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Friday
Jan202012

The Latest from Iran (20 January): Grim Times in Shiraz

1935 GMT: All-Is-Well Alert. Deputy Minister of Industry Mohammad Ali Zeyghami has assured that Iran's warehouses are full of goods, people should not worry, and imports are backed by Central Bank currency.

1925 GMT: Friday Prayer with a Twist. Lots of Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari's Friday Prayer in Tabriz was the standard rhetoric, for example, the President's South American tour and Occupy Wall Street weakening the US, but he had a twist for the crowd: he harshly attacked the Central Bank for the currency turmoil.

1717 GMT: The Battle Within. The Supreme Audit Court has insisted on Government misconduct over the 2009 budget, claiming the Ministry of Oil has not yet presented accounting for its figures.

MP Esmail Kowsari has said that the problems of the Government are not related to ministers but to President Ahmadinejad and his staff. Kowsari said the Parliament would pursue them through legal means.

1707 GMT: Currency Watch. Iran's currency exchanges are closed today, but ISNA notes a 235,000 Toman (about $135) gap between the official and free market rates for gold coins.

The open market rate at the end of Thursday, according to Mesghal, was 790,000 Toman (about $440) for old gold coins and 770,000 Toman (just under $430) for new gold coins.

1700 GMT: Questioning the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer leader in Mashhad, has hit back at former MP Emad Afrough, who said on State TV that people should be able to question the Supreme Leader: "The Islamic Republic is the most effective system to guarantee justice and should not be criticised on [State broadcaster] IRIB."

1655 GMT: Your Tehran Friday Prayer Update, Updated. Another nugget from Ayatollah Jannati, "People will adopt only candidates who are not affiliated to power and money centres" --- but to whom is he addressing the comment?

1650 GMT: Off the Air. Iranian broadcaster Press TV has been taken off the Sky satellite service in Britain.

The media regulator Ofcom said earlier today that Press TV's licence had been revoked because of failure to pay a £100,000 fine and of the direction of its broadcasts from Tehran (see 1420 GMT).

1520 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The Court of Appeals has upheld the three-year sentence of blogger and women's rights activist Fereshteh Shirazi.

Shirazi was arrested in the northern Iranian city of Amol on 3 September and sentenced in October for disturbance of public opinion by libel, insult of the authorities on her weblog, and anti-regime propaganda.

Shirazi has been active in the Campaign for Change for Equality since March 2009. She was interrogated several times, before her arrest, because of her civil society activities.

1420 GMT: On the Air. The Guardian opens a story, "Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster's English-language outlet, has been forced off the air in the UK after Ofcom revoked its licence for breaching the broadcasting code."

Which is curious, I am sitting in Birmingham, in the centre of Britain, watching the Iranian State outlet --- it's a repeat of a diatribe by George Galloway, the former British MP --- at the moment.

A later paragraph clarifies, "[The British regulator] Ofcom has contacted BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster that carries the Press TV channel, to have it removed from its broadcast schedule. Press TV is expected to be removed from the Sky satellite service by the end of Friday."

Press TV was fined £100,000 this autumn for a 2009 interview with Maziar Bahari, an imprisoned Canadian-Iranian journalist, on the grounds that it was conducted under duress. The British regulator Ofcom reported that Press TV had been "unwilling and unable" to pay the fine and that it was "pursuing this". It also found that Press TV's practice of running its editorial oversight from Tehran is in breach of broadcasting licence rules in the UK.

The media regulator said, "Ofcom has decided to revoke the licence held by Press TV Limited with immediate effect," the media regulator said in a statement.

1400 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch. Iranian media are highlighting the visit of the Supreme Leader to the families of two of the five scientists assassinated in the last two years.

1330 GMT: Your Tehran Friday Prayer Update. Ayatollah Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, has a straightforward message for the audience today: "The freedom in this country is not found in any other country."

Jannati said the establishment of an "Islamic state" after the Revolution had Iran the "most independent and freest country" in the world.

It was not all cheer from the pulpit, however. The cleric claimed that the assassination of scientists by the CIA and Israel's Mossad showed the desperation of arrogant powers in the face Iran's progress: “Those who claim to fight terrorism are themselves the leaders of terrorists and foster terrorists....This is while they claimed they occupied Iraq and Afghanistan to fight terrorism."

1000 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Michael Theodoulou offers a summary of recent developments, "Iran Nuclear Talks Likely as Rhetoric Toned Down".

Theodoulou offers a caution, however, "Iran yesterday called on the US to commit to talks without preconditions. Washington and the European Union said they were waiting for Iran to show it was ready for serious negotiations," and EA --- after its commentary yesterday on a possible convergence between President Ahmadinejad's opening for talks and the US-European response --- makes a cameo appearance:

Scott Lucas...said, "The issue is not just the US versus Iran but internal tensions in both Washington and Tehran. People in both capitals will be promoting negotiations, but they will be opposed by others every step of the way."

0830 GMT: Foreign Affairs (Turkish Front). Conflicting signals over whether Turkey is joining tightened sanctions on Iran or offering Tehran a lifeline....

Turkey's Urbanization Minister Erdogan Bayraktar said, at a press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, "Iran is the world's third biggest producer of oil, and the world's second biggest producer of natural gas. The target is to make Turkey a bridge for the transfer of these resources."

He continued, "We have discussed working on money transfer between the two countries. Work is under way for Turkey entering the Iranian banking system and Iran entering the Turkish banking system. We plan very important steps on money transfer."

US-led sanctions have hindered Iran's sale of oil and gas, blocking payments from India. Legislation signed by President Obama on 31 December would punish any foreign firm who trades with Iran's Central Bank.

Salehi declared annual trade volume between Ankara and Tehran would increase to $30 billion by 2015, from around $15 billion in 2011: "We decided to improve the ties between the countries. The governments will be working on easing the processes. We decided that Iranian private sector should invest in power projects in Turkish energy markets."

However, at the same time that the two officials were making their declaration, sources were Turkey's largest oil refiner Tupras is looking to cut its import of oil from Iran by finding alternative supplies from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, and West Africa.

0825 GMT: The Tehran Bomb. Iran's Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Eshagh Al Habib has said the UN bears some responsibility for last week's killing of scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan: "[There is a] high suspicion that...terrorist circles used the intelligence obtained from United Nations bodies, including the sanctions list of the Security Council and interviews carried out by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) with our nuclear scientists, to identify and carry out their malicious acts."

Ahmadi-Roshan had met with IAEA inspectors, and Al Habib told the Security Council that this "indicates that these U.N. agencies may have played a role in leaking information on Iran's nuclear facilities and scientist". He accused the IAEA of failing to observe secrecy over its inspections of nuclear facilities.

The IAEA is scheduled to carry out more inspections next week.

0815 GMT: Questioning the Supreme Leader. Twelve days later, the article from former Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Alaei, warning the Supreme Leader of the consequences of repression, is still causing ripples....

Another former commander, Ali Sanikhani, has written in support of Alaei. He criticised the attacks on Alaei after the article, challenging the 12 current leaders of the Guards who have written two open letters calling Alaei an agent of the enemy: "Why do you fear the seven questions [in the article]?"

Sanikhani continued that eliminating dissidents is not the right way of supporting the Islamic Republic: "We are cutting off the tree while sitting on its branches."

0805 GMT: Campus Watch. Eleven distinguished professors of Allameh Tabatabei University have written, in a letter to the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, that the university is on the verge of collapse because of the security atmosphere and the economic crisis.

0745 GMT: Elections Watch. Absolutely no sign of concern whatsoever in this statement from Ayatollah Naeimabadi, Ayatollah Khamenei's representative in Hormozgan Province in southern Iran: "Elections are like a minefield. We have to cross it alertly by obeying the Supreme Leader."

Mohammad Taghi Sabaghi, handling public relations for the Basij militia, adds, "Supporting the Supreme Leader is the fundamental basis of our religion."

Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Supreme Leader's military advisor, is more reassuring: "The new civilisation in the Middle East and North Africa has remained stable under the leadership" of Khamenei.

0625 GMT: The Battle Within. An interesting attack linking key MP Ahmad Tavakoli; the Iran newspaper, run by Presidential advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr, and Khabar Online, linked to Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani....

An article published in Iran and reprinted in Khabar, claims that "when some youths climbed up the walls of the UK Embassy, the turmoil in the currency market started".

On the surface, Iran is explicitly hitting back at the comment by Tavakoli, a leading critic of President Ahmadinejad, that the Central Bank is unable to control the currency and gold crisis.

But, given that Tavakoli is allied with his cousin Larijani, why is Khabar reprinting the Iran claim? Could it be stoking the fire for a clash between the Larijani camp and that of the President? Or, like Aftab which also reprinted the article, is Khabar just pointing out how silly the pro-Ahmadinejad defence of its economic management is becoming?

0615 GMT: We open this morning with a snapshot via The Economist:

Serai Mushir is a string of souvenir shops that started life as a caravanserai, a pit-stop for weary travellers and their camels. Looking onto a courtyard filled with orange trees, it is the prettiest part of Shiraz’s warren of bazaars. Tourists from home and abroad should be swarming into this fabled “city of roses and nightingales”.

In late December, when icy winds sweep across Iran’s deserts, Shiraz, in the deep south, is still warm. At the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, people of the city stayed awake eating pomegranates. Some recited Hafez, perhaps the country’s most celebrated poet, whose tomb lies not far away.Yet business is bad, says an Afghan shopkeeper in Serai Mushir. His rent has shot up, sales are down, and inflation at 23% is eating away at his margins. Though he has been in Iran for 20 years, the shopkeeper says he is thinking of going back to Afghanistan.

Even before the effects of the latest round of sanctions can be felt, Shirazi discontent with the government’s policies is simmering. The economy is plainly in a shambles. People know the regime is consumed with infighting. Across the country, repression has continued to grow since the protests following the disputed presidential election of 2009 were squashed.

Last year’s drought has parched rivers and fields, pushing rural people into the towns. Officially, the population of Shiraz is 1.2m. But locals complain that the real figure has doubled in the past few years, as farmers have abandoned their land. Crime is up, too. Whereas the streets were safe three years ago, says an elderly Shirazi, nowadays he warns his family to be careful after dark. Unemployment in the city is hovering at 15%.

The officially orchestrated storming of the British embassy in Tehran in November made matters worse. Shiraz is the gateway to Persepolis, 70km (43 miles) away, the 2,500-year-old capital of the Achaemenids, who ruled Persia’s grandest empire under such titans as Cyrus the Great. Persepolis’s vast complex of towering pillars and ruins used to be thronged with tourists, most of them Iranians but quite a few of them foreign. Now it lies deserted.

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