Eye on Iran: EU Says Iran Stalling on Nuclear Talks

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Reuters: "Iran is stalling on fixing a date and location for a new round of talks on its nuclear program, the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Wednesday, but there is still hope that talks between Tehran and six world powers can begin soon. EU officials have been in contact with Iranian negotiators repeatedly since December to try to prepare a new set of talks, which the West hopes will lead to Iran scaling back its nuclear work and avert the threat of another war in the Middle East. But they have failed to agree on a plan so far. 'We proposed concrete dates and a venue in December,' said a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, who oversees contacts with Iran on behalf of United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, often referred to as the six world powers. 'Since then, we have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,' spokesman Michael Mann said. The Iranian Students' News Agency reported on Wednesday that Tehran had proposed Cairo as a possible venue, although without indicating when the meeting could take place." http://t.uani.com/10CfFmH

FT: "One of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad's pledges when he took office in 2005 was to use Iran's oil windfall to decrease the gap between rich and poor. But as the president prepares to leave office this year - he cannot run for a third term - oil revenues have shrunk under the burden of international sanctions, while the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Ordinary Iranians today point to the increasing number of luxury cars on the streets of Tehran - mostly Porsches but also Maseratis and Lamborghinis - as a frustrating indicator of the wealth of a new class of well-connected political, military and religious elite.  Market analysts reckon there are about 1,500 Porsches in Iran, while imports of luxury cars have risen by 13.5 per cent over the past nine months. Porsche announced in 2011 that it sold more cars in Iran than any other Middle Eastern country, including the Gulf states... Referred to as Iran's oligarchs, the new elite has been enriched by record imports of food and consumer goods worth about $60bn a year, which are sold in domestic markets.  They have also benefited from oil and gas contracts shunned by foreign firms - partly because of sanctions and partly because of onerous terms - and from opaque privatisations. According to economic analysts, the new business class, which is sometimes connected to the powerful Revolutionary Guard or has close connections to government officials, receives tax exemptions or evades taxes altogether, and is not forced to pay back bank loans." http://t.uani.com/WQ43LG

FT: "Lebanon's banks have also been hit by a broadside from a US lobby group called United Against a Nuclear Iran (Uani). It has accused the country's financial institutions of funnelling money between Iran and Hezbollah, the country's dominant political party and an Iranian ally, in violations of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Uani claimed last summer that Lebanon's banking sector is a 'state-sponsored money laundering enterprise that enables the hidden large-scale infusion of criminal and Iranian funds into Lebanon'... It suggests Lebanon's low government bond yields are somehow due to surreptitious Iranian buying of the debts, rather than a supportive local banking sector swimming in deposits from Lebanese expatriates - the accusations have clearly stung." http://t.uani.com/148Zd1Q

Nuclear Program

AFP: "More than two months after US President Barack Obama's re-election opened the way for new six-power nuclear talks with Iran, no date or location for their first meeting since June has been set. The apparent scheduling woes have combined with recent comments from an Iranian official to raise concerns that the unprecedented sanctions pressure imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme has failed to make the country more pliable -- on the contrary even. Insiders had hoped that once Obama was free from the constraints of his lengthy re-election campaign, conditions would be favourable to make progress in the long-running crisis over Iran's nuclear intentions. At first there were hopes that Iran would sit down with the P5+1 -- Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- in December to talk about its controversial nuclear programme, which Western nations suspect is aimed at developing the bomb. This then slipped to January, of which one week remains... Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that Iran may be engaging in 'pre-negotiation negotiation, trying to smoke out the six powers on what might be offered on sanctions relief.' 'I wouldn't be surprised if this stage of pre-talk negotiations drags on for a while,' Fitzpatrick told AFP. 'But it is dangerous for Iran to play with this game.'" http://t.uani.com/YpLRxL
 
Reuters: "For the Iranian government, the Bushehr nuclear power plant is proof to a world worried about Tehran's intentions that its atomic program is aimed only at securing a modern, clean energy source for its people. But for villagers living next to the facility, as well as Arab capitals nearby, the plant poses a potential danger that is less geopolitical and more immediate: the risk of contamination. 'We are extremely worried about our health and the health of our families,' residents of the coastal villages of Heleylah and Bandargah wrote in a statement published on a blog in 2010. 'According to international standards, the distance between a nuclear power plant and the nearest residence must be at least one kilometer ... but the distance between the village of Heleylah and this power plant is just six meters!'" http://t.uani.com/10C8Q4D

AFP: "The United States has nothing left to pressure Tehran over its nuclear programme except for war, and if it chooses conflict Iran could close a key energy chokepoint, its envoy to Baghdad told AFP on Thursday. Ambassador Hassan Danaie-Far insisted in an interview that Tehran retained the right to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world's traded oil passes, in response to any aggression, military or otherwise. 'What else (US President Barack) Mr. Obama can do?' Danaie-Far said through an Iranian embassy translator. 'The only remaining card on the table is war. Is it to their benefit? Is it to the benefit of the world? Is it to the benefit of the region?'" http://t.uani.com/14doiHO

AP: "The top commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard insists his force controls shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, gateway for one fifth of the world's oil... Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said the Guard protects ships in the Gulf and the strait. His comments were posted on the Guard's website Wednesday. Guard commanders in the past have threatened to block the waterway over Western sanctions. Jafari's remarks were apparently aimed at highlighting the Guard's control of the strategic waterway." http://t.uani.com/Xz4uIP

Sanctions

Bloomberg: "Novartis AG, Europe's biggest drugmaker by sales, said its Alcon eye-care unit is under U.S. government investigation related to the export of products to Iran and other countries subject to trade sanctions. Alcon was notified last year that the U.S. Attorney's office for the Northern District of Texas is conducting an investigation into its sales, Novartis said in a regulatory filing today. The unit, run from Fort Worth, Texas, received a grand jury subpoena for documents dating back to 2005. Alcon is cooperating with the investigation, according to the filing. The U.S. government has programs that prohibit or limit products made or held in the U.S. from being sold to certain countries, including Iran, Syria and North Korea. Novartis, based in Basel, Switzerland, took full control of Alcon in 2010 after an 11 month dispute with minority shareholders. Alcon was based in Huenenberg, Switzerland, with U.S. headquarters in Texas. It generated $2.6 billion in sales during the fourth quarter, Novartis said today." http://t.uani.com/14boyr4

Human Rights

Iran Human Rights: "Iranian authorities' campaign of public medieval punishments continues. According to the state run Iranian news agencies amputation verdict of a prisoner was carried out in public in the city of Shiraz (southern Iran). According to the report, the prisoner was a 29 year old man identified as 'A. S. H.' and was sentenced to 'amputation of four fingers of the right hand' and three years in prison for and 99 lashes for immoral relationship." http://t.uani.com/YpMrM7

Amnesty International: "A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer was returned to prison on Monday, unexpectedly curtailing a three-day temporary leave to visit her family, which was expected to be extended. Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been serving a six-year prison sentence since September 2010, was granted her first furlough from Tehran's Evin Prison on 17 January on production of a hefty bail. Amnesty International has long campaigned for her unconditional release as a prisoner of conscience, as she was jailed solely for her peaceful work as a human rights lawyer. Sotoudeh has denied all the charges against her, which include 'spreading propaganda against the system' and belonging to an 'illegal' organization, the Centre for Human Rights Defenders." http://t.uani.com/SEH08S

BBC: "On Monday, a group of Iranian MPs who visited the notorious Evin prison described Iran's biggest jail for political prisoners as a 'hotel'. 'From now on, I will call it Hotel Evin, rather than Evin prison,' one of them, Safar Naeimi, said after his six-hour tour of the complex in the capital, Tehran. But in recent years, many prisoners of conscience, who were mostly arrested after the post-election protests of 2009, have complained about their conditions in Evin. Last month, 20 prisoners wrote an open letter to the head of the prison in which they criticised him for allegedly not letting sick inmates receive proper treatment, claiming his alleged negligence had 'political motives'. It seems the MPs' visit to the prison is an attempt to defuse such complaints." http://t.uani.com/UZ3lwj

Opinion & Analysis

Tony Karon in TIME: "Iran is playing hard to get because its decision makers reportedly believe Iran faces no imminent threat of military action, and are confident in their ability to absorb the impact of further sanctions. Moreover, some of the voices around Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei claim that the West won't offer a deal that recognizes Iran's nuclear rights, meaning that talks inevitably fail and tee up further escalations of pressure.Tehran's negotiating outlook was recently outlined in an Iranian journal by Mahdi Mohammadi, a key architect of the Islamic Republic's strategy for handling the nuclear talks. Mohammadi wrote that Iran won't, on principle, change its position in response to escalating sanctions or military threats; it will only negotiate on an equal footing and on the basis of a substantial quid-pro-quo. 'Iran is getting ready for a long-term game,' Mohammadi wrote, warning against 'any delusional thinking about the possibility of putting a rapid end to Iran's strategic contention with the United States.' That, he said, has prompted Iran 'to brace itself for long-term pressures because it is most improbable in strategic terms that the United States will be able to replace its current dual-track strategy [combining sanctions pressure with talks] with a new one in the foreseeable future. Consequently, when Iran knows that the game will continue for long and is aware that the United States will not easily give up its pressure strategy, it would be too illogical and even childish for Tehran to sell all its assets at low price.' In this schema, 20% enrichment may be an 'asset' to be traded, but Mohammadi insisted that recognition of Iran's right to low-grade enrichment and an end to sanctions are the basis for a deal. 'It is impossible for Washington to drag Iran to a negotiation table where there is no balance between what is taken and what is given.' Former State Department Non-Proliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick parsed Mohammadi's comments for al-Monitor, noting that 'It's a mis-perception that Iran is on the ropes and ... sanctions have driven them to the negotiating table... [Iran] doesn't want to be seen hurting so bad. And they don't want to show over-eagerness to come to the table.' But, he added the concessions Iran is demanding up front are beyond what the Obama Administration will be willing to grant, and he feared that that Iran's reluctance to talk will strengthen calls for a military response. The impasse has prompted considerable debate in Washington over whether the Obama administration should make the Iranians a more tempting offer on sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable curbs on its nuclear work. That might make Iran more likely to make a deal, goes the argument, but the risk would be that if Tehran declined to accept such an offer, pressure could rise to end diplomatic engagement and move towards confrontation. In parallel, an unprecedented public debate is under way at the highest policy making levels in Tehran over the value of direct talks with the Washington, reports Farideh Farhi, a specialist on Iranian domestic politics at the University of Hawaii." http://t.uani.com/Vlu6i8