Monday, May 14, 2012

The Latest from Iran (14 May): Will a Nuclear Drawing Unsettle the Talks?

The drawing that "proves" Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons --- a "high-explosives containment chamber" at the Parchin military site

1644 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. An activists' site on Facebook reports that Kurdish women's rights activist Ronak Safarzadeh has been released after serving five years in prison.
1624 GMT: Nuclear Cartoon Watch. What's better than a drawing supposedly proving Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme?
How about a drawing with --- courtesy of Die Welt --- the headline, "Chamber of Infernal Machine"?
1614 GMT: Oil Watch. The Washington Post features the story --- reported on EA last week --- that Iran, with oil exports down 40% in the first quarter of this year, has been storing crude on offshore tankers and switching off satellite tracking systems on its tankers that are at sea.
1516 GMT: Death-to-the-Rapper Watch. A follow-up to our Live Coverage and feature on the case of Shahin Najafi, the rapper reportedly threatened with a "death fatwa" for his song "Naqi" about Iranian politics and society....
The Iranian site has posted a $100,000 bounty for Najafi, claiming he "grossly insulted" the 10th Shi'a Imam, Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi.
"A (website) founder who lives in one of the Gulf Arab states has promised to pay the ($100,000) bounty on behalf of to the killer of this abusive singer," the site asserted.
1502 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Omid Kokabee has been given a 10-year prison sentence for "co-operaton with Mossad".
Kokabee, a graduate student in physics at the University of Texas, was seized when he returned to Iran for a winter break at the end of 2010.
On Sunday, 13 May, trial was held for 15 defendants charged with espionage in the court room of Judge Salavati....
Eight of these defendants were imprisoned for months prior to this trial. In the courtroom, some of the defendants accepted their charges and even thanked the Intelligence Ministry for arresting them. But Omid Kokabee refused to say anything in court, therefore he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
1456 GMT: The Lashing of the Cartoonist. An interesting twist in the sentence of 25 lashes for cartoonist Mohammad Shokraye for a caricature of former MP Ahmad Lotfi Ashtiani (see 0655 GMT)....
The head of domestic media in Iran’s Ministry of Culture has said the sentence is “disproportionate and unprecedented".
Pedram Pakayin told the Fars News Agency that the cartoon could in no way be regarded as offensive, expressing hope that the judiciary will overturn the sentence before it moves to the final stages.
(Ashtiani has now reportedly withdrawn his complaint.)
1452 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, detained last month to serve a six-year prison sentence, has reportedly been transferred to the clinic at Evin Prison because of paralysis.
1445 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch. We reported earlier (see 0735 GMT) that the Supreme Leader's office had withdrawn a publishing permit for a biography of Ayatollah Khamenei's early life --- the book was also reportedly banned from the Tehran International Book Fair,
1435 GMT: The Battle Within (Deferred). Another showdown set aside? Mashregh News claims that Parliament has decided, at the last minute, not to act on 16 files challenging Government actions. Topics including the privatisation of the Saipa automobile manufacturer, "justice shares" (payments to people) just before elections, the Environment Organisation, and the Anti-Smuggling Task Force.
1425 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. Back from an academic break to find a discussion with Ahmad Khorshidi, conservative political activist and father-in-law of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's son, about the President's future after his term expires. Possibilities, according to Khorshidi, include a position with the Expediency Council, the Free University, or the Tehran municipality, where Ahmadinejad was mayor from 2003 to 2005.
0915 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Earlier this morning we noted the latest statement of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani (see 0741 GMT), calling for an "opening up" of the Iranian system. Now we ponder if there is a move by reformists and the opposition for an alliance with Rafsanjani....
Mustafa Drayati, an advisor to former President Mohammad Khatami, has called for the return of Rafsanjani to Tehran Friday Prayers --- the former President last took the podium in July 2009, amid protests against the Presidential election --- to "make the current situation better".
The opposition site Kalemeh has profiled Rafsanjani's 5-point "solution" for current problems: adherence to the law, an atmosphere of trust for discussion, freeing of political prisoners, compassion for victims and their families, and a free media.
Khatami and reformist groups like the Assembly of Combatant Clerics have reportedly welcomed the proposals.
0906 GMT: MP-Fights-Journalist Watch. Mahdi Koochakzadeh, a pro-Ahmadinejad MP, attacked a reporter last week in Parliament.
Saeed Shams of the weekly journal Aseman asked Kochakzadeh for an interview. Told the journal was affiliated with the reformist journalist Mohammad Ghochani, the MP started swearing and using very vulgar words and said to Shams, "I’ll throw you out of the Parliament."
Shams defiantly replied, "If you were someone who could throw people out, you would have thrown out [controversial President advisor] Saeed Mortazavi from the government."
Koochzadeh, shouting “Ghochani is less than Mortazavi’s dog”, then rushed Shams and dragged him out of the Parliament restaurant.
The incident is not new for Koochakzadeh: he once threw an object at fellow MP Ali Motahari, breaking a computer screen in front of him.
0901 GMT: Ahmadinejad Watch. We have seen a few challenges to President Ahmadinejad, but this may be among the sharpest....
Ayatollah Sayed Mohammad Saeedi, the Friday Prayer leader of Qom, has said in a lecture, "The period of your position is coming to an end....Don’t do something where people and the state have to tolerate you until the end of your period (of Presidency)."
Saeedi, referring to Prophet Mohammad, explained that "he did not just kill the hypocrites", because "these people have the right to change", but he reacted to them "in a way to prevent them from any future attacks".
0741 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, continuing his theme of "opening up" the Iranian system, has said that "monopolism is the main problem of domestic political activity".
Rafsanjani said the Constitution has "enough capabilities" for political and social activities and must be observed. He called for "more space for youth and women" to raise the approval of the nezam (system).
0735 GMT: Supreme Leader Watch. A publishing permit for a biography of Ayatollah Khamenei, up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been refused by his office because of "historical and non-historic mistakes".
0655 GMT: The Lashing of the Cartoonist. Discussion continues of the sentence of 25 lashings handed out to Mahmoud Shokraye for a cartoon of former MP Ahmad Lotfi Ashtiani.
The head of Iran’s House of Cartoonists, Masooud Shojai Tabatabai, said Sunday that the matter had been blown out of proportion by media outlets challening the Islamic Republic. At the same, he said the drawing was “very simple, critical and completely free of any insulting interpretations” and the sentence was “very heavy” and added: “All this happens while [other] cartoons of Government officials have been accepted with great tolerance.”
Tabatabai continues, “If a cartoonist cannot draw a simple image of a member of parliament, then how can he be a cartoonist?”
Shokraye depicted Ashtiani as a football player in Amir magazine after the former MP's proposed transfer of the Iran Football League from Tehran to Arak, his constituency, was seen by some as publicity for the recent Parliamentary elections.
Fereshteh Ghazi offers an overview of the incident and the critical reaction, and here is the cartoon that caused all the bother:
0555 GMT: We began with a weekend incident which, depending on your perspective, is either a revelation of Iran's devious pursuit of a nuclear weapon or a clumsy attempt by the US and its allies to push Tehran into a corner as discussions near in Baghdad on 23 May.
On Sunday, some Western media outlets were breathless over an Associated Press "exclusive":
A drawing based on information from inside an Iranian military site shows an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that U.N. inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there. Iran denies such testing and has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a chamber.
The computer-generated drawing was provided to The Associated Press by an official of a country tracking Iran’s nuclear program who said it proves the structure exists, despite Tehran’s refusal to acknowledge it.
That official said the image is based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site, adding that going into detail would endanger the life of that informant. The official comes from an IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] member country that is severely critical of Iran’s assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful and asserts they are a springboard for making atomic arms.
Last November's IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear programme raised questions about a high-explosive containment chamber at Parchin, although there was little evidence to back up claims that this could be related to militarisation. Tensions were further raised earlier this year when Iranian authorities refused entry to Parchin to IAEA inspectors, claiming the right protocols had not been observed. Reports --- revelation or mis-information, take your pick --- appeared that Tehran was "cleaning up" the site ahead of any possible visit.
What's the context for all this?
An Iranian delegation is meeting IAEA representatives in Vienna today " to devise a framework for answering questions about Tehran’s nuclear energy program", in the words of Press TV. 
The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, has a more specific aim, telling a journalist that the "standoff" over access to Parchin "has become like a symbol" and vowed to "pursue this objective until there's a concrete result": "We have information and there are some moves. There's something moving out there. Going there soon is better." 
So the nuclear cartoon is probably best seen as an attempt at some negotiating leverage. To readers in the West, it keeps suspicions stoked, while to the Iranians, it says we're watching you and we're not easing the pressure.
This does not mean a break-down in the broader talks between Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Russia, Germany, and China) in Baghdad next week. In September 2009, Washington tried a similar --- and even higher-profile --- "exclusive", with President Obama supposedly revealing the existence of a secret uranium enrichment plant at Fordoo. (The Iranians had told the IAEA of the construction days earlier.) The subsequent Geneva talks between Tehran and the 5+1, however, were not halted; indeed, they were the closest the two sides have come to agreement over the nuclear issue.