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The Latest from Iran (1 November): Ministers, MPs, and the Bank Fraud

President Ahmadinejad arrives at Parliament today during the interrogation of Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini

2015 GMT: Oops. Thomas Erdbrink picks up on a possible mis-step by President Ahmadinejad --- defending his Minister of Economy against possible impeachment, he admitted the effect of US-lead sanctions.

Ahmadinejad, amidst allegations in the $2.6 billion bank fraud, said, “Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore."

Iranian officials have consistently claimed that the sanctions are only hurting the US and its allies and that Iran's economy is strengthening despite the measures.

2010 GMT: The Plot. The US State Department has confirmed Iran's claim that it has sent a letter to Washington, challenging the American allegations of Iranian involvement in a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US.

"It was about seven pages. It was a rant. It was full of all kinds of denials," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing. "There was not a lot new in there from our perspective."

Iranian officials said earlier this week that they had sent a note to the US demanding an apology and compensation for the allegations that the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards worked with an Iranian-American to employ assassins. Nuland confirmed that the seven-page message had been given to the Swiss Embassy, which represents US interests in Tehran.

1959 GMT: Wall Street Shuffle. Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri of the Revolution Guards has a message for the American people: “Continue the Wall Street movement. The capitalist system is collapsing.”

Jayazeri predicted that gross injustice in the U.S., support for terrorism, and the killing of people in other countries will lead to the downfall of the current American regime.

1848 GMT: Who Me, Worry? If President Ahmadinejad was concerned about the possible impeachment of his Minister of Economy, he certainly was not showing it in this section of his speech in Parliament today:

1819 GMT: CyberWatch. We noted early this morning that a number of opposition websites, including Rah-e Sabz, Kalemeh, and Daneshjoo News were off-line. A Facebook entry confirms that Rah-e Sabz and Kalemeh have been under sustained cyber-attack and "friends" are busy trying to relaunch the sites.

(UPDATE at 1945 GMT: all the sites are now on-line.)

1719 GMT: Parliament v. President. Another signal from Abbasali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the Guardian Council, that a Parliamentary selection of a Prime Minister, replacing a Presidential arrangement, could be on the cards: he said that the system of elections and it is a good time to change the Constitution.

1710 GMT: Unity Watch. An interesting claim in Khabar Online --- members of the Islamic Constancy Front have changed position and joined the conservative/principlist "7+8" unity committee after a meeting with Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, the head of the committee and the Assembly of Experts, last night.

The Constancy Front, led by Ayatollah Mezbah Yazdi, had held out from a union because of objections to representatives of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.

1705 GMT: Currency Watch. While the political drama has been playing out in Parliament, the Iranian rial continues to fall. The currency is now at 13160:1 v. the US dollar; only 10 days ago, it was 12580:1.

Khabar Online offers a revealing graph.

1700 GMT: Elections Watch. Solat Mortazavi, the political deputy to the Ministry of Interior has said that voters in next March's Parliamentary elections will be checked visually, off-line and online, so no cheating is possible.

1515 GMT: Impeachment Watch. Minister of Economy Shamsoddin Hosseini has survived the interrogation and possible impeachment in Parliament. The vote was 141-93, with 10 abstentions.

Hosseini apologised to MPs, while insisting he was not guilty of involvement in the $2.6 billion bank fraud.

Hosseini said the embezzlement was the outcome of a “penetration of a corrupt group” into the banking system, which led to “mistrust” in banks. He urged Parliament to let him continue in his post until the judicial process had been completed.

Hosseini was harshly criticised by some MPs, to the point of being accused of lying. However, President Ahmadinejad spoke on his behalf and --- crucially --- Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, invoking the Supreme Leader, urged legislators to accept the apologies and let Hosseini stay in office “conditionally” until judicial proceedings were finished.

1445 GMT: The Awakening. Another broadside by academic Sadegh Zibakalam against the regime's message that it is inspiring the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East --- in an opinion piece in Lebanon's Daily Star. He begins with a look at State propaganda:

The general coverage of the Arab Spring in Iran is so distorted that if you have no access to alternative media, you would be inclined to believe that the Arabs are not seeking democratic changes but rather only want to break relations with Israel and the U.S. There is no reporting of the political reforms the Arabs seek; of their opposition to political prosecutions, detention of political opponents and press censorship; and of a host of other demands such as the rule of law and free elections.

Then Zibakalam exposes the weakness in the presentation:

If the Arab Spring was interpreted as a mere social struggle for political reform and democracy, then it would offer no ideological gain for Iran’s Islamic leaders against their enemy. The ideological dimension of the struggle against the West is so crucial for the Islamic leaders that they have even interpreted current protests against economic hardship in several western countries, including the Wall Street occupation movements, as a clear sign of the collapse of Western civilization.

But here we encounter the dilemma created for Iran by Syria. The entire Arab Spring would have constituted a moral victory for Islamic Iran over the West were it not, alas, for the Syrian factor, which does not at all fit into the grand theory of the Islamic awakening.

1435 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Yesterday we headlined that activists Peyman Aref, Sharar Kanoon Tabrizi, and Asal Esmailzadeh had been arrested as they visited the grave of Neda Agha Soltan, the symbolic martyr of the Iranian uprising.

We heard this morning that the three had been released; however, journalist Aref has been re-arrested.

1405 GMT: Don't Look at Me. Abbas Memarnejad, the head of Iranian customs, has said that Iran has illegal wharves but his agency has no information about them --- said that the Ministry of Interior and anti-smuggling unit "should know".

Earlier this year President Ahmadinejad caused a political storm when he implied that the Revolutionary Guards were trading in commercial products --- effectively smuggling --- through illegal docks.

1400 GMT: Loyalty Watch. Mojtaba Zolnour, the former liaison of the Supreme Leader with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has told an audience in Qom, "If our opinion differs from that of Ayatollah Khamenei, we must crush it under our feet."

1205 GMT: Impeachment Watch. Thomas Erdbrink summarises President Ahmadinejad's address to Parliament on behalf of Minister of Economy, Shamseddin Hosseini --- the President's tactic is to combine a list of Iran's achievements with attention to the evils of the "West", rather to take on the charges around the $2.6 billion bank fraud:

"We should be an example to the world....Western nations are responsible for all financial wrongdoings in the world....Today is a day of unity....Our bourse [stock exchange] is the best in the world!....Which government can work amidst all these pressures?....The sanctions against our banks are preventing us from making transactions."

1005 GMT: Impeachment Watch. The latest on the Parliamentary interrogation of Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini amidst the $2.6 billion bank fraud....

The Minister has told MPs that he has not resigned to avoid charges that he has evaded responsibility. However, while he has been defended by some legislators --- and later by President Ahmadinejad, who has appeared in the Majlis and will speak this afternoon --- he has been challenged by others. One MP had claimed that Hosseini knew about the fraud; another said the flight of Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the former head of Bank Melli, to Canada was sufficient cause for the Government to resign.

The Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, has tried to contain the heated exchanges, asking MPs not to talk about money laundering.

0925 GMT: Impeachment Watch. A snapshot from the Parliamentary interrogation of Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini this morning --- MP Ahmad Tavakoli declared that the Aria Group, at the heart of the $2.6 billion bank fraud, multiplied its fortune 94,000 times within six years, leading people to complain to Parliament.

Better news for President Ahmadinejad from Gholamreza Assadollahi, the Secretary of Parliament's Article 90 Commission, who said the President's interrogation would not benefit the Iranian system at a time when the enemy was trying to divide the country.

0855 GMT: Bank Fraud Watch. Hours before his boss, Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini, was interrogated by Parliament, his deputy Asghar Abolhassani has resigned.

Abolhassani is also a board member of Bank Saderat, which is at the centre of the $2.6 billion bank fraud. He and Hosseini were both named in a critical Parliamentary report approved on Sunday.

0850 GMT: CyberWatch. A new website, Afagh News has been launched in Iran's cyber-battle --- it claims there are 5130 "hostile" sites working against Tehran, including 1540 Green sites funded by Western states.

0845 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Parviz Shahpar, a campaign activist for Mehdi Karroubi, has been sentenced to one year in prison.

Hossein Fayezi, an activist for Mir Hossein Mousavi, has been arrested. His family have not heard from him for more than two weeks.

Kurdish political activist Mohammad Ghavami has been sentenced to one year of imprisonment, suspended for 5 years. He had been sentenced in 2008 to 28 months in prison, serving 1 1/2 years.

Labour activist Kourosh Bakhshandeh has also been sentenecd to one year in prison, suspended for 5 years, for acting against national security with membership in a labour organization and anti-regime propaganda.

0835 GMT: Impeachment Watch. President Ahmadinejad has appeared in Parliament during the interrogation and possible impeachment of Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini.

0820 GMT: Clerical Intervention. Al Arabiya, citing HRANA, claims that Sheikh Ibrahim Sufi Zada, the imam of Bukan in northwestern Iran, and other clerics from the region have written the head of judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, to demand a revision of the court rulings against imprisoned Sunni scholars.

The letter cites 56 Sunni Kurds recently sentenced to a total of 156 years behind bars. Six of the detainees from Bukan were arrested in 2008 and allegedly kept in solitary confinement. They have been given total of 38 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the three-year sentence of Ahmad Reza Ahmadpour --- cleric, member of the Qom Hezbeh Mosharekat (Participation Front), and blogger for Pezhak-e Khamoosh -- has been upheld by an appeals court.

Ahmadpour, arrested in July 2010, has also been given 10 years in exile in the city of Izeh. His sentence stems from a letter he wrote to the United Nations, which constituted “publishing lies for the intent of disturbing public opinion”, “propaganda against the regime”, and “violating the dignity of the clergy".

In 2009 Ahmadpour, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, served a one-year sentence for similar allegations.

0815 GMT: Wall Street Shuffle. The Basij militia have launched the "Wall Street Fall" website to express support for the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US and to "fill in the gap by [the lack of coverage] by Western media".

The head of the Basij, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, announced the initiative: "This news website can notably be influential in informing the people living under the sun specially those truth enthusiasts living in the west who are captives of universal Zionist media propaganda."

0805 GMT: Claimed footage from last Thursday of the strike among cloth vendors in the Tehran Bazaar.

The merchants have shut their shops for more than three months in a dispute over the Government's value-added tax.

0755 GMT: We begin this morning with more claims about the $2.6 billion bank fraud. 

Digarban posts the names of four members of Parliament --- Mohammad Dehghan, Arsalan Fathipour, Jabbar Kuchakinejad, and Samad Marashi  --- who are allegedly involved with the embezzlement. However, the source for its claims, a story from the website Fararu, has disappeared.

A fifth MP, prominent legislator Alaeddin Boroujerdi, has denied involvement after reports that he and his son were implicated.

The new allegation comes as Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini faces Parliamentary interrogation and possible impeachment over the affair.

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