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Iran Live Coverage: The Isolation of the Country

See also Saturday's Iran Live Coverage: The Engineering of the Elections Turns Nasty

2226 GMT: Elections Watch. After another day of tension over "free elections", we will give the final word to Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who refers to the 2009 Presidential election while looking to the next vote in June:

The "free election" slogan has burned 40 million votes. The leaders of fitna [sedition] should take idea of the victory to their graves.

2220 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Hashemi Rafsanjani --- having made his mark this week with his comment that it is the Iranian people, rather than the Supreme Leader or any politician, who will "pave the way to free elections" --- continues his challenge on the economic front. The former President said today:

People don't live on slogans. The Government must provide them with an average living --- giving people cash is of no help.

1834 GMT: Health Watch. The Guardian posts an overview of the health care crisis:

"Sometimes companies agree to sell us drugs but we have no way of paying them. On one occasion, our money was in the bank for four months but the transfer repeatedly got rejected," Naser Naghdi, the director general of Darou Pakhsh, the country's biggest pharmaceutical company, [said]....

"There are patients for whom a medicine is the different between life and death. What is the world doing about this? Are Britain, Germany, and France thinking about what they are doing? If you have cancer and you can't find your chemotherapy drug, your death will come soon. It is as simple as that."...

A senior British official acknowledged that discussions between London, Brussels and Washington had been going on for months with the aim of unblocking the supply of medicines, but without a decisive outcome. "The problem is that for some of the big pharmaceutical companies and banks it's just not worth the hassle and the risk of reputational damage, so they just steer clear," the official said.

1749 GMT: Elections Watch. And now the first significant voice to say, amid the tension over "free elections", that it would be best not to vote....

Grand Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani said, "Although the President should be elected by the people, it would be better to let MPs chose him under the current circumstances....We must keep the 'unity of the word' and national unity."

Meanwhile, detained senior reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh has responded to the rhetoric of the regime by saying that, instead of being quiet about "free elections", Iranians must defend them --- thus preventing the "election coup" of 2009.

1737 GMT: Parliament v. President. It looks like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is drawing a line on his appearance in Parliament on Wednesday --- while he will present his case for a second stage of subsidy cuts reform, he reportedly will not answer questions.

Mohammad Dehghan of the Board of Parliament has responded, "If the President AN has no time to listen to MPs on Wednesday, it is better that he stay away."

1730 GMT: Elections Watch. Only days after he was quoted as saying that he would not run for President, Mohsen Rezaei --- former head of the Revolutionary Guards, 2009 Presidential candidate, Secretary of the Expediency Council --- may be putting out a different message.

In an interview published this weekend, Rezaei has said that both hardliners and reformists are on the verge of collapse and indicated that a politician beyond those factions is needed to save the country.

1550 GMT: The Battle Within. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has cancelled permission for President Ahmadinejad's office to import Mercedes-Benz cars without paying duties.

1400 GMT: Oil Watch. Writing for the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, William Yong and Alirez Hajihosseini offer a useful overview, "Understanding Iran Under Sanctions --- Oil and the National Budget", while cautioning against the perspective of sanctions as "cracking" the regime.

1303 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh has been released on prison furlough after 10 months in hospital.

Aminzadeh, a founding member of the now-banned reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was arrested just after the disputed Presidential election in June 2009. He was given a six-year sentence in 2010 for conspiring to disturb security and spreading propaganda" against the Islamic regime.

1301 GMT: Propaganda of the Day. We noted on Friday that the US Treasury, trying to maintain sanctions pressure, had warned of Iran's use of private exchange houses and trading companies in third countries to circumvent the measures: “Two years ago we saw little of this because Iran was able to find banks that were able to handle its business.”

Leave it to State outlet Press TV to find a silver lining: "Iran Always Finds Ways to Skirt Around Sanctions".

1132 GMT: Education Watch. An Iranian official has said that 51,000 university students have requested foreign currency at the official rate -- under which the Iranian Rial is almost three times as strong as its open-market level --- to pay for studies abroad in the last year.

The official did not say how many students were granted their requests.

0926 GMT: Currency Watch. The prominent currency website Mazanex was effectively banned from posting open-market exchange rates in October, but it appears to be putting out some information through Facebook.

A post on the Mazaneh page on 31 December puts the Rial at 32860:1 vs. the US dollar, a figure in line with other reports from EA sources.

The Rial lost 70% of its value to close to 40000:1 before the Central Bank intervened with suspension of the open market and injection of foreign reserves into a special "trade room". The Rial was bolstered to about 27000:1 in the limited exchange outside the "trade room", before slipping again in December.

0851 GMT: Oil Watch. An interesting propaganda line from a Ministry of Oil spokesman in Fars, "Europe is in trouble and has made numerous requests to buy our oil, but we are not going to give them a positive response."

The European Union formally banned imports of Iranian oil from 1 July, a significant reasons why the Islamic Republic's exports of crude have fallen between 40 and 60% in the past year.

0835 GMT: Parliament v. President. The Speaker of the Board of Parliament, Abdolreza Mesri, has said that President Ahmadinejad will appear in the Majlis on Wednesday for a four-hour session.

Ahmadinejad is hoping to salvage the long-delayed second stage of his subsidy cuts programme. Last month Parliament said that the programme, beset by economic and political challenges since it was launched in December 2010, could not be extended; however, the President's office countered that Ahmadinejad was holding meetings with Ministers over the implementation of the second phase.

0815 GMT: The Revolutionary Guards and the "Pilgrims". Updates on our Saturday feature, "Are Revolutionary Guards Among the 48 'Pilgrims' Freed in Syria?"....

Our analysis focused Hojatoleslam Karim Hosseinkhani, one of seven "pilgrims" whom the site Digarban claimed to identify as Guards officers. A photograph from a Tehran airport of the 48 Iranians, freed in Syria earlier this week after they were held for five months by insurgents, featured a man who appeared to be Hosseinkhani, an officer in West Azerbaijan Province and a former representative of the Supreme Leader.

Hosseinkhani appears in an article in Mehr about the welcome for 14 returning "pilgrims"; however, the article portrays him as greeting the released men, rather than being one of them.

And an article in State news outlet IRNA appears to place Hosseinkhani in Urmia in West Azerbaijan two weeks ago, reporting that the cleric gave a speech at a University hall about the greatness of the Supreme Leader.

Meanwhile, there is apparent clarification of the status of another of the seven men named by Digarban: a Facebook entry about Mohammad Taghi Safari's return from Syria identifies him as a former --- rather than a current --- commander in Gonaveh.

0800 GMT: The Isolation of Iran. It was a brief but telling announcement. The Dutch airline KLM, one of the largest carriers in the world, said its flights to and from Tehran would be halted in April.

KLM tried to cushion the blow by saying the cut-off was for economic rather than political reasons and adding that it was alwaying shutting down old routes and establishing new one based on expected profits. The underlying but unadmitted story, however, is that sanctions and Iran's currency problems have badly affected financial transactions and thus the ability of foreign airlines to operate in the Islamic Republic.

Austrian Airlines also said it was halting service to Iran, leaving Germany's Lufthansa and Italy's Alitalia as the only European carriers still flying to Tehran.

Last autumn, a series of international airlines halted their operations, including British Airways and Malaysia's Asia Air.  Meanwhile, three of Iran's domestic carriers are under threat of suspension because of inability to pay for fuel and other costs.

Iranian State media unsurprislngly makes no reference to KLM's news. Instead, it highlights the economic development, "Iran Produces 253,300 Tons of Aluminum Ingots in Nine Months". More significantly, there is the claim that "Iran, Iraq, Syria Sign Agreement to Boost Transit Cooperation",  while an Egyptian professor is brought out to say, "There is no trouble in Egypt and Iran restoring diplomatic relations."

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