LATEST: Foreign Minister Meets European Union’s Ashton Over Nuclear Talks

The Supreme Leader has given President Rouhani a warning about his policies, especially at home, and Rouhani is bowing to the pressure.

Last week Ayatollah Khamenei gave Rouhani what many Iranians are calling a public “yellow card”, saying that the Government must not antagonize hardline Iranian groups with its proposals to ease cultural, social, and political restrictions. Significantly, the Supreme Leader framed the caution in the language that has tarnished “dangerous” Iranians since the disputed 2009 Presidential election, telling the Government that it must not be linked to forces of “sedition”.

The outcome was apparent on Saturday at a Rouhani news conference. The President avoided any reference to long-standing promises to open up Iran’s cultural sphere, let alone last summer’s declaration that he would seek freedom for political prisoners. He affirmed his support for the Supreme Leader’s “resistance economy” — crafted in part to prepare for a breakdown of nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers — while implicitly giving gound on some of his economic policies. And he confirmed his retreat from June’s consideration of cooperation with the US over the insurgency, led by the Islamic State, in Iraq as well as issuing a general denunciation of American actions in the region.

Rouhani has not suffered a full defeat. In a modified version of the deal struck in January — see separate analysis — he is being allowed by the Supreme Leader to continue nuclear talks, seeking a comprehensive agreement, if he does not press undesirable policies in other areas. That meant he could say on Saturday, “There is nobody in Iran opposed to the nuclear negotiations” — even though the Supreme Leader has said talks with the US are “useless”.

However, he has been muted in any public fightback against hardliners. The Supreme Leader said last week that, while critics of the Government should hold their tongues, so Rouhani and his Ministers should refrain from lashing out at those critics. That meant that on Saturday Rouhani did not renew his public attacks, accusing cultural hardliners of trying to wield “heaven’s whip” against supposed wrongdoers and telling those hostile to his Government’s approach that they can “go to hell”.

Instead, Rouhani followed the Supreme Leader in the rhetoric against “sedition” — the public protests against limits on rights and the continued intimidation and imprisonment of dissenters:

Foreign Minister Meets European Union’s Ashton Over Nuclear Talks

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has met the European Union’s foreign policy head Catherine Ashton in Brussels, discussing the state of nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 Powers.

Zarif issued a general statement after the discussion, “Our first meeting was about general issues and overall interests of Iran and the EU, the nuclear issue as well as terrorism and extremism in the [Middle East] region.”

Iran is trying to restart negotiations with the 5+1 (US, Britain, Germany, France, China, and Russia) for a comprehensive settlement before an interim arrangement expires on November 24.

Prosecutor General: Ahmadinejad’s 1st Vice President Sentenced to Prison

Iran’s Prosecutor General has said that Mohammad Reza Rahimi, 1st Vice President in the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been sentenced to prison and fined over a long-running case of insurance fraud.

Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said he could not reveal the details of the sentence because it has not been confirmed by the Court of Appeal

Rahimi has long been suspected of involvement in the multi-million dollar Fatemi Street insurance fraud, for which some defendants were sentenced in 2012, including three to life in prison. He was finally questioned and placed on bail in December 2013.

In March, local Iranian media said Rahimi had been indicted, but with no details of the charges.

Government Steps Up Saudi Engagement; Talk of Foreign Minister Visit to Riyadh

Taking advantage of regional crises, the Rouhani Government has further stepped up engagement with Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday that he is ready to meet his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal to discuss cooperation:

Extremism, violence and terrorism are the most vital dangers posed to the Muslim world and they threaten the interests of all the regional states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, as any kind of sectarianism is a danger to both countries and we should fight against these threats as a united power….

The first opportunity for bilateral talks will be on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting (in New York in September) and I hope that we will be able to use this opportunity and I will then be ready to travel to Saudi Arabia and welcome the Saudi Foreign Minister in Tehran.

President Rouhani said at his Saturday news conference, President Hassan Rouhani said:

From our side, we are interested in maintaining cordial ties with all our neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. The differences between Tehran and Riyadh are not in regard to their bilateral relations, rather it is regional issues, from North Africa to the Middle East, that divide the two [countries].

Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian became the highest-level Rouhani official to visit Saudi Arabia, as Tehran seeks to develop an approach to the insurgency in Iraq and the Israel-Palestine crisis, as well as to wean Riyadh away from the opposition to the Syrian regime of President Assad.

Behind the scenes, an Iraqi envoy travelled to Riyadh last month to discuss the replacement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, blamed for political and military defeats by the insurgency.

Since its election last summer, the Rouhani Government has made engagement with Saudi Arabia a priority, with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani holding back-channel talks with King Abdullah’s representatives.

Regime Renews Claim that US Built Up Jihadists of Islamic State

In a telling rhetorical move, leading regime officials have returned to the allegation that the US helped develop the jihadist organization of the Islamic State, which has claimed parts of Syria and Iraq.

Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, in a meeting with a Grand Ayatollah on Sunday, said the Americans thought they “could use the Takfiri groups in a tactical manner, but now they found out that they were mistaken”.

Larijani said four weeks of US airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq was only “a political gesture by Washington”.

The Rouhani Government had pulled back last month from the allegations of a US conspiracy with the Islamic State — also fed by Larijani and his brother, head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani — with the Foreign Ministry acknowledging the American airstrikes, although saying it would not cooperate with the US in the fight against the jihadists.