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Iran Live Coverage: The Battle Within --- Ahmadinejad v. the Larijanis

Happier Times: Head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani, President Ahmadinejad, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani

See also Iran Opinion: Condemning the Nuclear Talks --- and Tehran --- with Ill-Informed Analysis
Wednesday's Iran Live Coverage: Nuclear Talks Resume on 26 February

2200 GMT: The House Arrests. Grand Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili has reportedly clashed with the Supreme Leader over the house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Mousavi Ardebili visited Ayatollah Khamenei to demand the release of Mousavi and Karroubi, held for almost two years. Khamenei replied that they must obey velayat-e faqih [the rule of the Supreme Leader] and show regret for their actions over the disputed 2009 Presidential election in which they were candidates.

Mousavi Ardebili said that Mousavi and Karroubi had obeyed the rule of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and added that President Ahmadinejad's performance "has proven they are right". When Khamenei refused to shift in his position, the Grand Ayatollah left the meeting angrily.

2020 GMT: Picture of the Day. The Supreme Leader addresses air force personnel this morning:

1930 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Earlier today, we noted that President Ahmadinejad, speaking in Cairo on Tuesday, had supported the possibility of direct talks with Washington over Iran's nuclear programme (see 1551 GMT).

Well, it looks like the President has had a change of heart, ruling out 1-on-1 negotiations with the US.

Could this have anything to do with the Supreme Leader's declaration of "no direct talks" in his speech this morning?

1925 GMT: Sanctions Watch. The US Treasury claims that foreign banks, amid sanctions, cut lending to Tehran by 53% in 2012.

Citing data from the Bank of International Settlements, the Treasury said the lending exposure fell by $9.1 billion and meant "much-needed investment to support [Iran's] continued economic development is scarce".

1725 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Egyptian Front). Beyond President Ahmadinejad's rhetorical flourish that he wants a regional partnership with Egypt, some significant moments in the Egyptian coverage of the President's trip, courtesy of Joanna Paraszczuk....

Al-Masry Al-Youm led on Thursday morning with YouTube video of an interview with Syrian citizen Ezz el-Din Gasem, who threw a shoe at Ahmadinejad as the President visited the Imam Hussein Mosque.

Gasem, an Aleppo native who came to Egypt in 2004, vowed that if he saw Ahmadinejad again in any country, anywhere in the world, he would "do the same again". He said he trie to beat Ahmadinejad with an item of footwear because he is "aware that Presidents --- such as [former US President George W.] Bush and others --- see the shoe as a "symbol of humiliation".

The Egyptian media, always alert to Israeli press reactions, highlighted an opinion piece by Tel Aviv University professor Eyal Zisser in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom. Zisser claimed that Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt was a failure, with the President and his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Morsi failing to repair diplomatic ties: "Ahmadinejad's visit is a swan song. He will disappear from our lives in a few months."

In its commentary on the item, Al-Ahram noted Zisser's remark wrote that "Morsi also knows to safeguard the relationship and coordination between Egyptian and Israeli security forces", which it said prevented further convergence between Tehran and Cairo.

Al-Ahram reported on the tripartite meeting between Ahmadinejad, Morsi, and Turkish President Abdullah Gül on the sidelines of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit. Morsi's spokesman Yasser Ali said Egypt's firm position is to end the bloodshed in Syria and enable the Syrian people to manage their country without external interference. Ali added that Syria's reconstruction would require considerable efforts from the international community.

In an interview broadcast on Egyptian State TV late Wednesday, and widely reported throughout the Arab world, Ahmadinejad said Iran's allies in Syria should open talks with the opposition over free elections.

1605 GMT: Engineering the Elections Watch. The Supreme Leader's senior advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, has said that, if the Presidency is not kept in the hands of Principlists in June's election, "we will have a calamity".

Velayati is part of a three-man candidate selecting the "unity" candidate to win the June ballot.

1551 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. A mental exercise....

Compare the Supreme Leader's "no direct talks with the US" declaration today with with a summary of President Amadinejad’s remarks during a question-and-answer session with Egyptian media in Cairo on Tuesday.

Asked about US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on the possibility of direct talks with Iran about its nuclear programme, Ahmadinejad suggested, "£The remarks heard from U.S. officials are new and positive, and we hope positive changes are made in their actions, and if we see positive changes in their actions, in this case, we will consider it (the offer) with a positive attitude."

So was one aim of the Supreme Leader's speech to set the record straight with his President?

1535 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch (Battle Within Edition). State news agency IRNA's one-paragraph summary of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's message to heads of Government branches, "Stop your temper tantrums and observe the 11 February anniversary of the Islamic Revolution".

The website then says, "To Be Continued...."

1505 GMT: Drone Watch. Iranian officials have released footage which they claim is from a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured in December 2011.

The video is supposedly from around the drone's base in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

1430 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch (Journalist Edition). The 15 journalists seized in last week's regime crackdown on the press have reportedly been held incommunicado in Evin Prison's Wards 209 and 240, which are controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. Families have been unable to contact them.

Kalameh says, however, that one of the journalists, Ali Dehghan, has now been released.

1425 GMT: Currency Watch. Ups and downs with the Iranian Rial....

After Tuesday's announcement that Iran will resume nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers on 26 February, the Rial --- which had closed on its all-time low of 40000:1 vs. the US dollar --- recovered to about 35000:1, according to an EA correspondent in Iran.

However, the currency is slipping again, according to Bahar. The website puts the rate at 37800:1.

Gold prices continue to rise, with new gold coin at just over 15 million Rials.

1344 GMT: Economy Watch. Misleading article of the day may be in The New York Times, which extrapolates from billboards, luxury items, and one businessman to claim that All is Actually OK in Tehran:

All over this city of 12 million people, high-rises are under construction, local engineers and Chinese contractors are rushing to finish a multilevel highway, and the streets are lined with billboards promoting the latest tablets and washing machines made by South Korean companies like Samsung and LG. Supermarkets are fully stocked, and it seems as if new restaurants and fast food joints are opening up every day, and never lacking for customers....

The sanctions, while the source of constant complaint and morbid jokes, have not set off price riots or serious opposition to the Iranian government. In fact, the past year has not been all that bad, as Saeed Ranchian, 39, a shopkeeper peddling perfumes in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, said the other day while he was sipping tea and as droves of shoppers strolled by on newly paved sidewalks. Surrounded by colognes with elaborate foreign names like “Le Chevalier Primero,” Mr. Ranchian admitted that with prices doubling and Iran’s currency crashing, “you would expect people to buy less.”

“But in Iran, when prices go up, people start buying more, fearing even higher prices,” he said, adding with a laugh that the country’s economy “has rules that no one understands.”

Putting this into perspective:

1. Some Iranians have benefitted from the sanctions and economic distortions. For example, exporters who can still get their goods made and distributed despite the restrictions are profiting from the fall of 70% in the value of the Iranian Rial --- their goods are effectively two-thirds cheapers overseas compared to a year ago.

With the price of imports soaring, those Iranian producers who can come close to matching those products find themselves in a stronger position.

And those Iranians who cannot put their money overseas because of adverse financial conditions have to place it elsewhere, say in property.

"Some" Iranians, however, is not "most" Iranians --- the most Iranians who are facing inflation, declining production, unemployment, a currency crisis, and curbs on services such as health care.

2. Reducing the situation to "price riots" --- or a lack of them --- is a distortion in the black-and-white caricature of "All is Well" v. "The Regime Will Fall". The bottom line is that many Iranians, facing the need just to make ends meet, may be too resigned or too preoccupied to be vocal in their anger and frustration.

3. To be fair to the article, it does later note, "All financial transactions have been cut off, making it extremely difficult for Iranians to make overseas payments.....The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India."

However, the story does not follow through the implications of these developments. Instead, it assures, "Now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again [with new US sanctions]", but "the Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners".

And where is that resiliency? Back to Point 1:

Iranian importers and exporters are constantly shifting between buying and selling products, making profits on exchange rates. Regional trade is up because of the low rial, [economist Saeed Laylaz said. “Some are making a fortune these days.”

1336 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch (Battle Within Edition). Back from an academic break to find the other, arguably more important dimension of Ayatollah Khamenei's speech at an Air Force academy.

The Supreme Leader made a very clear public intervention into the feud between President Ahmadinejad and Speaker Ali Larijani that has escalated this week: "Officials need to take into account the national interest and put their squabbles to one side."

That sentence, however, does not begin to answer the questions prompted by the Ahamdinejad-Larijani confrontation in Parliament on Sunday, the subsequent accusations of corruption from both sides, and the arrest of Presidential aide Saeed Mortazavi.

Is the Supreme Leader intervening because the judiciary, headed by Ali Larijani's brother Sadegh, went too far with the detention of Mortazavi? Or is Ayatollah Khamenei now calling for a cease-fire after endorsing the arrest, with the slap in the face to President Ahmadinejad?

1149 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch. Back from an academic break to find headlines --- inside and outside Iran --- over this morning's statement by the Supreme Leader, particularly on Iran's relations with the US and the nuclear talks.

The Twitter account of Ayatollah Khamenei's office offers the best insight into the Supreme Leader's tactics. On the one hand, the Supreme Leader is welcoming of discussions: "Having relationships and negotiating with countries who had no deceit against us, is in our national interest."

On the other, Khamenei takes a tough, challenging line to the US:

Four years ago, we responded to their proposal [for engagement] by saying, ""We won't have a prejudice, and we are waiting for their action." In last four years, we have not seen anything other than continuation of their conspiracies, supporting terrorists.

US officials claim they have imposed crippling #sanctions to cripple our nation,is this a prove [sic] of their goodwill?

"Talks about talks", "tactical negotiations", and proposing negotiations as a superpower gesture is deceitful.

Western headlines are likely to focus on the Supreme Leader's line of rejection of direct talks with the US.

That is far too narrow a reading of the statement. After all, Iran just agreed this week to the resumption of high-level discussions with the 5+1 Powers, including Washington.

Instead, Khamenei's line points to three elements of the Iranian diplomatic strategy: 1) denying direct talks, even though they took place last autumn with the Americans and the possibility has been raised of renewed contacts --- for example, by Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani; 2) attempting to separate the other members of the 5+1 from the Americans; and 3) the posture of negotiating from strength and not giving in to pressure.

0812 GMT: Press Watch. Arseh Sevom posts a comprehensive review of last week's crackdown on journalists, with at least 15 of them imprisoned. Masih Alinejad, who now writes from exile in Britain, offers a telling quote:

News cannot be imprisoned. The reason behind the mass crackdowns on journalists is to stop the free flow of information. Yet, if you throw the journalist out of the door, she finds her way in through the window.

0717 GMT: Tough Talk of the Day. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, declares victory:

Ahead of the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, we are more prepared and more powerful than any time before; our enemies have been disappointed and have no choice but to gradually retreat.

The realities of the Islamic Revolution and establishment have been recognized by the enemies. They have been forced to accept these realities.

In an excellent --- if unwitting --- juxtaposition, State outlet Press TV puts Jafari's declaration just below the story, "US Imposes Tougher Sanctions on Iran".

0653 GMT: The Battle Within. After three days of intense fighting, there was some easing of the political conflict on Wednesday. President Ahmadinejad's advisor Saeed Mortazavi, arrested suddenly on Monday night, was released from Evin Prison.

The supposed cause of Mortazavi's detention --- rather than the allegations that he was involved in the abuse and killing of post-election protesters in summer 2009 at the Kahrizak detention centre --- was the specific claim that he had met with Fazel Larijani, the brother of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani, to discuss a political favour. The Tehran Prosector's office said that it had started an investigation of both Mortazavi and Fazel Larijani.

Despite these developments, which followed a meeting between Sadegh Larijani and the Supreme Leader on Tuesday night, the political tension continued to simmer. Ali Larijani -- whose dramatic smack-down of Ahmadinejad, after the President used a speech in Parliament to put out his claim of the corruption of the Larijani family, escalated the conflict --- kept jabbing on Wednesday. He switched to the economic front, declaring that Parliament had not agreed to the second phase of Ahmadinejad's subsidy cuts programme, his major initiative in the last months of his Presidency.

And the Battle of the Videos continued, with each side putting out footage which they claimed showed the conniving and criminal actions of the other. Analyst Eskandar Sadeghi-Borujerdi offers a useful overview of the complex allegations.

Meanwhile, the important question remained unanswered --- did the Supreme Leader endorse the Larijanis' counter-attack on Ahmadinejad, including the brief detention of Mortazavi? An EA correspondent ponders:

The judiciary may have acted without the full blessing of the Supreme Leader when they arrested Mortazavi.

Or the plan all along may have been to arrest him for a short period --- to show that [Ahmadinejad's] public assault against high-ranking officials [with his "revelations" in Parliament on Sunday] is not tolerated.

This also could have been carried out to put a dent in Ahmadinejad’s pride as he was leaving for Egypt, reminding all foreigners that the President is not the one they need to take seriously when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic.

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