Ahmadinejad abruptly sacks foreign minister in favor of nuclear chief

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a move that is likely to solidify Iran's united front toward the West.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP/File
In this July 29, 2008, file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (r.) listens to his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, during the inaugural ceremony of the 15th Non-Aligned Movement Foreign Ministerial meeting in Tehran, Iran. Ahmadinejad fired Mottaki on Monday, Dec. 13, replacing him with nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.

Iran’s arch-conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, summarily fired his foreign minister on Monday, replacing him with atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi.

The jilted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was in Senegal on an official visit when Mr. Ahmadinejad thanked him for his “diligence and services” in a terse statement. He said he hoped Mr. Mottaki’s “efforts receive praise by God and [that] you will be successful in the rest of your life,” according to the official IRNA news agency.

Though the Foreign Ministry does not craft Iran's nuclear policy – negotiations are conducted by the head of the Supreme National Security Council, and all final decisions made by Iran's supreme religious leader – the move is likely to solidify the united front the regime tries to portray toward the West.

Mottaki's replacement long rumored

The decision to remove Mottaki has long been rumored, especially since Ahmadinejad several months ago appointed a group of regional foreign policy envoys, in parallel – and in apparent competition with – the Foreign Ministry. Mottaki was reported to have offered to resign at the time.

“This is the right move … for President Ahmadinejad, because he is sending the right signal to the West that Iran is trying to change its foreign policy and strategy,” Ghanbar Naderi, a Tehran analyst, told Al Jazeera English.

“[Ahmadinejad] is so desperate to have somebody there who knows how to talk to the West. And we are in a very critical situation now,” says Mr. Naderi. “The conservative government wants to make sure that somehow there will be a resolution to Iran’s nuclear program before Ahmadinejad’s term is finished over the next two years.”

Nuclear chief to take over

Mr. Salehi, the nuclear chief, was named interim foreign minister on Monday. Conservative news agencies in Iran, however, suggested that his deputy in Iran’s atomic energy organization would move into the top slot and Saleh would stay on at the Foreign Ministry.

Salehi has overseen the growth of Iran’s nuclear program into one with thousands of centrifuges spinning to enrich uranium, and in the past year the enrichment of uranium from 3.5 percent to nearly 20 percent purity – which Iran hailed as key stride in its nuclear development.

Prior to being appointed foreign minister in August 2005, Mottaki had supported one of Ahmadinejad’s top conservative rivals, Ali Larijani, who today is speaker of parliament and locked in power struggles of his own with the president.

Ahmadinejad stepping beyond his role?

Ahmadinejad has ignored a number of decisions by the parliament that are meant to be binding on his office, according to Iran’s Constitution. Even fellow conservatives have complained at Ahmadinejad’s definition of his role, as second in the country only to Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

MPs on Monday were reported to have said the summary dismissal while Mottaki was out of the country went against protocol – in fact, such a change of foreign minister has not taken place since the early years of the Islamic Republic nearly three decades ago. They heard of the change only through news reports.

“Mottaki failed to adjust himself to the president’s viewpoints and his foreign policy,” said the reformist website Mardomsalari, according to Reuters. The agency reported from a source in Tehran that Salehi had been Ahmadinejad’s first pick as foreign minister in 2005, but that Ayatollah Khamenei had “rejected Salehi.”

Mottaki's difficult tenure

Mottaki has presided over a tendentious period of Iranian diplomacy, during which Iran has been hit with four layers of UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program – which the US and several other Western countries believe is a mask for a weapons drive.

During Mottaki’s tenure, Iran has also deepened its global influence from Iraq and Lebanon to South American outposts like Venezuela and Bolivia. But that influence diminished to a degree after the controversial reelection of Ahmadinejad in June 2009, which sparked weeks of protest and a lethal crackdown.

“For more than two years conservative lawmakers … in Tehran have been urging Ahmadinejad to dismiss Mottaki because he has been unable to show himself as a convincing figure in the international arena,” said Naderi. Salehi is the “most successful candidate, because he has been successful in Iran’s nuclear program, he has delivered on most of the demands the government has asked [of him].”

Shake-up unlikely to alter strategy

Members of parliament had warned Ahmadinejad that further rounds of UN sanctions, which have been biting Iran’s already sluggish economy, would make Mottaki’s position untenable.

The shake-up is not likely to alter Iran’s strategy at the next round of nuclear talks with world powers, which are slated for the end of January in Istanbul. They will be handled by Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

During an initial round in Geneva last week, in which Mr. Jalili sat down with senior diplomats from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, Mottaki was conducting other business in Athens and not engaged in the talks.

 One senior European Union diplomat expected no change: “We put emphasis that talks which just started in Geneva will continue and that different political constellations in Iran will not lead to any disruptions or delay in the talks,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Brussels.

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