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Tuesday
Apr032012

The Latest from Iran (3 April): Protesting Discrimination

Young Iranian men criticise racism against Afghans, with one of the signs declaring, "I am also an Afghan" (see 0610 GMT)

See also The Latest from Iran (2 April): Talking About Oil


1840 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Student activist Peyman Aref has been released from prison.

Aref, held on six occasions since the disputed 2009 Presidential election, was released in October 2011 after serving a year and receiving 74 lashes, but he was seized again in mid-March.

1805 GMT: Tough Talk of the Day. Masoud Jayazeri, the deputy head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has declared, "In the face of any attack, we will have a crushing response. In that case, we will not only act in the boundaries of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, no place in America will be safe from our attacks."

Jayazeri added that Iran would not strike any country first.

1755 GMT: We've Changed Our Minds. Earlier we reported (see 1030 GMT) that the conservative site Alef, linked to MP Ahmad Tavakoli, had scheduled a special interview with the US State Department's Persian-language spokesperson Alan Eyre, asking questions sent in by readers.

Well, looks like someone has had second thoughts --- the item has been pulled from the site.

Digarban's summary of the story is still live, although its link to Alef is also "dead".

1550 GMT: Economy Watch. Shargh reports that Tehran has banned the import of about 600 goods, with only importers of essential items benefiting from the preferential, "official" exchange rate.

The move appears to be prompted by growing problems over domestic production, a weakening balance of trade, and the Iranian currency.

Hamid Safdel, director of Iran's Trade Promotion Organization, said that the 600 unspecified items that are temporarily banned have domestic equivalents.

Importers of 180 luxury products will now have to buy foreign currency at the open market rate of more than 19000 Rials to the US dollar, rather than the official rate of 12260:1.

1545 GMT: Sanctions Watch. Greece's biggest oil refiner Hellenic Petroleum has suspended purchases of Iranian crude in April, a senior source at the firm said.

The source said no European Union banks were willing to handle business any more, forcing Hellenic to suspend buying this month:

We were using a Turkish bank all the time but we have to use an EU corresponding bank to make the payment from our Greek bank to the Turkish one and the EU banks are refusing that. It is very unlikely we will lift (Iranian oil) in May. We can't pay. If we can later, we will respect our contract but only lift the minimum.

On 23 January, the European Union mandated that all members suspend Iranian oil imports from 1 July. Greece takes 22% of its oil from Iran, and arrangements have been sought for alternative supplies.

1455 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The US State Department's Persian channel has put out a video of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland's statement calling for the release of seven Baha'i leaders, who have now spent a total of 10,000 days in prison:

1435 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Singer/songwriter Arya Aramnejad has been freed from prison.

Aramnejad was seized in November 2011 in Sari in northern Iran. He had distributed a song, "All Rise", after the Ashura demonstrations of December 2009, and is known for other anthems such as "Nostalgia" and "In Order to Touch Freedom".

Arjomand was previously arrested in February 2009 for "colluding against the national security of the country", receiving a nine-month sentence.

1215 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Fakhrossadat Mohtashamipour, the wife of detained reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, has written an open letter to Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani about the situation of political prisoners and their families.

Mohtashamipour, who was held for 45 days in early 2011, mentioned that she was amidst "pressure by security forces" on Vahid Khorsani, causing delays and postponements in his visits with the families of political prisoners.

1130 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. An interesting intervention from former President Hashemi Rafsanjani....

In sharp contrast to other regime officials, who have been condemning Saudi Arabia's current or potential intervention in Syria, Rafsanjani has called for better ties: "If we had good relations with Saudi Arabia, would the West have been able to impose sanctions (on Iran's oil)?"

Quoted in International Studies Journal, a quarterly Iranian publication, Rafsanjani continued, "Only Saudi Arabia could fill the void left by Iran. (All they need do is) produce oil within their OPEC quota, and then no one would be able to harass us."

Rafsanjani challenged those in the regime expressing hostility towards Riyadh, "I think it is still possible to form good relations. But there are people who do not want this... some harsh remarks coming from both sides should be corrected."

Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, also repeated his position that Tehran should resume diplomatic relations with the US, "If we negotiate with them (European nations, China, and Russia), why should we not talk with America?....I told Imam Khomeini that what we are doing now [in the 1980s] will not last forever. The meaning of negotiation is not that we submit to them. We negotiate, and if they accept our positions or we accept theirs, then it is done."

Speaking about the domestic environment, Rafsanjani called for a "moderate political attitude" and said, "if we are going to continue without people, everything will face a dead end.”

1044 GMT: Economy Watch. The Central Bank reportedly took money from Iran's banks two weeks ago, its second withdrawal in March. Analyst Jamsheed Assadi evaluates that the cash is needed for Government subsidies and wonders how the funds will be repaid.

1040 GMT: Spiritual Matters. Hojatoleslam Abdolmoqim Nasehi, the head of religious activities of the Tehran municipality, has said 100 billion Toman (about $85 million at official rate; about $55 million at open-market rate) will be paid to Tehran's mosques this Iranian year.

Digarban asserts that the support may be connected to the Presidential candidacy in 2013 of Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.

1030 GMT: And Now Our Special Guest. The conservative website Alef, linked to prominent MP Ahmad Tavakoli, has announced that it is taking readers' questions for Alan Eyre, the US State Department's first Persian-language spokesperson.

1020 GMT: Drumbeats of War Watch. After weeks of media spin pushing back against the prospect of an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, some in West Jerusalem have tried to renew the pressure:

Israeli security officials have estimated the number of casualties in Israel as a result of a military conflict with Iran would be fewer than 300.

An assessment presented to the security cabinet last weekend anticipates three weeks of rocket and missile attacks from Lebanon and Syria, as well as probably Iran and – to a limited extent – Gaza, according to reports in the Israeli media.

The assurance of not-that-many casualties follows high-profile articles in US media, fed by Washington's officials, that an Israeli attack would lead to Iranian retaliation killing hundreds of Americans.

0939 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. Fars briefly notes that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has written the Supreme Leader about the proposed second phase of the Government's subsidy cuts.

Khabar Online, linked to Larijani, offers detail of the criticism, with Larijani claiming that the "illegal subsidy cuts...will create a storm of inflation".

MPs have challenged the Government over the implementation, claiming that it is acting illegally after mismanaging the first phase of the cuts and support payments from December 2010. The Ahmadinejad administration said in December 2011 that the second phase was "imminent", but has yet to carry out the cuts.

Khabar Online drives the point home, "Why is the Governnment Insisting on Rapid Implementation?"

Larijani also challenged the Government by saying that most people are grappling with high prices and unemployment of their children. He said these problems could be resolved through support of the production sector, adding unnecessary imports.

0930 GMT: Parliament v. President. Nineteen MPs have formally written Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, calling for the impeachment of Minister of Labour Abdolreza Sheikholeslami.

The signatories include prominent legislators such as Alireza Zakani, Ahmad Tavakoli, Elyas Naderan, Ali Motahari, and Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghaddam.

The letter's primary accusation is that the Minister of Labour has supported the appointment of Presidential aide Saeed Mortazavi as the head of the Social Security Fund. The MPs want Mortazavi, who was Tehran Prosecutor General during the abuses and killings at the Kahrizak detention centre in summer 2009, to be accountable for the episode.

0705 GMT: All-Is-Well Alert. Both State broadcaster IRIB and Press TV herald good news on the oil and sanctions front::

South Africa has increased its crude imports from Iran to USD 364 million in February, up from zero in the previous month, firmly ignoring the US-led oil embargo on the Islamic Republic, an official report says.

South Africa’s Revenue Service revealed on Monday that the country imported 417,000 tons of Iranian crude in February, indicating a dramatic change of a declining trend seen since October, when the country last imported 467,000 tons of the commodity, according to Reuters.

In January, trade and customs figures showed that South Africa’s crude imports from Iran stood at zero, compared with a monthly average of $280 million last year.

South Africa had halted imports amidst a visit in mid-January from US Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman.

Iran has been South Africa's biggest crude supplier, accounting for a quarter of its oil imports.

0625 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Our colleague Dave Siavashi of Iran News Now posts a snap analysis via Twitter of an apparent opening for the forthcoming nuclear talks between Tehran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, China, Russia):

Siavashi notes this statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday, after she was briefed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his talks last week with Iranian leaders:

They (the Turks) were told that the Supreme Leader viewed weapons of mass destruction as religiously prohibited, as against Islam. We are meeting with the Iranians to discuss how to translate what is a stated belief into a plan of action. It is not an abstract belief, but a government policy. That government policy can be demonstrated in a number of ways. ....The international community now wants to see actions associated with that statement of belief.

Siavashi assesses:

Clinton's acknowledgement of [Ayatollah] Khamenei's statement that Islam forbids WMDs is unprecedented. It's a positive signal to Iran.

Last month, Khamenei gave an unprecedented nod 2 President Obama's ratcheting down of war talk [when he expressed appreciation for Obama blocking Israel's presentation of an imminent attack on Tehran, amidst a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington]. Seems both Obama Administration and Khamenei regime are leaving the door open to a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Let's see how it goes.

0610 GMT: Protests against discrimination have been common in Iran since the disputed 2009 Presidential election, and here is a distinctive example....

On Sunday, Iranians celebrated Sizdah Bedar, the celebration of nature on the 13th day of New Year. As they picnicked and played outside, there was a report that Afghans living in Isfahan had been banned from the mountainous Sofeh Park. The decision was announced on March 30 by Isfahan’s Committee to Facilitate Travel, which said the ban was  "to ensure citizens' welfare". Ahmad Reza Shafiei, a police official, said "the extensive presence of Afghans" at the park in previous years and "the creation of insecurities for [Iranian] families". 

While Iranian officials declare that the Islamic Republic has hosted more than two million Afghan refugees for two decades, reports of mistreatment, especially against those who enter Iran illegally, have increased. Some have been forcefully deported, and even Afghans who reside legally say they face discrimination and restrictions on their right to study and go to public places.

But here's the twist on Sunday's story. The news brought a reaction on Facebook and other social media, as Iranians condemned the "racist" and insulting order and declared, "I am also an Afghan." A symbolic protest at Sofeh Park on Sunday was reported.

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