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The Latest from Iran (22 March): Noise for the New Year

2124 GMT: Nuclear Watch. A sign of cautious optimism? The conservative outlet Tabnak sees signals of rapprochement between the US and Iran in the recent statements of President Obama and the Supreme Leader, ahead of the resumption of nuclear talks on 13 April.

2114 GMT: Human Rights Watch. The United Nations Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Iran, Ahmad Shaheed, on Thursday by a 22-5 vote with 20 abstentions.

Russia and China voted against the resolution that expressed "serious concerns" about Iran's human rights record.

2104 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the leader of the conservative Motalefeh Party, has echoed the warning of MP Alireza Marandi (see 1220 GMT), "I pray for Ahmadinejad that he ends his term as President on good terms."

MP Asadollah Badamchian adds that the President made the mistake, in his Parliamentary "interrogation" last week, of insulting legislators and callig them unworthy if they wld not give him high marks.

1628 GMT: A New Coalition? Mohsen Rezaei, the Secretary of the Expediency Council, has said that Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt should create an equivalent to the European Union, committing themselves not to kill their own people and establish democracies to prevent a "Western war 4 oil".

1358 GMT: Food Watch. Iran, facing restrictions on commodities amidst sanctions, is seeking to buy more agricultural products from India after agreeing to import soybean meal used in livestock feed.

Tehran “is interested in importing wheat, sugar, soybean meal and tea,” Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations, said. “I don’t think payment is an issue.”

After months of deadlock over payment arrangements for its oil, Iran recently agreed that India could fund 45% of purchases in rupees. The rupee is not internationally convertible, however, pushing Iran to look for resources it can buy from Delhi.

1350 GMT: Human Rights Watch. RAHANA, one of the leading outlets for information on detentions and human rights issues in Iran, has suspended operations after 26 months of reporting.

1240 GMT: Human Rights Watch. The Council of the European Union, meeting tomorrow, is expected to expand sanctions on Iran for human rights violations. It will add 18 persons, allegedly responsible for serious human rights violations, to the existing list of 61 Iranians subject to a travel ban and an asset freeze. It will also ban the export to Iran of equipment or software intended primarily for use by the authorities in the monitoring or interception of internet and telephone communications in Iran.

The decision comes in the wake of expressions of the EU's concern about the deteriorating human rights situation and the report, on 12 March, of United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed on systematic violations by the Iranian authorities.

1230 GMT: Loyalty Watch. Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabbasi has declared, "The Supreme Leader's ideas will be realised across the whole world soon. The Arab uprisings were inspired by him."

1220 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Alireza Marandi, prominent Tehran MP and former Minister of Health, has issued a warning to the President. He said the Supreme Leader did not expect Ahmadinejad to oppose him. Ayatollah Khamenei wanted the Government to continue but Ahmadinejad "should beware else he may not end his turn as President".

1020 GMT: Oil Watch. While the US carries out its manoeuvres to tighten sanctions on Tehran (see 0935 GMT), China has almost halved its imports of Iranian oil.

Beijing, the biggest buyer of Iranian crude, cut purchases by 45% in February from a month earlier. Imports fell to 1.15 million metric tons, or about 290,000 barrels a day, the lowest level since May 2010.

In 2011, China bought an average 557,413 barrels per day.

1000 GMT: Not-Hypocritical-at-All Watch. Iranian media and officials have not been too kind to human rights investigators recently, denouncing United Nations Special Rapporteur Ahmad Shaheed as a tool of the West for his report criticising Tehran's violations.

So when does the Islamic Republic embrace a human rights enquiry? Over to you, Fars:

A prominent international human rights organization denounced the violation of human rights by the Syrian armed opposition groups.

Middle-East Director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Sarah Leah Whitson said that Syria's armed groups embark on serious human rights violations, including torture, kidnapping and execution of the security forces and the government's supporters.

0945 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch. This week we have been noting the US Administration's "counter-spin" against talk for an Israeli attack on Tehran, notably the leak of a Pentagon war game that warned hundreds of Americans would die in Iran's retaliation while the Iranian nuclear programme was delayed but not stopped.

Now Haaretz's Avi Shavit is the messenger for an "Israeli official" putting out the counter to the counter-spin:

Anyone who doesn't look at life through rose-colored glasses should understand that it's unrealistic to expect the U.S. president to promise the Israeli prime minister that he will stop Iran via a military operation at some point in the future. Thus precisely because of the close relationship between the two allies, Israel must be prepared to accept the fact that on this fateful issue, it must act alone, without consulting anyone.

Israel, the official said, will respect the United States and take its interests into account, but it will not wait for the United States to give it a green light to act. Nor will Israel inform the Americans of such an operation in advance.

The Israeli official said he sees Iran as a paper tiger. Its ability to carry out a direct strike on Israel's home front is limited. Its control over Hezbollah and Hamas is not total. If Lebanon allows the Shi'ite militia to attack Israel from its territory, it will end up with no power stations and no airports.

Gog and Magog? Those fears are quite exaggerated. The United States really has nothing to worry about. Since Iran's supreme concern is to avoid drawing America into the war, it will have no interest in attacking American targets. The chances that Iran will do anything against America are small, and Iran's ability to harm America is almost nil.

True, oil prices are likely to soar dramatically. But even that spike won't last for very long, because Saudi Arabia will quickly increase its output. In a few weeks, the market will calm down and businesses will be back on track. Looking back, everyone will thank Israel and recognize that in its own way, it solved a problem that the world was unable to solve.

0935 GMT: Sanctions Watch. A follow-up to yesterday's news that the US Government, manoeuvring the sanctions regimes, has exempted 10 European Union countries and Japan from punishment as they have reduced imports of Iranian oil.

While granting the waivers, Washington is maintaining the pressure by saying 12 countries could still be sanctioned, including China and India, the top two importers of Iran’s crude; South Korea, the fourth-largest buyer; and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Turkish Minister of Energy Taner Yildiz said Wednesday that Ankara can still get a six-month exemption even though it was not on the list: "Turkey's absence from the United States waiver list regarding the Iran issue doesn't mean it will not be included."

Turkish officials said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plans to raise the issue with President Obama during a nuclear security summit in South Korea later this month.

Yildiz said Turkey could not halt purchasing from Iran unless other suppliers were lined up: "It is out of the question for us to stop buying oil from Iran unless the supply is replaced."

There are indications, however, that Ankara is preparing to restrict its imports from Tehran: it has signed a new contract to buy oil from Libya, and has held talks --- so far inconclusive over the possibility of buying from Saudi Arabia.

Turkey imports around 200,000 barrels per day of oil from Iran, more than 7% of Tehran's oil exports.

0525 GMT: With Nowruz in Iran bringing a pause in news of substance, noise and propaganda take its place.

Press TV's top six Iran stories are all on the lines that Sanctions Are Bad, War Would Be Really Bad, and We Are Continuing Our Nuclear Programme Whatever Happens. The Venezuelan Ambassador is brought in to announce that sanctions threaten the stability of the oil market, while former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed El Baradei --- who, in previous times, has been called a puppet of the West by Iranian media --- is the guarantor that a military attack on Tehran will not stop nuclear development.

State news agency IRNA is more useful in its signal of imminent nuclear talks, citing a Chinese spokesman that Beijing "urgently" wants the West to begin discussions. Meanwhile, the reassurance is given that the Bushehr nuclear power plant --- which was supposedly launched to provide energy 18 months ago --- is "on the prescribed schedule".

The huffing and puffing is not just from the Iranians. The New York Police Department's director of intelligence, Mitchell Silber, told the US Congress on Wednesday that "Iranian spies" have conducted "hostile reconnaissance" of New York City landmarks and infrastructure on at least six occasions since 2002. The evidence for this was that "at least 13 individuals associated with the government of Iran" had taken video footage or photographed locations such as "the subway tracks in Grand Central Station", the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Wall Street Heliport.

Silber said New York City's international significance and large Jewish presence makes it "the most likely venue for global tensions with Iran to spill over onto American soil".

And other groups add their white noise. Amidst bickering between Fatah and Hamas over who leads the Palestinian movement, Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf said Iran paid Hamas to block a deal for reconciliation.

Assaf claimed, “We have information that Iran paid tens of millions of dollars to Zahar and Haniyeh in their visits,” referring to Hamas leaders Mahmoud al-Zahar, who visited Tehran last week, and Ismail Haniyeh, who was there in February.

Assaf, responding to a comment by Zahar that Palestinian political reconciliation “is in the freezer now”, alleged, “Reconciliation is in the freezer because Zahar was the one who put it there and he got the price from Iran. Zahar, Haniyeh and Hamas’s Gaza leadership were paid by Iran to freeze reconciliation.”

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