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Iran Live Coverage: This Weekend's Crackdown on the Press --- Why?

12 of the Journalists Arrested This Weekend

See also Sunday's Iran Live Coverage: Ali Larijani and The Battle Within The Regime

1639 GMT: Nuclear Watch. The blame game over the failure to renew nuclear talks continues, with both Iran and the European Union putting out statements today.

European Union spokesman Michael Mann said this morning, "Iran did not accept our offer to go to Istanbul on Jan. 28 and 29, and so we have offered new dates in February."

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has countered, “We have always announced that we are ready for talks until a final result [is reached] and we have never stopped negotiations.”

Earlier this month the Iranian Labor News Agency said talks would be held in Istanbul on 28-29 January, but the item was quickly withdrawn.

Salehi subsequently proposed that the negotiations could be in Cairo, but claims that the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) rejected the venue. On Sunday, the Foreign Minister tried another tack, declaring that Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Switzerland have expressed readiness to host discussions.

Salehi continued, “Turkey is also regarded as one of our best choices.”

1616 GMT: Food Watch. Mehr reports that the Government will distribute 10,000 tonnes of frozen chicken to consumers.

Last week Parliament allocated $2 billion to support food supplies amid reports of shortages and rising prices. Food stamps are also being considered for 17 million Iranians.

1338 GMT: Press Watch. Two more journalists, Keyvan Mehregan and Hossein Yaghchi, have been arrested today.

Mehregan's detention is his fourth in four years.

A total of 15 reporters and editors have been detained since Saturday.

1331 GMT: Space Monkey Watch. More on Iran's first satellite launch with a live monkey....

"Iran successfully launched a capsule, codenamed Pishgam (Pioneer), containing a monkey and recovered the shipment on the ground intact," the Ministry of Defense's Aerospace Department said in a statement.

The satellite was propelled to an altitude of 120 kilometres (75 miles) for a sub-orbital flight.

The monkey, who was unnamed, is still alive.

1137 GMT: Space Monkey Watch. Iranian State media are reporting that the country has launched its first satellite carrying a monkey.

Officials have said repeatedly since the 2011 launch with worms and a tortoise that a monkey would be put into space. Earlier this month, the head of the aerospace programme said a manned flight would take place within five years.

1052 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Argentine Front). Argentina and Iran have agreed to form a "truth commission" to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The agreement was signed Sunday in Africa by Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi.

A van loaded with fertilizer and fuel oil on 18 July 1994 flattened the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building. Argentine prosecutors have formally accused six Iranians of coordinating the attack under orders from the regime. Among them is Iran’s current Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi.

President Ahmadinejad said in October that once “investigations take place in an accurate and impartial manner, then the ground will be prepared for the expansion of ties between Iran and Argentina".

1032 GMT: Press Watch. Was this the advance warning of the weekend's crackdown on the press, with the arrest of 13 journalists? The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran notes last Monday's statement by Iran Prosecutor General Gholam Hhossein Mohseni Ejei:

Unfortunately, today, other than writing in the country’s newspapers, several journalists have their hands in the hands of Westerners and anti-revolutionaries....

Now, tomorrow, if any of these individuals is arrested for a criminal act, you, too, will scream and yell, whereas, unbeknownst to you, that individual was the mouthpiece and podium of the enemy.

The ICHRI also posts the names and newspapers of the 13 detained journalists: Pouria Alemi and Pejman Mousavi (Shargh); Soleiman Mohammadi and Emily Amraee (Bahar Newspaper); Akbar Montajebi (Aseman Weekly); Sassan Aghaee, Javad Deliri and Nasrin Takhiri (Etemad); Motahareh Shafiee and Narges Joudaki (Arman); and Milan Fadai Asl (Iranian Labor News Agency).

1030 GMT: Nuclear Watch. I suspect this is a forlorn plea from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the resumption of Iran's nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers:

"Some of our partners in the six powers and the Iranian side cannot come to an agreement about where to meet. We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children.

0840 GMT: Nuclear Conspiracy Watch. On Friday we reported a rumour posing as "breaking news":

Reza Kahlili, who portrays himself as a highly-important defector from the regime and CIA agent and who is often featured on right-wing US sites, uses WorldNet Daily to declare that an “ explosion deep within Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility has destroyed much of the installation and trapped about 240 personnel deep underground, according to a former intelligence officer of the Islamic regime.”

Kahlili continues that “a source in the security forces protecting Fordow” claims the incident happened on Monday at 11:30 a.m., and the act is believed by regime officials to be an act of sabotage by foreign intelligence services.

There is no substance elsewhere for Kahlili's story.

WorldNet Daily is an American site with a tendency for eye-catching but outlandish headlines, such as “Are we as asleep as the Germans of the ‘30s?”).

There is still no substance for Kahlili's "information"; however, the story was given legs by Israeli minister Avi Dichter. Asked about the report, he said he had never heard of it but "any explosion in Iran that doesn’t hurt people but hurts its assets is welcome".

Over the weekend, the unsupported claim has made its way to outlets like United Press International and The Times of London.

The adverse publicity has now pushed Iranian officials into a response. Khabar Online posted a denial last night, and State media outlets IRNA and Press TV follow this morning, quoting the Deputy Head of the Atomic Energy Organization and the chair of Parliament's National Security Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi: "The false report about the explosion at Fordow [nuclear] installations is the West’s propaganda stunt ahead of the nuclear negotiations to influence the trend and the outcome of the talks.”

0822 GMT: Labour Front. Workers of the Neybor and Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Factory have protested for a sixth day in front of the President's office.

The demonstrators complain that no Government official or journalist, except the Iranian Labor News Agency, has noticed their adverse working conditions.

0747 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Compromise. The crackdown on journalists has overshadowed a significant political breakthrough on Sunday.

After months of quarrelling, Parliament and President Ahmadinejad have agreed in principle to the second phase of the subsidy cuts programme. Agreement still remains to be reached on the source of support payments to cover higher prices from the cuts: Ahmadinejad wants to use National Development Funds, but the Majlis' representatives object to this.

Parliament had declared in November that the second stage could not be implemented because of economic effects and budget concerns; however, Ahmadinejad pressed his case, including an appearance in the Majlis.

Last week, the Supreme Leader intervened, attending a meeting between top MPs and Government representatives.

Doubts over an agreement were raised over the weekend when Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani said the Supreme Leader did not support the second phase of cuts, but an EA correspondent assesses, "Larijani did this to put the blame on Ahmadinejad if the programme goes wrong."

0741 GMT: Press Watch. Mashregh News offers reasons for the detentions of at least 12 journalists this weekend with biographies of five of them.

One is accused of "anti-revolutionary activity" for his blogging and signature of a petition to "unite against a coup today or at any time". Another is condemned for association with the "feminist movement" and signature of statements for peace. Others have committed the "anti-revolutionary" crime of speaking to foreign media.

0735 GMT: Press Watch. State news agency reports that the conservative site Tabnak was suspended after a court order: "Reports suggest a complaint to the Public Prosecutor over 'defamatory comments' by users."

IRNA said authorities are "addressing the issue".

0725 GMT: Press Watch. As news came in yesterday that the conservative site Tabnak had been suspended (see 0600 GMT), I expressed surprise that Baztab, which has been far more critical of the Government and President Ahmadinejad, was still operating. A Tehran-based colleague replied, "I do agree! Baztab might be the next target!"

Baztab is off-line this morning.

0650 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The US State Department has criticised Tehran for the eight-year sentence imposed on Iranian-American Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.

Abedini, a minister in Idaho, was detained last summer while he was in Iran visiting an orphanage and seeing relatives.

"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and we call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr Abedini's human rights and release him," a State Department spokesperson said.

The spokesperson claimed Abedini's attorney had only one day to present his defence and said the Department was deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of the trial.

0600 GMT: Press Watch. In a sudden escalation of repression of newspapers and websites, regime forces have arrested at least 12 journalists, raided the offices of four reformists publications, and suspended a leading conservative paper linked to top politician Mohsen Rezaei.

The crackdown began with the detentions of Milan Fadai Asl, a reporter for the Iranian Labor News Agency, and Soleiman Mohammadi, an editor with Bahar. 

Yesterday morning, we noticed that we could not access Tabnak, the site connected to Mohsen Rezaie --- former head of the Revolutionary Guards, current Secretary of the Expediency Council, and Presidential candidate in 2009. No formal announcement of the suspension was issued, but the Filtering Committee said it was on the orders of the Tehran Prosecutor General.

On Sunday afternoon, security forces stormed the offices of the reformist dailies Shargh, Etemad, and Bahar and the weekly Aseman. At least ten journalists were taken away.

Of course, detentions and bans are far from new in the Islamic Republic, but the sudden rush this weekend raises the question: Why?

Was there a specific incident, perhaps one that needed to be covered up,  that triggered the assaults? Is this the outgrowth of political in-fighting? Or is this another stage in the regime's concern over "free elections" and those who dare mention the two words, five months before the Presidential ballot?

So far, we only have the standard rhetoric around such events, with Mehr saying the reformist publications were raided because of connections to "anti-revolutionary" elements abroad.

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