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The Latest from Iran (2 May): Books and Politics

Banned: Cheshmeh Publishing House2030 GMT: Press Watch. Reformist monthly Nasim-e Bidari, which disappeared from newsstands this week, has been banned for two months for "violating the rules of the National Security Council". Its violation appears be publication of former president Khatami's memoirs, describing his meeting with Nelson Mandela, his condemnation of violence, and advocacy of civil methods for rulers.

1910 GMT: Media Watch. Reza Moghadassi, the managing editor of the conservative site Mehr, has criticised the Government's media law for "restricting the free flow of information more and more each day".

Moghadassi claimed that the Government's decree would allow the Ministry of Communications to filter a website immediately after a ban was issued by the Media Supervisory Council.

1850 GMT: Gasoline and Price Rises Don't Mix. Earlier today (see 0930 GMT) we reported that the price of subsidised gasoline is set to quadruple from 100 Toman (just over $0.08 at official rate) to 400 Toman ($0.33).

Now ISNA reports that people are rushing gas stations in Tehran to buy the 100 Toman fuel while they can. There has been a 600% increase in consumption in the past two days, with police at some stations to control crowds.

1840 GMT: Parliament v. President. Speaking at a meeting of the Unity Front faction, leading MP Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghaddam has described three Parliamentary moves against the Government to stop price rises.

However, it appears that the Guardian Council may have raised the stakes on another front. Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said the Council has rejected a Parliamentary measure to spur impeachment of the President if he fails to answer more than six questions satisfactorily.

1600 GMT: Parliament v. President. We noted yesterday that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani had sharply responded to President Ahmadinejad's assertion that "“the cancelation of government acts by the parliament is against the Constitution".

Perhaps even more significant is the rebuke of Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who said the “the interpretation of the Constitution and...what Parliament is doing in regards to the solely the responsibility of the Guardian Council".

1550 GMT: Foreign Affairs (British Front). Looks like politics and sanctions are taking a heavy toll on Anglo-Iranian academic relations, at least in rhetoric and threat:

Farhad Daneshjoo, the head of Islamic Azad University and the brother of the Minister of Higher Education, has accused London of "a big mistake" with sanctions preventing the establishment of an academic institute in the UK.

Daneshjoo said, probably referring to those sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education, that there is "no new Iranian student studying in the UK" and those candidates who are already in Britain must return to Iran once their study is finished.

Daneshjoo concluded, "I ask the UK government to not mix political affairs with academic affairs."

1540 GMT: Bank Fraud Watch. An EA source has noted another prominent name caught up in the $2.6 billion bank fraud case. Elias Mahmoudi, the head of the Security Department of Iran's judiciary has been accused of involvement.

Mahmoudi is also linked to the Presidency, as he assisted Saeed Mortazavi, now an Ahmadinejad aide, in the suppression of the media and the trials of political activists after the 2009 Presidential election.

Mahmoud has also been accused, along with 1st Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, in a major insurance fraud.

1413 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Over the past week, there had been signs that the US and Europe were moving towards a coherent strategy in forthcoming talks with Iran, with an American official putting out the idea that Washington could accept enrichment of uranium to 5% inside Iran, given strict inspections and safeguards.

Earlier today, we reported the public retreat of a State Department spokeswoman from this approach (see 1147 GMT), and now we see this disturbing report from Laura Rozen:

The P5+1 has yet to decide how to react, [a Western diplomat] said, if Iran freezes 20 percent enrichment or promises to take other steps, such as stopping enrichment at Fordo, a facility near Qom that is under 90 yards of rock.

“If they really do something, it would change the game,” the diplomat said. “We’ve never believed that they were serious.....If they manage to give us the feeling that this is for real, we need to think about what we could do.”

Other sources briefed on the deliberations have described the current thinking as presenting Iran with a “Chinese menu” of options. If Iran agrees, for example, to suspend 20 percent enrichment, send out its stockpile of that uranium and stop operations at Fordo, then it would get X, Y, and Z: hypothetically, fuel for the Tehran research reactor, suspension of E.U. oil sanctions and perhaps spare Boeing parts for its civilian aircraft. If Iran agrees to just one or two of the concessions, it might get just fuel for the reactor.

The lead US negotiator to the P5+1, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, has been given discretion to negotiate based on such a menu of options, whose exact nature is being closely held. Western negotiators are hoping more may be worked out at preparatory meetings prior to the Baghdad talks which are to be led by the EU’s Helga Schmid and Iran’s Ali Bagheri and conducted with a minimum of publicity.

Rozen's report raises the possibility that the Plan A of some US and European negotiators was failure, to be blamed on Tehran, with no Plan B.

And the article comes as Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, the member of the Supreme Leader's inner circle who is emerging as a leading bellwether of Iran's position, declared again today, ""Lifting the sanctions is the least we expect from the Baghdad talks."

More on this in a Thursday analysis....

1339 GMT: Economy Watch. Etedaal reports that tomatoes have hit a new record price in Tehran of 3500 Toman (about $2.80 at official rate) per kilogramme.

On 12 January, Tabnak put the price at 1400 Toman.

1147 GMT: Nuclear Watch. The US State Department has publicly denied that it will accept enrichment of uranium to 5% on Iranian soil, given strict inspection and safeguards.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting US officials, said Washington was preparing for the arrangement in nuclear talks, but spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in response to a journalist raising the issue: “I’m not sure what your assertion is based on. It might have been based on one poorly reported story that I saw over the weekend. I would say that our position remains as it has been: we want to see Iran live up to its international obligations, including the suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions.”

1143 GMT: So Much for the "Zionist" Enemy? An advisor at the Audit Office has found that Bank Melli and the Revolutionary Guards arranged for 100 million Euros for purchase of communications equipment from Israel.

1136 GMT: Elections Watch. Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the spiritual head of Parliament, has asked people to vote in Friday's second round of Majlis elections as "splendid participation" will have a "great effect" on the nuclear talks on 23 May in Baghdad between Iran and the 5+1 Powers.

0956 GMT: Protest Watch. HRANA reports that security forces broke up a May Day demonstration in Sanandaj in northwest Iran.

This group was able to gather in Kamyaran, also in the northwest, with the banner, "Congratulations for May 1, International Labour Day. Workers of the World Unite":

0937 GMT: Bank Fraud Watch. Rah-e Sabz posts a series of documents claiming the involvement of the head of Bank Saderat, Mohammad Jahromi, proving his involvement in embezzlement and administrative corruption.

Allegations includes Jahromi's issuance uncovered guarantees for money to himself and his family, with one billion Toman (about $820,000 at official rates) to prominent pro-regime director Masoud Dehnamaki and five billion Toman (about $4.1 million) to Bushehr football club.

Jahromi was fired soon after the revelation of the $2.6 billion bank fraud last September.

0930 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. MP Elyas Naderan has claimed that the Government wants to double prices for energy carriers in its second phase of subsidy cuts, still to be implemented after months of promises. Naderan added that the Iranian economy has "no capacity to bear" the price increases.

Opposition website Kalemeh reports that subsidised gasoline will rise in price from 100 Toman (just over $0.08 at official rates) to 400 Toman ($0.33) per litre from 20 May.

0710 GMT: We open today on the cultural front, noting Tuesday's opening of the 25th Tehran International Book Fair, with President Ahmadinejad in attendance.

Still, the love of reading has not been an unimpeded celebration. Many Iranian publishers have shut or are in a difficult situation because of economic problems and/or censorship. And some of the high-profile publishers who remain will not be at the Fair: outlets such as Cheshmeh and Sales have been banned.

The Los Angeles Times takes up the story:

The 10-day book fair, which kicks off Tuesday at the Grand Mosque Mosalla, bills itself as "the most important publishing event in Asia and the Middle East," drawing an average of 550,000 visitors a day. Though most publishers come from the Islamic world, the festival also welcomes Western companies hawking scientific or technical titles such as "Bioeconomics of Fisheries Management" and "Succeeding with Technology" -- and any other books that abide by "Islamic values."

That may have tripped up a disputed Iranian company, Cheshmeh, which had its license suspended late last year, halting the presses that printed Western philosophy, Iranian short stories, history books from Cambridge and the Orhan Pamuk novel “My Name Is Red,” among other titles.

Iranian officials haven’t explained why the company was shut down, despite the outcry from writers and publishers. It had been one of several publishers accused of promoting a Western lifestyle.

An online petition that includes writers and translators expressed concern about Cheshmeh's suspension and absence from the book fair, saying it made the selection of books available in Iran "thinner and weaker."...

But even if Cheshmeh and other publishing houses are ultimately shut out of the annual festival, their books won’t necessarily be shut out of Iran. Despite the firm dictates of religious and cultural ministers, a vibrant underground market for banned books and movies exists in Tehran.  

“Give me any banned or illegal book. I can copy it exactly like the original one in less than a week and market it in the network across the country,” one Tehran man boasted. “Any book that’s banned will be a hit in the market.”

The street stalls are called nayab foreshi, Farsi for “rarely available items.” Yet the forbidden books are actually very much available, albeit at a price. Books and films banned by Iranian authorities are pirated within days and sold at inflated prices by street vendors who risk months in jail for shilling the forbidden tales.  

And on Revolution Avenue, street vendors sell Farsi translations of “The Right to Heresy,” a dense text about religious reformation that became popular with reformists after defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi suggested it. The book, once sold for less than $2, has nearly tripled in price after being banned.

Pirated copies of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” banned years ago as pornography, can still be found just outside Tehran universities. The prohibited film “Santoori,” about a dulcimer player addicted to drugs, is readily available on DVD on Tehran sidewalks not far from where Friday prayers are held.

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