance movement.
President of Press Club Belarus and staff detained in Minsk
Yesterday (Tuesday, December 22) Julia Slutskaya, the founder and president of Press Club Belarus, was detained at the airport in Minsk. She was returning with her family from a foreign holiday. Her home was searched, and she has been taken into custody by the Financial Investigations Department. At the same time, the secret services entered the homes of Alla Sharko – program director of Press Club Belarus, Sergey Olshevski - director of the PCB office and Sergey Yakupov – director of the PCB Academy. Searches are also underway in the apartments of these people. Attorney Sergey Zikracki, who came to Alla Sharko’s house to witness the search, was not allowed in. The searchers did not want to identify themselves. Secret services employees also conduct a search in the Press Club's office, and the security of the building does not let anyone in, writes Colin Stevens.
Brussels Press Club and IAPC President Colin Stevens said: “The European Federation of Press Clubs and the International Association of Press Clubs (IAPC) condemns this action against the founder and staff of the Press Club Belarus and the freedom and integrity of the press in general.
"We strongly support our friends and press colleagues in Belarus and call upon the Alexander Lukashenka regime to immediately release those detained, and to respect the independence and freedom of the media.
“As president of Brussels Press Club and the IAPC, I call upon the EU 27 heads of government and the European Commission to take every urgent action possible to protect the lives and freedoms of journalists in Belarus and put all possible pressure on the Alexander Lukashenka regime to release Julia Slutskaya and her team."
COVID-19 reveals the shortcomings of a paper-based trade system
According to a recent report by the International Chamber of Commerce, as COVID-19 reveals the shortcomings of a paper-based trade system, financial institutions (FIs) are finding ways to keep trade circulating. It states that the problem being faced today is rooted in trade’s single most persistent vulnerability: paper. Paper is the financial sector’s Achilles heel. The disruption was always going to happen, the only question was, when, writes Colin Stevens.
Preliminary ICC data shows that financial institutions already feel they are being impacted. More than 60% of respondents to the recent COVID-19 supplement to the Trade Survey expect their trade flows to decline by at least 20% in 2020.
The pandemic introduces or exacerbates challenges to the trade finance process. To help combat the practicalities of trade finance in a COVID-19 environment, many banks indicated that they were taking their own measures to relax internal rules on original documentation. However, only 29% of respondents report that their local regulators have provided support to help facilitate ongoing trade.
It’s a critical time for infrastructure upgrades and increased transparency, and while the pandemic has caused a lot of negative effects, a potential positive impact is that it has made clear to the industry that changes do need to be made to optimize processes and improve the overall functioning of international trade, trade finance, and money movement.
“I think it comes down to integrating new technologies in smart ways. Take my company for example, LGR Global, when it comes to money movement, we are focused on 3 things: speed, cost & transparency. To address these issues, we are leading with technology and using things like blockchain, digital currencies and general digitization to optimize the existing methodologies.
"It's quite clear the impact that new technologies can have on things like speed and transparency, but when I say it’s important to integrate the technologies in a smart way that’s important because you always have to keep your customer in mind - the last thing we would want to do is introduce a system that actually confuses our users and makes his or her job more complicated. So on one hand, the solution to these problems is found in new technology, but on the other hand, it’s about creating a user experience that is simple to use and interact with and integrates seamlessly into the existing systems. So, it’s a bit of a balancing act between technology and user experience, that’s where the solution is going to be created.
"When it comes to the broader topic of supply chain finance, what we see is the need for improved digitalization and automation of the processes and mechanisms that exist throughout the product lifecycle. In the multi-commodity trading industry, there are so many different stakeholders, middlemen, banks, etc. and each of them have their own way of doing this - there is an overall lack of standardization, particularly in the Silk Road Area. The lack of standardization leads to confusion in compliance requirements, trade documents, letters of credit, etc., and this means delays and increased costs for all parties. Furthermore, we have the huge issue of fraud, which you have to expect when you are dealing with such disparity in the quality of processes and reporting. The solution here is again to use technology and digitalize and automate as many of these processes as possible - it should be the goal to take human error out of the equation.
"And here is the really exciting thing about bringing digitalization and standardization to supply chain finance: not only is this going to make doing business much more straightforward for the companies themselves, this increased transparency and optimization will also make the companies much more attractive to outside investors. It’s a win-win for everyone involved here.”
How does Amirliravi believe these new systems can be integrated into existing infrastructure?
“This is really a key question, and it's something that we spent a lot of time working on at LGR Global. We realized you can have a great technological solution, but if it creates complexity or confusion for your customers, then you’ll end up causing more problems than you solve.
In the trade finance and money movement industry, that means that new solutions have to be able to plug in directly into existing customer systems --using APIs this is all possible. It’s about bridging the gap between traditional finance and fintech and making sure that the benefits of digitalization are delivered with a seamless user experience.
The trade finance ecosystem has a number of different stakeholders, each with their own systems in place. What we really see a need for is an end-to-end solution that brings transparency and speed to these processes but can still interact with the legacy and banking systems that the industry relies on. That’s when you’ll start to see real changes being made.”
Where are the global hotspots for change and opportunities? Ali Amirliravi says that his company, LGR Global, is focusing on the Silk Road Area - between Europe, Central Asia and China - for a few main reasons:
“First, It’s an area of incredible growth. If we look at China for example, they have maintained GDP growth of over 6% for the last years, and central Asian economies are posting similar numbers, if not higher. This kind of growth means increased trade, increased foreign ownership and subsidiary development. It’s an area where you can really see the opportunity to bring a lot of automation and standardization to the processes within the supply chains. There is a lot of money being moved around and new trading partnerships being made all the time, but there are also a lot of pain points in the industry.
The second reason has to do with the reality of currency fluctuation in the area. When we say Silk Road Area countries, we are talking about 68 countries, each with their own currencies and the individualized value fluctuations that come as a by-product of that. Cross-border trade in this area means that the companies and stakeholders that participate in the finance side have to deal with all kinds of problems when it comes to currency exchange.
And here is where the banking delays that happen in the traditional system really have a negative impact on doing business in the area: because some of these currencies are very volatile, it can be the case that by the time a transaction is finally cleared, the actual value that is being transferred ends up being significantly different than what might have been agreed to initially. This causes all kinds of headaches when it comes to accounting for all sides, and it’s a problem that I dealt with directly during my time in the industry.”
Amirliravi believes that what we are seeing right now is an industry that is ready for change. Even with the pandemic, companies and economies are growing, and there is now more of a push toward digital, automated solutions than ever before. The volume of cross border transactions has been growing steadily at 6% for years now, and just the international payments industry alone is worth 200 Billion Dollars.
Numbers like that show the impact potential that optimization in this space could have.
Topics like cost, transparency, speed, flexibility and digitization are trending in the industry right now, and as deals and supply chains continue to become more and more valuable and complex, demands on infrastructure will similarly increase. It’s really not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when” - the industry is at a crossroads right now: it’s clear that new technologies will streamline and optimize processes, but parties are waiting for a solution which is secure and reliable enough to handle frequent, high volume transactions, and flexible enough to adapt to the complex deal structures that exist within trade finance. “
Amirliravi and his colleagues at LGR Global see an exciting future for the b2b money movement and trade finance industry.
“I think something that we are going to continue to see is the impact of emerging technologies on the industry “he said. “Things like blockchain infrastructure and digital currencies will be used to bring added transparency and speed to transactions. Government-issued central bank digital currencies are also being created, and this is also going to have an interesting impact on cross-border money movement.
"We’re looking at how digital smart contracts can be used in trade finance to create new automated letters-of-credit, and this gets really interesting once you incorporate IoT technology. Our system is able to trigger transactions and payments automatically based on incoming data streams. This means, for example, that we could create a smart contract for a letter of credit which automatically releases payment once a shipping container or a shipping vessel reaches a certain location. Or, a simpler example, payments could be triggered once a set of compliance documents is verified and uploaded to the system. Automation is such a huge trend - we’re going to see more and more traditional processes being disrupted.
"Data is going to continue to play a huge role in shaping the future of supply chain finance. In the current system, a lot of data is siloed, and the lack of standardization really interferes with overall data collection opportunities. However, once this problem is solved, an end-to-end digital trade finance platform would be able to generate big data sets that could be used to create all kinds of theoretical models and industry insights. Of course, the quality and sensitivity of this data means that data management and security will be incredibly important for the industry of tomorrow.
"For me, the future for the money movement and trade finance industry is bright. We’re entering the new digital era, and this is going to mean all kinds of new business opportunities, particularly for the companies that embrace next generation technologies.”
How digital trade finance solutions work to address COVID-19 concerns
As COVID-19 spreads across the world, courier services and the movement of paper documents have slowed. A recent review of the survival of human coronaviruses on surfaces found large variability, ranging from two hours to nine days, writes Colin Stevens.
The survival time depends on a number of factors, including the type of surface, temperature, relative humidity and specific strain of the virus.
With shipping routes and ports disrupted, more countries entering lockdowns and pressure mounting on exporters, logistics networks and banks, there is a strong incentive for businesses who trade internationally to digitize their documents.
The multi-commodity trading business is very complex - there are a number of stakeholders, intermediaries and banks operating together to make deals happen. These deals are massive in value and happen very frequently - it’s high volume business.
In a typical international trade up to 36 documents issued by different parties from different countries are first sent to a producer or trading company, further handled and then sent to banks, all making the spread of the virus worse.
Therefore, parties involved in global trade are having to turn to digital solutions, such as electronic signatures and platforms which offer digitized documents, to ensure their trade finance deals and papers can be virtually inked.
In what is called the 'Silk Road Countries'- the areas between Europe, Central Asia and China some companies that are using all manual processes and others that are moving into digital - there’s no standardization.
An international organization with the aim of increasing trade amongst members and states is the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce.
One of its leading members is Ali Amirliravi, the CEO of LGR Global and founder of Silk Road Coin, a cryptocurrency designed to facilitate international cross border trade along the Belt and Road countries.
Speaking to this website, he said:
“The COVID pandemic has highlighted a lot of the problems that currently exist in global supply chains. To begin with, we saw the risks of the so-called “just-in-time” production style and what can happen when companies use supply chains themselves as warehouse facilities. Everyone saw the disruptions and delays in supply of the surgical masks and personal protective gear--the overall lack of transparency in traditional systems was really brought to light.
"We saw the need for high quality data control and documentation - people wanted to know exactly where their products were coming from and which touchpoints exist along the supply chain. And then of course we saw the need for speed - the demand was there, but the traditional supply chains ran into a number of problems in generating and delivering the products on time - especially once the legal and compliance requirements were enforced.
"On the money movement side, we saw increased fees, coin shortages, and bank delays really interfering with critical business operations. In times of crisis, even small inefficiencies can have a huge negative impact - this is true particularly in the commodity trading industry where the transaction size and volume is so large.
"These are all problems that the industry has been aware of for some time now, but the COVID crisis has shown the need for action now so that we can overcome these issues. It’s a critical time for infrastructure upgrades and increased transparency, and while the pandemic has caused a lot of negative effects, a potential positive impact is that it has made clear to the industry that changes do need to be made to optimize processes and improve the overall functioning of international trade, trade finance, and money movement.”
Ali Amirliravi suggest some of the solutions to these problems:
“I think it comes down to integrating new technologies in smart ways. Take my company for example, LGR Global. When it comes to money movement, we are focused on three things: speed, cost and transparency. To address these issues, we are leading with technology and using things like blockchain, digital currencies and general digitization to optimize the existing methodologies.
"It's quite clear the impact that new technologies can have on things like speed and transparency, but when I say it’s important to integrate the technologies in a smart way that’s important because you always have to keep your customer in mind - the last thing we would want to do is introduce a system that actually confuses our users and makes his or her job more complicated. So on one hand, the solution to these problems is found in new technology, but on the other hand, it’s about creating a user experience that is simple to use and interact with and integrates seamlessly into the existing systems.”
In a global emergency, international trade may slow but it must not stop. Even as COVID-19 reveals the shortcomings of a paper-based trade system, it presents companies such as LGR Crypto Bank an opportunity to modernise the function and nature of trade.
“In the trade finance and money movement industry, that means that new solutions have to be able to plug in directly into existing customer systems,” said Amirliravi. “Using APIs this is all possible. It’s about bridging the gap between traditional finance and fintech, and making sure that the benefits of digitalization are delivered with a seamless user experience.”
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