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The Latest from Iran (19 March): Hunger Striker Khazali is Freed on Bail

See also The Latest from Iran (18 March): Relying on India

Mehdi Khazali2120 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch (Backlash Edition). So is this the reason for the counter-spin by US officials against an Israeli attack on Iran (see 1325 GMT)? Is it part of the counter-spin? Or both?

From The New York Times:

A classified war simulation exercise held this month to assess the American military’s capabilities to respond to an Israeli attack on Iran forecast that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.

The officials said the so-called war game was not designed as a rehearsal for American military action — and they emphasized that the exercise’s results were not the only possible outcome of a real-world conflict. But the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policymakers over the consequences of any possible Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those within the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first-strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

The two-week war game, called “Internal Look,” played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by launching its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refueling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to the Iranian nuclear program — if President Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation.

1830 GMT: Currency Watch. Mehr notes that the Central Bank's single-rate exchange policy has failed (see Sunday Live Coverage), as the Iranian Rial slides to 19100:1 vs. the US dollar on the open market. Shargh asks, "Where are Iran's currency reserves?"

1820 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. The President has appeared on Germany's ZDF television.

There is little new in the interview, with Ahmadinejad declaring that there will be no "extended access" for the International Atomic Energy Agency to Iranian facilities because "it is ruled by big powers" and passes on confidential news about Tehran's scientists, raising the risk that they will be assassinated.

He also echoed the current, loud Iranian line on human rights, saying that critical reports such as those of the United Nations are only a pretext for colonialist policies. He added that poor European people are not free to vote --- as Iranians were in this month's Parliamentary elections --- "just look around how they get beaten in France, the United Kingdom, etc."

The headline, however, is likely to be the President's statement that Israel, occupying Palestine, "has no right to exist".

1753 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Reports are circulating that singer and songwriter Arya Armnejad and activists Alireza Falahati and Ahmad Miri have been granted a furlough from Babol Prison for Nowruz.

Aramnejad has been arrested twice in connection with the post-election protests of 2009, specifically charged for writing the protest song “Rise Ali!” Falahati and Miri were arrested with the post-election protests and received prison sentences of six months and one year, respectively.

1332 GMT: Human Rights Watch. Mohammad Javad Larijani, the senior Iranian official whom we recently saw getting very worked up at the UN Human Rights Council over a report criticising Tehran's "systematic" violations, has lashed out again: "The US and Western governments are massacring other human cultures in the name of universal human rights, and this is an enormous betrayal to the humanity’s spiritual growth".

1325 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch (Backlash Edition). And now the counter-spin in the media against an imminent Israel attack --- from the Associated Press:

Despite saber-rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures....

The United States is playing up its assessment that Iran has not made its final decision in a public campaign to persuade Israel to call off any attack plan and allow the increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran time to persuade Tehran to back down.

The concern --- which is widely shared in Israel as part of a complex calculation --- is of an Iranian retaliation that might spark regional conflict and send oil prices soaring, at a time when the world economy is already struggling and U.S. presidential elections loom.

1250 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch. Back from an academic break to discover why the BBC's top radio programme was tub-thumping for war this morning, apparently missing or ignoring two weeks of developments indicating a pull-back from conflict....

The item on Today was a bit of self-promotion, masking itself as news, for an "Analysis" programme this evening featuring all the prophets and proselytisers for an attack: "Does America and Iran's mutual mistrust mean war is inevitable?"

The "news" item on Today programme is now posted --- it's at the 43:50 mark.

An interesting footnote --- the "running order" for this morning's programme had a four-minute interview with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor playing up the Iranian military threat and "the determination and persistence and the clear decison of the organised world to stop them". The item was bumped because of the breaking news of the shootings at a Jewish school in France, but it is featured on the BBC website.

0830 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch. The prospect of a military attack on Iran has receded in the last two weeks, with a US red line against Israeli action and the likely resumption of talks on Tehran's nuclear programme, but the BBC apparently hasn't gotten the news.

The Corporation's flagship radio programme Today handed over several minutes, around 0645 GMT, to those talking up War.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, historian Stephen Schlesinger does not want war --- in fact, he calls for "caution and diplomacy". But this is only because "Iran can be more than a fearsome adversary; it can be a relentless, indeed irrational, state willing to strike out blindly".

The Times headline writers help out: "Tt's worth remembering how the Islamic Republic fights -- dirty and long."

0620 GMT: Having gone through the show of President Ahmadinejad's "interrogation" in Parliament last Wednesday, all parties are enjoying a New Year's break from the feuding and manoeuvring.

Well, almost all. MP Mostafa Kavakebian tried to stir the political pot on Sunday with the declaration that Ahmadinejad must change his ways or Parliament will move to question his continued competence as President.”

Such a motion needs the signature of one-third of the 290 MPs. Kavakebian said,  “I believe the signatures would amount to much more than that...because all the MPs believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s answers were aimed at weakening the position of Parliament.”

I doubt the President is trembling this morning, at least over this intervention. Kavakebian, ostensibly a reformist, make a power move for the recent elections by putting himself at the head of a Democracy Front; however, amidst widespread reformist calls to boycott the vote, he adjusted his position to the point where he reportedly said that he was now a principlist.

And, even if Kavakebian retained a political base, the Supreme Leader would have to approve the end of the President's term.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, spent Sunday in a photo opportunity with a group of pro-Palestinian activists, declaring, “The Europe and the US spend tens of billions of their wealth on the Zionists each year to help a criminal regime...continue its occupation....Despite all liberal claims of the Western states, nobody is ever allowed to ask a question or conduct a research on how the Zionist regime was established.”

0615 GMT: Dissident blogger and physician Mehdi Khazali has reportedly been freed on $180,000 bail.

Khazali, charged with threats to national security because of his criticism of leading figures in his writing and serving a 14-year sentence, had been on hunger strike for 70 days.

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