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The Latest from Iran (27 March): The Lull Before the Talks

See also The Latest from Iran (26 March): Ahmadinejad Grabs the Spotlight

1845 GMT: Foreign Affairs (Syrian Front). President Ahmadinejad, meeting a Syrian envoy in Tehran, has praised the Assad regime: "I am very happy that Syrian officials are managing the situation well....I hope the situation in Syria improves day after day."

Ahmadinejad said there was no limit to expanding ties with Syria, and Iran would do "all in its power to support this country".

The President also castigated the US, "By chanting false slogans of defending people's freedom, the Americans want to take control of Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries and we should be aware and stand firm against their plots."

1825 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The US Treasury has added the Iranian cargo airline, Yas Air; Behineh Trading; three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officials; and one Nigerian shipping agent to its list of sanctions.

Washington claimed the airline, the trading company, and the Revolutionary Guards officials were involved in shipments of weapons to the Levant and Africa. It said Yas Air acted on behalf of the Guards to the Levant and has moved personnel and weapons under the cover of humanitarian aid

In March 2011, Revolutionary Guards officials allegedly oversaw and authorised a series of Yas Air flights carrying weapons destined for Syria, working with Hezbollah and Syrian officials to ensure passage of the illicit cargo. A Turkish inspection of one of the Yas Air flights bound for Syria --- which listed “auto spare parts” on its cargo manifest --- found weapons including Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition, and an assortment of mortar shells.

Behineh Trading, the shipping company, and the Nigerian agent were allegedly involved in a weapons shipment seized in Nigeria in late October 2010. This weapons shipment, allegedly orchestrated by Revolutionary Guards, was intended for The Gambia.

The Revolutionary Guards officials named are Esmail Ghani, a deputy Guards commander; Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the commander of the Africa Corps; and Hosein Aghajani, a longtime Guards official with ties to The Gambia.

Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said, “Today’s action again exposes Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As the Iranian regime exports its lethal aid and expertise to foment violence in Syria and Africa, Treasury will continue to expose the officials and companies involved and work to hold them accountable for the suffering they cause."

1725 GMT: Nuclear Watch. As we expected, Iran's talks with the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, China, Russia) will take place in mid-April and --- following up our first report today (see 0525 GMT), it appears that a venue has been agreed.

A "senior European Union diplomat" has said that the initial discussion will take place on 14 April in Istanbul.

1655 GMT: Economy Watch. Deutsche Welle reports that one kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of chicken in Tehran is now 4200 Toman (about $3.40 at official rate; $2.25 at open-market rate). It notes that the head of chicken producers union had told people before the Iranian New Year, earlier this month, "Do not buy at more than 3900 Toman."

1645 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. An addition to the reported Parliamentary opposition to the Government's second phase of subsidy cuts (see 0920 GMT)....

has declared that, with its 50% increease in support payments this week, the Government wants to set the people against Parliament and "blackmail" the Majlis.

1625 GMT: TV Watch. Britain's media regulator Ofcom has threatened to confiscate the British property of Iranian State outlet Press TV if the channel does not pay a £100,000 fine.

Ofcom fined the channel over an interview with journalist Maziar Bahari, conducted when he was imprisoned in summer 2009 in Tehran. In January, Ofcom revoked the Press TV licence, claiming its output was being directed from Iran than from its London office.

1615 GMT: Espionage Watch. Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi has explained that the BBC and Voice of America had "big plans" to undermine Parliamentary elections this month but failed thanks to Iran's intelligence services.

Moslehi also claimed that the enemy wanted to infiltrate seminaries in the religious city of Qom. He added that Israel's Mossad has launched institutes for Shia studies to harm the Islamic Republic.

Despite all this, Moslehi assured, the opposition in Iran is "disunited".

1555 GMT: President v. Parliament. President Ahmadinejad's Committee for Supervision of the Constitution has issued a call to all lawmakers and experts for co-operation.

MPs have challenged the committee's legal status, arguing that it had been dissolved years ago.

1545 GMT: Fraud Watch. A report from today's trial of one of the 32 defendants over the $2.6 billion bank fraud (see 0655 GMT)....

The defendant B.B., the financial manager of the Amir Mansur Aria Group at the centre of the embezzlement, has partly admitted guilt, "I am very good in faking signatures." At the same time, he accused Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, the head of the Group and main defendant, "I was his right eye."

1540 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. An appeals court has confirmed the six-month sentence of Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, "propaganda against the regime".

Hashemi is also banned for five years from political, media, and cultural activities.

1535 GMT: Economy Watch (Tough Talk Edition). The head of the Basij militia, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, has declared on a visit to southern Iran: "Today we are encircled by foreign goods. Our real trenches are domestic products."

1520 GMT: At the Movies. A website for the film Golden Collars, a depiction of the disputed 2009 Presidential election, has been launched.

The production, according to an EA correspondent, is linked to the Basiji militia.

As Golden Collars is promoted, two other films have been banned by the authorities as too controversial.

1420 GMT: The House Arrests. Back from a break to find that detained opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard have been allowed to meet with their daughters after the Persian New Year. The visit reportedly took place in the presence of security officers and lasted three hours.

According to Mousavi and Rahnavard's daughters, their parents were both in good physical condition and high spirits. The daughters had also been allowed to visit in early March, two weeks before the New Year.

Mousavi and Rahnavard have been detained since February 2011.

0920 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. Radio Zamaneh summarises the escalating dispute over the second phase of the Government's subsidy cuts programme:

Lawmakers are angry at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to deliver more cash benefits to Iranian households as part of the restructuring of government subsidies without the approval of Parliament.

The administration announced that 28,000 toumans [about $15 at open-market rates] has been deposited into people’s accounts, that being the difference between the first and second phase of the cash benefits.

MPs say, however, that under this ruse, the administration locked in the second phase of cash benefits without the approval of Parliament.

The MPs claim that since the administration delivered its New Year's Budget too late, the source of these cash benefits is not clear.

Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghaddam, a member of Parliament’s Economic Commission, said the government is already running over budget for the phase-one cash benefits and it needs to determine where it will find the money to pay for the second phase.

Another MP, Elias Naderan, described the administration’s move as “illegal” and added that Ahmadinejad’s government has often committed such acts in order to force the hand of Parliament.

“In a meeting with the administration to implement the second phase of cash benefits, they were still ambiguous about the sources of these benefits; therefore, Parliament did not approve the second phase of cash benefits in the last two months of the 8th Parliament,” Naderan said.

Ahmadinejad said in an interview on state television: “If they had allowed us, we would have implemented the second phase of targeted subsidies and put 70,000 to 80,000 toumans in people’s pockets so they could go on vacation, but it did not happen, and executing the second phase was made too difficult.”

0910 GMT: Economy Watch. The Supreme Leader might have declared "The Year of National Production", but the Central Bank head, Mahmoud Bahmani is warning of rising prices and a falling growth rate.

0900 GMT: Sanctions Watch. Financial Times Deutschland explains how German companies are still trading with Iran and carrying out financial transactions with "handmade solutions" and money in suitcases, despite the tightening sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

0720 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Saadollah Zarei, an anlayst with the Revolutionary Guards, has assessed the forthcoming talks over Iran's uranium enrichement: "The West must chose tween a peaceful, nuclear Islamic Republic and an Islamic Republic ready to defend itself."

0700 GMT: The International Front. Khabar Online speculates on this week's visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Tehran: will he come with a message from President Obama on the nuclear issue?

Erdoğan and Obama had a discussion of almost two hours earlier this week at the nuclear summit in South Korea.

0655 GMT: Fraud Watch. The fourth hearing in the trial of 32 defendants over a $2.6 billion bank fraud has started today in Tehran.

Unlike previous hearings, when most or all of the defendants, this session is limited to the reading of an indictment against the financial manager of the Amir Mansur Aria Group, the firm at the centre of the embezzlement.

The accusations include the handling of more than 28 trillion Iranian Rial (then about £2.5 billion) and money laundering.

0525 GMT: A very slow Monday for Iranian news was punctuated by the standard rhetoric --- courtesy of Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami --- that any attack on Tehran will bring the demise of Israel and that sanctions on Iran's oil will cause global recession. There was also the continued promotion of Iran's regional influence through the highlighting of the talks and agreements with Afghanistan and Tajikistan during a three-day meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. 

All of this is a backdrop for the resumption of talks on 13 April over Iran's nuclear programme. There is no doubt, at least from Iranian State media and the statements of officials, that Tehran wants the discussions to take place with the "5+1 Powers" --- on Monday, Press TV headlined, "German FM supports resumption of ‘substantial’ Iran-P5+1 talks".

Whether those talks will make any advance is a different matter, of course. Even the venue, according to reports, was in question on Monday. And there is no sign from either the Tehran or the US and its European allies of a deal that could be put on the table in Istanbul...or Vienna...or Geneva...or another city.

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