21 May 2013

Top figures barred from Iran's June ballot

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's election overseers removed potential wild card candidates from the presidential race Tuesday, blocking a top aide of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a former president who revived hopes of reformers.

Their exclusion from the June 14 presidential ballot gives establishment-friendly candidates a clear path to succeed Ahmadinejad, who has lost favor with the ruling clerics after years of power struggles. It also pushes moderate and opposition voices further to the margins as Iran's leadership faces critical challenges such as international sanctions and talks with world powers over Tehran's nuclear program.

The official ballot list, announced on state TV, followed a nearly six-hour delay in which the names were kept under wraps. That raised speculation that authorities allowed some time for appeals by the blackballed candidates and their backers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all matters.
But the official slate left off two prominent but divisive figures: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The decision also appeared to remove many potential surprise elements in the race, including whether Rafsanjani could revitalize the reform movement or if Ahmadinejad could play a godfather role in the election with his hand-picked political heir.
Instead, those cleared by the candidate-vetting Guardian Council included eight high-profile figures considered firm and predictable loyalists to the ruling Islamic establishment such as former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
Any of the choices would create a possibly seamless front between the ruling clerics and presidency after years of political turmoil under Ahmadinejad, who tried to challenge the theocracy's vast powers to make all major decisions and set key policies. Iran's presidency, meanwhile, is expected to convey the ruling clerics' views on the world stage and not set its own diplomatic agenda.
Mashaei called the decision unfair and said he will appeal to Khamenei. "God willing this will be resolved," semiofficial Fars news agency reported late Tuesday. Rafsanjani did not comment, but his supporters denounced the decision on social media.
While the election is not expected to bring major shifts in Iran's position on its nuclear program — which Tehran insists is peaceful despite Western fears it could lead to atomic weapons — it could open opportunities to renew stalled talks with a six-nation group that includes the U.S.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said Iran's nuclear stance will "not change either before or after the election." The ballot rejection of Mashaei brought little shock. He has been badly tarnished by Ahmadinejad's feuds with the ruling clerics. Hard-liners have denounced Mashaei as part of a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine the country's Islamic system — which made ballot approval highly unlikely.
This leaves Ahmadinejad politically orphaned going into the final weeks in office. He still has significant public support and could try to bargain with other candidates or break away and start his own political movement.
Few powerful voices came to Mashaei's defense in a sign of Ahmadinejad's fallen fortunes. But the case for Rafsanjani was more complicated. His unexpected decision for a comeback bid — 16 years after leaving office — jolted hard-line foes and was cheered by beleaguered reformists and liberals after years of crackdowns.
Rafsanjani faced a barrage of attacks in the past week from powerful critics who suggested the 78-year-old does not have the stamina for the presidency and is disgraced for criticizing the heavy-handed tactics used to crush protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, Faezeh, was released from jail in March after serving a six-month sentence in connection with the postelection chaos. His middle son, Mahdi, also is to stand trial in coming weeks for his alleged role in the riots.
Late Monday, authorities closed down the Tehran headquarters of Rafsanjani's youth supporters. But Rafsanjani still carries a legacy with a sweeping reach. Moderates see him as a pragmatist who can deal deftly with the West and use his skills as patriarch of a family-run business empire to help repair Iran's economy, battered by sanctions and mismanagement. Others, even ideological foes, respect his high-profile role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution as the closest confidant of its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In a sign of possible lobbying on Rafsanjani's behalf, he received apparent support from some influential members of the Assembly of Experts — the only group with the power to dismiss the supreme leader. Rafsanjani was pushed out as the group's chairman after failing to get enough support to leverage possible concessions from Khamenei on the 2009 postelection clampdowns.
One member, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, sent a letter to Khamenei saying "omitting a prominent figure from the election was incompatible" with giving wide choices to voters, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.
Another assembly member, Ayatollah Mohammad Vaez Mousavi, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that Rafsanjani's age is not a weak point and many Iranian leaders "accepted responsibilities when they were quite old."
Prominent political analyst Saeed Leilaz said the "intensified defamation campaign" suggested worry among hard-liners that Rafsanjani had a real potential to rally moderates and others and win the election.
"What matters today is who can save the country's economy," he said, "Who has a plan to take Iran away from isolation and improve living conditions."

Georgian ex-PM detained on abuse of office charge

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Allies of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili — a former prime minister and a provincial governor — were charged on Tuesday with embezzlement and abuse of office in another sign of an ongoing power struggle between the country's top two officials.

After dominating Georgian politics for nine years, pro-Western Saakashvili suffered a humiliating defeat last fall when his party lost a parliamentary election to the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became Georgia's prime minister.

A constitutional reform further weakened Saakashvili's hand by shifting the government's powers from the presidency to the parliament and the prime minister. The election was the first constitutional transfer of top executive power in Georgia, and it was hailed as a breakthrough for the post-Soviet region. But problems soon emerged.
Saakashvili's presidential term does not end until October, so he must serve alongside his arch-foe, Russia-friendly Ivanishvili. The two men have been locked in an intense power struggle, and authorities have leveled abuse of office charges against some of Saakashvili's top lieutenants.
On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who currently leads Saakashvili's party, was charged with embezzlement and abuse of office charges and arrested him in Kutaisi, a city in western Georgia.
Prosecutors accuse him of taking on the payroll in the Labor Ministry nearly 22,000 party activists whose only job was to canvass for the party in the run-up to October's parliamentary election. Ex-Labor Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, who currently serves as the governor of the Kakheti region, also was arrested along with Merabishvili on the same charges.
Merabishvili, the key architect of Saakashvili's policies, is the highest-ranking member of the president's inner circle to face charges. Prosecutors also accuse him of illegally appropriating a lush seaside residence and using government funds to maintain it and hire personnel. Other charges include his alleged involvement in the police crackdown on a protest in 2011.
Merabishvili's lawyer said he rejected all the charges. Saakashvili has denounced a series of criminal investigations targeting former officials and allies of his as politically driven. Speaking in televised remarks Tuesday, Saakashili said the decision to arrest Merabishvili was "made on a political level" and warned that it will tarnish Georgia's image in the West.
"Georgia may face a problem of international isolation," Saakashvili said. Ivanishvili rejected political motives behind Merabishvili's arrest. "It's a pity that we lost (a chance) to get such president," he said in a sardonic reference to Merabishvili's alleged intention to run for president in an election later this year.
Ivanishvili, who earned his fortune in Russia, has denied Saakashvili's accusations of kowtowing to the Kremlin and pledged to maintain the course toward Georgia's integration with the West. But he also has pledged to repair the ties with Moscow, which were ruptured in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that ended with Moscow recognizing two breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Yahoo's rise in Asia offsets risk from Tumblr bet

Yahoo Inc Chief Executive Marissa Mayer's $1.1 billion acquisition of blogging service Tumblr will be a test of her ability to revive the aging Web portal. Luckily for her, her performance may be graded generously.

Mayer faces plenty of challenges in her efforts to turn six-year-old Tumblr into a money-spinner, not least among them retaining users while devising new types of non-intrusive online ads outside of Yahoo's traditional area of expertise.
And then there is Tumblr's hefty price tag: a sum that equates to a fifth of Yahoo's cash.
But some investors and analysts say that Wall Street is more focused on the rising value of Yahoo's Asian assets, such as its 24-percent slice of China's Alibaba, than on actual business operations. That means the 37-year-old executive faces less immediate pressure to prove that Yahoo's biggest acquisition in years is a profitable one.
"Overall I'm relatively skeptical, but I don't think it matters much to the stock," Macquarie Research analyst Ben Schachter said of the deal.
"Say they destroy 100 percent of the value and drive Tumblr into the ground. It's probably less than a dollar per share in value," he said.
If Mayer's bet delivers, however, some investors say it could provide even more upside to a stock already trading at its highest levels in years.
"The core business is the lottery ticket," said Ryan Jacob, the chief executive of the Jacob Funds, who owns Yahoo shares.
"Investors' expectations for the core business are very low, so if they're able to reinvigorate growth, that will move the needle," said Jacob.
Yahoo's stock finished Monday's regular trading session up 6 cents at $26.58. Its shares have surged roughly 70 percent since Mayer became CEO in July, largely due to stock buybacks and the rising value of its Asian investments, which also include Yahoo Japan.
Yahoo remains one of the Web's most popular destinations, but has seen its revenue shrink in recent years as consumers and advertisers favor rivals Google Inc and Facebook Inc. By buying Tumblr, Yahoo gets a much-needed platform in social media to reach a younger generation of users less enamored of Yahoo's traditional Web content and email.
Yahoo is paying a rich premium for Tumblr, whose nascent advertising efforts generated a scant $13 million in revenue last year, according to media reports.
"Tumblr has low revenues and a big multiple, but far-sighted buyers in technology have shown that they can take small properties and put them onto their distribution system and do good things with them," said Adam Seessel, head of Gravity Capital Management, which owns Yahoo shares.
Take Google's $1.6 billion acquisition of YouTube. That deal gave the search giant an important video service that boosted interaction with Google's other online services, he said by way of example.
Facebook's acquisition of photo-sharing service Instagram for more than $700 million is considered another deft move by technology observers, allowing the social network to scoop up a fast-growing threat to its business - even if the ad-free service hasn't delivered a financial boost to Facebook yet.
For every YouTube and Instagram there is a MySpace, the once-red-hot social network News Corp acquired for $580 million in 2005 but whose popularity plunged when its new parent plastered ads all over the service in a rush to monetize.
Mayer stressed Yahoo's commitment to create new so-called native ads that mesh seamlessly into Tumblr's content and are considered more suited to the service than the traditional online display ads that have long been Yahoo's bread-and-butter.
"We have gotten more and more focused on providing native ads and designing ads for that experience, so that's what we're going to get really focused on," Mayer, a former Google executive, told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.
But creating a class of ads that works is no simple feat.
"There isn't a template to do it," said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with research and consulting firm Altimeter Group, who explained that native ads is a catch-all encompassing everything from advertorials to sponsored tweets that appear in Twitter.
While Yahoo recently began experimenting with news stream ads on its redesigned home page, doing native ads on a broad scale could be tricky given the challenge of convincing brands and agencies to experiment with formats, Lieb said.
Yahoo must also hold onto Tumblr's bloggers, many of whom were already stomping their feet at being assimilated into the decidedly "less cool" Yahoo. Many vented their frustrations on the Tumblr blog entitled "Meltdowns about Yahoo buying Tumblr."
Defections have begun. As reports of the deal spread on Sunday, the founder of WordPress, a rival blogging platform, said it "imported" 72,000 Tumblr blogs in a one hour period.
Yet for many investors, those questions are secondary to the impending IPO of Alibaba Group, which they say is one of the key factors buoying Yahoo's stock. Analysts and investors estimate the value of Alibaba to be around $70 billion. But Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager with GAMCO Investors, believes it could be worth $100 billion or more when it goes public.
In the event Alibaba's IPO does not live up to expectations, the fallout for Yahoo will be far more serious than anything that happens with Tumblr.

Apple, Congress spar over taxes ahead of Tuesday hearing

Using an unusual global tax structure, Apple Inc (AAPL.O) has kept billions of dollars in profits in Irish subsidiaries to pay little or no taxes to any government, a Senate report on the company's offshore tax structure said on Monday.

In a 40-page memorandum released a day before Apple CEO Tim Cook is scheduled to testify before Congress, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations identified three subsidiaries that have no "tax residency" in Ireland, where they are incorporated, or in the United States, where company executives manage those companies.
The main subsidiary, a holding company that includes Apple's retail stores throughout Europe, has not paid any corporate income tax in the last five years.
The subsidiary, which has a Cork, Ireland, mailing address, received $29.9 billion in dividends from lower-tiered offshore Apple affiliates from 2009 to 2012, comprising 30 percent of Apple's total worldwide net profits, the report said.
"Apple has exploited a difference between Irish and U.S. tax residency rules," the report said.
Apple said in a comment posted online on Monday it does not use "tax gimmicks." It said the existence of its subsidiary "Apple Operations International" in Ireland does not reduce Apple's U.S. tax liability and the company will pay more than $7 billion in U.S. taxes in fiscal 2013.
Subcommittee staffers said on Monday that Apple was not breaking any laws and had cooperated fully with the investigation.
Tuesday's hearing is the second to be held by Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee, to shed light on the weaknesses of the U.S. corporate tax code. Levin has sought to overhaul the code in Congress.
Lawmakers globally are closely scrutinizing the taxes paid by multinational companies. In Britain, Google faces regulatory inquiries over its own tax policies, while Hewlett-Packard Co (HPQ.N) and Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) have been called to Capitol Hill to answer questions about their own practices.
Corporations must pay the top U.S. 35-percent corporate tax on foreign profits, but not until those profits are brought into the United States from abroad. This exception is known as corporate offshore income deferral.
In submitted testimony ahead of Tuesday's hearing, Apple said any tax reform should favor lower corporate income tax rates regardless of revenue, eliminate tax expenditures and implement a "reasonable tax on foreign earnings that allows free movement of capital back to the US."
"Apple recognizes these and other improvements in the U.S. corporate tax system may increase the company's taxes," it said.
Large U.S. companies boosted their offshore earnings by 15 percent last year to a record $1.9 trillion, avoiding hefty tax bills by keeping the profits abroad, according to research firm Audit Analytics.
Apple also uses two conventional offshore tax practices typical of multinational companies' tax-avoidance strategies, the report said.
Multinational corporations value goods and services moving across international borders from one corporate unit to another. Known as "transfer pricing," these moves are frequently managed to reduce corporations' global tax costs.
Apple's tax structure highlights flaws in the U.S. corporate tax code so that Congress "can effectively close the loopholes used by many U.S. multinational companies," Arizona Senator John McCain, the subcommittee's top Republican, said in a statement on Monday.
Levin, who announced he will retire at the end of 2014, introduced legislation in February to close tax loopholes. At a news conference on Monday, Levin said his bill should pass independent of any broader tax reform push in Congress.
McCain, the top Republican on the subcommittee, told the joint news conference he would co-sponsor Levin's bill, the first Republican to support the bill. He called Apple's tax practices "egregious, and (a) really outrageous scheme."
Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives.
Government tax officials from the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department also are scheduled to testify before the subcommittee on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Patrick Temple-West in Washington and Poornima Gupta in San Francisco; Editing by Howard Goller, Bernard Orr)

IRS officials back on Capitol Hill hot seat over targeting

A Senate panel will try on Tuesday to pry more details out of current and former officials of the Internal Revenue Service about the agency's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status.

Lawmakers are also expected to demand answers about why officials did not earlier share with lawmakers evidence that IRS workers in Cincinnati, Ohio, had inappropriately focused on search criteria that included "Tea Party" and "patriots."
A Senate Finance Committee hearing will give members the first public opportunity to question former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who headed the tax-collection agency from 2008 to late 2012, during which the targeting occurred.
Senators will likely seize on Shulman's congressional testimony in late March 2012 that no groups were being targeted for extra scrutiny by the tax agency.
It has since emerged that the behavior started in March or April of 2010 and continued for 18 months.
A Treasury Department watchdog has said he informed Shulman about an investigation into the matter in May 2012, but assumed IRS officials would have given Shulman a heads up before that.
Senators are expected to aim another round of tough questions at the outgoing acting head of the IRS, Steven Miller, who refused to give specifics about who was involved in the scandal during a House of Representatives hearing last week.
Miller was forced to resign last week and more senior agency officials could be on the firing line in the broadening scandal as members of both parties rush to condemn the IRS for overstepping its authority.
The hearing on Tuesday is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. EDT.
The rising political storm has undercut President Barack Obama's second-term agenda and put the White House on the defensive as he tries to negotiate a budget deal with Republicans and push a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress.
The hearing in the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee will feature a push for more details about who ordered the extra tax scrutiny for conservative groups. It will also focus on whether the White House was slow to divulge the practice once it learned of it.
Those questions gained more urgency on Monday when the White House revealed that two senior aides to Obama knew weeks ago about a draft Treasury Department watchdog report detailing the IRS targeting that occurred for an 18-month period starting in early 2010.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was notified on April 24 of the report's preliminary findings, and that she told Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior staffers soon afterward.
Obama has said he did not learn of the report's findings until May 10, when IRS official Lois Lerner apologized for the targeting at an American Bar Association conference.
The leaders of the Senate Finance Committee - Democratic Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and senior Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah - sent the IRS a letter on Monday seeking a broad range of documents and asking more than 40 questions covering three years of IRS activity.
"Targeting applicants for tax-exempt status using political labels threatens to undermine the public's trust in the IRS," Baucus and Hatch said in a letter to Miller. "Lack of candor in advising the Senate of the practice is equally troubling."
Among other things, the two senators asked for the names of all employees involved in the targeting effort and for copies of any communication between IRS employees and outside parties, including anyone in the White House or Treasury Department.
They also asked for the names of any IRS employees who became aware of anyone at the White House or Treasury who knew about the practice.
"I have a hunch that a lot more is going to come out, frankly," Baucus said in an interview on Sunday with Bloomberg Television. "I suspect that we will learn more in the next several days, maybe the next couple three weeks which adds more context to all of this."
The Senate Finance Committee is conducting one of three congressional probes into the scandal. The House Ways and Means Committee held the first hearing last week, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday.
Lerner, head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations office, is scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing.
The Justice Department is also looking into the IRS practice, which has drawn angry accusations of a cover-up from Republicans who have accused Obama's administration of using government powers to punish political rivals.
Some Democrats, while also condemning the practice, have noted the IRS was headed by Shulman - an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush - during the period in question. Shulman has, however, donated to Democrats.
Also testifying at Tuesday's hearing with Shulman and Miller will be J. Russell George, the head of the watchdog group that issued a report on the IRS last week. George testified at the House hearing last week and said his office is continuing to investigate the matter.
(Editing by Karey Van Hall and Christopher Wilson)

Oklahoma tornado: 91 feared dead as rescue continues in Moore – live

Protester unfurls banner after climbing dome of St Peter's Basilica in Rome

Man stages demonstration against Italy's embattled coalition, which is struggling with recession and high unemployment

Marcello De Finizio stands on the dome of St Peter's Basilica to protest against austerity measures. Photograph: Guido Montani/EPA
A man climbed on to a ledge on the dome of St Peter's Basilica on Monday and unfurled a banner protesting against a "political horror show", an apparent reference to Italy's embattled coalition struggling with recession and high unemployment.
Identified by police as Marcello Di Finizio, the man unfurled a white banner reading, in English: "Stop this massacre! The political horror show is continuing."
The black and red ink scrawl said in Italian: "Help us Pope Francis." He also waved an Italian flag as he balanced precariously above a small window near the top of the 137-metre dome.
Italy is stuck in its longest recession since quarterly records began in 1970, and jobless rates are close to record highs. Support for the coalition government has fallen from 43% to 34% since it was cobbled together in April.
Di Finizio has staged similar protests on the dome. Last October he stayed there overnight with a banner criticising multinationals, Europe, and former prime minister Mario Monti.
Thousands of people protested in Rome on Saturday, urging the new prime minister, Enrico Letta, to focus on creating jobs. He is trying to hold together a between his centre-left Democratic party and the centre-right People of Freedom, led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Syria: no place for back-seat drivers

Having rejected the diplomatic option of talking to Assad, neither the US nor Britain can lead from behind

It was only a matter of time before a proxy war between regional powers turned into a battlefield in which foreign fighters openly engaged in combat. Hezbollah's fighters had been present in Syria for some time, but their overt role in the fight for a strategic border town linking Damascus to Homs and the regime's core support in the Alawite hinterland is, potentially, a game-changer. If it ever had been an open question whether conditions could be produced that would allow Iran and Hezbollah to relinquish their support for Bashar Assad, in favour of a transitional regime that would offer guarantees to the minority Alawite community, that has now been answered.
Whatever happens in the town of Qusair, both Hezbollah and Iran are now signalling that Assad's fate has become a matter of existential survival for them, too. The regime's victory, or defeat, will become a victory or defeat for its allies. This makes any attempt at intra-Syrian reconciliation – already a faint hope, after the vicious sectarianism shown first by the regime and latterly, alas, by some rebels – virtually impossible. Syria of any description, either the north and east, still held by the rebels, or the south and west, held by the regime, is no longer master of its own territory or fate.
Factionalism is rife. The dominant, or at least most cohesive, fighting group on the rebel side, Jabhat al-Nusra, is funded and armed by non-state actors, as is al-Qaida, to which the Sunni jihadi group has vowed its allegiance. There are splits between rebel units on the ground and the Syrian opposition in Turkey and Doha. A further cleavage has opened between Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan, on the one side – all determined not to let the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood gain control of Syria – and Qatar and Turkey on the other, which back other brotherhood-dominated regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. If Sunni al-Qaida is fighting Shia Hezbollah in Qusair, the Sunni regimes of the Gulf are doing a good job undermining each other's foreign policy as well.
Did the Israeli strikes provoke Hezbollah's move? As Vladimir Putin told Binyamin Netanyahu in no uncertain terms, they certainly prompted Russia into sending Assad S300 surface-to-air missiles. The involvement of the best armed and trained Shia militia in the region was perhaps only a matter of time. The foreign secretary, William Hague, said there was a compelling case for lifting the EU arms embargo, dispatching weapons in "carefully controlled circumstances". This is provocative. We have lost leverage over rebel groups. Having rejected the diplomatic option of talking to Assad for so long, neither US nor Britain — nor Russia on its side — can "lead from behind" in Syria. A military conflict is no place for back-seat drivers.

01 June 2012

Georgia’s President continues his visit to Latvia

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili continues his official visit to Riga, Latvia. Georgian President is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister of Latvia, Valdis Dombrovski and Jurmala resort's Mayor Gatis Truksnis today. A document on friendship between Jurmala and Anaklia resorts will be signed. Saakashvili will deliver a public lecture at the State University of Latvia. On May 29, Saakashvili met with representatives of Georgian Diaspora in Latvia. The Georgian nationals received the detailed information about carried out and ongoing reforms in Georgia. Various reforms of Georgia was the main topic during a joint business forum organized by Forbes magazine and Georgian Investment Agency. About 150 Georgian and Latvian businesspersons participated in it. Saakashvili talked about economic growth and current business climate in Georgia.