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Iran Live Coverage: Imprisoned Journalists, Elections, & the BBC

Journalists Arrested Last Weekend2136 GMT: Currency Watch. Radio Farda supports the report in Kalemeh (see 1746 GMT) that the Iranian Rial has dropped sharply to break the 40000:1 level vs. the US dollar.

The site also says that the price of gold is rising, with a 15% premium on prepayment for gold coins to be delivered next month.

2036 GMT: Press Watch. The mother of journalist Saba Azarpeyk, speaks of her daughter's arrest:

Fifteen to twenty minutes after Saba left the house, someone knocked on the door, I asked who it was and I heard Saba saying, "Mum don't open the door, they do not have a warrant." After some very tense moments, she was taken down to the car.

Then my son arrived, and one of the officials that was standing behind the door slapped him on the face several times.

The mother then ran to Azarpeyk as she was being taken away and urged her to remain strong.

1746 GMT: Currency Watch. The opposition site Kalemeh claims that the Iranian Rial has broken the 40000:1 level vs. the US dollar, falling more than 8% in two days.

If true, the Rial is now weaker in "unofficial" trading that it was in October, when the Central Bank intervened after a 70% fall in value and the Government effectively shut down the open market.

1732 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. The test version has been launched of the pro-Ahmadinejad site Dana News Network.

1715 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The conservative website Alef has proclaimed that, if sanctions do not aim at overthrowing the Iranian system, officials should compromise on the nuclear issue and save the country.

1641 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Thirty-six detainees have written an open letter to the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, warning of the state of health of Abolfazl Ghadiyani, a political prisoner who was recently exiled to Ghezel Hessar Prison.

Ghadiyani was transferred on 16 January after he issued open letters criticising the treatment of inmates and accusing the authorities of violating prisoner rights.

Ghadiyani was arrested during the widespread round-up of reformist figures after the disputed June 2009 Presidential election. He was sentenced to one year in prison but after serving his term, he was given another three-year sentence for “insulting the Supreme Leader.”

1611 GMT: Press Watch. Reformist journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, who was free on bail, has been taken from her home to prison.

Tabatabaei is the 16th journalist detained since Saturday. At least one has been released.

1608 GMT: Oil Watch. South Africa suspended all imports of crude oil from Iran for a seventh consecutive month in December.

1553 GMT: Scare Story of the Day. Tehran's letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to install and operate a new generation of centifuges has sparked --- perhaps predictably --- an outcry from Western commentators and media.

The centrifuges are intended to supplement 40-year-old systems at the main enrichment plant near Natanz. They can refine uranium several times faster than the current process.

There is no evidence that the new machines are intended to produce uranium for military rather than civilian use, but Reuters, "The defiant move will increase concerns in the West and Israel about Iran's nuclear ambitions."

A "senior Western diplomat" provides the necessary soundbite, "It is certainly a provocation to increase any enrichment capacity at all." Analyst Mark Fitzpatrick chips in that this could be "a most unfortunate game changer".

1527 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Syrian Ffont). Back from an extended academic break to find a series of denunications by Iranian officials of Israel's airstrikes inside Syria.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi played up the authority of Damascus, “Undoubtedly, this blatant violation is in line with the policy of the West and the Zionists to...deflect attention from the achievements of the Syrian nation and government in maintaining sovereignty and restoring stability and security to the country."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, "The operation conducted by the aggressive Zionist forces against some targets in Syria last night shows that this regime is after creating instability and insecurity in regional countries as well as weakening the resistance movement."

Contrary to some press reports, Tehran did not threaten retaliation against Israel. Instead, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called on the United Nations to take action: “Parties that have always taken tough stances on Syria should now take serious measures and decisive positions on this invasion by Tel Aviv and place regional security high on their list of priorities."

While avoiding the direct threat, Amir-Abdollahian jibed that Israeli officials should not rely too much on their Patriot antimissile systems, declaring that their ineffectiveness had been already proven in Israel's war in Gaza in November.

0817 GMT: Nuclear Watch. More on our report last week of the criticism by former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran's nuclear diplomacy....

Al Monitor picks up the comments, initially reported by Baztab but now removed from its website: “Is the chief [goal]…obtaining results and solving the problem of 75 million Iranians–or globe-trotting and entering third-party countries?”

What distinguishes Mottaki's remarks is his focus on what appears to be a mis-step by Tehran as it tried for a renewal of nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers this month.

On 9 January, Iran Review published an article by Mehdi Mohammadi, the former political editor of Kayhan and now an advisor to Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, setting out the issues in any negotiations. Significantly, Mohammadi appeared to indicate that Iran would only consider suspension of enrichment of 20% uranium after sanctions were lifted.

Western officials seized on the article, briefing journalists that Tehran was not serious about a step-by-step process --- reported by EA for months --- in which Iran would gradually move to suspension in exchange for staged easing of sanctions.

Mottaki reportedly expressed frustration at the “strange pre-conditions”: “When a young journalist from Kayhan, with no experience in diplomacy and international relations, has become...a key member on the nuclear negotiation team, and introduces strange preconditions; what kind of result can we expect from nuclear talks?”

0634 GMT: The Battle Within. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has declared illegal the appointment of controversial Presidential advisor Saeed Mortazavi as head of the Social Security Funds.

Larijani ordered Mortazavi, who was named head of the Funds a year ago, to appear before Parliament on Sunday.

Iranian courts have ruled that Mortazavi, accused of involvement in the abuse and deaths of post-election protesters in summer 2009, must step down, but the Ahmadinejad Government has carried out a series of bureaucratic manoeuvres to defy the decisions.

0624 GMT: Press Watch. A journalist at the reformist daily Etemaad, one of five publications raided last weekend, describes the arrest of three journalists:

[The security agents] arrived sometime after 7am. They rounded up into the conference hall, and by request of [Elyas] Hazrati, the managing director of the daily, they took Sassan Aghaei, Nasrin Takhayori, and Javad Dalirei to Hazrati's office. Hazrati had asked the agents to dial the judge who had issued the warrants so that he could talk to him and arrange to appear the next morning. That took a while, but they couldn't find the judge.

The interactions were very polite. They didn't say much; we didn't know who they were and what they wanted, or why they had come. We were all dazed. They announced names when they stepped in: "These are the ones we want."

The source said the three seized journalists "were solid and strong. I was so upset that I can't really recall much. I think I wouldn't be like this if they had detained myself."

He addded, "To watch your friends being taken away, it is devastating."

Another journalist describes the current fear, "We have to stay up all night....They could raid our homes."

0610 GMT: Press Watch. Wednesday's messages from the Iranian media about 15 journalists detained since Saturday were confusing. Mehr said some had been released, while Fars claimed others had been seized.

The overall impression, however, was clear: 4 1/2 months before June's Presidential ballot, the regime is showing nerves about a "free election" and whether it can establish the vote as legitimate and well-supported.

This, of course, is not stated by officials. Instead, the Ministry of Intelligence pulled out the rationale that the arrested journalists were part of a network which had established contacts with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The Ministry said the "multi-layers, widespread" network had been developed with "experiences...gained during the unrest that followed the 2009 Presidential election. It was tracked by intelligence officers for months, until sufficient evidence had been collected for legal action.

The Ministry said "a number of other people connected with the BBC would be arrested or summoned for questioning or some of the arrestees would be released".

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