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IRAN: Minister’s Sacking Shores Up Ahmadinejad’s Power Base

Omid Memarian

SAN FRANCISCO, California, Dec 14 2010 (IPS) - While Iran gears up for a second round of nuclear talks with Western countries next month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abrupt dismissal of his foreign minister on Monday indicates a new power struggle with moderate conservatives that could alter the tone and face of Iran’s foreign policy machinery in the years to come.

Iran's then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki addresses a press conference at the United Nations in October 2009. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Iran's then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki addresses a press conference at the United Nations in October 2009. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Manouchehr Mottaki is the seventh cabinet minister dismissed by Ahmadinejad over the past five years, while two others have resigned. Ahmadinejad sacked Mottaki while he was on an official trip to Senegal.

Mottaki had held the portfolio since 2005.

In an order issued Monday evening, the president appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), as acting foreign minister.

“Dismissing the Iranian foreign minister while he is abroad is an insult to Mottaki and his supporters inside the traditional conservative camp,” Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former member of the Iranian Parliament, told IPS.

“By appointing forces loyal and obedient to critical positions, Ahmadinejad will challenge the international community more, and on the national front, his conflicts with his more moderate conservative critics will increase,” he predicted. “Iran’s foreign policy will become less experienced and more aggressive.”

“The supreme leader has the last word regarding Iran’s nuclear dossier, but Ahmadinejad will gain more influence by bringing his loyalists to the foreign ministry,” Khoeini added.

A few days before Mottaki’s dismissal, Ahmadinejad had dispatched chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, one of his most stalwart deputies, to Jordan to deliver a message. Iranian media speculated that Mashaei’s mission might have drawn the foreign minister’s disapproval.

A few months ago, Ahmadinejad appointed special envoys within the Foreign Ministry, angering Mottaki, who believed such actions would weaken his authority.

Mottaki would likely have been dismissed at that time had it not been for the intervention of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad ultimately had to downgrade the special envoys to “advisers” at Khamenei’s behest.

“Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to flex his muscles and eliminate his opponents within the regime,” Ali Qolizadeh, a political activist, told IPS from Tehran. “So long as he is supported by military and security organisations, as well as the main power base of the country – meaning the forces inside the Supreme Leader’s offices – he has no reason to worry about his opponents inside the Parliament and the traditional right.”

The dismissal was condemned by the radical conservative Kayhan newspaper, whose editor is appointed by Khamenei. In a sarcastic editorial, Hossein Shariatmadari questioned Ahmadinejad’s decision to fire his minister while he was abroad, and wrote that the president had clearly wanted to take the decision for a long time.

Ahmadinejad is known for dismissing cabinet members who oppose or criticise him, or forcing them to resign. He has effected profound changes in Iran’s largest ministries such as Intelligence and Interior, appointing forces loyal to him.

However, he had been unable to gain complete control over the Foreign Ministry. By dismissing Mottaki, Ahmadinejad can now continue his efforts to shape the bureaucracy, including at the level of deputies and ambassadors – changes that could put a new face on Iran’s foreign policy machinery.

Last month, the Iranian Parliament moved toward questioning Ahmadinejad for a long list of alleged violations. However, observers believe that it would be effectively impossible to impeach the president without the consent of the supreme leader – who has shown increasing support for Ahamdienajd in recent years.

“This incident showed that Ahmadinejad is not concerned about the developments forming against him in the Parliament,” Qolizadeh said. “Instead of handing out favours and making peace with his opponents inside his political faction, encouraging them to forfeit questioning the president, he insulted that group’s representative in his cabinet in his absence from the country, dismissing him without his knowledge.”

Iran and Western countries, along with Russia and China, resumed nuclear talks earlier this month, and the next round of talks is scheduled for Istanbul in January.

Analysts believe Ahmadinejad’s surprise move is very unlikely to affect the negotiations, as Mottaki had little say in the country’s major foreign policy positions over the past five years.

“Mottaki’s firing will have little substantive impact on Iranian foreign policy,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, told IPS. “The Iranian foreign minister doesn’t formulate policy. It’s the equivalent of the State Department spokesperson being replaced.”

“Salehi is much smarter and smoother than Mottaki and may prove more effective at creating divisions in the international community,” Sadjadpour added. “The Iranian foreign minister’s job these days is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. It’s ugly no matter how you try and sell it.”

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