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The Latest from Iran (27 January): Pilgrims and Soldiers 

A photo of five abducted Iranian "engineers", with their Syrian cook --- are they the five captured "Iranian soldiers" shown in a video from Syria?

See also Syria Video Special: Free Syrian Army Captures "Iranian Soldiers"

2119 GMT: Warning the Supreme Leader. Earlier this month Hossein Alaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, caused a stir with an article implicitly warning the Supreme Leader against the consequences of repression. Twelve Guards commanders called Alaei an agent of the enemy and an angry crowd gathered outside his house and defaced it, while other former commanders and some conservative politicians defended him.

Now Alaei has put out another statement, in Jomhouri Eslami, about dictatorships. This one, however, is carefully worded to avoid accusations that the former commander is challenging Ayatollah Khamenei. He states that dictatorships have come to an end, referring to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and continues that "dictators cannot rule with tyranny".

2059 GMT: The "Iranian Soldiers" in Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Syria's Press attaché, Leva'a Roudbari, has declared that none of the seven Iranians held by the Free Syrian Army are in the military, “The kidnappers’ claims is baseless."

Roudbari, in an interview with Syrian State TV, also appeared to say that two of the seven men would be released, "Iran welcomes the kidnappers’ decision to free two of the kidnapped engineers.”

In statements to Reuters (see 1932 GMT), members of the Free Syrian Army said that, while the first five Iranians seized were not engineers but were snipers assisting the Assad regime's military, the two men who came to Syria to enquire about them were civilians.

There is a curiosity in the article with Roudbari's statement, however. The six men in the accompanying photograph, shown in a power plant, do not appear to be match up to the "engineers" seized in Syria.

1932 GMT: The "Iranian Soldiers" in Syria. Reuters adds important information to the released video of five Iranians --- engineers, according to Tehran; members of the Iranian military, according to the Free Syrian Army --- seized in December.

Insurgents said two other men taken in a second abduction were civilians. That matches up to information from Iranian media early this month that two Iranians were seized when they went to Syria to resolve the situation of the first five captives.

A Free Syrian Army fighter said, "We will not release [the seven men] until the government stops its military operations against Homs and frees Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush.

Harmoush was the first senior Syrian military officer to defect to the opposition. Activists say he was kidnapped in Turkey and taken back to Syria, where he appeared on State TV retracting his criticism of the Assad regime. His whereabouts are unknown.

Another insurgent said, "If the regime refuses to negotiate with us, we will keep them (the hostages) with us and we will try to bring more (Iranians) as well." And a third fighter confirmed that the FSA was holding the seven Iranians hostage.

An official FSA spokesman said he could not comment because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Reuters' information is significant because, despite the dispute over the status of the Iranians: 1) it confirms that the released video is tied to the abduction of not just five but seven "engineers"; 2) it confirms that the Free Syrian Army is in command of the abduction --- and the display of the Iranians on video --- and that this is not the operation of a "maverick" brigade; 3) it establishes that the priority is not whether the Iranians are in fact soldiers, but whether they can be traded for Lieutenant Colonel Harmoush.

1915 GMT: Execution Watch. Sources have told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the Iranian Supreme Court has upheld the death sentences of two Kurdish prisoners, Zanyar Moradi and Loghman Moradi.

The two brothers were sentenced to public hanging on 22 December 2010 for “moharebeh” (war against God) and the murder of the son of Marivan’s Friday Prayer leader.

A source said Loghman Moradi told his family that he was told by prison authorities of the decision and that this was not in writing. The lawyer for the Moradis said that he had not been formally served with the decision and that he will be travelling to Tehran to follow up the case at the Supreme Court.

The Moradis have written that they were tortured and forced to make false confessions.

1730 GMT: Sanctions Watch. A significant note from Bloomberg explains the potential impact of the new European restrictions on Tehran's trade:

European Union sanctions on Iranian oil will extend to about 95 percent of tankers because they are insured under rules governed by European law. The International Group of P&I Clubs insures all but 5 percent of the global tanker fleet and its 13 member clubs follow European rules to participate in the claim-sharing pool, said Andrew Bardot, the London-based secretary and executive officer. Carrying Iranian oil would invalidate the ships’ cover against risks including spills and collisions, he said.

“Any EU-regulated insurer will not be able to provide insurance to cover any ship engaged in the carriage of Iranian oil and petrochemicals to the EU and elsewhere,” Bardot said by phone yesterday. “We have already notified ship owners of the effect on their trading activities and our ability to cover.”

While the embargo on Iranian oil only covers the EU’s 27 member states, the extent of the region’s role in insuring ships will curb trade globally....

Vessels carrying oil from the nation will have to use “questionable” insurance, said Simon Schnorr, the London-based marine client director at Aon Risk Solutions, a unit of the world’s largest insurance broker....

“The EU ban on related insurance and re-insurance means that owners or operators with no EU link who seek to transport Iranian oil will be caught even if there is no EU element to the shipment itself,” Michele White, Intertanko’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “This is now a highly restrictive and volatile environment in which we feel our members cannot trade without risk of breaching EU or indeed the myriad of other sanctions against Iran.”

Ship owners will struggle to find insurance that doesn’t comply with EU law and whose provider has the funds needed to meet the “standard cover provision” of $1 billion for pollution liabilities, Schnorr said. Ships without valid insurance would be barred from entering most ports, he said.

1430 GMT: The "Iranian Soldiers" in Syria. EA's James Miller makes a significant discovery --- this is not the first time that a unit in the Free Syrian Army, the "Al Farouk Brigade", has displayed the five Iranian "engineers"/"soldiers".

In early January, about a week after the five Iranians were abducted the French magazine Paris Match published a two-page pictorial feature on the Iranians --- four are visible --- with the brigade commander "Abdul Razzaq Talas". The photos of the men match up to those of the "engineers" in the Iranian publication Mehr (see 0727 GMT).

Paris Match did not explain how it obtained the photograph, merely saying that the Iranians were suspected of being snipers supporting the Syrian military.

1345 GMT: Sanctions Watch (Tehran Friday Prayer Edition). Delivering the Friday Prayer sermon today, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared that European Union's tightened sanctions, adopted this week, will have no effect, “The EU embargo on the purchase of Iran's oil is not a new matter. Such a hostile policy lacks a real impact on Iran's economy."

Khatami said the EU decision, suspending Iranian oil iports from 1 July, was an effort to influence Parliamentary elections on 2 March.

How keen is the regime to show that the European step is meaningless? Press TV --- with 5 of its 7 top Iran stories on oil sanctions --- brings out an expert to declare that the EU's sanctions are “less than meets the eye”, as Tehran has "contingency plans".

And who is this expert who concludes, "I'll be surprised if [the sanctions have] that much impact."

Why, it's John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN who has called for a military strike on Iran.

1100 GMT: Economy Watch. Mehr reports that, as food prices rise, , rice is becoming scarce in Kermanshah in western Iran, with people hoarding it and other food items.

1055 GMT: The Battle Within. A commentary in Alef, linked to key MP Ahmad Tavakoli, has asked, "What else must happen before [President] Ahmadinejad is declared as incapable? Must the Islamic Republic be bulldozed before the Majlis impeaches him?"

1045 GMT: Elections All-Is-Well Alert. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar has rejected any idea that March's Parliamentary elections are not competitive as "nonsense". He claimed that conservatives and principlists are facing more than 700 reformists, despite calls by many in the opposition for a boycott.

Former President Mohammad Khatami --- who has called for reformists not to stand in the elections but refrained from asking for a boycott of the ballot --- has countered that "a system without votes has no weight" and that people have a right to question their representatives and officials.

1035 GMT: The Battle Within. Two candidates for Parliamentary elections in March have filed a complaint against Presidential advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr for calling themm members of the "deviant current".

Javanfekr is embroiled in political and legal battles within the establishment. He has been sentenced to two separate one-year prison sentences, one of them for "insulting the Supreme Leader" on his blog.

1005 GMT: Threat of the Day. An item on the Iranian Parlimentary website ICANA summarises the warnings of MPs that Iran could immediately cut oil supplies to Europe, responding to the European Union's decision to suspend Iranian oil imports from 1 July.

Even more interesting, however, is this threat to China --- the world's largest importer of Tehran's oil --- from Nasser Soudani of Parliament's Energy Committee: "If China enters the phase of will be [removed] from all of its projects in Iran. This will inflict heavy and considerable loss on China's economy."

0955 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. Deputy Minister of Economy Mohammad Reza Farzin, has said that the launch of the second phase of subsidy cuts is now "unclear".

Government ministers and officials, including President Ahmadinejad, have declared over the last six weeks that the second phase of the cuts was imminent.

Farzin asserted that, despite Parliamentary opposition, support payments to cover the higher prices of subsidy cuts will be cut off for about 10 million people.

Farzin denied that the recent currency turmoil had economic causes, putting forth the narrative that it was a "psychological" incident.

0835 GMT: Clerical Intervention. Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, the head of the Assembly of Experts, has said in a lecture, "Clergy should be independent and should not be a political plaything."

Mahdavi Kani is embroiled in a political battle, ahead of March's Parliamentary elections, with other clerics. He heads the "7+8" Committee which has sought conservative and principlist unity, but which has been challenged by the Islamic Constancy Front, whose senior figures include Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

0810 GMT: The Battle Within. The pro-Ahmadinejad Raha Press continues its attack on the President's critics with a poem for Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan.

Raha asks, "What kind of old, lame, tired [newspaper] is this Kayhan?" And, turning Shariatmadari's claims of a "deviant current" back on the editor, it asks, "Who is deviant now?"

Raha concludes, "I tell you: prepare yourself for your fall now."

0727 GMT: The "Iranian Soldiers" in Syria. An EA correspondent makes a vital connection, linking the Thursday video of five "Iranian soldiers" captured in Syria with the case of five Iranian "engineers" reportedly kidnapped in Syria in December.

First, the names from the video which we posted last night: Sajjad (Haider Ali) Aminan, Ahmad Gertabadi. Hasan Hasani. Majid Qanbari. Kyumars Qobadi.

Now this from the Iranian website Mehr on 29 December:

The five [abducted] engineers, who have been building the [Syrian city of Hom's] Jandar power plant for the past two years are: electrical engineer and caretaker of electrical equipment testing group Sajad Amirian; technician and the workshop caretaker Ahmad Sohrabi; technician and electrical equipments installer Hassan Hassani; technician and installer of testing equipments of electrical equipment Majid Ghanbari; and technician and electrical equipment installer Qumars Ghobadi.

These specialists are employed in Parsian and Fanavaran-Sanat-Gostar-e-Zagros Corporations.

0720 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The Iranian Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, has raised concern over the detention of a SOAS alumnae, Parastoo Dokouhaki, and expressed solidarity in calling for her release.

Dokouhaki, a prominent blogger and former journalist, was arrested on 15 January after a raid on her home.

The Society has written:

Parastoo had not been involved in any form of activism for some time and neither had she been involved in journalism of late. Rather, she has reportedly been working on translations and research over the past 2 years. Her sudden arrest and detention has therefore come as a shock to her family, friends and former teachers and colleagues here at SOAS. Parastoo Dokouhaki had reportedly lost her father a few months ago and has a chronic illness for which she must use medication under the supervision of her physician.

0710 GMT: Sanctions Watch. Banking and trade sources have said that major banks in the European Union have halted finance of grain shipments for Iran.

"It is now a fact that no EU banks will do trade financing for Iran destination cargoes of grains, oilseeds or whatever," one European grain trader said. "The bottom line is it is very difficult to work trading to Iranian destinations through banking systems. Some Iranian buyers are seeking to use other payment methods avoiding letters of credit, basically direct payment, but this is unworkable for large-size shipments."

A European banking source said any new deals for agricultural products would have to be backed by smaller entities.

Iran imports around 4.5 million tonnes of grain a year, including about 3.5 million tonnes of corn, the leading world grain for animal feed. It ranks among the top 10 global importers of maize, but it has key suppliers outside Europe, including Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine.

A European trader claimed, "As far as I know there are six panamax and three handy-size bulk carriers waiting in the anchorages off Iranian ports and unable to unload because of payment problems." That is a potential supply of about 420,000 tonnes held up in the ships.

Another trader said, "The Iran trade is in chaos with devaluations, and payment difficulties are causing ships to be delayed. It is hard to guess the numbers, but delays of up to 60 days are being talked about."

0600 GMT: Currency Watch. Gold prices, after their sharp fall on Wednesday amidst the rise in interest rates to 21%, fell again slightly on Thursday, with old gold coin now at 800,000 Toman (about $470).

With foreign exchange offices and banks closed for the Iran weekend, the Iranian Rial stands at Thursday's claimed open-market rate of 17000:1 vs. the US dollar --- an increase of more than 25% in the value of the Iranian currency from its low point on Tuesday.

0550 GMT: We open the morning not in Iran but in Syria, where two stories --- possibly related, possibly not --- broke on Thursday night.

First, Iranian officials claimed that eleven men had been abducted from a bus, while on pilgrimage, on the road from Damascus to Aleppo. The officials said that the women on the bus were left behind, as the men were taken to an unknown location. The gunmen allegedly contacted the relatives of one man, demanding a ransom. 

Later in the evening, without offering any further details, Foreign Ministry spokesmen Ramin Mehmanparast said“These acts, which are against humane principles and moral and international obligations, are by no means justifiable, and it is expected that these people take immediate action to free Iranian pilgrims....We...request the Syrian government authorities to employ all means available to ensure the safety of these Iranian nationals and their quick freedom."

The claimed kidnapping follows  the claimed abduction on 21 December on their way to a power plant in Homs. Two more Iranian men were reportedly seized when they went to Syria to resolve the situation of the five engineers.

Hours later, a video emerged which claimed to show five Iranian soldiers captured by the Free Syrian Army amidst intense fighting in Homs. The men "confessed": "We supported the security intelligence forces of Syria in suppressing and shooting civilians....We have killed many civilians in the city of Homs, including many women and children. We received our orders directly from the airforce intelligence forces of the city of Homs."

Further checking on the video, translated by EA's Josh Shahryar, yields more questions. The accents of the men indicate that they are not from Tehran; however, there is debate as to whether they are from the provincial area of Iran or from Afghanistan. The men show cards indicating that they have been in Iranian military service, but it is still unclear with which section and unit.

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