Friday, August 31, 2007

Ghorbanpour Freed on Bail

Farshad Ghorbanpour, a journalist working for Roozonline and other reformist publications, was freed today after posting a bail. Ghorbanpour was arrested on 31 July and was transferred to the notorious Section 209 at Evin prison. He was one of the eleven journalists and cyber-dissidents being held at Evin.

Ghorbanpour had been arrested for "spreading lies against the system" and "giving news to websites outside the country." Reporters Without Borders has been actively seeking the release of Ghorbanpour and other detained journalists. (Please see the 2 August entry in this blog: “Iranian Journalists Under assault.”)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Iran Enrichment Program Slowed Down

IAEA reports that Iran has fewer than 2,000 centrifuges divided into 12 cascades of 164 machines each at its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. The 19 August report, revealed by Reuters this morning, shows Iran’s uranium enrichment program is operating well below the levels claimed by the Iranian officials.

Earlier this year, President Ahmadinejad had claimed that the Natanz program has reached “an industrial stage.” Iranian officials have also said that their goal was to install 50,000 centrifuges which would have made the program operating at an industrial scale. Exaggerations by Iranian officials have not been explained, but they are eerily similar to Sadam’s claims of WMD.

Iraq Criticizes Iran’s Shelling of Kurds

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari today strongly criticized Iranian artillery barrages against Kurdish positions in border areas (AP). Zebari warned Iran that if the shelling continues it will negatively affect relations between the two countries.

The recent shelling of Kurdish villages by Iran started last week and has since intensified. (Please see yesterday’s entry on this blog.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Fighting in Kurdistan

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish faction headed by Jalal Talabani, is reporting today that Iran has resumed heavy shelling of Iraqi Kurd areas near Iranian borders.

Iran contends that the presence in the area of Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an Iranian Kurdish opposition group, is forcing it to attack the villages in Iraq Kurdistan region. The Kurdish Parliament on Tuesday condemned the shelling and called for an immediate ceasefire.

In what appears to be a coordinated move between Iran and Turkey, the Turkish forces have also attacked the Iraqi Kurdish villages. PJAK is the Iranian branch of PKK, Turkey’s radical Kurdish movement. PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the Europeans.

PJAK has been involved in a number of military operations against the Islamic Republic. PJAK claims that in the past two years they have killed more than one hundred members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in separate actions, including general officers of the IRGC.

In November 2006, journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker claimed that PJAK is receiving military training and equipment from the US military and the Israelis who want to weaken the Islamic Republic.

According to reports from Kurdistan, the recent shelling of the Kurdish villages by Iran started last Wednesday and has since intensified. A number of Kurdish villagers, among them women and children, have fled their homes in search of safe heavens.

Detained Iranians Are Released

Eight Iranian officials, including two diplomats, who were detained by US troops last night in Baghdad, were released this morning. The US military said the Iranians were originally stopped at a checkpoint and the troops seized an assault rifle and pistols belonging to their bodyguards who carried no permits. The Iranians were later picked up at their hotel, blindfolded and handcuffed and taken into custody for questioning. Early this morning they were handed over to Iraqi authorities.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

President Bush Threatens Iran

President Bush delivering his starkest warning
against the Islamic Republic . Timesonline

President Bush today launched his strongest attack on Islamic Republic, accusing it of threatening to place the Middle East under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. President Bush said he has authorized US military commanders in Iraq to confront Iran’s “murderous activities.”

The president accused his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of openly supporting violent forces within Iraq. Bush implicitly called for a regime change in Iran, calling for “an Iran whose government is accountable to its people, instead of leaders who promote terror and pursue technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.”

Hours after the president’s speech, US troops detained two Iranian diplomats and six members of an Iranian delegation visiting Baghdad to negotiate business contracts with Iraqi officials. They were blindfolded and handcuffed before being taken away from their hotel. Their luggage and computer equipment were also confiscated. The US military holds another five Iranian official since January. The five were arrested in the Iraqi northern city of Irbil and the US military contends that among them is the chief of operations of the Revolutionary Guards’ notorious Quds Force.

News from Iran

The worsening Iran-US relations dominated the coverage in the Iranian media. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today that the US and its allies were planning to attack Iran, even setting the hour of the attack. Ahmadinejad claimed that the US, bugged in Iraq, is no longer planning to attack Iran. President Bush also today sounded stern warnings against Iran’s nuclear weapon development and its support of terrorist groups in Iraq. Adding to the growing tensions between the two countries, the US troops arrested two Iranian diplomats and six members of an Iranian delegation visiting Baghdad hours after President Bush's speech. In January, US troops detained five Iranian officials in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The five also remain in US custody.

On the military front, Iran’s military industry unveiled a long-range 2000-pound guided bomb, named “Ghassed” (Messenger), designed for precision strikes against ground targets. During a ceremony announcing the news, the Iranian defense minister said that Ghassed will be used against those who would infiltrate Iran’s airspace or territory. The defense minister said Iran was ready to hit the enemy’s strategic targets and military bases. He also announced the manufacturing of a new 35-mm “Pasdar-e Aseman” (Sky Guard) anti-aircraft gun and a new destroyer named “Mouj” (Wave). Earlier in the month, Iran had announced the manufacturing of its second jet fighter plane, named “Azarakhsh” (Lihjtening). The minister, Brig. Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, told reporters that Iran has “the highest level of air, ground and sea strength and readiness” (IRNA, 23 August).

On domestic front, a report in the moderate newspaper Kargozaran warned against the possibility of meddling in the upcoming Majlis election by military personnel, a code name for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). President Ahmadinejad named a top ranking IRGC officer to the post of deputy interior minister in charge of the elections. Earlier in the week, the Iranian chief of staff Maj. Gen. Hassan Firuzabadi had criticized moderate and reformist politicians who attack Ahmadinejad’s government. Iran's constitution prohibits the armed forces from intervention in political matters.

On the regional issues, the Iranian government spokesman denied that Iran is shelling Iraqi Kurdistan villages. The Kurdish parliament condemned Iran’s shelling of the Haji Umran district near Kurdish-Iranian border.

US Troops Arrest Members of an Iranian Delegation in Baghdad

US troops have arrested two Iranian diplomats and six members of an Iranian delegation who were in Baghdad to negotiate contracts with the Iraqis. The troops raided Baghdad's Sheraton Ishtar Hotel where the Iranian delegation was staying.

Videotape shot by AP Television News showed the Americans leading the members of the Iranians delegation blindfolded and handcuffed out of the hotel in Central Baghdad. Other soldiers were seen leaving the hotel carrying luggage and a laptop computer carrying case.

On 11 January, the US forces detained five Iranian officials in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The US military has said that the five included the chief of operations of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. The five remain in US custody.

Ahmadinejad Says US Was Planning to Attack Iran

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters today in Tehran that there were days when they [the US and its allies] were even setting the hour to attack Iran. He did not give any further information on the dates the US was to attack Iran or on Iranian response to those impending attacks.

Ahmadinejad, speaking in a press conference, also said that they [the US and its allies] have realized that they can’t do anything anymore; presumably believing that the US would no longer attack Iran.

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Oil Pipeline To Detour Hormuz

Trans-Arabia Pipeline

DEBKA-Net Weekly reports that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Yemen have launched a vast Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project. The overland pipeline will bypass the Straits of Hormuz, ending Iran’s strategic control of the Persian Gulf waterways.

The first stage of the Trans-Arabia pipeline will link Saudi Aramco oil terminal at Ras Tannura on Persian Gulf, Yemen’s Mukallah oil port on Gulf of Aden, UAE port of Al Fujairah on Arabian Sea, Oman’s port of Muscat, and Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu. The construction will start in November 2007. Saudi Arabia and other participating members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will provide the $6 billion investment required to complete the first stage.

Saudi Arabia will provide a new 35,000-strong security force to protect the pipeline against terrorist and foreign attacks. The first 5,000 recruits are reportedly in training.

DEBKA-Net Weekly reports that in the second stage, the Trans-Arabia pipeline will carry South Iraqi oil crossing the Iraqi desert directly into Saudi Arabia, bypassing Shatt Al-Arab. The construction of this stage will start in early 2009. Iran, on its part, has started negotiations with the current Iraqi government to build a pipeline that would carry 200,000 barrels a day of Iraqi crude refineries in Iran.

DEBKA-Net Weekly reports that Kuwait and Qatar are the two GCC members that will not participate in the project. Both countries are involved in building a gas pipeline network which has highest priority for them.

The five pipeline branches are planned as follow:

Pipeline #1: Ras Tannuna on Saudi eastern coast to Al Fujairah in UAE, also collecting crude from Abu Dhabi’s Habashan oil fields. The work will start in November. It will be a 48-inch pipeline running for 350 kilometer with a capacity of 1.5 million bpd.
Pipeline #2: Linking Ras Tannuna to Muscat, Oman.
Pipeline #3: Linking Ras Tannuna through Hadhramouth fields and onto Mukalla port in Yemen’s Gulf of Aden.
Pipeline #4: Linking Ras Tannuna-UAE pipeline onto Mukalla port in Yemen.
Pipeline #5: Linking Ras Tannuna to Saudi’s Red Sea port of Yanbu. This line will bypass two older ones in the same area.

For security reasons, large sections of the pipeline will be built underground. The participating countries will also add 4 million bpd to their total crude production.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Writer Says Strike against Iran is Forthcoming

Bob Baer, a former CIA operative whose book about his life inspired the thriller Syriana, says he was told by senior intelligence officials that the US will attack Iran in the months ahead. Baer who is working on a new book on Iran told The Weekend Australian that his contacts have advised him that his book’s scheduled January submission is “probably going to be too late.”

Washington is abuzz these days about possible military action against Iran, which is reportedly being weighed at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The latest speculation has been a surgical strike on the Revolutionary Guards.

The New York Times reported last week that the Bush administration was preparing to declare the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization, signaling a confrontational turn in the administration's approach to Iran.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Oil Saga Continues

Former oil minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, who was sacked by Ahmadinejad last week, warned of a looming “catastrophe” in Iran’s energy sector (ISNA). Although Iran is OPEC’s second largest oil producer, its gasoline consumption forces it to import million gallons of gasoline every day despite the recent gasoline rationing. Vaziri Hamaneh said consumption cannot be controlled with current low prices.

The acting oil minister, Gholam Hossein Nozari, is arguing that the solution to the oil crisis in Iran is an increase in crude oil production. The foreign investment needed to boost the production has, however, all but evaporated.

Ahmadinejad has claimed that during his two years in office, Iran has been able to secure $38 billion in foreign investment for the oil sector. The claim has been denied by Iran oil experts. Almost all of the commitment has been memoranda of understanding, with no sign that any investment is actually taking place. A number of European companies have been hesitant to go ahead with any involvement in Iran’s energy projects. The latest companies suspending involvement in Iranian projects are Royal Dutch Shell, Respol of Spain and OMV of Austria.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Iran Under Pressure on Nuclear Issue

French Ambassador to the United Nations Jean-Maurice Ripert told reporters today that the Security Council might not wait till October to impose a third round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Ripert said Iran has not delivered what the Security Council had asked and it will have to boost the international sanctions (AFP, 17 August 2007).

Earlier this week, President Hu Jiatao of China warned President Ahmadinejad in their meeting in Bishkek the China wants Iran to show “flexibility” and to resolve pending issues on its nuclear program (Xinhua, 15 august 2007). Hu told the Iranian president that he wants to see Iran moving toward a “correct solution,” a Communist Party coded language for demanding Iran to abide with the UN Security Council’s resolutions and to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iran analysts agree that Hu’s language was the strongest ever used by the Chinese on Iran’s nuclear issue.

On a related development, Russia has demanded Iran to fully disclose the previously-confidential details of its nuclear program. Russia has suspended the delivery of nuclear fuel for Bushehr nuclear power plant pending Tehran’s acceptance of key demands of UN Security Council.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did forecast Iran’s predicament in late July by saying that there will be a third UN Security Council resolution in relation to Iran soon.

IPI Pipeline's Uncertain Future

Asia Times reported today that that the trip of Indian premier Manmohan Singh and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to Tehran to sign Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline has been put on hold. The $7.5 billion IPI pipeline was to export natural gas from Iran to Pakistan and India.

There are growing speculations that the ousting last week of Iranian oil minister Kazem Vaziri Mahaneh was due to strong internal opposition to his handling of the IPI project. Mahaneh had offered India and Pakistan a deep discount on gas exports, reportedly at 30% discount rate.

Iran oil analysts believe such major discount was misplaced as Iran would need most of its natural gas export quota to be pumped into the existing oil wells to stop their rapidly diminishing rate of production, considered to be as high as 8% annually. In the absence of any foreign investment to bring new oil fields online, such diminishing rate of production would wipe out all Iran’s oil exports in less than a decade.

Iran submitted a new market-based variable pricing proposal that has been rejected by India. Washington was also unhappy about any strategic partnership between Iran and India on energy. The future of IPI pipeline project now looks uncertain.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Iranian F-14 Tomcats Are Back

Jane Defense Weekly reported in its 15 August edition that the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) has returned to service three more F-14A Tomcat interceptor aircraft within the last four months (IRIAF F-14A pictured here - MEHR).

During the last years of the Shah, Iran received 79 F-14A. In the last few years Iran has started an aggressive program to overhaul and upgrade some 57 F-14A. The return of the first three upgraded aircraft is the result of that program.

The US Navy retired its fleet of F-14 Tomcat in September 2006. The US government has been determined not to let the Iranians smuggle aircraft parts, including a plan to blow up the retired Tomcat fleet. IRIAF, however, has apparently been successful to perform field and line maintenance on the aircraft and refurbish them. The major overhaul includes replacement of major fatigue parts and changes to the AWCS on-board weapon control system.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

US Not Considering Attack on Iran

The White House said today that military actions are not being contemplated against Iran. The White House spokesman told reporters while the military option should not be taken off the table, the diplomacy is what the US is aiming towards.

The remarks came after the Washington Post revealed in the morning that the White House will designate Islamic Revolution Guards Corp. (IRGC) as a “specially designated global terrorist” group. The Revolutionary Guards have increasingly been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They also operate a vast mafia-type financial and business empire.

The US will publish the names of businesses operating within IRGC network. These companies will also be subjected to the new terrorist designation. The US will clamp down on those businesses as well as on foreign companies doing business with IRGC and its affiliated companies.

Why the Minister of Industry Resigned?

The outgoing Industry Minister Ali Reza Tahmasbi in a resignation letter dated 5 August 2007 to President Ahmadinejad outlines his differences of opinion with the president and the challenges facing Iran’s industry. Fars news agency carried the text of the letter. Following are the resignation letter highlights.

- Ahmadinejad’s insistence on stabilizing the prices of certain industrial goods such as cement, sugar, dairy products, automobiles, and household goods, despite the rise in the final prices of factors of production of these goods.

- The inability of the ministry to allocate essential water and electricity to producers, which next year will reach 8,000 Megawatts of electricity, 50 million cubic meters of water, and 20 million cubic meters of natural gas a day, due to a lack of necessary developmental investment in this sector .

- The lack of availability of necessary credit and foreign exchange in the industrial and mineral sector.

- The lack of co-ordination between commercial and production policies and operational intrusion by some of the government bodies, such as the Paragraph 13 group.

- The ministry faces the changes being imposed regarding the organic structure of the mines and mines ministry, which will lead to increases in management problems in the ministry.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Karzai Illusions

Karzai with Ahmadinejad in Kabul today . Reuters

President Ahmadinejad arrived in Kabul today for talks with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai. On the eve of his arrival, the intelligence officials in Balkh province had reported seizing 100 Iranian-made improvised explosive devices (IED) intended to be used for blowing up gas and oil installations in the region. During a press conference in Kabul, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran was not supplying Taliban with the weapons.

The warm reception given to Ahmadinejad in Kabul coupled with the claim by the Afghan intelligence officials of Iranian involvement in the shipment of the deadly IED’s to the Taliban show the complex realities facing Karzai. His government’s powerlessness to tackle many of the growing problems in Afghanistan may have created a sense of disappointment and despair for Karzai, putting him under many illusions, chief among them his belief that Iran is “a helper and a solution” to problems in Afghanistan.

Iran’s interest in the region, in the face of growing internal dissatisfaction with the government, is to keep tensions high. This would allow bullying the loyal opposition into inaction and cracking down on any dissent in the name of preserving the national unity. The Islamic Republic has used this track successfully ever since its foundation. The US hostage crisis of early days created the pretext to crush the moderates within the government and the opposition outside of it. Karzai needs to be skeptical at Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Islamic Republic’s mission in the world is to spread “justice, love and kindness.”

Monday, August 13, 2007

Iran’s Role in Iraq under Scrutiny

Iran’s influence in Iraq has taken a center stage in regional politics.

One of Iraq's top Sunni leaders on Monday accused Iran of waging an unprecedented campaign of genocide against his community. Adnan Al Dulaimi, who heads a party in the main Sunni bloc that resigned from the Iraqi government two weeks ago, said that Sunnis in Iraq are facing “a campaign of genocide carried out by militias and death squads under Iranian direction, planning, support and weaponry,” AFP reported.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki said during a visit to Iran, however, that he appreciated Iran's “positive and constructive” role in Iraq (ISNA).

Al Maliki made his comments in Tehran as the US troops and the aircraft attacked Shia militias in Baghdad’s Sadr City. US accuses Iran of delivering deadly roadside explosives and other weapons to those militias. The US military reported that during the Sadr City raid on Sunday it has captured or killed highly-sought weapons facilitators with connections to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force in Iran.

Attacks on Unionists

Iranian intelligence ministry agents arrested five members of Tehran's bus drivers' union after they visited the home of their imprisoned chief Mansour Ossalou. ISNA identified the detainees as Ebrahim Madadi, Yagoub Salimi, Davoud Razavi and Ghojari and Homayoun Jaberi.

Ossalou has been sentenced to four years in prison for acting against national security and to an additional year for disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

Rights group Amnesty International, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Transport Workers' Federation held protests in European capitals on Thursday calling for his release.

They also called for the release of Mahmoud Salehi, a prominent trade unionist and former head of the bakers' union in Iran's Kordestan province, who was rearrested in April after serving previous jail terms.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Iran, Russia, Iraq and Oil Contracts

Diplomatic sources in Moscow have told the Iraqi TV network Al Sharghia that Iran played a key role in mediating the recent visit of Iraqi oil minister Hossein Al Shahrestani to Moscow. The Russians were demanding that the current Iraqi government honor a memorandum of understanding that had been signed between Russia and Saddam Hossein. The prize is some of the most lucrative contracts to explore the southern Iraqi oil fields (Al Sharghia, 11 August).

For their part in enticing the Iraqi oil chief to visit Moscow and to sign the contract, Iranians are expected to receive Russia’s help in delaying and watering down the third round of UN sanctions over the country’s nuclear program. The maneuvers are yet another reminder that in the Middle East oil controls politics.

Ayatollah Jannati Will Monitor Elections for Majlis

Iran’s Guardian Council today appointed ultra-hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Janati to head a five-person panel to monitor the Majlis elections; scheduled for 18 March. The other four members of the team - Larijani, Kaabi, Alizadeh and Kadkhodaie, also belong to the radical fundamentalist faction.

The news was seen as bad omen for all moderate and reformist candidates whose eligibility to run for the parliament need to be approved by the panel. Jannati’s panel is feared to disqualify many of the moderates and the reformists.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Emerging Picture of a Regime in Disarray

Internal issues in Iran have shifted government and public attention away from foreign policy and nuclear issues to divisive internal power politics and such issues as the deteriorating economy, the housing crisis, gas rationing, press crackdown, health insurance disorganization, stock exchange predicament and the like. This summer is indeed proving to be a hot one for Iran; not for the often-talked-about foreign military attacks on the country, but because of an emerging picture of a regime in disarray.

For the regime, the death of Ayatollah Meshkini could not be more untimely. The internal power struggle that was to come to a head during the elections for Majlis next March now has to play itself in less than a month in a battle between two influential ayatollahs, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mesbah Yazdi. One of them will replace the deceased speaker of the Assembly of Expert during the assembly’s meeting scheduled for 4-6 September.

Ahmadinejad’s government and the fundamentalists are pushing Mesbah’s candidacy. Their plan is clear: they have the presidency; they have the current Majlis; they are preparing the groundwork for Guardian Council’s disqualification of prominent moderate candidates for the next Majlis; and now they want Meshkini’s seat to exert maximum pressure on the middle-of-the-road clerics to join their bandwagon. The fundamentalists are going for an all-out power grab.

The continued detention of the Iranian-Americans is a move by the government to broadcast further “confessions” linking high-ranking former officials in Khatami and Rafsanjani administrations and conservatives such as Mohsen Rezaie, who may have attended many international conferences in the past, to foreign organizations including intelligence services; and hence disqualifying them from running for the 8th Majlis or in the 2009 presidential elections.

Hashemi, Karroubi, Khatami and Rezaie need to make a stand now or to loose their influence and possibly their reputation.

The economic woes are adding to the political instability in the country. Ahmadinejad not only did not bring oil revenues to people’s dinner tables as promised, but during his two-year leadership the cost of housing kept skyrocketing, the gasoline was rationed, inflation rate passed 20% mark, and unemployment, especially among the youths, reached alarming levels.

On international scene, Ahmahinejad's policies helped isolate Iran to a dangerous level. Major financial institutions are cutting ties with Iran and the country is facing severe sanctions through the UN and outside of it.

The rise in oil prices to historical highs has provided the government the cash needed to sustain its programs. Behind the veneer created by this cash flow, however, are the bitter realties of double digit inflation and unemployment as well as the increasing isolation of the country. The isolation, directly helped by Ahmadinejad’s diatribes and policies, is preventing major investments in the country and in the very oil industry which has been the government’s cash cow, presenting a real possibility that Iran would run out of oil exports in less than a decade.

A country in crisis needs a government able to bring together its people. Instead, the past two years of Ahmadinejad’s administration have become a period of government’s all-out war on free press and the journalists, on students, on women, on workers and the unions, on youths, and on Iranians abroad. Ahmadinejad's two-year reign has been a disaster for Iran.

Housing Crisis in Iran

Buying or renting a home in Iran has become unaffordable. The 57 economists in their open letter to Ahmadinejad last month had estimated the one-year increase in housing prices at 50%. Iran’s leading business paper, Donya-ye Eghtesad, has estimated that the rate of increase in rent in Tehran has exceeded 100% in the one-year period between July 2006-July 2007 (26 July 2007). Last year, the paper had reported a similar 100% increase in the cost of housing in Tehran between July 2005-July 2006 (31 July 2006).

Doubling of rent in Tehran, coupled with large increases in other cities, is creating an unbearable situation for the Iranian people. Donya-ye Eghtesad in its 26 July issue quoted a working couple faced with this dilemma: “My wife and I hardly earn 500,000 tumans a month, out of which we have to pay 400,000 tumans as rent. How can we live on 100,000 tumans a month?"

The prices for construction material are also skyrocketing. Aftab Yazd reports that the price of bricks rose by 150% within the past 6 months (15 July 2007).

The housing crisis is serious enough to add to political instability in the country. Ahmadinejad’s administration will be regarded by people as directly responsible for not only dropping its campaign promise of bringing oil revenues to their dinner tables, but leading the country into a period of skyrocketing housing prices.

US and Israel to Push for Iran’s Financial Isolation

US Treasury official Stuart Levy met with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livini in Tel Aviv this week to review their joint efforts in financially isolatate of Iran. Some of the world’s major financial institutions have already severed ties with Iran. The German banking powerhouse, Deutche Bank, was the latest among major European banks to stop doing business with Iran last week.

Levy, who carries the hefty title of Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, was in Berlin in late July for meetings with German officials on the country’s business ties to Iran. Germany will also be suspending its export insurance coverage for Iran. Without such coverage, German manufacturers will be forced to give up all future contracts with Iran.

Levy’s work is conducted outside the framework of the UN Security Council sanctions against Iran and is intended to bypass China’s growing reluctance to support further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. China is growing its already-huge volume of trade with Iran and seems not willing to support a third round of UN sanctions against Iran.

There are, however, strong signs that the powerful bazaaris and businessmen in Iran are extremely concerned about Levy’s efforts which have practically cut them off from the world’s financial markets. Their personal wealth has also been affected. The European banks are increasingly asking their major Iranian accountholders to close their accounts in their banks. Dubai banks are reportedly considering to do same. The wealthy Iranians who do not possess any dual citizenship are facing a difficult time to find a secure place to invest or park their cash.

Israeli foreign minister spokesman Mark Regev said before Levy/Livini meeting got underway that Iran must understand that business as usual cannot continue while it is pursuing its nuclear program.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

News from Iran

The mounting tensions in US-Iran relations dominated the coverage in the Iranian media. Comments by President Bush on his continuous efforts to isolate Iran and earlier comments by a senior US military commander in Iraq accusing Iran of arming Shia militias in Baghdad received prominent coverage in the press. The conservative press emphasized the “futile” nature of any further negotiations with the US, while the moderate press highlighted the risks involved in the deteriorating relations with the US.

On the nuclear front, the government disclaimed comments made by Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during an interview with a German magazine that suspension of uranium enrichment could be a possibility. A government spokesman said Iran would not consider suspension under any circumstances.

President Ahmadinejad continued his diatribes against Israel, this time suggesting that the Jewish state should fine a new home elsewhere on the planet.

On domestic front, the crackdown against moderate and reformist press continued. The reformist flagship daily Shargh was closed down by the government. The number of detained journalists in the notorious Security Section 209 at Evin prison rose to eleven.

US-Iran Relations

· US President George Bush said he would continue efforts to isolate Iran; Bush accused Iran of being a destabilizing force in the region; Bush, at a ceremony at Camp David for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said that because of the actions of the US government, Iran is isolated and the US will continue to work to isolate it further.
· A senior US army commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, accused Iran for increasing its supply of weapons and training to Shia militias in Iraq; Gen. Odierno said the Shia militias were responsible for two-thirds of the attacks in Baghdad that has killed or injured US troops.
· The US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq met for third round of talks in two months on Iraqi security; Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi and the US Ambassador Ryan Crocker met for about two hours on Monday 6 Agust in Baghdad; the US, Iraqi and Iranian delegations also held their first talks as part of a subcommittee on Iraqi security.
· Meetings of the trilateral committee involving Iran, Iraq, and the US began in Baghdad to discuss the issue of security in Iraq; the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani met with the Iranian delegation and expressed hope that the trilateral meeting will help achieve security and stability in Iraq.

Iran Nuclear Program

· Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Iran would not consider a suspension of uranium enrichment activities under any circumstances; Hosseini denied that Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, had said that a suspension was conceivable; the German weekly Focus had quoted Larijani as saying during an interview that a suspension was conceivable as an outcome to talks with world powers; Hossienin said that Iran’s nuclear program was progressing at “normal” pace and uranium enrichment will continue as planned.
· A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) led by Michiro Hosaya arrived in Iran for talks on nuclear inspections; Hosaya held a meeting with Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy director of Iran’s atomic energy organization; the talks centered around the future inspections of Iran's uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz; Last week, another IAEA team inspected the heavy-water reactors under construction in Arak.

Leading Regional Storylines

· Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is scheduled to visit Iran tomorrow; a high-level delegation of Iraq’s ruling Al Dawah Party arrived in Tehran for talks on the future of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s government; reports circulating in Tehran suggest that Al Maliki’s government is loosing support for its lack of authority in Iraq and the Iranians might favor the return of Ebrahim Jafari as premier.
· Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, head of border police for western Afghanistan, told The Sunday Times that Iran is arming the Taliban; Safi accused Iran of delivering sophisticated IED’s (improvised explosive devices) to Taliban rebels to fight the British troop; The Sunday Times reports that Afghan military sources fear that the Iranians may also have supplied heat-seeking missiles along with supplies of assault rifles and mortars.
· Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Israel to leave the Palestinian territories; Ahmadinejad said let the Israelis “go find somewhere else.”

Leading Domestic Storylines

· One of Iran’s leading newspapers, Shargh, was closed down by the government; Shargh had published an interview with an Iranian-Canadian poet, Misagh Ghahraman, in its culture section that had dealt with the issue of female homosexuality; the interview titled “Womanly Talk” was published in Monday 4 August edition of the paper; the government accused Shargh for the “publication of an interview with an anti-revolutionary and homosexual woman.”
· The Assembly of Experts is scheduled to meet 4-6 September to choose a successor to its deceased chairman, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini; Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were among the leading candidates to head the assembly; the 86-man clerical assembly is empowered to choose and supervise the Supreme Leader.
· The Expediency Council rejected the Majlis bill to combine the next Majlis and presidential elections; the elections for the 8th Majlis will be held on Friday 18 March, 2008; the presidential elections will be held in June 2009.
· Iran’s Defense Minister Brigadier Mohammad Mustafa Najar announced that a domestic fighter jet, called Azarakhsh, was test flown successfully; the flight took place in Isfahan; Azarakhsh is the second fighter built in Iran (3); the first, Saeqeh, is already in service.
· Iran’s Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie said his organization has foiled a “terror plot” in southern province of Khuzestan; Ejeie added that a group of “anti-revolutionaries” were aiming to carry out the act; Ejeie did not elaborate on the target of the plot or the individuals involved; Ejeie also revealed that in recent months “a number of anti-revolutionaries” had been arrested in Iran’s neighboring countries and extradited back to Iran, but he gave no details.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Shargh is Gone!

Shargh, one of Iran’s leading reformist papers, was closed down today. The government announced that the reason for the ban was “the publication of an interview with an anti-revolutionary and homosexual woman” (ISNA). The government was apparently alluding to an interview with Saghi Gharhraman, an Iranian-Canadian poet, which appeared under the title of “Womanly Talk” [Zaban-e Zananeh] in the paper’s literature section on 4 August (13 Mordad).

This is the second time that Ahmadinejad’s government is closing Shargh. The paper was banned last September after publishing a cartoon regarded by the government as personally insulting Ahmadinejad. The ban was rescinded in March. This time, it appears that Shargh is gone forever.

Shargh publisher Mohammad Reza Rahmanian told Jahan News that “today is the day that Shargh died.” Iranian journalists and reformist papers have been under assault by the government. Currently, 11 journalists and cyber-dissidents are detained in the notorious Security Section 209 at Tehran’s Evin prison. The closing of Shargh is the latest move in government's all-out war against free press in Iran.

US To Continue Isolating Iran

President Bush said today that he would continue efforts to isolate Iran because the Islamic Republic is “not a force for good” in the world and because they have a destabilizing influence wherever they operate.

Standing next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai at Camp David, the president told reporters that because of the actions taken by the US government, Iran is isolated and the US will continue to work to isolate it further.

Yesterday, a senior US army commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, accused Iran for increasing its supply of weapons and training to Shia militias in Iraq. Gen. Odierno said the Shia militias were responsible for two-thirds of the attacks in Baghdad that has killed or injured US troops.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Mesbah Yazdi to Become Chairman of Assembly of Experts

Informed sources in Tehran say that Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah Yazdi is favored to become the next chairman of the Assembly of Experts. The potentially powerful post was vacated after the death of Ayatollah Ali Meshkini on 30 July. The 86-man clerical assembly will elect its new chairman at its next meeting scheduled for 4-6 September in Tehran (Mesbah's picture at top, Fars file photo).

Mesbah’s election will further tilt the balance of power towards the fundamentalists. Mesbah is the spiritual guru of President Ahmadinejad. Mesbah’s election will also mean a major defeat for Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, favored by the moderates to head the assembly.

The Assembly of Experts is empowered to choose and supervise the Supreme Leader. Under Meshkini, the Assembly all but gave up its constitutional role to supervise the activities of the Supreme Leader and his executive offices.

Mesbah Yazdi believes the supreme leader is chosen by God, presumably through the Assembly of Experts.

Al Dawah Party Officials in Tehran

A high-level delegation of Iraq’s ruling Al Dawah Party arrived in Tehran yesterday for talks on the future of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s government. Reports circulating in Tehran indicate the party wants to replace Al Maliki with the former premier Ebrahim Jafari.

Al Maliki is scheduled to visit Tehran on 8 August to renew Iran’s support for his government. The Iranians are said to favor the change to Jafari in order to resolve the current crisis facing Al Maliki’s government.

Majlis & Presidential Elections

The Expediency Council yesterday rejected a bill to combine the next Majlis and presidential elections. The elections for the 8th Majlis will be held on Friday 18 March, 2008. The presidential elections will be held in June 2009.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Iranian Journalists Under Assault

The government arrested another journalist on Tuesday, Farshad Ghorbanpour. He was transferred to the notorious Security Section 209 at Evin prison. Reporters Without Borders reports the number of journalist and cyber-dissidents currently detained in Iran has risen to 11. Ghorbanpour worked for several publications including Roozonline.

Also on Tuesday, Emadoldin Baghi was sentenced to three years in prison. Baghi, 45, was released from prison in February 2004 after serving a three-year sentence. On leaving the prison, Mr. Baghi set up an organization to defend the rights of prisoners of conscious. He was banned from leaving the country and has been summoned for questioning by the ministry of intelligence on numerous occasions. He is now sentenced to another three years in prison.

Reporters Without Borders reports that Baghi’s wife and his daughter were also given three-year suspended prison sentences and five years of probation for taking part in a series of human rights workshops in Dubai in 2004. The charges were meeting and colluding with the aim of disrupting national security.

Along with Ghorbanpour, the government also arrested Masoud Bastani who was later released after questioning. Bastani was sentenced to six months in prison in 2003, 70 lashes and a five-year ban as a journalist. He was again imprisoned in 2005 after reporting on a demonstration for the release of Akbar Ganji.

Reporters Without Borders reports that another Roozonline journalist, Soheil Asefi, has also received a summons to appear before a court after prosecutor’s agents searched him home, taking personal documents and the hard disk of his computer.

On the same day, the government confirmed that two Kurdish journalists, Adnan Hassanpour and Abdolvahed “Hiva” Botimar, had been sentenced to death. A revolutionary court in Marivan, Kurdistan had charged them as “mahareb,” or enemies of God.

Reporters Without Borders is circulating a petition for the release of the two journalists sentenced to death.