Wednesday, July 20, 2011

EYE ON IRAN - 7/20

Top Stories

Reuters: "Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini backs offering $5.8 billion in aid to Syria to bolster its economy, a French newspaper said Friday, citing a report by a Tehran think-tank linked to Iran's leadership. Damascus has long been Tehran's main ally among otherwise mainly hostile Arab states.

After four months of popular unrest, Syria's economy is reeling under the weight of strikes, reduced oil exports, scaled-back trade and international sanctions. Its troubles have prompted Iran's leadership to consider offering $5.8 billion in financial help, including a three-month loan worth $1.5 billion to be made available immediately, French business daily Les Echos said. It added that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed the idea of the aid, which was outlined in a secret report by the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank linked to the Iranian leadership."

UPI: "Iran expects to garner non-oil trade worth more than $45 billion during its current calendar year despite a plethora of international sanctions led by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said non-oil exports during the calendar year ending March 20, 2012, would exceed $45 billion -- against $30 billion in the previous year -- and would consist of gas condensates, mineral fuels, chemical products, plastics and fertilizers as well as traditional commodities of fruit and nuts, Press TV reported... The United against Nuclear Iran campaign in the United States, meanwhile, is drumming up support for tougher measures against entities that trade with Iran.

UANI has urged U.S. state and municipal legislatures to follow the lead of California and Florida and pass legislation barring companies that do business in Iran from receiving state contracts. UANI said it wrote to governors and legislative leaders of 48 states, urging them to take action to pressure the Iranian regime. California and Florida have already passed Iran debarment legislation. UANI says Japanese crane manufacturer Tadano responded to its call by ending its business in Iran which was reported to have used the company's cranes to stage public hangings."

YnetNews: "A Japanese heavy machinery manufacturer said it has cut business ties with the Iranian government following a report that its cranes have been used for public executions. The company's announcement came several days after United Against Nuclear Iran President Mark D. Wallace published an op-ed in Los Angeles Times where he names the Japanese Tadano company as one of several companies exporting cranes to Iran. 'In response to Iran's brazen attempts to intimidate and terrorize its own people, United Against Nuclear Iran has launched a Cranes Campaign. The goal is to educate crane manufacturers worldwide about the Iranian regime's clear misuse of their products and how such use can tarnish their brand image,' Wallace wrote. As part of the campaign, United Against Nuclear Iran published on its website a list of seven international manufacturers exporting cranes and other heavy equipment to Iran, along with pictures of the cranes being used for public executions."

Nuclear Program & Sanctions

Reuters: "Iran said on Sunday it would export 2.6 million litres of gasoline per day due to a rise in production and fall in consumption, an official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. 'Considering the country's gasoline production capacity has increased to 70 million litres per day and consumption dropped to around 54 million, it is now possible to export 2.6 million,' said Ali-Reza Zeighami, the head of the state-owned National Iranian Refining and Distribution Co. Zeighami added exports would be from current stockpiles.

In July 2010, the oil ministry reported Iran's daily gasoline production was 45 million litres and consumption 63 million, with the rest made up by imports -- an economic weak point deliberately targeted by U.S. and European sanctions. Iranian officials had said the country's production capacity would increase by 25 million litres after it built refineries. Some foreign analysts view this rapid transformation with scepticism, saying it would take years to add so much capacity."

AP: "Iran's official news agency IRNA says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for a quick increase in trade with China to $100 billion a year. The news agency says current trade between the two countries is worth about $30 billion. Iran turned to China after the West imposed economic sanctions over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran says it's nuclear program has a strictly peaceful purpose. Ahmadinejad spoke after a meeting Saturday with He Guoqiang, a senior executive of the Chinese Communist Party. The Iranian president says he hopes the new trade goal will be reached quickly, but did not give a time frame. IRNA says the two countries signed agreements worth $4 billion in mining, energy and other areas."

Human Rights

AP: "Iran's intelligence minister said Friday that his country has found a way to block the so-called 'Internet in a suitcase,' a program reportedly developed by the U.S. to bring online access to dissidents around the world. The minister, Heidar Moslehi, told Muslim worshippers that Iran was aware of the program from the start. 'We prepared a solution for it,' he said in a speech broadcast live on state radio. He did not elaborate. Iran has alleged that the program, first reported by The New York Times last month, is largely aimed at the Islamic Republic.

Earlier this month, Iran's telecommunications minister, Reza Taqipour, said Iran is taking technical measures to combat the the program. Taqipour was quoted by state media as saying that the program is part of a 'cultural invasion' by Iran's enemies aimed at promoting dissent and undermining Iran's ruling system."

AFP: "Iran has arrested another female reporter wanting to cover the women's football World Cup in Germany, a press report said on Sunday, saying she was being held in Tehran's notorious Evin jail. Pegah Ahangarani, 27, who is also an actress and film-maker and said to be a supporter of the Iranian opposition movement, was arrested earlier this month in her flat and has not been seen since, the Spiegel weekly said. Ahangarani was intending to cover the women's World Cup, which was due to wrap up on Sunday, for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Spiegel said. Deutsche Welle said that Ahangarani was due to travel to Germany for the tournament and write an Internet blog about it.

According to sources close to Ahangarani cited by Deutsche Welle's Persian language service, she was summoned to the interior ministry the day before she was due to travel and threatened with arrest if she tried to leave the country. As a result of this and further 'threats' Ahangarani decided not to attempt to travel to Germany, and on July 14 it was confirmed that she had been arrested four days earlier, Deutsche Welle said."

Domestic Politics

Guardian: "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has suffered an unprecedentedly harsh blow to its credibility during the last few weeks. The Iranian president has witnessed the arrest of officials close to high-ranking members of his cabinet, and has engaged in an escalating war of words with senior conservatives and Iran's judiciary. Even high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, long believed to be politically aligned with Ahmadinejad, have sparred publicly with his administration, with both sides accusing each other of illegal financial dealings. Despite this crisis, Ahmadinejad has not only maintained his clout but has also managed to break through many of the regime's traditional restrictions on executive power. His political standing has been weakened but not undermined.

This has left Iranian legislators worried that Ahmadinejad can still gain long-lasting political influence through next year's parliamentary elections. In an effort to extend his power beyond 2013, when his term ends, Ahmadinejad will continue to push the limits of Iran's government structure and pick fights to place allies in influential positions, according to Hossein Askari, who holds the Iran chair at George Washington University."

AP: "Iran's central bank is asking citizens their opinions on new names for the country's currency. Visitors to the bank's website can choose from several names, including rial - the current name - toman, parsi and derik. In the online survey, the bank also asks respondents how many zeros should be removed from the currency. The government has proposed lopping off four zeros.

The biggest Iranian banknote is 100,000 rials, which is equivalent to around 9 dollars. The poll results will be taken into consideration when the government draws up a draft on changes to the currency. The proposal will be submitted to parliament."

Foreign Affairs

Reuters: "Argentina on Sunday welcomed an offer from Iran to help investigate the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish centre that killed 85 people and which local prosecutors blame on Iranian officials. Argentine prosecutors say that Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi is among those behind the attack. Iran denies any links to the bombing. Local newspapers over the weekend carried a news release from the Iranian government offering to start talks aimed at 'shedding light' on the bombing that levelled the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association building. 'The foreign ministry hopes to receive an official communication from its Iranian counterpart,' the Argentine government said in a statement, which went on to call the overture from Iran 'unprecedented and very positive.'"

AP: "Iran's official news agency says Revolutionary Guard forces have taken control of three bases of an Iranian Kurdish opposition group in neighboring Iraq. IRNA quoted Colonel Delavar Ranjbarzadeh, a local Guard commander, as saying on Monday that many members of the Iranian Kurdish opposition group PEJAK have been killed in fierce clashes on the border over the past two days. Iran threatened last week to attack PEJAK bases in Iraq after it accused the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, of providing bases for the group without informing the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Iran has sporadically bombed PEJAK bases deep inside Iraqi Kurdistan."

AP: "Iran's state TV says the country's supreme leader has told Pakistan's president that the United States is Pakistan's real enemy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke Saturday during a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. It was Zardari's second visit to Iran in less than a month. Khamenei has the final say on all state matters in Iran. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been on a downward spiral since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town."

Opinion & Analysis

Jackson Diehl in WashPost: "One of the most curious features of the Obama administration's foreign policy is the contrast between the silky, non-confrontational public diplomacy it employs when dealing with dictatorships and adversaries, such as Russia, China and Venezuela - and the brusqueness with which it often addresses U.S. clients and allies. The latest example of this came last week in Iraq, where the United States is engaged in a complex and high-stakes competition with Iran. At immediate issue is whether Iraq's Shiite-led government will ask Washington to leave behind 10,000 or so soldiers of the 47,000 troops now there, instead of completing a full withdrawal by the end of this year.

The larger question is whether Iraq will be forced by a full U.S. pullout to become an Iranian satellite, a development that would undo a huge and painful investment of American blood and treasure and deal a potentially devastating blow to the larger U.S. position in the Middle East...

The tone of that remark, like other administration rhetoric on the potential deal, suggests that Obama and his top aides believe they are offering Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a favor by inviting a request to leave troops behind, and don't think a stay-on force is a vital U.S. interest. Others see it quite differently. Maliki, like U.S. commanders in the Middle East, understands very well that without an American military presence, Iraq will be unable to defend itself against its Persian neighbor.

Iranian-backed militias are already stepping up attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces with sophisticated rockets and roadside bombs; without U.S. help, Iraqi forces cannot easily counter them. Moreover, Iraq's conventional forces are no match for those of Iran... Most Iraq watchers believe Maliki wants to ask for U.S. troops. But the problems - in addition to the chronic Iraqi practice of putting off hard decisions until the last minute - are formidable. Perhaps the most serious is Maliki's political dependence on the Shiite party of Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iranian client.

Sadr is threatening armed resistance if U.S. troops stay, and the offensive already underway by Iranian-sponsored militias shows that Tehran is ready to fight. Administration officials nevertheless argue that the danger of Iranian hegemony in Iraq - and hence the importance of a stay-on force - is overstated by analysts such as Kagan. 'Iran is struggling with its own economy,' Antony Blinken, a senior aide to Biden, told me. 'Infighting among Iranian leaders has undercut its ability to make decisions about domestic and foreign policy,' and the uprising against the Syrian regime has further shaken Tehran's confidence... The only Obama administration official who has publicly made the case for a continued U.S. military presence is former defense secretary Robert M. Gates. In a speech in May, he said it would send 'a powerful signal to the region that we're not leaving, that we will continue to play a part.' He added: 'I think it would be reassuring to the Gulf states. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that's a good thing.' Gates publicly urged Iraq to keep U.S. troops. Now he is gone, and the message is 'dammit, make a decision.' Whether or not Iran is prepared to seize hold of Iraq, those aren't the right words to keep an ally."

Farnaz Fassihi in WSJ: "Iranians have turned to the Internet to organize antigovernment protests. Now they're flocking online to defy another Islamic Republic edict: buying and selling dogs.

Pooch lovers in Iran are clicking on popular websites like Woof Woof Iran Digital Pets and Persianpet to pick their favorite canine, study dog grooming or swap pet tales. Buying and selling dogs is illegal in Iran, unless they are guard dogs or used by police. Dogs are considered 'haram,' or unclean, in Islam. Until recently, keeping dogs as pets was limited to a small circle of Westernized Iranians. But access to satellite television-and American programs depicting families playing with pups-has turned dog ownership into a sign of social status in Iran. 'It's the latest fashion now to buy each other puppies as birthday gifts,' says Amin, a 25-year-old. He had never pet a dog until traveling to a village two hours outside Tehran to obtain a German Shepherd puppy. Authorities are striking back. Last year, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi issued a fatwa, or religious edict, denouncing dog ownership. In April, Iran's parliament passed a bill to criminalize dog ownership, declaring the phenomenon a sign of 'vulgar Western values.' This summer, so-called morality police are cruising the streets looking to enforce the anti-dog law. The punishment varies from a fine of up to $500 if the dog is seen in a public space to temporarily confiscating cars and suspending drivers' licenses if the dog isn't contained in a carrier inside the car.

To evade detection, pooch owners are resorting to middle-of-the-night walks and driving hours to the countryside just so their pets can roam. Vendors charge the equivalent of up to $10,000 for top dogs and operate so covertly that some blindfold potential buyers en route to the kennel."

Frida Ghitis in The Miami Herald: "Chavez's good pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going through some difficulties of his own. The Iranian president, whose own hate-filled speeches have triggered walkouts at the UN - as when he said most people blame Washington for the 9/11 attacks - is gradually losing power. The ayatollahs who helped him retain the presidency after the protests that followed the disputed 2009 election, have had enough of Ahmadinejad. He got too big for his britches and now the turbaned ones want him out. He may or may not stay in office, but he has lost much of his power. Neither Ahmadinejad nor Chavez would get much sympathy from another of their best friends, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad is fighting for his political life, and doing it by killing hundreds upon hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in his own country. The demonstrators continue the fight. Assad has lost all legitimacy. He had tried to wear the mask of a moderate reformer, but now all Syrians, all Arabs - the entire world, really - know the truth. He is a butcher who will stop at nothing to hold on to power. The troubles for Assad and Ahmadinejad could give ulcers to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has his hands full with serious problems of his own.

A U.N. Special Tribunal has indicted four Hezbollah members in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Nasrallah had desperately tried to prevent this from happening. That's because the indictment rips the veneer off Hezbollah's claim to work only for the protection of Lebanon. Most Lebanese know his militia was created by Iran, armed by Tehran and Damascus, and worked at the behest of the Iranian and Syrian regimes.

Hariri's killers sought to protect Syrian control of Lebanon by eliminating its most effective critic... Lest Americans derive too much satisfaction from the woes of key adversaries, it's worth noting that many others remain. Ahmadinejad's domestic foes may hate the United States even more than he does.

In Arab countries where America has lost important friends, their replacements could create new difficulties.

In Egypt, the most powerful political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly fans of America. But even more troubling is what we're learning about the 'liberal' parties. The vice president of Wafd, the biggest secular party, recently declared that 9/11 was 'Made in America,' the Holocaust is a 'lie,' and Anne Frank a 'fake.' Still, a world in which the likes of Ch�vez, Ahmadinejad and Assad are not permanent fixtures of the global political landscape is one where Washington can hope to make some inroads. No guarantees, but at least it's not only America and its friends having a tough time."

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