PHOTO: Saudi head of intelligence Prince Bandar

LATEST: Rouhani Promotes His “Moderation” & Defends Nuclear Deal in Speech to Governors

There was a marked turn in regime attacks on Saudi Arabia on Monday, with headlines such as “KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], Israel Forge Colonial Alliance“, “Saudis Want US to Oust Riyadh Regime“, “State Sponsors of Takfiri Terrorism to Pay for Actions“, and “Saudi Arabia Root of Terrorism in Middle East“.

Criticism of the Saudis is far from new, with both general tensions over the Middle East and the specific case of the Syrian conflict, where Iran is supporting the Assad regime and Riyadh is backing the opposition and insurgency.

See Analysis: When A Top Diplomat Says Syria’s “Al Qa’eda” Insurgency is “Under Command of Saudi Prince Bandar”

However, the hostility was primarily from “hard-line” outlets, such as Fars, the outlet of the Revolutionary Guards. On Monday, all the headlines listed above were in the “moderate” State outlet Press TV.

The stories were fed by a range of sources within the regime, such as members of Parliament’s National Security Commission and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the armed forces.

One catalyst for the surge in anti-Saudi rhetoric appears to be the mysterious death in Lebanon of the leader of the jihadist group accused of the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November. Press TV claimed on Monday that Majed al-Majed “was [a] top Saudi intelligence official“.

The anti-Saudi campaign poses a serious challenge for the diplomacy of the Rouhani Government, which has been proclaiming its initiative for better relations with the Gulf States. Only last month, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last month — after his tour of Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE — that he soon hoped to visit with Riyadh, with the prospect of President Rouhani following in March.

That “engagement” now may be forced into quieter pursuits, if not suspension.

The Government was silent on Monday about the criticism of the Saudis. Instead, Zarif put out a general call for “all to unite against extremism” in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Rouhani Promotes His “Moderation” & Defends Nuclear Deal in Speech to Governors

Addressing Governors of Iran’s provinces, President Rouhani has hailed the success of “moderation” on both international and domestic fronts.

While saying he was “not too optimistic or too pessimistic” about the prospects of nuclear negotiations, Rouhani put forth his vision of a “win-win” agreement with the 5+1 Powers, knocking back criticism from hard-liners:

It required brave decision-making….We should not and do not fear the fuss made by the few people or a small percentage.

The initial agreement with the six major powers on the nuclear issue was not a simple task but very difficult and complicated.

He then invoked Ayatollah Khamenei for support: “In all important and sensitive steps along the way, the Supreme Leader has backed the government and its policies,” Rouhani said.

On the economic front, the President claimed success in bringing down inflation from more than 40% in the summer, when he took office, to less than 29% now. And he said there was “relative calm” over social issues.

Another Weekly Publication Banned

The Press Supervisory Board has banned the weekly Yaltharat al-Hossein.

Prosecutor General: Ahmadinejad Not Ordered to Appear in Court

Amid confusion over the legal position of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said Ahmadinejad has not been ordered to appear in court because the case is in a period of supervision, not decision.

Some Iranian media had said that Ahmadinejad missed one court appearance last month and was due to appear on Monday. However, officials said a subpoena had not yet been issued.

Prosecutor General: Billionaire Zanjani “Arrested So He Won’t Flee”

Iran Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei has said that billionaire Babak Zanjani was arrested “based on his ability to flee” Iran.

Zanjani’s detention was revealed last month. He is being investigated over 138 companies allegedly involved in corruption and embezzlement in connection with Iran’s Social Security Funds.

Ejei said Zanjani owes 2 billion Euros ($2.73 billion). He called on people to be patient, warning them that publication of false information is detrimental: “What is certain about this person is that he has many companies inside and out of the country and his case is about funds or contracts that he took from many state apparatuses.”

Former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw Visits Tehran

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has arrived in Tehran today for a three-day visit at the head of a four-member parliamentary delegation.

Iranian parliamentary official Mahdi Kiayi said, “Jack Straw, the head of Britain’s parliamentary delegation, will have a press conference on Wednesday evening this week, which will be held at the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Iranian Parliament).”

The delegation will meet with Shafei, the head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, ministry of industries, mines and trade, Alaedin Boroujerdi, head of Parliament National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, and Abbasali Mansouri Arani, the head of Iran-Britain parliamentary friendship committee.

However, Iranian MP Shahin Mohammad Sadeghi made clear that Jack Straw will not be meeting with President Rouhani or speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani.

Straw’s visit comes amid a thawing in UK-Iranian relations, which have been suspended since the British embassy in Tehran was stormed by hardline protestors in 2011.

Following President Rouhani’s election in June 2013 steps have been taken to restore relations between the two countries, including the exchange of non-resident Charge d’affaires.

Iranian diplomat, Majid Takht Ravachi, asserted “I believe we cannot deny the past events; however, we should eye the future, and in our foreign policy framework, based on mutual respect and equal standing see the process.”

He added, “We need time to achieve step-by-step improvement of the relations with the Britain. Thus, now setting a specific date when we open embassies, which is in the agenda by both countries; exchanges would significantly help the process.”

Meanwhile, a UK Foreign Office spokesperson welcomed the improving relations but noted “We remain clear we will not have a diplomatic presence in Tehran until we have confidence that Iran will abide by its obligations to protect our staff and that our mission would be allowed to carry out its normal functions.”

Iran’s Lead Nuclear Negotiator Meets 5+1 Powers’ Schmid on Thursday

Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, has confirmed that he is meeting the deputy head of negotiations for the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China) on Thursday and Friday in Geneva.

The talks with Helga Schmid are significant in establishing a start date for the implementation of November’s interim nuclear deal.

Iranian officials had said that implementation, including a suspension of enrichment of 20% uranium in return for an easing of sanctions, would begin on January 20. However, Araqchi then said that some political issues needed to be resolved.

Iran Excluded from Invitations to Syria Conference

A United Nations spokesman has confirmed that Iran is not among the 30 countries invited to the international “peace” conference on Syria, scheduled for January 22 in Switzerland.

The spokesman said US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet on January 13 to decide Iran’s role in any talks.

Kerry said last week that Tehran could not be at the top table but “could contribute from the sidelines”. Iran’s Foreign Ministry rejected the suggestion, saying the Islamic Republic had to be treated honorably.