Month: June 2018

Iran Seeks Ways to Defend Against US Sanctions

Iran is studying ways to keep exporting oil and other measures to counter U.S. economic sanctions, state news agency IRNA reported Saturday.

Since last month, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal that lifted most sanctions in 2015, the rial currency has dropped up to 40 percent in value, prompting protests by bazaar traders usually loyal to the Islamist rulers.

Speaking after three days of those protests, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. sanctions were aimed at turning Iranians against their government.

Other protesters clashed with police late Saturday during a demonstration against shortages of drinking water.

“They bring to bear economic pressure to separate the nation from the system … but six U.S. presidents before him [Trump] tried this and had to give up,” Khamenei said on his website Khamenei.ir.

With the return of U.S. sanctions likely to make it increasingly difficult to access the global financial system, President Hassan Rouhani has met with the head of parliament and the judiciary to discuss countermeasures.

“Various scenarios of threats to the Iranian economy by the U.S. government were examined and appropriate measures were taken to prepare for any probable U.S. sanctions, and to prevent their negative impact,” IRNA said.

One such measure was seeking self-sufficiency in gasoline production, the report added.

Looking for buyers

The government and parliament have also set up a committee to study potential buyers of oil and ways of repatriating the income after U.S. sanctions take effect, Fereydoun Hassanvand, head of the parliament’s energy committee, was quoted as saying by IRNA.

“Due to the possibility of U.S. sanctions against Iran, the committee will study the competence of buyers and how to obtain proceeds from the sale of oil, safe sale alternatives which are consistent with international law and do not lead to corruption and profiteering,” Hassanvand said.

The United States has told allies to cut all imports of Iranian oil by November, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.

In the separate unrest, demonstrators protesting against shortages of drinking water in oil-rich southwestern Iran clashed with police late Saturday after officers ordered about 500 protesters to disperse, IRNA reported.

Shots could be heard on videos circulated on social media from protests in Khorramshahr, which has been the scene of demonstrations for the past three days, along with the nearby city of Abadan. The videos could not be authenticated by Reuters.

A number of protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over water, a growing political concern because of a drought that residents of parched areas and analysts say has been exacerbated by mismanagement.

Speaking before the IRNA report on the clash, Khamenei said the United States was acting with Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states, which regard Shiite Muslim Iran as their main regional foe, to try to destabilize the government in Tehran.

“If America was able to act against Iran, it would not need to form coalitions with notorious and reactionary states in the region and ask their help in fomenting unrest and instability,” Khamenei told graduating Revolutionary Guards officers, in remarks carried by state TV.

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Trump Claims Saudi Arabia Will Boost Oil Production

President Donald Trump said Saturday that he had received assurances from King Salman of Saudi Arabia that the kingdom will increase oil production, “maybe up to 2,000,000 barrels” in response to turmoil in Iran and Venezuela. Saudi Arabia acknowledged the call took place, but mentioned no production targets.

Trump wrote on Twitter that he had asked the king in a phone call to boost oil production “to make up the difference…Prices to (sic) high! He has agreed!”

A little over an hour later, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on the call, but offered few details.

“During the call, the two leaders stressed the need to make efforts to maintain the stability of oil markets and the growth of the global economy,” the statement said.

It added that there also was an understanding that oil-producing countries would need “to compensate for any potential shortage of supplies.” It did not elaborate.

Oil prices have edged higher as the Trump administration has pushed allies to end all purchases of oil from Iran following the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Prices also have risen with ongoing unrest in Venezuela and fighting in Libya over control of that country’s oil infrastructure.

Last week, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel led by Saudi Arabia and non-cartel members agreed to pump 1 million barrels more crude oil per day, a move that should help contain the recent rise in global energy prices. However, summer months in the U.S. usually lead to increased demand for oil, pushing up the price of gasoline in a midterm election year. A gallon of regular gasoline sold on average in the U.S. for $2.85, up from $2.23 a gallon last year, according to AAA.

If Trump’s comments are accurate, oil analyst Phil Flynn said it could immediately knock $2 or $3 off a barrel of oil. But he said it’s unlikely that decrease could sustain itself as demand spikes, leading prices to rise by wintertime.

“We’ll need more oil down the road and there’ll be nowhere to get it,” said Flynn, of the Price Futures Group. “This leaves the world in kind of a vulnerable state.”

Trump is trying to exert maximum pressure on Iran while at the same time not upsetting potential U.S. midterm voters with higher gas prices, said Antoine Halff, a Columbia University researcher and former chief oil analyst for the International Energy Agency.

“The Trump support base is probably the part of the U.S. electorate that will be the most sensitive to an increase in U.S. gasoline prices,” Halff said.

Trump’s comments came Saturday as global financial markets were closed. Brent crude stood at $79.42 a barrel, while U.S. benchmark crude was at $74.15.

Saudi Arabia currently produces some 10 million barrels of crude oil a day. Its record is 10.72 million barrels a day. Trump’s tweet offered no timeframe for the additional 2 million barrels — whether that meant per day or per month.

However, Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told journalists in India on Monday that the state oil company has spare capacity of 2 million barrels of oil a day. That was after Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom would honor the OPEC decision to stick to a 1-million-barrel increase.

“Saudi Arabia obviously can deliver as much as the market would need, but we’re going to be respectful of the 1-million-barrel cap — and at the same time be respectful of allocating some of that to countries that deliver it,” al-Falih said then.

The Trump administration has been counting on Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members to supply enough oil to offset the lost Iranian exports and prevent oil prices from rising sharply. But broadcasting its requests on Twitter with a number that stretches credibility opens a new chapter in U.S.-Saudi relations, Halff said.

“Saudis are used to U.S. requests for oil,” Halff said. “They’re not used to this kind of public messaging. I think the difficulty for them is to distinguish what is a real ask from what is public posturing.”

The administration has threatened close allies such as South Korea with sanctions if they don’t cut off Iranian imports by early November. South Korea accounted for 14 percent of Iran’s oil exports last year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

China is the largest importer of Iranian oil with 24 percent, followed by India with 18 percent. Turkey stood at 9 percent and Italy at 7 percent.

The State Department has said it expects the “vast majority” of countries will comply with the U.S. request.

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Exhibit Showcases Delicate Beauty of US Botanical Art

Botanical artist Carol Malone-Brown is seated, bent forward, intently concentrating on a painting she is working on of a green apple with leaves.

She carefully puts a small amount of paint on one leaf using the “dry brush” method — mixing tiny drops of water with watercolors and then using a paintbrush to draw short, fine lines. She will sit at her desk, painting this leaf for many days to get the shades of light and dark just right.

While many people might find this tedious, for Malone-Brown, creating botanical art is “very soothing and meditative.” She draws inspiration from her beautiful garden, filled with a variety of plants at her home in Alexandria, Virginia. This allows her to combine her love of plants with botanical art, painting only what she grows.

Botanical art combines art with science because each piece must have botanically accurate details. 

“The garden is like your laboratory,” Malone-Brown explained. “I mean you can run in and out, and maybe you’re in there drawing and painting, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘How does that leaf connect to the stem exactly?’”

Her images, which are mostly watercolors, show the delicate beauty of plant species.

A garden of botanical art

Malone-Brown’s art is being showcased, along with 45 other pieces, at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington. It’s part of a series of botanical art exhibits worldwide, featuring native plants in 25 countries, including China, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia and Colombia. The idea is not only to highlight botanical art but the great diversity of plants.

Malone-Brown’s painting of a Virginia strawberry plant is on display at the U.S. show, white flowers and red strawberries that look good enough to eat.

“To be authentic,” she said, “I had to make sure that the plant actually flowered and produced fruit at the same time.”

It took her four hours each day for five months to complete the image. She painted it on vellum, a parchment made from calfskin, which gives the image a lovely luminescence.

The Botanic Garden art exhibit also features other flora, like the saguaro cactus of the U.S. Southwest, the bigleaf maple tree from the West Coast, and a variety of flowers, including violets and sunflowers. A sunny orchid, called a yellow lady slipper, was painted by well-known botanical artist Carol Woodin, who also serves as exhibitions director for the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Distinctive styles

Woodin says every artist has a distinctive style. 

“Some tell a story, others capture a moment in time, or study a plant and focus on each stage of its growth,” she said.

Besides watercolor, oil, colored pencil and etching were used to create the pieces on display.

Botanical artist Alice Tangerini used pen and ink. She is the only botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s botany department in Washington. For more than four decades, Tangerini has been drawing meticulous botanical images that scientists use for research.

She said photos cannot capture details the same way botanical drawings do.

“Every time I’m making a line it’s a little bit exciting,” she said. “You see a leaf or flower that is different from any other, or a small portion of a seed.”

Like other botanical artists, Malone-Brown said there is pleasure in the process of painting the plants.

“They are our best friends,” she joked. “You truly have to love a plant that you paint because you’re going to spend a lot of time with it!”

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Washington Exhibit Showcases Delicate Beauty of Botanical Art

Botanical art illustrates the delicate beauty of plant species, frequently in watercolor paintings. A series of botanical art exhibits featuring native plants is being showcased in 25 countries around the world. The idea is to highlight botanical art and the diversity of plants worldwide. In the United States, 46 pieces are on display at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington. VOA’s Deborah Block spoke with some of the artists about their exquisite artwork.

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AP Fact Check: Were Tax Cuts an ‘Economic Miracle?’

Editor’s note: A look at the veracity of claims by political figures

President Donald Trump has elevated his tax cuts to an act of biblical proportions, misleadingly claiming at a White House speech Friday that they triggered an “economic miracle.”

Not quite.

Also Friday, the president’s top economics aide, Larry Kudlow, appeared on the Fox Business Network to address one of the major problems with the tax cuts — that they’ll heap more than $1 trillion onto the national debt. Kudlow falsely countered that the budget deficit was falling because of growth generated by the tax cuts. The deficit is actually rising.

A look at the statements and the fact:

TRUMP: “Six months ago, we unleashed an economic miracle by signing the biggest tax cuts and reforms … the biggest tax cuts in American history.”

THE FACTS: The president is exaggerating, if not being outright deceptive.

Rather than achieving a miracle, his tax cuts have helped stoke additional growth in an economic expansion that was already approaching its 10th year. The additional growth is largely fueled by government borrowing, as the federal deficit rises because of the tax cut. The pace of growth is expected to taper off after next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Reserve and outside analysts.

And while the $1.5 trillion worth of tax reductions over the next decade are substantial, they’re far from the largest in U.S. history as a share of the overall economy. The Trump tax cut ranks behind Ronald Reagan’s in the early 1980s, post-World War II tax cuts and at least several more, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for deficit reduction.

Trump proudly went through a list of economic achievements that build on the progress begun under former President Barack Obama. The 3.8 percent unemployment rate and the historically low level of requests for jobless aid are both the result of a steady and gradual recovery from the worst economic meltdown since 1929.

Several hundred companies responded to the tax cuts by paying workers bonuses or hiking hourly wages, but any significant income growth has yet to surface in the overall economy.

The tax cuts have added on average $17 a month to people’s incomes, according to an analysis by Ernie Tedeschi, head of fiscal policy analysis at the investment firm Evercore ISI and a former Treasury Department economist. The analysis is based off consumer spending, income and inflation data released Friday.

That $17 monthly gain is helpful, but it’s far from miraculous.

​KUDLOW: “As the economy gears up, more people working, better jobs and careers, those revenues come rolling in, and the deficit, which is one of the other criticisms, is coming down, and it’s coming down rapidly.”

THE FACTS: Nope.

Since the fiscal year started in October, Treasury Department reports show the federal government has recorded a $385.4 billion deficit, a 12 percent jump from the same period in the previous year.

The Congressional Budget Office was even more blunt in a long-term assessment released Tuesday.

It estimates that the national debt — the sum of yearly deficits — will be $2.2 trillion higher in 2027 than it had previously forecast, largely a consequence of Trump’s 10 year, $1.5 trillion tax cut. The size of the debt could be even higher if provisions of the tax cut that are set to expire are, instead, renewed.

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GM: US Import Tariffs Could Mean Fewer Jobs

General Motors Co warned on Friday that higher tariffs on imported vehicles under consideration by the Trump administration could cost jobs and lead to a “a smaller GM” while isolating U.S. businesses from the global market.

The administration in May launched an investigation into whether imported vehicles pose a national security threat, and U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to impose a 20 percent vehicle import tariff.

The largest U.S. automaker said in comments filed with the U.S. Commerce Department that overly broad tariffs could “lead to a smaller GM, a reduced presence at home and abroad for this iconic American company, and risk less — not more — U.S. jobs.”

Higher tariffs could also hike vehicle prices and reduce sales, GM said.

​Less investment, fewer workers

Its comments echoed those from two major U.S. auto trade groups Wednesday, when they warned that tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported vehicles would cost hundreds of thousands of auto jobs, dramatically raise prices on vehicles and threaten industry spending on self-driving cars.

Even if automakers opted not to pass on higher costs “this could still lead to less investment, fewer jobs, and lower wages for our employees. The carry-on effect of less investment and a smaller workforce could delay breakthrough technologies,” GM said.

GM operates 47 U.S. manufacturing facilities and employs about 110,000 people in the United States. It buys tens of billions of dollars worth of parts from U.S. suppliers every year, and has invested more than $22 billion in U.S. manufacturing operations since 2009.

Still, 30 percent of the vehicles GM sold on the U.S. market in 2017 were manufactured abroad, according to the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research. Eighty-six percent of those vehicles came from Canada and Mexico, while others came from Europe and China.

Detroit automakers Ford Motor Co and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles NV also import many of the vehicles they sell in the United States.

“The overbroad and steep application of import tariffs on our trading partners risks isolating U.S. businesses like GM from the global market that helps to preserve and grow our strength here at home,” GM said.

GM shares closed down about 2.8 percent on Friday at $39.40. 

National security probe

Some aides have said that Trump is pursuing the national security probe to put pressure on Canada and Mexico to agree to concessions in talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Toyota Motor Corp filed separate comments opposing the tariffs on Friday saying they would “threaten U.S. manufacturing, jobs, exports, and economic prosperity.”

The company noted that Trump has repeatedly praised the Japanese automaker for investing in the United States, including a new $1.3 billion joint venture assembly plant in Alabama with Mazda.

“These investments reflect our confidence in the U.S. economy and in the power of the administration’s tax cuts,” Toyota said.

Toyota noted that international automakers assembling vehicles in the United States are based in countries including Japan, German and South Korea “that are America’s closest allies.”

The Commerce Department plans two days of public hearings next month, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said last week he aimed to wrap up the probe into whether imported vehicles represent a national security threat by late July or August.

“We have received approximately 2,500 comments already,” Ross said in a statement Friday, adding that he expected more before a midnight deadline.

“The purpose of the comment period and of the public hearing scheduled for July 19th and 20th is to make sure that all stakeholders’ views are heard, both pro and con. That will enable us to make our best informed recommendation to the president,” the statement said.

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‘Insect Vision’ Hunts Down Asteroids

June 30 marks Asteroid Day, a U.N.-sanctioned campaign to promote awareness around the world of what’s up in the sky. In Milan, scientists are assembling a new telescope that uses “insect vision” to spot risky celestial objects. Faith Lapidus explains.

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US Manufacturers Brace for Impact of Escalating US-China Trade Battles

Just days before the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum imports are set to go into effect, trade analysts are watching for ripple effects across the automotive, manufacturing and technology sectors. VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff has more from Washington.

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Trump: Expect Another Tax Cut, ‘Probably in October’

U.S. President Donald Trump said he expects a second tax overhaul to be unveiled in October or a bit earlier, and he is considering cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 21 percent.

In an excerpt of a Fox Business Network interview to be broadcast Sunday, Trump said: “We’re doing a phase two. We’ll be doing it probably in October, maybe a little sooner than that.”

“One of the things we’re thinking about is bringing the 21 percent down to 20, and for the most part the rest of it would go right to the middle class,” he said.

In December, Trump signed the biggest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years, slashing the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent and giving temporary tax relief to middle-class Americans.

The sweeping bill passed the Republican-controlled Congress over the opposition of Democrats, who decried it as a giveaway to the wealthy that would add $1.5 trillion to the $20 trillion national debt.

Republicans, hungry to revisit the tax issue ahead of a November midterm election showdown for control of Congress, are to unveil the outline of new tax legislation over the summer in the House of Representatives.

But more tax cuts are unlikely to succeed in the closely divided Senate, where Democrats and conservative fiscal hawks could block such a measure.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned this week that more tax cuts would hasten the growth of an already rapidly rising federal debt.

The debt, which equals 78 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, is on track to eclipse the 106 percent record set just after World War II in 2034.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, who presides over the chamber’s tax policy debate, said this week that new legislation would aim to make permanent tax cuts for individuals that are to expire in 2026. He expects a House vote in the autumn.

The Texas Republican made no mention of plans for an additional 1 percentage point cut in the U.S. corporate rate, which analysts say would reduce government revenues by an additional $100 billion over a decade.

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Trump Celebrates Tax Cut Law at 6-Month Mark

U.S. President Donald Trump touted the Republican tax cut plan Friday, six months after he signed it into law, saying it was strengthening the U.S. economy and helping average Americans by increasing investment, jobs and wages.

“It is my great honor to welcome you back to the White House to celebrate six months of new jobs, bigger paychecks and keeping more of your hard-earned money where it belongs: in your pocket or wherever else you want to spend it,” he said.

A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, projects a gloomy fiscal outlook in the U.S., which is experiencing rising debt under the Trump administration.

The CBO report predicts the country’s debt burden will double in 30 years, exceeding even the U.S. debt load during World War II.

The tax law, officially titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was the largest overhaul of the country’s complex tax laws in three decades. It cut the corporate tax rate, which was among the highest in the industrialized world, from 35 to 21 percent. It trimmed rates for millions of individual taxpayers as well, with the biggest cuts mostly benefiting the wealthiest earners, although some taxpayers saw bigger tax bills because of various changes in the tax regulations.

The CBO report, which cautioned the high debt levels also increase chances of a fiscal crisis, projects the tax cuts could spur short-term economic growth, but it quickly would fall back to a long-term average of 1.9 percent.

While most of the rising debt is due to increasing entitlement spending and other problems that existed before Trump’s 2016 election, the report said the new tax law is contributing to the short-term debt by cutting government revenue. Spending increases approved by both Republicans and Democrats are also raising deficits.

The Republicans’ $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and $1.3 trillion in spending enacted earlier this year have already helped push the CBO’s debt projections higher through 2041, the report said.

Some analysts say the country’s fiscal health is quickly deteriorating because of higher spending for entitlement programs such as Social Security, insufficient government revenue and spiraling interest payments on debt.

“The massive deficits caused by policymakers’ recent tax and budget decisions have drastically worsened the country’s long-term finances,” said Bipartisan Policy Center economic policy director Shai Akabas. 

The Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center concluded in a June 13 report that “the new tax law will raise deficits and make the distribution of after-tax income more unequal.”

Former Federal Reserve Bank chair Janet Yellen, a Democratic appointee whom Trump replaced with Republican Jerome Powell, said Thursday that the tax cuts would probably provide only a meager boost to the growth of the U.S. economy.

“The calculations that I’ve seen and seem reasonable to me suggest that the payoff is likely to be in tenths of a percent, which in growth is a lot, but may not be what some people are hoping for,” she said.

Tariffs

Any benefits for individuals and corporations from the tax cuts may be undermined by Trump’s imposition of tariffs on foreign countries.

Tariffs have already been announced on Chinese products, foreign aluminum and steel imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, and on solar panels and washing machines and Canadian lumber and paper. Trump has also threatened tariffs on automobile imports and on other foreign products and materials.

“Tariffs on steel and aluminum imports are a tax hike on Americans and will have damaging consequences for consumers, manufacturers and workers,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican, said May 31.

The Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady of Texas, said last month that the tariffs “hurt our efforts to create good-paying jobs by selling more ‘Made in America’ products to customers in these countries.”

Retaliatory tariffs imposed by Canada, China, the EU and Mexico could hinder the ability of U.S. companies to sell products to other countries, which could in turn kill American jobs and suppress wages.

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