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The Latest from Iran (31 March): Nuclear Chatter & Political Prisoners

2000 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The physicians of Ebrahim Yazdi, the 78-year-0ld former Foreign Minister and leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, have requested an extension of his temporary leave from prison on grounds of ill health.

UPDATED Iran Politics and Music Video: “Karroubi” and the Arrest of Sasi Mankan
UPDATED Iran Appeal: Japan’s Deportation of Jamal Saberi
Iran: Preventing Tehran from “Going Nuclear” (Ramazani)
Iran Politics and Music: Sasi Mankan’s “Karroubi”
Iran: The Green Movement’s Next Steps (Shahryar)
The Latest from Iran (30 March): Strategies

1840 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Kalemeh reports that reformist journalist Masoud Lavasani will be set free tonight on a bail of around $500,000, four months after his arrest.

Bastani's initial prison sentence was reduced from 8 1/2 years to 4 1/2 years after appeal.

It is reported, from human rights activists in Iran, that Jafar Ashari who has been on hunger strike since March 17, has been transferred to Mahabad prison and is now in quarantine. Ashari has been in detention for more than five months.

1835 GMT: The Nuclear Defector. Press TV publishes an account, from Iranian state media, of "Missing Iran N-scientist 'defected to US'". What is interesting is that there is no denial of Shahram Amiri's claimed position in Iran's nuclear programme.

That means that, contrary to its initial position, the Iranian Government is no longer denying that Amiri is a nuclear scientist while the US Government is no longer denying that it is involved in Amiri's disappearance.

1500 GMT: More US-Iran Fencing. This time, the sparring is over Afghanistan, with the US military setting up Iran as a negative influence rather than a possible ally. The Chairman of the Joint Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told a news conference in Kabul:
Iran is working to increase its influence in the area. On the one hand, that's not surprising, she is a neighbor state, a neighbor country. On the other hand, the influence I see is all too often negative. I was advised last night about a significant shipment of weapons from Iran into Kandahar, for example.

I have seen them over the last several years -- the last couple of years anyway, certainly be more than just interested, provide some capabilities. I am also concerned that that desire to be influential is increasing....I was taken aback. [The arms shipment] wasn't insignificant.

1355 GMT: More on Iran Air in Europe. An EA reader sends us an update:
Ramp checks on Iran Air - which has been subject to US Government sanctions - have turned up evidence of "insufficient oversight" over the past year, says the Commission.

But Iran Air will still be permitted to operate 18 Airbus A300/310s, nine Boeing 747s, six Airbus A320s and a single Boeing 737 into Europe.

The Commission says it will send representatives to Iran over the next few months to examine the situation with Iran Air.

1040 GMT: Nuke Chatter Continues. Iranian state media is reporting that Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the National Security Council and the country's primary negotiator on nuclear issues, will visit China tomorrow for discussions.

0645 GMT: Trouble in the Air? An Iran Air official claims that, despite the European Commission's ban on the airline within Europe, that "nothing has changed" and no restrictions have been imposed on the airline.

An EA correspondent offers a contrasting view: "Even though the ban is limited in financial terms, its international outcome is devastating. From now on the regime must answer the question, for all of its boasting, if it is able to provide essential safety for its airplanes. This ban is the best reply to Iran's jamming of European satellite broadcast, as the safety issue is untouchable."

0635 GMT: Political Prisoner Resistance Watch. Rooz Online reports on the defiance, often humourous, of political prisoners.

0610 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Rah-e-Sabz reports on the poor conditions and hygiene in the women's section of  Evin Prison.

Christian pastor Wilson Issavi has been released on bail after 54 days in detention.

Rah-e-Sabz writes that 51-year-old university instructor Rahmatollah Bastani has been re-arrested by the Intelligence Bureau in Qom. Bastani was one of 30 people detained during Sunday's funeral for the wife of the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. He was released five hours later but was summoned on Monday for further interrogation.

0555 GMT: Economy Watch. Asre Iran reports that some Kuwaiti banks have stopped dealing with their Iranian counterparts, who have protested to the Kuwaiti Central Bank about the "unbearable injustice".

0545 GMT: Subsidy Watch. Back to more pressing concerns for most Iranians and for the President. In an unprecedented move, Ahmadinejad has proposed an "addendum" to the Parliament's approved budget, allowing him access to the extra $20 billion of revenues he wants from subsidy cuts.

0500 GMT: Lots of white noise about the Iranian nuclear programme yesterday and this morning.

Following this week's New York Times wayward article on supposedly secret Iranian nuclear site, The Washington Times goes farther by mangling --- through misunderstanding or wilful distortion --- a story on the latest public US intelligence finding on Tehran's nuclear development. The newspaper headlines, "Iran is poised to begin producing nuclear weapons after its uranium program expansion in 2009, even though it has had problems with thousands of its centrifuges."

The report says no such thing. Here's the take-away, as noted by other Iran observers:
We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons. Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.

During the reporting period, Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure and continued uranium enrichment and activities related to its heavy water research reactor, despite multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions since late 2006 calling for the suspension of those activities. Although Iran made progress in expanding its nuclear infrastructure during 2009, some obstacles slowed progress during this period.

The misleading story seems to have disappeared with little notice, replaced by an intriguing claim:
An award-winning Iranian nuclear scientist, who disappeared last year under mysterious circumstances, has defected to the CIA and been resettled in the United States, according to people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials.

The officials were said to have termed the defection of the scientist, Shahram Amiri, "an intelligence coup" in the continuing CIA operation to spy on and undermine Iran's nuclear program....

Amiri, a nuclear physicist in his early 30s, went missing last June three days after arriving in Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage.

On the political front, President Obama maintained the public stance of US and international pressure on Tehran, declaring at a press conference with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy:
I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place....I am interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks. And we are working diligently with our international partners, emphasizing to them, that as Nicolas said, this is not simply an issue of trying to isolate Iran, it has enormous implications for the safety and the security of the entire region.

UPDATED Afghanistan Eyeball-to-Eyeball: Obama Administration v. Karzai

UPDATED 1740 GMT: "He's an SOB, but He's Our SOB." Spencer Ackerman picks out the most striking passage --- compromise or climbdown? --- from the US/NATO acceptance of the authority of Ahmed Wali Karzai:

"He is also one of the area’s biggest entrepreneurs, with business and real estate ventures across southern Afghanistan. 'One thing, he is a successful businessman,' the senior NATO official said. 'He can create jobs.'"

UPDATED 0745 GMT: Compromise, Climbdown, or Both? Another article by Dexter Filkins in The New York Times offers the latest in political manoeuvres and signals: "Despite Doubt, Karzai Brother Retains Power".

The gist of the piece is that the US and NATO want Ahmed Wali Karzai removed from Afghanistan's second city, Kandahar, where a US-led military offensive is soon expected but that they cannot force this:

“My recommendation was, remove him,” a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.”

So the spin now is that Ahmed Karzai, who has been on the CIA payroll for many years despite his alleged connections with drug distribution and insurgent movements, will now be used "to help persuade Taliban fighters to give up".

Afghanistan Special: Mr Obama’s Wild Ride — Why?

Finish the sentence: "Can't live with him...."

Remember how on Monday, as we were trying to sort out the Obama flying visit to Afghanistan, we concluded, "There is no more political space if Karzai continues to be a corruption/drug/ mismanagement/backroom-dealing problem."

Well, check out the spin, as both Americans and Afghans try to frame the outcome of the Obama encounter with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Tuesday's article by Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler in The New York Times:
This month, with President Hamid Karzai looking ahead to a visit to the White House, he received a terse note from aides to President Obama: Your invitation has been revoked.

The reason, according to American officials, was Mr. Karzai’s announcement that he was emasculating an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re-election last year.

Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace.

“Karzai was enraged,” said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.”

The dispute was smoothed over only this week, when Mr. Obama flew to Kabul for a surprise dinner with Mr. Karzai. White House officials emphasized that the most important purpose of Mr. Obama’s trip to Afghanistan was to visit American troops there.

But the red carpet treatment of Mr. Ahmadinejad is just one example of how Mr. Karzai is putting distance between himself and his American sponsors, prominent Afghans and American officials here said. Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States’ no longer coincide.

Let's decode those opening paragraphs....

US Side: Karzai has been a naughty boy. We had to slap him down with the non-invite to Washington. (And, if you go by Monday's spin, President Obama went a step further with the warning to Karzai in their 20 to 30-minute meeting: No More Corruption.)

Afghan Side: You're trying to slap Karzai down? Didn't work.

The Times piece is laden with this conflict. Their chief US source, "a senior official", spoke in serious tones, “We’re trying to find this balance of keeping pressure on him, without setting up bluffs that can be called. We’re coming to terms with dealing with the Karzai we have.” Filkins and Landler add, however --- presumably reflecting the American officials --- "Mr. Karzai has resisted all but the most feeble gestures" in fighting graft.

Nothing new in that theme, however. Go back to Hillary Clinton's effort a year ago to clip Karzai with the warning that the Obama Administration would not accept continued failure in governance; if it continued, the US would be looking towards a more effective Government. (Newsflash: all that Washington pressure ended in a Karzai win in a suspect election.)

No, what distinguishes this article are the Afghan sources. Consider this picture:
In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America’s motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.

“He has developed a complete theory of American power,” said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.”

Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country.

The description of the lunch was largely affirmed by two other Afghans who attended and who also declined to be identified. The person who described the meeting said some of the participants urged Mr. Karzai to reconsider his views and his plans to be more assertive with the United States. “We are a poor country,” he said. “We are depending on the United States.”

There are two theories racing amongst US observers of Afghanistan. One is that the sources are Karzai allies who are putting out the President's message that he is not bowing to Washington. The other is that the sources are not part of Karzai's inner circle and are talking to US reporters because they are worried the President will alienate the Obama Administration once and for all, leaving Kabul to face the insurgent threat on its own.

Pick either and the central message is still the same. Karzai is confident enough and angry enough (and arrogant enough?) that he is not necessarily going to carry out the repentance that was supposedly demanded by Obama on Sunday. On the eve of the reported US offensive to break the insurgency in Kandahar, he is going to complete the phrase for Washington, "Can't live with him....

....Can't live without him."

Israel-Palestine: Washington's New Strategy for Talks 

Neither the "proximity talks" nor the proposal to start negotiations on core issues have worked for the Obama Administration. So, what is left?

Looks like Washington's next ploy is to press Israel to give concessions on East Jerusalem in return for direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, after the recent US-Israeli tension, hints both from the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu Government indicate this may be the best option for President Obama and his advisors.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Middle East Inside Line: Gaza Border Death, Britain to Review Arms to Israel, Obama’s Passover Message
Palestine Video & Analysis: Saeb Erekat’s Speech at Birmingham (Yenidunya/Baghdady)

On Monday, an official in Jerusalem said the U.S. administration is demanding a four-month construction freeze in all parts of East Jerusalem including Jewish neighborhoods such as Neveh Yaakov, French Hill, and of course Ramat Shlomo in return for pressure on PA leader Mahmoud Abbas for direct talks.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the status of Jerusalem is to be evaluated:
Again, our view on this, as, again, the view of many administrations prior to ours, are that the issues around Jerusalem are important and they’re final status issues. We think that coming to the table, coming back to the table, developing the type of confidence and trust that both sides need in these proximity talks, is important to building a process to getting to those final status issues.

On Tuesday, in an interview with MSNBC, Obama said:
I think Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it. But it's not just on the Israeli side. I've been very clear that the Palestinians have to take steps.

On the same day, following a meeting in White House, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Paris stands with the US in condemning Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and added that the "absence of peace" in the region "is a problem for all of us", feeding terrorism around the world.

A U.S. State Department official has denied an earlier report saying the United States will consider abstaining if the United Nations votes on a resolution condemning Israel's housing construction in East Jerusalem. The U.S. official said that "there is no such initiative before the Council, and we are not pursuing or encouraging any such action."

Iraq Video: Scott Lucas on Al Jazeera's "Inside Story"

I appeared on Al Jazeera's Inside Story on Tuesday to discuss the power politics in Iraq after the 7 March elections. The other participants are Saad al-Muttalibi, a political advisor to the Iraqi Council of Ministers, and Sabah al-Mukhtar, the head of the Arab Lawyers Association in the UK.

Iraq: What Do Latest Post-Election Power Plays Indicate? (Cole)


UPDATED Iran Politics and Music Video: "Karroubi" and the Arrest of Sasi Mankan 

UPDATE 31 MARCH: Iranian authorities now say they detained Sasi Mankan on Saturday on Kish Island, deporting him to the mainland, for "disrupting the peace": “Sasi Mankan was arrested when he and some of his friends, dressed in outrageous outfits, danced and performed repulsive acts that were offensive to the public’s morals in a shopping centre in Kish Island.”

On Monday we reported the convergence of film, music, and politics. At the same time that No One Knows Persian Cats --- a film about Tehran musicians trying to evade Iranian authorities and perform in London --- is being shown in cinemas, the underground rap artist Sasi Mankan was arrested in Iran.

Helpful EA readers have introduced us to Mankan's music, noting in particular that he may have been targeted by the regime because of this April 2009 tribute to the cleric, Presidential candidate, and opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi: