Ahmadinejad Cans FM, Replaces with Nuke Chief

Does the selection of Iran’s nuclear czar as its new (interim) foreign minister say anything about nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West? We don’t really know, and given that the next round of talks is only a month away, we might not know until news breaks from Istanbul.

Let’s get caught up with Iran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked Manoucher Mottaki — widely seen as a political figure — on Monday in a surprise move. The outgoing FM, who had long been known to be at odds with Ahmadinejad, was quickly replaced in the interim by the now-former head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi. Salehi, who was partly educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is known as a technocrat.

Laura Rozen at Politico does Iranian “Kremlinology” with analysis from experts in D.C.. Trita Parsi told Rozen:

“The fact that Salehi, a longtime hand in the nuclear program, replaces [Mottaki] may indicate the nuclearization of Iranian foreign policy,” Iranian analyst Trita Parsi said. “While Mottaki was never central to the nuclear program, the person replacing him and taking over the entire foreign policy machine is a person that for decades has been instrumental to the program.”

“This may indicate, if not renewed seriousness on the part of the Iranians, at least a recognition that the parties recognize that they are close to crunch time and they are fielding their best players as a result,” he said.

I reached out to Iran expert and University of Hawaii professor Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iran’s byzantine politics, who told me both the sacking and the new hire remain a mystery to her. She emphasized that the appointment is an interim one, so Ahmadinejad could have simply put off a more controversial pick that would have aroused opposition in the Majles, or Iranian parliament. We don’t yet know, however, what the pick means for Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the Supreme Leader. Farhi (the links are mine):

Some people are speculating that it may have something to do with [this month’s Iran-P5+1 talks in] Geneva and the portrayal of success by the negotiating team inside Iran, giving Ahamdinejad the confidence to do this. One other analyst in Tehran suggested that the presidential advisor [Esfandiar Rahim] Mashaie’s visit this week to Jordan and King Abdullah’s positive response to Ahamdinejad’s personal letter might have given Ahmadinejad motivation to do this. There is indeed a possibility that Ahmadinejad sacked Mottaki the same way he sacked Ali Larijani as nuclear negotiator, without prior approval from [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei. If this is the case then it bespeaks a confident Ahmadinejad since, as I mentioned above, it was merely a month or so ago that Khamenei supported Mottaki by name. If indeed Ahmadinejad did this without Khamenei’s prior approval, it means the game is not yet over.

It sounds like, once again, with Iran and the U.S. inching closer together, uncertainty will hang over the proceedings. If the U.S. comes through on hints, a confidence-building measure could be in the works, so the U.S. will likely be busy no matter what.

“Between now and January,” wrote Robert Dreyfuss on his Nation blog, “the United States is going to have to engage in some spirited, behind-the-scenes talks with Iran to make the negotiations work.” Dreyfuss noted, and focused on, that amid all the the action in Tehran, the U.S. seems to be ready to offer up a fuel swap agreement that, for the meantime, would allow centrifuges to keep spinning in Iran. It’s just the sort of “first step” deal, as Rozen noted, that Salehi hammered out with the Brazilians and Turks in the run-up to the last round of U.S. led UN Security Council sanctions.

Julian Border, at the Guardian, has a good piece covering the optimistic take on Salehi. Just after he pulls a few WikiLeaks docs to show several takes of Western diplomats on Salehi — he speaks good English and is a preferred interlocutor, but seems to not wield much influence in the halls of power — Border summed up the ever-ambiguous “Western diplomat” reaction:

Western diplomats, however, are generally cheered by the appointment because it might mean that their contacts with the foreign ministry will now have more substance. During the prolonged sparring between Mottaki and Ahmadinejad, the ministry increasingly became an empty shell, bypassed over major decisions, and irrelevant on the nuclear dossier.

Rozen, again, has a great observation, via Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution, that Salehi is subject to an EU travel ban. Earlier, it had been reported that Salehi was named in the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, but apparently this was not right (though the agency which he formerly headed was). Had the UNSC bit turned out to be true, my reaction was that the move could be a provocation. Given that it’s only an EU ban and, as Rozen points out, it gets waived for higher-ups in foreign governments, I don’t really think so.

As I said, could it mean something for nuclear negotiations? Looks like we’ll have to wait for next month’s talks to find out.

Late-breaking: Inside Iran‘s Arash Aramesh has the take of a recent Iranian diplomatic defector. It’s worth checking out for the opinions of someone who was very recently, indeed, on the inside.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

One Comment

  1. My feeling is that this does not bode well for the next round of talks in Istanbul. It’s just a feeling; I don’t pretend to know more (or as much) as the people quoted in this piece. The late-breaking link is well worth a look.

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