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The Latest from Iran (19 September): Another Regime Move on Syria

Syria's President Assad with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi

See also The Latest from Iran (18 September): Nuclear Manoeuvres

2010 GMT: Budget Watch. Marcus George and Zahra Hosseinian combine statistics, observations from analysts to write, "Unemployment Mounts as Iran's Economy Falters":

A wealthy Iranian businessman sits in the lobby of one of Dubai's most luxurious hotels, shaking his head as he laments the state of Iran's economy....

He is en route from Europe, where he runs a company that makes electrical goods, to Iran, a trip he makes several times a year....

"Business is drying up, industry is collapsing. There's zero investment," he said. "I know. I see it with my own eyes."

1700 GMT: Budget Watch. The Budget Commission has announced that the Government has only half of its projected revenue in the first six months of the Iranian calendar, running from March to September.

So far the Government received 141 trillion Toman (about $115 billion at official rate in revenues, versus a budgeted revenue of 283 trillion Toman.

1650 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The US has imposed new sanctions against Iranian airlines, claiming that they have provided 117 aircraft "providing support to or acting for or on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)" with transport of personnel and military assistance to Syria.

“Today’s actions seek to disrupt the flow of weapons and communications equipment to the Syrian regime and help prevent their use against the Syrian people,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen. “The identification of Iranian aircraft also further highlights Iran’s ongoing effort to support the Assad regime’s WMD programs and crackdown against the Syrian people.”

The Treasury said the airlines declared illicit cargo as humanitarian and other legal goods.

1530 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Laura Rozen updates on last night's four-hour meeting between the lead negotiators, the 5+1 Powers' Catherine Ashton and Iran's Saeed Jalili, and their deputies.

Beyond the official statement from Ashton's office (see 0635 GMT), Rozen uses diplomatic sources to describe Iran's desire for a resumption of high-level negotations. The diplomats, presumably from "Western" countries, said Ashton is amenable "but stressed to the Iranians that it’s time for them to get serious".

The informal dinner discussion, which lasted until almost midnight, did not deal with the substance of the dispute around Iran’s nuclear programme.

Ashton will meet next week in New York with senior envoys from the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China).

1400 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Syrian Front). State news agency IRNA carries a brief report on Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's meeting in Damascus with President Assad today.

There is little beyond rhetoric about the welcome for "any plan for a solution based on the fair and equitable interests of the Syrian people". Foreign intervention and outside media's "all-out war" were denounced.

IRNA made no reference to Salehi's presentation of a "plan" (see 0915 GMT) , based on Monday's Iran-Egypt-Turkey meeting, to Assad.

1335 GMT: Economy Watch. The conservative site Tabnak takes a swing at the Government --- inflation will install poverty, prostitution, corruption, robbery, and crime in society.

MP Abbas Fallah adds that the explanations of Minister of Economy Shamseddin Hosseini, in a closed-door meeting in Parliament, about production and currency fluctuations are "not convincing".

1325 GMT: All the President's Men. The news that the Government has revised the charter of the Social Security Fund so controversial President aide Saeed Mortazavi can remain as its head is not sitting well with leading conservative activist Abdolhossein Ruholamini.

The son of Ruholamini, the campaign manager for Mohsen Rezaei in the 2009 Presidential election, died in the abuses in the Kahrizak detention centre amid post-election protests. Mortazavi has been criticised for an alleged role in the events as the Tehran Prosecutor General.

Ruholamini questioned the report that 164 of Parliament's 290 members had effectively endorsed the Government move by signing a letter to thanks to Mortazavi, demanding that the names be made public.

Leading MP Ahmad Tavakoli has also criticised the support of MPs for a "disgraced judge" was a "shame" for the Majlis.

1315 GMT: Grounded. Abdolreza Mousavi, the head of the Airline Union,. has said that domestic airlines must stop flights or double fares after a cut-off of Government support.

0915 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Syrian Front). Misleading reports are circulating in mainstream media that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, visiting Damascus today, will put forth a 9-point plan from the "contact group" of Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

The reports are based on an article in Iran's Mehr; however, the website is clear that this was merely the Iranian position presented on Monday in Cairo to a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the contact group.

Moreover, Mehr notes that neither Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal nor any other Saudi official attended the meeting.

Both the Egyptian and Turkish Foreign Ministers said after the session that no agreements had been reached. The former said that the contact group would meet again on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York later this month.

Salehi's proposal included a plan for the contact group countries to send observers to Syria, as well as a call for a cease-fire, an end to outside support to armed groups, and an emphasis on "the peaceful settlement of the crisis without foreign intervention" through talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

0725 GMT: Currency Watch. More confusion over Central Bank and Government steps in the currency crisis....

Responding to criticism that the Central Bank has halted foreign currency to importers at the official rate --- under which the Iranian Rial buys twice as many US dollars, compared to the open market --- since last month, Bank head Mahmoud Bahmani said this week that the official rate would be available to importers of 1st- and 2nd-grade basic goods.

However, Mehr indicates that the rate is not yet available for 2nd-grade goods, which include badly-needed drugs.

0701 GMT: Earthquake Watch. Morad Mansouri reports for Tehran Bureau on he problems in the relief effort after last month's East Azerbaijan earthquake, from detentions to unused aid, and the possibilities for the regime to turn the situation to its advantage:

The efforts to coordinate aid delivery between various civilian groups and the government were less successful than they could have been due to political interference and mismanagement, which manifested in three primary ways:

(1) The government was fearful of the presence of civilian groups from other regions. It routinely interprets civic organizations' popularity as a political threat. As a result, a tense security climate pervaded the earthquake-stricken region within hours after the initial quakes. In villages, the mood grew more oppressive by the day. Apart from the arrests of civilian volunteers that made the news, many others were detained simply for being on the scene or taking photographs. In many cases, instead of cooperating with civic groups, government officials rejected their offers of assistance and cooperation or buried them in bureaucratic quagmires.

(2) Petty bureaucrats' scrambling for personal gain from the huge volume of donations reflected what had been seen in previous disasters. Today, you still can procure unused tents intended as donations to Bam earthquake victims in 2003. Efforts by local administrators in East Azerbaijan to keep aid depot locations secret must be understood in this light.

(3) Many familiar with local conditions believe that in-fighting between government factions at the highest levels had a dire effect on the management of this disaster. One long-time East Azerbaijani civic activist, who requested anonymity, said that the Center for Disaster Management was effectively shackled and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's message of condolence was not disseminated for several days in order to undermine the Supreme Leader and his camp by fomenting popular discontent in the region.

Civic activists have enumerated critical issues that could lead to serious long-term repercussions of which the government seems oblivious: Civilian aid was so voluminous that survivors often competed for provisions for the future instead of cooperating to alleviate the problems at hand. Damage to livestock stables and ranches has forced owners to liquidate their flocks at fire-sale prices, leaving little available meat in the affected region. The destruction of agricultural support and financial infrastructure will limit farmers' abilities to harvest and store their crops, forcing them to sell their produce at very low prices as well. Many day laborers who live on the fringes of towns in the region have lost their work and incomes since the quake. The lack of safe housing in many villages has forced survivors to view emigration to nearby cities as their only viable alternative. The rural housing shortage also means that the approaching cold season could result in a humanitarian disaster --- East Azerbaijan is one of the coldest regions in Iran.

Despite all these hurdles, there have been some positive outcomes. One of the most important has been the apparent drop in support for Pan-Turkism in the region and new energy behind ideals of national unity among the Azeri ethnic minority. The ongoing development of civic coalitions in parallel to the government for trust building and cooperation suggests that in the future aid to disaster victims could be more swift, focused, and efficient. It can only be hoped that the government has been reminded that half-hearted and mismanaged disaster response yields popular mistrust and weakening of political support.

0653 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Poets Habib Mousavi Bibalani and Nima Safar Saflaei were arrested last Friday at a Poetry Organization gathering in Gilan in northern Iran.

0649 GMT: Revolutionary Guards Watch. Hajji Jafar Jangrudi is the latest Revolutionary Guards commander to die suddenly.

A series of commanders have passed away in the last year, purportedly from natural causes.

0645 GMT: Currency Watch. MP Iraj Nadimi claims that Parliament has given the Government a three-day ultimatum to settle currency market.

The Iranian Rial, reported at 24260:1 on Tuesday, has plunged again this month on the open market. It is now half its value of last autumn and of the official rate of 12260:1.

0635 GMT: Nuclear Watch. State outlet Press TV briefly reports on Tuesday night's dinner between Iran's lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and his counterpart for the 5+1 Powers, the European Union's Catherine Ashton.

No details were offered, as Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann said, "While it was not a formal negotiating round, it was a useful and constructive meeting."

Ashton's office said she would meet with the Foreign Ministers 5+1 --- US, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany --- on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week “to assess the situation and to discuss the way forward".

0615 GMT: We begin with the latest on the regime's attempt to take the initiative over the Syrian conflict.

The Foreign Ministry, and probably the President, had hoped to grab the diplomatic high ground with Monday's initial high-level meeting in Cairo of the new "contact group" of Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

However, before the session, the Foreign Ministry had been undermined by the announcement of the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, that Iran was intervening in the conflict through the "counsel" of the elite Quds Force to the Assad regime. Then, Monday's meeting fizzled when the Saudi Foreign Minister stayed away and the gathering reached no agreement.

Tehran reacted by declaring that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi will be in Damascus today. And Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani offered reinforcement with an interview to Britain's Financial Times:

[Larijani] revealed that the Islamic regime has held talks with Syrian opposition groups....Iranian diplomats had met members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ultraconservative Salafis and liberals and encouraged them to accept “democratic reforms through peaceful behaviour, not violence”.

The Speaker did not identify give names of opposition members or dates of the meetings. He said that the talks in Iran were continuing, although little progress had been made:

These groups are Syrian people. They can have political participation in the [reform] process, give their thoughts and provide solutions. But some countries are intervening and are not allowing this to happen. I mean they [opposition groups] are not really left [alone] to make own decisions.

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