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Eurozone economy: the struggle to stay afloat until a vaccine arrives 

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The family owners of Due Ladroni, one of the favourite restaurants of Roman high society and known for its glamorous late night crowd, are feeling the pinch of the Italian capital’s 6pm coronavirus curfew that has wiped out 70 per cent of its turnover.

“Our customers are used to coming here for late dinners after the theatre, but there is no theatre,” says Michela Di Maria, who now runs the eatery built up by her late father with her mother and brother. 

Normally a dinnertime venue for politicians and business leaders to mingle with actors and models and where the paparazzi once lurked in the piazza outside, it has been reduced to serving only lunches.

“People just don’t drink as much, or eat as much at lunch as they do at dinner. They are not eating oysters, they come in for a plate of pasta,” says Ms Di Maria. She believes a new closure of all restaurants in Rome is likely, as has already happened in other parts of Italy such as the northern provinces of Lombardy and Piedmont. 

A restaurant owner stands next to empty tables in Piazza del Pantheon in Rome. The ECB warns the pandemic could produce €1.4tn of non-performing loans as businesses borrow to survive
A restaurant owner stands next to empty tables in Piazza del Pantheon in Rome. The ECB warns the pandemic could produce €1.4tn of non-performing loans as businesses borrow to survive © Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

With Covid-19 infection rates in Italy and many other countries soaring well above those reported during the first wave in the spring, the big worry for European policymakers is that the restrictions on struggling businesses like Due Ladroni may stretch them to breaking point and put strain on the region’s banking system.

Across Europe, varying degrees of national lockdowns have been reintroduced to try to contain the resurgence of the pandemic, which is once again threatening to overwhelm public healthcare systems. Restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas and theatres have been forced to close and curfews are in force across the region, while France, Ireland and Belgium have closed non-essential shops — prompting uproar from independent shopkeepers. 

Even though the new restrictions are milder than in the spring and most schools and factories are staying open this time, the measures are still expected to cause another downturn in the economy, which remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite a strong third-quarter rebound. 

Europe’s Covid-19 resurgence pushes daily death toll higher than April peak. Streamgraph showing daily deaths of patients diagnosed  with coronavirus (7-day rolling average). Europe now accounts for almost half of daily Covid-19 deaths

The 19-member eurozone was already on the brink of recession before the pandemic struck, weighed down by trade tensions, Brexit worries and disruption caused by a clampdown on emissions at carmakers. Having been hit harder than other advanced economies by the first wave of the virus, which plunged Europe into a record contraction in the first half of the year, the bloc partly recovered in the third quarter. But it is now expected to endure a double-dip recession, dragging it further behind the US and Asia.

The resulting economic pain could have big consequences, especially for services companies such as restaurants, hotels and airlines that rely on human contact and have borne the brunt of the crisis.

With several vaccines now close to going into production, there is at least light at the end of the tunnel. But EU officials are worried about the economic damage that will be caused before life returns to anything approaching normal.

Christine Lagarde, European Central Bank president, said last week that the second wave still poses considerable danger for the economy. “Firms that have survived up to now by increasing borrowing and drawing on their savings could decide that remaining open no longer makes business sense,” she added.

ECB president Christine Lagarde greets Olaf Scholz, the German finance minister who hailed the EU’s creation of a €750bn recovery fund as a 'Hamiltonian moment'
ECB president Christine Lagarde greets Olaf Scholz, the German finance minister who hailed the EU’s creation of a €750bn recovery fund as a ‘Hamiltonian moment’ © Kay Nietfeld/POOL/AFP/Getty
Lorenzo Bini Smagh of Société Générale says many retailers and restaurants were hoping the lockdowns would be lifted in December, as they are 'counting on Christmas' to save them
Lorenzo Bini Smagh of Société Générale says many retailers and restaurants were hoping the lockdowns would be lifted in December, as they are ‘counting on Christmas’ to save them © Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg

The ECB is warning that fallout from the pandemic could produce €1.4tn of non-performing loans in a severe scenario — more than the 2008 crash. While this prognosis is seen as alarmist in some quarters, it stirs memories of a decade ago when an economic crisis morphed into a financial crisis that threatened the existence of the eurozone.

Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, chairman of French bank Société Générale, says many retailers and restaurants are hoping the lockdowns would be lifted in December, as they are “counting on Christmas” to save them. But he warns: “If that is gone then the impact will be very strong.”

Prescription for recovery

There is one big difference to the financial crisis. This time, Europe’s response has been much swifter and more forceful. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, hailed the EU’s creation of a €750bn recovery fund to support the hardest hit countries as a “Hamiltonian moment”, invoking the first US Treasury secretary who helped to create US fiscal union by taking on the debts of the states in 1790.

A  BioNTech leb. The global economic outlook has brightened with the news that vaccines developed by the Germany group with Pfizer and by Moderna of the US have been more than 90 per cent effective in tests
A BioNTech leb. The global economic outlook has brightened with the news that vaccines developed by the Germany group with Pfizer and by Moderna of the US have been more than 90 per cent effective in tests © Michael Probst/AP

A plethora of government furlough schemes, loan guarantees and tax deferrals, combined with the ECB’s ultra-loose monetary policy, have managed to avert a big wave of business failures or job losses. Instead, insolvencies have fallen in many countries this year. In Germany, the requirement to declare insolvency has been suspended temporarily. While the banks’ share prices have fallen and they have increased their provisions for an expected wave of bad loans, these are yet to materialise.

The global economic outlook has brightened with the news that vaccines developed by Germany’s BioNTech with Pfizer and by Moderna of the US have been more than 90 per cent effective in tests and could start production within weeks, fuelling hopes that an end to the pandemic is in sight.

Olivier Blanchard, former IMF chief economist, says the vaccines’ unexpectedly high efficacy rates are “indeed a game changer” that implied “it is now likely we shall be out of the woods by the end of next year”. He adds: “Thus, other things being equal and if we control the current explosion of the virus, it should help confidence and give a boost to demand now.”

Bar chart of Projection for annual change in GDP in 2020 (%) showing Europe will take longer to recover from the impact of Covid-19

Some policymakers even see the potential for a bounce back in the economy similar to the booming prosperity that followed the Spanish flu a century ago.

“Post world war one and two waves of the Spanish flu at the start of the 1920s, economies and societies were quite devastated,” says Olli Rehn, governor of the Finnish central bank. “We’ve had a financial crisis and now a pandemic, with savings rates going very high, so if there is no big increase in insolvencies we cannot rule out that there will be quite a big rebound — even if it is not quite the Roaring Twenties.”

Mr Rehn says a substantial monetary and fiscal stimulus was still needed “to build a bridge over these troubled times”. However, he adds that Joe Biden’s election as US president would also provide a boost for Europe by reducing trade tensions, which have hampered the region’s export-focused economy since Donald Trump entered the White House. Output and orders at Europe’s manufacturers have already been rising swiftly, driven by exports to Asia, particularly to China — in contrast to the more sluggish services sector.

The eurozone demonstrated its resilience by bouncing back much faster than most economists expected in the third quarter with record growth of 12.7 per cent. “The strength of the rebound in the third quarter suggests that the initial policy response was effective and the capacity of the economy to recover is still in place,” said Ms Lagarde. “But it will require very careful policy management to ensure that this remains the case.”

Olli Rehn, governor of the Finnish central bank, says a substantial monetary and fiscal stimulus was still needed 'to build a bridge over these troubled times'
Olli Rehn, governor of the Finnish central bank, says a substantial monetary and fiscal stimulus was still needed ‘to build a bridge over these troubled times’ © Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg
US Soldiers quarantine while recovering from the Spanish flu in Kansas in 1918. Some policymakers see the potential for a bounce back in the economy similar to the booming prosperity that followed the Spanish flu
US Soldiers quarantine while recovering from the Spanish flu in Kansas in 1918. Some policymakers see the potential for a bounce back in the economy similar to the booming prosperity that followed the Spanish flu © Army Handout/Reuters

Regional scarring

Even if an effective vaccine is approved quickly, it will take many months for it to be produced, distributed and administered to enough people to return life to something resembling normality. Economists worry that many more businesses could collapse before then, pushing up unemployment, and even after the pandemic ends there are still likely to be parts of the economy suffering longer lasting damage, such as airlines and retailers.

“The vaccine will change things, but it is not for tomorrow,” says Lucrezia Reichlin, an economics professor at the London Business School. “The crisis will cause some scarring, particularly in certain sectors and regions.” To avert a plethora of bankruptcies among small family-owned businesses, European governments “need to be more innovative” by providing grants or equity injections, says Ms Reichlin, the former head of research at the ECB. 

Germany, France, Italy and Austria have already pledged tens of billions more euros in aid to offset revenue losses for companies hit by the latest lockdowns. Vítor Constâncio, former vice-president of the ECB, says other countries should follow suit and even extend support more widely, such as to restaurants in his native Portugal, which have not had to close but are still suffering from fears about the virus.

“The vaccine seems certain to be coming by next spring, so people and firms have to be kept afloat until then,” he says.

Line chart of Unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted (%) showing Covid-19 cost jobs but eurozone jobless rates are still below recent peaks

Monika Schnitzer, an economics professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich and adviser to the German government, says businesses such as shops, hotels and cafés that rely on customers being in city centres were “in a structural transformation even before the crisis, and this has been exacerbated by the crisis . . . these sectors will have to change”.

Some European businesses in the hardest hit sectors are on the brink of collapse. Norwegian Air, the heavily indebted airline, said for the first time last week that bankruptcy was a possibility. In Spain, the 210 staff of Majórica were recently told that the 130-year-old company was filing for insolvency due to a sharp drop in sales of its artificial pearls during the pandemic.

Raymond Torres, chief economist at Funcas, Spain’s savings banks foundation, says: “If the pandemic goes on significantly longer there is the risk of zombification, particularly in the most affected service sectors — transport, hospitality, tourism — which means not so much a problem of lack of liquidity as possible insolvency.” 

Balearic chill

Nowhere is the pain of lockdown restrictions being felt more acutely than in Spain’s Balearic Islands, where the economy depends on attracting tourists to locations such as Mallorca and Ibiza, and where output collapsed by 21 per cent in the 12 months to the end of September. For the year as a whole, the Balearic regional government expects a fall of almost 30 per cent — worse than during the financial crisis.

Mallorca: the economic output in Spain’s Balearic Islands has collapsed by 21% in the 12 months to the end of September and the region expects a fall of almost 30% in the year as a whole — worse than during the financial crisis
Mallorca: the economic output in Spain’s Balearic Islands has collapsed by 21% in the 12 months to the end of September and the region expects a fall of almost 30% in the year as a whole — worse than during the financial crisis © Enrique Calvo/Reuters

“When the crisis hit in March, our hotels had contingency plans of two, three, or six months,” says María Frontera, head of the Mallorcan hotel business federation. “But now we have to have contingency plans of two to three years, because that is how long it may take activity to return to normal . . . There are a lot of hotels that will not be able to reopen next year, since although there will be a reactivation, we know that demand will be very low.”

Ms Frontera adds that government loans have so far kept the sector afloat. Her own Hotel Marina on the northern coast of Mallorca, which her grandparents opened 85 years ago, needed to borrow €1m. But while such loans have prevented still greater damage to the Spanish economy, it may be difficult to grant more of them as the crisis continues, and the strain on the country’s businesses and banking sector increases.

Pablo Hernández de Cos, governor of Spain’s central bank, has been warning about the risks of simply extending more loans to get through the crisis, which could render companies insolvent. “The mutation of this crisis into a banking one would be devastating,” he warned in a recent speech.

“The crisis has already generated an increase in the level of indebtedness of many firms,” he noted, calling for “more focused measures” that would not increase companies’ financial obligations — such as direct grants, temporary capital injections, and more streamlined debt restructuring and insolvency procedures.

European governments are counting on the €750bn recovery plan that EU leaders signed up to in July to support the extra spending they are doing to absorb the impact of the pandemic and kickstart a recovery.

The full EU budget and recovery package — more than half of which is to be paid in grants — has yet to come into force, however, and member states still need to navigate opposition from Hungary and Poland to a so-called rule of law mechanism that would tie payments to compliance with EU values. 

Even assuming the recovery fund sees the light of day, it will take some time for the bulk of the cash to start hitting member states’ coffers after an initial down payment early next year. In the meantime, the commission is urging capitals to keep their own fiscal taps open.

“The consequences of this crisis will be deep and long, and this means that our fiscal policies should be kept in this very supportive stance maybe for a longer time than one would have thought,” says Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economics commissioner.

At Due Ladroni next to the Tiber River in Rome, the government has contributed about €11,000 in aid so far — a tiny sum for a business that normally turns over more than €1.5m a year. On top of the lost revenues, Ms Di Maria says it had the extra cost of complying with virus prevention rules by buying bigger tables, masks, plastic menus and barriers for the outside terrace. “Every time we spend money they close us,” she adds. 

“If they are going to close the restaurants they need to give us more help,” she insists. “We have worked hard for years and we live on this. We are now having to spend our own private money to invest in the business and pay the staff.”

Frankfurt: virus silences a famous hotel piano bar

The Hessischer Hof, Frankfurt

The Hessischer Hof is the only five-star hotel in Frankfurt and for decades visitors to the city’s annual book fair spent their evenings amid the live piano music and cigar smoke of Jimmy’s Bar. But now its aristocratic owner, Donatus Landgraf von Hessen, a distant relative of the German emperor Friedrich III and Queen Victoria, has decided to shut it down.

The fate of the hotel and 63 of its employees, which Mr Landgraf von Hessen says he decided “with a heavy heart”, shows how the pandemic is even causing deep economic pain in Germany, which has so far suffered less than many peer countries during the crisis while keeping sections of its economy open. 

In particular, the hotel’s demise reflects the collapse of the international trade fair business, which had been a big source of income since it was built in 1952 next to the city’s sprawling conference centre. Like so many events, this year’s Frankfurt’s book fair was online-only. 

“In the end, there was no alternative from an operational and strategic point of view,” says Mr Landgraf von Hessen, whose family owns hotels, castles and a wine business. “All forecasts clearly indicate that the conference, trade fair and business travel segments will only recover in the very long term and that further high losses must be expected in the next two years.”

Additional reporting by Sam Fleming in Brussels and Guy Chazan in Berlin



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Analysis

UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets

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In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.

Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.

Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.

Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.

Map showing the location of Kincardine offshore floating wind farm, offshore from Aberdeen on Scotland's east coast

Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.

Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.

The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.

Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.

The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.

A Norwegian flag flies from a boat near the assembly site of offshore floating wind turbines in the Hywind pilot park, operated by Equinor
Norway’s Equinor is among the companies competing to build floating turbines in Scottish waters © Carina Johansen/Bloomberg

UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. 

Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.

WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.

Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.

Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.

An offshore wind turbine off the coast of Fukushima, Japan
A wind turbine off the coast of the town of Naraha in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. Japan is one of the countries pursuing floating technology © Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.

The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.

“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.

Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.

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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.

Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers. 

The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.

The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.

But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.

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Analysis

China tech crackdown claims ETF victims

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Exchange traded funds updates

Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on some of its biggest companies in technology and education has delivered a bruising blow to highly specialised China-focused exchange traded funds.

Broad-based tech ETFs have sailed through virtually unscathed, but some narrowly focused thematic instruments have taken a beating. Among those most affected, the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF (KWEB) has nearly halved in value since its peak in February.

Some ETF buyers are hunting specifically for targeted strategies, despite the risks. But Kenneth Lamont, senior fund analyst at Morningstar, said this highlights the potential drawbacks of tracking a narrow theme without the flexibility to shift tactics.

“The [passive thematic] strategy has no way to quickly react to bad news and will hold the stock until the next rebalance. The small number of fund holdings also means that overall returns can be influenced by the performance of handful of stocks,” Lamont said.

Line chart of Total returns, year to date (rebased) showing Narrow vs broad tech ETF

He noted that for the KraneShares ETF, one Chinese education group alone — TAL Education Group — was responsible for knocking 2.8 percentage points off performance from the end of June.

Global X Education ETF (EDUT), which has a large exposure to the Chinese online education sector, was also badly affected.

Actively managed ETFs, such as Ark Invest’s ARKK flagship Innovation fund, can react more quickly. After voicing her optimism for the prospects for China’s tech disrupters earlier this year, Cathie Wood, Ark’s chief executive, shed millions of dollars worth of shares in four China-domiciled companies.

Line chart of Number of shares held (millions) showing ARKK has been selling Chinese technology holdings

Investors in ARKK have not been rewarded as well as those who simply put their money in broadest based funds such as the Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund ETF (VT), but they have still managed to ride out the China tech storm far better than more exposed counterparts.

Line chart of Returns, year to date (rebased) showing ARKK vs Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT)

Some investors insist Chinese investments can bounce back. Mark Martyrossian, chief executive of UK-based Aubrey Capital Management, said he believed many of the affected tech companies would maintain their market leadership.

“The gravy train may have slowed but you disembark at your peril,’ Martyrossian said.

Lamont said badly hit funds had suffered such losses because they were doing exactly what they had promised to do — provide narrow exposure.

More nimble active investment strategies also face their own challenges, said Elisabeth Kashner, director of global fund analytics at FactSet. “Active managers may successfully anticipate market reversals, but they can also miss them, sometimes seriously tanking returns,” she said. “Some people can be skilful and some people can be lucky and if you’re lucky and skilful in one period you might be lucky and skilful in the next, but you might not.”

Additional reporting by Steve Johnson

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Raisi vows to restore ‘trust’ with disillusioned Iranian public

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Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi will assume power this week at a time of huge challenges for the Islamic republic, shaken by recent protests over water and electricity shortages and readying itself for more talks over the revival of its nuclear deal with global powers.

Raisi, a 60-year-old veteran of hardline politics and mooted as a successor to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, secured victory in June on the lowest turnout in any presidential election since the 1979 theocratic revolution and only after barring his most serious rivals from the race.

After the election he acknowledged that “public trust has been marred” in the country’s political elite, though he suggested the outgoing centrist president Hassan Rouhani was to blame for this disillusionment. Rouhani signed the 2015 nuclear deal with the US and other major powers, only for the then US president Donald Trump to abandon it in 2018 and sanctions to be reimposed.

This waning trust could be “repaired”, Raisi said, by focusing on the home front rather than looking for foreign assistance. “Reforming the current situation is possible,” he said.

However, the new president could find himself immediately facing a fresh international row after Israel on Sunday accused Tehran of involvement in Thursday night’s suspected drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman, in which two crew members were killed. The vessel, the Mercer Street, is linked to an Israeli billionaire. The UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday it was “highly likely” Iran carried out the attack in “a clear violation of international law”. Iran denied any involvement.

And with Iran in the grip of the worst drought in decades and power shortages hitting an economy already ravaged by inflation, sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, analysts are sceptical that a quick turnround is possible. Only 3 per cent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

“The country is in a very tense situation and Raisi has to make very quick and serious decisions about urgent issues such as inflation and vaccination to present a winning card and buy time until a big decision is made about the nuclear deal and sanctions,” said Saeed Laylaz, an analyst.

“But we have not yet seen any initiative from Raisi since his victory to suggest he will be able to pin something big down during his first 100 days.”

Vienna talks

One of his biggest challenges will not be in Iran, but Vienna, where talks about the nuclear deal are set to resume when the Raisi government takes office. Tehran is in talks with world powers, with the US indirectly involved.

Raisi has made clear he wants to improve relations with neighbours, rather than the western world. “In order to help establish sustainable security and regional stability, the solution is co-operation between regional states based on mutual trust and not allowing interference of alien [western] forces in the region,” he said.

Hardliners have so far refused to make any promises about the outcome of the talks, preferring instead to focus on domestic priorities. One of these politicians, Hamid-Reza Taraghi, has listed the new government’s top priorities as curbing an inflation of 44.2 per cent, removing obstacles to domestic industrial production, dealing with water and electricity shortages and tackling the budget deficit.

But reformist analysts question how Raisi can do this while sanctions prohibiting oil exports and other business dealings remain in place. Taraghi has said the government had to find ways to “foil sanctions”, indicating that an agreement might not be reached.

Protests

One of Raisi’s most immediate challenges is to calm tensions in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, home to Iran’s biggest oil and gas reserves.

Recent protests have been driven by demand for water supply for farmlands and cattle. Raisi, allegedly part of a committee that executed thousands of political dissidents in the 1980s, has not been targeted by the protesters.

Still, demonstrators have chanted anti-regime slogans, such as “Down with the dictator” and “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon; my life for Iran.” A regime that swept to power through street protests has typically cracked down on demonstrations. At least eight people have been killed in Khuzestan so far, Amnesty International said. Officials have confirmed three civilian deaths and one policeman. There have also been solidarity protests in the northwestern city of Tabriz, and protests over electricity shortages in Tehran.

Shopkeeper in Tehran
A shopkeeper in Tehran studies his phone after electricity is cut off due to energy savings by the government © Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The regime has tried to boost water supplies to Khuzestan and Raisi has vowed not to “wait even one day” to tackle problems there. He said part of the “massive wealth” in that region had to be spent on its own development. He has also spoken of the economic pressures many people are under, promising to help build at least 1m new houses a year. “Today, not only buying houses but renting them in big cities or even small towns has turned into an unachievable dream for people,” he said in July.

Conciliatory moves

For now, the Islamic republic is determined to demonstrate stability through a peaceful transition of power. Raisi has met outgoing cabinet members individually and approached a wide range of politicians, including former political prisoners, about how the country should be run. Some of those arrested during the 2019 unrest, which allegedly resulted in hundreds of deaths, are set to be released, activists say.

Raisi must also contend with divisions in the hardline camp. The more radical members do not want him to bow to public demands for more social and political freedom. Parliament has ratified a plan that could regulate social media and restrict public access to the internet.

Iranians want to see if he can deliver on his promises. “Raisi has to spend 1 per cent of Khuzestan’s wealth for the province itself. This is not too much to ask and we will hold him accountable even though we have lost hope in any change under this regime,” said a protester in the province who asked not to be named.

The Khuzestan protester added: “I am 25 years old, hold an electronic engineering degree but have no job, no income and no future. The bare-feet people would not be scared of dying if their choice was between starving to death or being killed by bullets.”



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