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The Latest from Iran (14 September): Ahmadinejad's Public Relations Triumph

See also Iran Video: Full Ahmadinejad Interview with NBC News
Iran Interview: Ahmadinejad to Washington Post "If US Gives Us Uranium, We Will Stop Production"

2110 GMT: Ahmadinejad's Public Relations Triumph? Another warning signal tonight for the President over his mention of the freeing of US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer....

Press TV features the remarks of MP Parviz Sarvari, a member of Parliament's National Security Commission, "If Iran was to release these two [spies] without receiving anything from the US Government in return, this would be against the spirit of the Islamic Revolution."

The significance lies not so much in the statement of Sarvari, who is known for heated remarks --- this week he called for the execution of Ahmadinejad's right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai (see 0655) --- as in Press TV deciding to give it prominence.

2047 GMT: Omission of the Day. Press TV reports on the President's speech today:

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces government plans to introduce reforms in the banking system and to strengthen the country's currency.

“Reforming the banking system was placed on the government's agenda and, by God's grace, reforms in this system will begin this year,” Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday in a public address in the northwestern city of Ardabil, the official presidential website reported.

He added that the changes would prevent discrimination in the distribution of banking loans to Iranians.

“I am hopeful that, through banking reforms injustice in granting loans will be no more and the means [enabling] of misuse of public funds will be no longer.”

So what is missing from this report? (Hint: the magic number is 2.6 billion --- see 1445 GMT.)

1827 GMT: 80 Iranian cultural icons, including poets, artists, actors and musicians, have released a signed statement on the opposition website Jaras calling for the release of many of their colleagues who are inside Iranian prisons:

The statement, published on the opposition website Jaras on September 12, specifically criticizes the detention of actress Marzieh Vafamehr, actor Ramin Parchami, directors Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mahnaz Mohammadi, actress Pegah Ahangarani, and photojournalist Maryam Majd, some of whom are still being held in prison.

1735 GMT: PeykeIran confirms that Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 6 years in prison. In December of 2010 Sotoudeh was originally sentenced to 11 years.

The ban on Sotoudeh practicing law was reduced from 20 to 10 years.

1727 GMT: Scott Lucas notes that this rumour was out before the judiciary put cold water on the release of the hikers, but according to Shargh Newspaper, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is the one who negotiated for the release of the American hikers:

“In late August, after verdicts for the two imprisoned American suspects were announced by Branch 15 of Tehran Revolutionary Court, their families contacted the Iraqi President, asking for his mediation to release their children.”

Mohammad Majid Al-Shaikh, the Iraqi Ambassador to Tehran, confirmed the news and provided further details about the impending release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. “After receiving a request from the families of the two detained American suspects, the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, contacted high-ranking Iranian officials to mediate and asked for the pardon and release of the two individuals. Talabani was eventually able to convince the high-ranking officials to pardon Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, even though this ruling also comes with a bail order of $500,000 like Sarah Shourd’s ruling.”

1659 GMT: James Miller takes the liveblog for a bit.

And NBC's Ann Curry has an interesting Tweet:

Lawyer for the 2 American hikers in Iran says he is now "making bail arrangements."

1510 GMT: Present of the Day. Aftab reports that President Ahmadinejad, on his visit to the United Nations, will present some delegations with books about the Allied occupation of Iran in World War II.

1450 GMT: The US Hikers. An official with Oman's foreign ministry says the Gulf nation has sent a plane to Tehran amidst the confusion over the possible release of US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

Last September, Oman helped in the release of the third American charged with espionage, Sarah Shourd, when $500,000 bail was posted.

Meanwhile, Fars claims that student councils have demanded that any release of Bauer and Fattal be in exchange for the release of Shahrzad Mir Gholikhani, an Iranian woman imprisoned in the US on charges of attempting to smuggle night-vision goggles to Iran.

1445 GMT: Corruption Watch. The US hikers story has disappeared from the front page of both the pro-Ahmadinejad (IRNA) and anti-Ahmadinejad (Fars) websites. Instead, Fars focuses on the President's response to the revelations of the $2.6 billion fraud affecting Iran's banks and privatised companies.

Speaking in Ardebil in northwest Iran, Ahmadinejad claimed the Government would conduct an "honest enquiry" to identify the perpetrators of the embezzlement. He responded to allegations that the main suspect is linked to his right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai (see 0655 GMT), said the Government's foes "hurled accusations against nous in massive propaganda campaign, which allowed the true thieves to escape".

IRNA does not take up the corruption theme, preferring an anodyne summary of Ahmadinejad's call for the passage of legislation.

1145 GMT: Ahmadijenad's Public Relations Triumph? This is now looking like a serious pushback against the President and his announcement of the imminent release of US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

Press TV, which almost always until it is "safe" to release news, now writes, "The Public Relations Department of Iran's Judiciary announced on Wednesday that it is still examining pleas by lawyers of the two defendants for their release on bail."

Here is the real slap at Ahmadinejad, however: "Information about the case will be released by the Judiciary and other reports on the issue are not considered reliable."

Still not sure? For the first time, Press TV --- which based its earlier reports on Bauer and Fattal's release on a statement from their lawyer --- mentions that Ahmadinejad is the source: "On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated in an interview with NBC news channel that two US nationals will be released in a couple of days as a humanitarian gesture."

0845 GMT: Ahmadinejad's Public Relations Triumph? Not so fast, maybe. according to Iranian state TV, the judiciary is denying that the release of US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, announced by Ahmadinejad in his Tuesday interview with NBC News (see 0615 GMT), is imminent.

The pro-Ahmadinejad State news agency IRNA is still featuring the report that Bauer and Fattal will soon be freed. Fars, however, is carrying the judiciary's denial, with the statement that their release "is being considered".

0745 GMT: Elections Watch. Nine political prisoners have written to former President Mohammad Khatami, asking him to clarify conditions for reformist participation in next March's Parliamentary elections.

Khatami has said political prisoners must be released before reformists can be involved, but the nine signatories expressed concern that Khatami is interested in the release of only those prisoners who are allied with the reformists. They asked him for clarification on his condition of freedom for political groups, particularly whether this is "freedom for all the political groups who believe in peaceful struggle for democracy, or merely a return to the conditions that existed before the June 2009 elections". The nine men also raised the question of reform of the judiciary so it will implement articles of the Constitution on political prisoners and economic corruption.

0740 GMT: Oil Watch. Abdol Reza Rahmani Fazli, head of the bureau monitoring how the Government budget is spent, has reported that the Government has not deposited $12 billion of earnings from oil exports into the national treasury.

Fazli also said the Government has borrowed almost $5 billion from the Central Bank for support payments to people to cover subsidy cuts.

0730 GMT: All the President's Men. Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, President Ahmadinejad's failed choice for Deputy Foreign Minister and a close ally of Ahmadinejad's Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, has been released from prison on bail.

Malekzadeh was rejected as Deputy Foreign Minister by Parliament this spring. Subsequently, he was arrested on charges of financial mismanagement.

0700 GMT: The Fight Within. Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi has announced that three members of the Kurdish dissident group Komeleh were killed in the past week: “One of the people who had killed three security officers during Tasoa (a Shiite mourning ceremony in December) wanted to carry out another terrorist operation but he was killed along with two other terrorists during a confrontation with the Anonymous Soldiers of Imam Zaman, and a number of others were also arrested in connection with the same case.”

Moslehi gave no further details.

0655 GMT: Corruption Watch. The reformist newspaper Shargh, citing conservative/hard-line outlets like Fars and Mehr, is pressing the case that the alleged $2.6 billion involving several Iranian banks is linked to President Ahmadinejad's right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai.

The newspaper focuses on the purchase of the Khuzestan Steel Company as it was privatised. The main suspect in the fraud, Amir Mansoor Khosravi, allegedly bought the company with embezzled funds, and some Iranian media claim that he is close to Rahim-Mashai.

Tehran-e Emrooz, linked to Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bager Qalibaf, said $2 billion of the embezzled funds have already been transferred abroad. Hardline MP Parviz Sarvari, declared that Rahim-Mashai should be executed for his involvement.

0645 GMT: Enviornment Watch. More than 120 Iranian officials and academics have asked Parliament to form an independent committee to deal with the problems of Lake Urmia.

Iran's largest lake has shrunk by more than 50% in recent years as it dries to salt. The issue brought public protests and clashes with security forces in northwestern Iran in late August.

0635 GMT: Human Rights Watch. This may be the low point of NBC's television showcase for President Ahmadinejad, "Who has been repressed by us? Nobody was suppressed here.” He claims that only 33 people were killed in the crisis after the disputed 2009 Presidential election and that 2/3 of them were police officers.

0615 GMT: I think it is fair to say that President Ahmadinejad has had a far more difficult time with the Iranian media than he will ever have with the American outlet NBC News.

We have posted the video of Ann Curry's full 45-minute interview with the President, which follows NBC's fawning portrait, "A Day in the Life of Ahmadinejad". 

We will post an analysis later, but this was a public-relations master stroke for the Iranian Government, which set up this  In exchange for letting NBC have 45 minutes of face time, Ahmadinejad got 1) the profile of him as a caring, hard-working leader, supported by the poor people of Iran; 2) a free advertisement, almost unchallenged by Curry, for his views on the nuclear situation and international affairs; 3) five undisputed minutes to sweep away the human rights issue (the only Curry question about internal matters in Iran --- there was nothing on the economic or political situations); and 4) the opportunity for his grand gesture that he will give a "unilateral pardon" to US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

That last Ahmadinejad victory may be the most important. NBC is gone from Tehran, its job --- for the President --- done. Now we have to see if Ahmadinejad succeeds with his own officials. Almost exactly a year ago, his grand gesture of releasing all three American citizens was blocked by the judiciary, probably with the behind-the-scenes endorsement of the Supreme Leader; in the end, only Sarah Shourd was allowed out of Iran, and the President's plans for an elaborate ceremony were scrapped.

Has the President, due at the United Nations later this year, succeeded this time? If so, it will be a triumph within the Iranian establishment even more significant than his collaboration with NBC.

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