2032 GMT: Drone Watch. Pentagon officials have altered their story about the encounter between a Predator drone and an Iranian fighter jet (see 1848 GMT), over or near the Islamic Republic's airspace over the Persian Gulf.
"One of the US aircraft discharged a flare as a warning to the Iranian plane, which then broke off pursuit," spokesman George Little said.
Officials earlier suggested that two Iranian jets had "targeted" the Predator.
1848 GMT: Drone Watch. Joanna Paraszczuk writes....
CNN reports an announcement by unnamed US officials that Iranian jets "targeted" a US Predator drone "over the Persian Gulf" this week. CNN said that the Pentagon had not officially acknowledged the incident.
Beyond the assertive talk of the officials --- "We are fully prepared to defend our aircraft" --- the detail of the report indicates that "targeting" meant the Iranian aircraft escorted the drone into what it considered to be international airspace; "The Iranian planes shadowed the drone, which eventually left the area. No shots were fired."
The Iranian media has yet to report on the matter. Earlier this week, in what may have been a garbled allusion to the incident, Iranian outlets said a U2 reconnaissance plane had been chased out of the Islamic Republic's airspace --- the U2 is a mamned aircraft, first used in the 1950s, whereas the Predator drone is unmanned.
In November, the Pentagon officially announced that Iranian SU-25 Frogfoot jets had fired on a Predator drone in international airspace. Iran later said that the drone was in its airspace, and accused the US of spying on its oil tanker traffic around Kharg Island. Iran later threatened international legal action against Washington over the drone incident.
1828 GMT: Nuclear Watch. Joanna Paraszczuk has more on today's statement by the head of Israeli military intelligence (see 1423 GMT) about Iran's nuclear capabilities....
Fars News, close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported comments by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Thursday that Iran "had not yet decided to build a bomb". Fars took the information from The Jerusalem Post's summary of Kochavi's remarks at the annual Herzliya Security Conference.
Other Israeli outlets reported Kochavi's speech differently, however. The Times of Israel wrote that the military intel chief had said Iran had "sufficient partially enriched uranium to build five to six bombs" and was "proceed[ing] with caution" towards "weapons deployment capacity".
1728 GMT: Election Watch. The Governor of Tehran Province, Isa Farhadi, has told the Iranian Students News Agency that security will be tight for June's Presidential, municipal, and rural council elections, with "99 Basij battalions" in the province mobilised alongside thousands of police.
Farhadi said that two police units would be on alert in case of emergencies.
1543 GMT: Election Watch. In a likely sign of the Supreme Leader's concern at the failure so far to get a "unity" choice for the Presidency in June, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, the head of the Assembly of Experts, has asked all princplists to form a coalition and choose no more than two candidates for the election.
A three-man committee backed by Ayatollah Khamenei has tried since the start of the year to unify conservatives and principlists behind one man, but the effort has been hindered by the declarations of candidacy by a number of high-profile politicians, including former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar, and senior official Hassan Rohani.
1443 GMT: The House Arrests. Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei has denied comments, posted by the Young Journalists Club on Wednesday, condemning Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi --- both Presidential candidates alongside Rezaei in 2009 and both under strict house arrest since February 2011.Rezaei had reportedly said, "I see them as US agents and I said on February 15, 2011 [the day after the house arrests] that if these two do not apologize before the nation, people could arrest them."
The Presidential candidate used a speech in Gilan Province in northern Iran to declare that he had never made such a statement.
Meanwhile, Rezaei attacked the Ahmadinejad Government over economic policy, saying that only 30% of Iran's problems are due to sanctions and 70% to mismanagement. He decried the effect on Iranians of inflation and unemployment, with a rise in the "misery index".
In 2013, Iran will continue to advance its nuclear program. The Iranian leadership would like to find itself in the position of being able to breakout to an atomic weapon stage in a short period of time, according to the IDF's intelligence assessments. Iran has not yet decided to build the bomb.
The only problem is that the statement, given to the Herzliya security conference, may not get full attention --- the Jerusalem Post buries it in the fifth paragraph of an article which opens with a bit of public-relations spin from Kochavi, "Iran and Hezbollah are setting up militia in Syria made up of 50,000 fighters."
0932 GMT: Nuclear & Elections Watch. Hassan Rohani, the Supreme Leader’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council and an ally of former President Rafsanjani, has stated that the Ayatollah Khamenei will give permission to direct talks with the US if he deems it necessary.
Rohani, who has declared his candidacy for this year’s Presidential election, said:
It is not the Supreme Leader’s view that Iran and the United States should not have negotiations and relations until the Day of Judgment. If there is a situation where the country’s dignity and interests are (preserved) and served, he will give permission for dialogue and relationship as… thematic negotiations have been held between the two countries on issues related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear (issue).
0835 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Syrian Front). An EA correspondent with detailed knowledge of both Iran and Syria gets to the heart of the matter over our previous entry, in which Western officials use Reuters to put out the claim of Iranian arms to the Assad regime:
The story is true. The question is "Why push it now?"
Intelligence reports are not just "shown" to reporters. It's a deliberate PR strategy.
(Cross-posted from Syria Live Coverage)
0825 GMT: Foreign Affairs Watch (Syrian Front). The spin of the day comes from unnamed "Western diplomats" using Reuters to put out the message, "Exclusive: Iran Steps Up Weapons Lifeline to Syria's Assad".
The article has no substantive information beyond "a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters in September". Instead, the 30-paragraph story by five reporters "and others" relies on these two passages from the unnamed sources:
"The Iranians really are supporting massively the regime," a senior Western diplomat said this week. "They have been increasing their support for the last three, four months through Iraq's airspace and now trucks. And the Iraqis really are looking the other way."
"They (Iran) are playing now a crucial role," the senior diplomat said, adding that Hezbollah was "hardly hiding the support it's giving to the (Syrian) regime."....
One Western diplomat cited intelligence reports from his country that a new avenue for sending arms to Syria went on occasion through Turkish airspace to Beirut and from there to Syria by truck. There was no suggestion, he said, that Turkish officials were aware of the illicit arms shipments.
Once in Syria, he said, the arms were distributed to government forces and allied militia, including Hezbollah.
(Cross-posted from Syria Live Coverage)
0655 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. "Maverick" conservative MP Ali Motahari is parallelling the clerics' opposition to the Ahmadinejad Government, with a warning over June's Presidential vote: "If these policies continue and if the opposition and critics cannot participate, then not many people will take part and it will be a 'formality' election."
Motahari said those who criticised the situation in Iran should not be called “seditionists”. He then added the provocative claim, "I am if [former President and leading reformist Mohammad] Khatami participates, he will win the majority of the votes."
0625 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Wednesday was marked by signs of tension between senior clerics and President Ahmadinejad as June's Presidential election approaches.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also a cleric and head of the Expediency Council, claimed that Ahmadinejad and his Goverment have "destroyed three decades of achievements", expressing surprise that Iranians --- especially his fellow clerics --- "will not stop supporting this disaster now that they have realised the true identity of this current".
Rafsanjani's remarks followed sharp criticism by Ayatollah Mphammad Yazdi, also of the Expediency Council, of Ahmadinejad's recent effusive message over the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez --- declaring that Chavez will return with Jesus one day, as a sign of the Hidden Imam --- and his actions during the funeral, including the embrace of Chavez's mother.
Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi asked the clerics not to remain silent toward Ahmadi Nejad’s actions, saying they should "react to him and his deviant actions frankly".
Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani heeded Makarem Shirazi's call, "I am very upset with the current Government, as their actions are not Islamic. Why should we stay quiet?"
Safi Golpayegani added that the media must instruct people on how to oppose the Government.