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Iran Live Coverage: The Supreme Leader Tries to Bolster His Popularity

See also Iran Analysis: Preparing for Elections, Ahmadinejad Tries to Replace His Vice President
Thursday's Iran Live Coverage: A Collapsing Economy?

1954 GMT: Oil Watch. Turkey's imports of Iranian oil held steady at around 100,000 barrels per day from September to December, data from a shipping source and Reuters indicate.

The volume is 45% down from Ankara's 2011 purchases of about 180,000 bpd and more than 60% lower from peak imports of 250,000-280,000 bpd in early 2012.

Iran State media highlights the unchanged imports but somehow fails to mention the sharp fall compared to the start of last year.

1949 GMT: Loyalty Watch. Hojatoleslam Mir Emadi, in the Khorramabad Friday Prayer, has declared that obligation to the Supreme Leader is the way to save humanity.

1649 GMT: Trade Watch. Turkey's Minister of Economy Zafer Cagaylan has confirmed the sharp rise in gold-for-gas trade with Iran, easing the pressure on the Islamic Republic from sanctions on its energy industry.

Gold exports rose from $54 million in 2011 to $6.5 billion this year. In addition, gold transfers to the United Arab Emirates, which may then be sent to Tehran, rose to $4.2 billion.

Turkey's total gold exports rose almost 800%, from $1.47 billion in 2011 to $12.7 billion in 2012.

Turkey, Iran's biggest natural gas customer, is prevented by Western sanctions from payment for Iranian natural gas in dollars or euros.

Caglayan said the gold trade was carried out entirely by the private sector and was not subject to US sanctions: "It is not trade between the two states, it is being carried out by private companies and any statement that we are carrying out these exports in return for oil and natural gas is wrong."

1642 GMT: Subsidy Cuts Watch. Mehr repeats the news that President Ahmadinejad is convening Minister meetings with the plan of finally introducing the second phase of subsidy cuts, despite Parliament's blocking of any implementation.

The website asks bluntly: will bread and gasoline become more expensive?

1542 GMT: The House Arrests. Leading conservative politician Habibollah Asgarouladi has repeated his declaration of last week that detained opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are not seditious.

Asgarouladi, a senior figure in the Motalefeh Party, said the "real sedition" came from the US, Britain, and other arrogant powers.

The comments by Asgarouladi and some other politicians and clerics have prompted speculation that Mousavi, Karroubi, and Mousavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard may be released after 22 months under strict house arrest. Such a move may be part of an attempt to entice reformists and other opposition factions to participate in June's Presidential election.

1512 GMT: Economy Watch. The Wall Street Journal has published a hard-hitting article by Farnaz Fassihi and Jay Solomon about the present economic situation in Iran:

A manager of Bam Shargh Isogam, an Iranian manufacturer of insulation sheets for rooftops, saw trouble ahead when a government official offered advice for surviving the crippling international sanctions: Reduce quality and cut back production.

The manufacturer in Delijan, three hours south of Tehran, replaced the high-quality material imported from Europe with domestic material, dismissed more than half its 350 employees, and didn't pay the remaining workers for four months, managers said.

"From the owner to the line worker, no one is safe," said Bijan, a manager, who asked that his last name not be used. "Our country is facing an economic disaster." Company officials didn't return calls asking for comment.

Fassihi and Solomon show the far-reaching impact that US-led sanctions and economic mismanagement by the Iranian government have had on ordinary Iranians from students who can’t afford to finish their studies to the mother of two who “slowly scratched off milk, yogurt cheese and butter from our table” because they have become too expensive.

1321 GMT: Friday Prayers Watch. In his first sermon as Friday Prayers leader, Ali Movahedi Kermani has offered three messages: 1. despite sanctions and economic pressure, the "future is bright"; 2. victory waits for those who are loyal [to the Supreme Leader of course]; and 3. the clergy will deal with any problems caused by "enemy plots.”

1259 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Michael Mann, the spokesman for the European Union and 5+1 Powers, has responded to Iran negotiator Saeed Jalili’s earlier statement (see 0945 GMT) that high-level talks will take place in January.

Mann would not confirm that any further talks, let alone a date, had been agreed but expressed hope that talks would resume soon.

1154 GMT: PressTV has reported some of the remarks made by Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, whilst in India, focusing on his claim that “The Americans need to make a real change in their policies” throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Interestingly, Press TV fails to note Jalili’s statement that negotiations with the P5+1 countries regarding Iran’s nuclear programme are to resume later in January.

1114 GMT: The Battle Within. While former President Rafsanjani swings at President Ahmadinejad, cleric Mehdi Taeb lashes out at both of them, as well as Ahmadinejad's right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai and detained opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi: "Without the Supreme Leader's order, no one would have cooperated with Ahmadinejad."

1107 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Opposition site Kalemeh claims that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has used his website to criticise President Ahmadinejad over "lies about the Islamic Republic's officials", asserting, "Ahmadinejad wants to destroy not only people but the system".

Rafsanjani also chided the Supreme Leader for not opposing Ahmadinejad's "libel and slander" in the 2009 Presidential election.

During pre-election debates, Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and his family of massive corruption.

1102 GMT: Elections Watch (Rumour of the Day). Baztab claims that President Ahmadinejad has bolstered his "electoral troops" with orders for "the employment of 12,000 people in the Organization for Taxation Affairs without qualifications, 1,500 individuals in the Executive Office of the President, and 120,000 by governors across the country".

1058 GMT: Living Standards Watch. The cost of living in Iran has increased by 62% in the last year, according to the Vice President of the Workers' Standards Association, with the rising prices of food, clothing, housing, transportation, and health care all causing concern.

1048 GMT: Energy Watch. Minister of Oil Rustam Qassemi has announced that two phases of the South Pars gas field will become operational by the end of March.

Iran has repeatedly announced new projects coming on-line in South Pars, the world's largest field, despite a collapse in foreign investment.

1003 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Turkish Front). Turkish media is reporting that President Abdullah Gül has categorically stated Ankara “will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran: “Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself.”

Relations between Iran and Turkey have been increasingly tense in recent months due to their contrasting positions regarding the Syrian crisis.

Iran's Press TV further stirred the pot yesterday by posting an article reporting the views of the Iranian MP Aziz Akbarian, who criticised Turkey’s support for Syrian opposition elements, with the headline “Turkey Will Pay Price for Supporting Syria Militants”.

However, some of the comments made by President Gül have been welcomed by Iranian media: Press TV has seized upon his assertion that “the atomic disarmament of Israel would be the key to resolving outstanding issues pertaining to Iran’s nuclear energy program.”

0945 GMT: Nuclear Watch. During a visit to India, Iran's lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has said that Tehran has agreed to talks with the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) later this month.

Jalili said the exact date and location have yet to be decided: "We have accepted that these talks should be held in January, but until now, the details have not been finalised."

0935 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch and Foreign Affairs (Syrian Front). Following a meeting with former Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr Alolum, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared that the< Assad regime in Syria “has little chance of survival".

0839 GMT: All the President's Men. First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi boosts his profile in State media this morning with the declaration that the Government is financing new "economic, health and sustainable development projects".

Whether this All-Is-Well alert has any impact on Iran's troubled economy and health sectors or indeed Rahimi's personal fortunes remains to be seen --- we have just posted an analysis, based on information from a correspondent in Iran, that the 1st Vice President will soon be replaced.

0627 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been released from solitary confinement in Evin Prison.

Hashemi was placed in solitary last month because of her role in protests against prison conditions. She is serving a six-month sentence for propaganda against the regime and has been barred for five years from political and cultural activities.

0603 GMT: We have noted in analyses in recent months that the Supreme Leader and his inner circle need to protect Ayatollah Khamenei from any rising criticism because of the economic situation. In part, that can be done by ensuring that others take the blame --- thus the Supreme Leader's interest in a continuing, but "balanced", dispute between President Ahmadinejad and other factions about who should be blamed.

But that might not be enough. What happens when Ahmadinejad is gone next June and the economy is in dire shape?

A well-placed EA correspondent in Iran observes that the Supreme Leader's office have been busy this week setting up a firewall of publicity, with statements and public appearances hailing Khamenei's wise and virtuous leadership.

>[?The correspondent notes the Supreme Leader's participation in the funeral of Ayatollah Mojtaba Tehrani, featured prominently throughout Iranian media. The photos not only brought images of compassion but also virtue by association: Ayatollah Tehrani was very popular, especially in Tehran. because he was the great teacher of morality".

Equally interesting are the statements from Khamenei's camp trying to settle the system before next June's Presidential elections. Our correspondent is particularly interested in a declaration by Ayatollah Khoshvaght, the father-in-law of the Supreme Leader's son Mostafa.

>[?Khoshvaght said "a red line should be drawn over sedition and provocation, as these people are infidels and apostates and will not be purified". He continued, "They do not deserve to be candidates for the Presidency."

The correspondent assures us of Khoshvaght's significance, "Ayatollah Khamenei has insisted that [State broadcaster] IRIB and other cultural organisations use him, and Khoshvaght's son is the head of the Fararu website."

That still leaves the questions: was Khoshvaght referring to the "sedition" of opposition leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, justifying their continued detention? Alternatively, was he indicating that they can be released but that both men --- candidates in the disputed Presidential election --- must be barred from politics? Or was Khoshvaght putting out a warning about another faction, say, Ahmadinejad's?

While those issues are unresolved, our correspondent returns to his opening line: "Ayatollah Khamenei has interest in making use of 'non-political' clergy to increase his own popularity."

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