WASHINGTON — More than any other issue that has threatened transatlantic cohesion this year, President Donald Trump's decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal could start a chain of events that would sharply divide the United States from its closest traditional allies in the world.
"After the Paris climate decision," in which Trump withdrew the United States from a widely supported, painfully negotiated accord, "this could push multilateralism to the breaking point," said a senior official from one of the three European signatories to the Iran deal.
None of the three - Britain, France and Germany - believes Iran is in violation, and each has said publicly it will not renegotiate the nuclear agreement. U.S. imposition of sanctions affecting banks that even indirectly do business in Iran would doubtless influence those countries' companies, they say, and would be considered an unfriendly act.
"We will not follow the United States in reneging on our international obligations with this deal," said a second official. "Not the E-3, nor the rest of the 28" members of the European Union.
Trump is expected to give a speech late next week announcing his decision and outlining the results of a months-long Iran policy review. People familiar with his thinking say he will not certify that Iran is honoring its commitments and will declare that sticking with the deal is no longer in the U.S. national interest.
Nothing will happen immediately, as the decision would be punted to Congress. The Senate could decide to restore pre-deal sanctions on Iran with a simple majority of 51, including a vote by Vice President Mike Pence to break any tie.
What do we do? What do we say?
In that case, Iran could call for a meeting of the majority-ruled committee of signatories and declare that the United States has violated the deal, an assertion with which the Europeans believe they would be hard put to disagree. That would place them on the same side as the other two signatories - China and Russia - that are sure to support Iran, leaving the United States as a minority of one.
"What do we do? What do we say?" asked the first European official, one of several from the signatory countries who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue. "It would be a big crisis."
The Europeans insist that everyone they have spoken to inside the Trump administration - except for Trump himself - has expressed opposition to decertification. But they have for some time considered his decision a foregone conclusion and have directed their attention to Congress, where even some Republicans who have long opposed the deal as deeply flawed worry that a reimposition of sanctions might make matters worse.
"We're working the Hill a lot," the first official said. "What we understand is that there is no inclination in the Senate to kill the deal by voting immediate sanctions. Staffers tell us that nothing is decided."
"But we're convinced somebody like Cotton will go out with a bill," said the official, referring to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. "That will cause a crisis among the Republicans. . . . Nobody wants to appear to be defending Iran. Nobody wants to appear to be defending Obama."
The White House has seemed to signal to Republicans that they can decide not to immediately reimpose sanctions, and Cotton himself, an outspoken hawk on Iran who met Thursday with Trump, said this week that he has "no intention right now to introduce . . . sanctions legislation." While a law passed when the deal was done gives Congress 60 days to reimpose the sanctions lifted by the agreement with relative ease, lawmakers can take more time and pass a new sanctions law whenever they want.
"I'm not sure 60 days is enough," Cotton said Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, for the United States to practice "coercive diplomacy" to bend others to its will. It might, he said, take until spring, but no longer.
"I hope we don't have to coerce allies. I'd like to persuade allies," Cotton said. "Many of them don't require much persuasion, allies in the Middle East, for instance," although they are not signatories to the deal. "But ultimately, countries have to make a decision, if it comes to that. Do they want to deal with the United States' $19 trillion economy, or do they want to deal with Iran's economy . . . about the size of Maryland?"
Even if European political leaders are unpersuaded, he said, European businesses, vulnerable to U.S. sanctions if they continue dealing with Iran, may be. And if that does not work, he said, "let there be no doubt about this point: If forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure. And if they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture."
Such comments infuriate the Europeans. "I would remind our American friends that when we started to impose sanctions, the United States did not have any trade with Iran . . . and we carried the burden" of financial losses, Gérard Araud, France's ambassador to the United States, said last week at the Atlantic Council.
A Western diplomat in Geneva said the Europeans are contemplating reviving regulations the EU used to shield its companies and individuals from U.S. secondary sanctions in the 1990s. "Everyone's looking at options," the diplomat said.
Any deal without the United States would be "very fragile" in terms of keeping the incentive for Iran to uphold its side of the bargain, said a senior executive with a large multinational corporation. "It will also play to the hard-liners in Iran and help shift power back to them," the executive said.
Long-standing Republican antipathy to the deal has come back to haunt its creators. Negotiators envisioned a U.S. president who would justify staying in it as long as Iran lived up to its obligations, not a die-hard opponent who has branded the agreement an "embarrassment." The 60-day, expedited "snapback" provision in U.S. law was designed to punish Iran quickly in the event it violated the deal and did not envision that the United States would breach it.
Europeans are frustrated with what they consider misperceptions about what the agreement says and what it was intended to do. While Trump and other critics say Iran got a $100 billion "payoff," Europeans counter that the money belonged to Iran and was frozen in Western banks under sanctions. While detractors say all of the deal's restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will be moot when some provisions of the arrangement expire in 2025, Iran will remain under the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids weapons development.
And negotiators of the deal deliberately separated the nuclear program from their many complaints that Trump and others say are now reason to renegotiate or abrogate it - Iran's development of ballistic missiles, its destabilization of the Middle East and support its for terrorism.
"We can speak with the administration about containing Iran's malign influence," the second European official said. "The question is: Does the U.S. have a strategy for that? Maybe they do. I don't know."
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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