Iran’s president fires foreign minister

TEHRAN, IRAN—President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired Iran’s foreign minister Monday, a move that caught many here by surprise and appeared to reflect a strengthening of the president’s power.

Ahmadinejad said in a presidential order he had dismissed the minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, a career diplomat who for many years has been Iran’s face to the West. Mottaki was on an official visit to Senegal on Monday and did not immediately react to the news, which appeared to catch even the state-run Iranian media by surprise.

The sacking of Mottaki seemed to represent a victory for Ahmadinejad, who has been embroiled in a power struggle with a faction of moderate politicians centred in the Parliament and headed by the speaker, Ari Larijani.

Political insiders said that after the 2005 election, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forced the newly elected Ahmadinejad to accept Mottaki as foreign minister, even though Mottaki had backed Larijani. They said Khamenei had until now blocked the president’s efforts to replace him.

Lawmakers loyal to Ahmadinejad had recently been threatening to seek Mottaki’s dismissal if the United Nations approved more sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. But the foreign minister was never involved in the nuclear negotiations, a factor that led some analysts to dismiss the nuclear issue as a pretext for pushing him out.

Other experts, however, said the move signalled the rising prominence of nuclear matters in Iran’s foreign policy. Ahmadinejad’s choice for acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, is the head of Iran’s nuclear program and has served as ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

Salehi, who is fluent in English, graduated from the American University in Beirut and earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program scheduled for January, and the prospect of new Western sanctions looming, it was not immediately evident how the new appointment would affect Iran’s posture in negotiations over its nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes only.

It is possible Salehi is only a fill-in. Some Iran observers speculated Ahmadinejad might try to replace him with a permanent candidate from his inner circle.

The firing of Mottaki could also be related to the recent release of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, which made clear that many of Iran’s Arab neighbours remain deeply hostile to it.

“Clearly, Iranian foreign policy has failed here and someone needed to pay the price for it,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert and founder of the National Iranian American Council in Washington.

Last week, after multiparty talks with Iran in Geneva produced no discernible progress in halting its nuclear program, President Barack Obama’s chief nuclear adviser said new sanctions were planned.

“In the wake of the Geneva talks, we and our allies are determined to maintain and even increase pressure,” the adviser, Gary Samore, said Friday. “We need to send the message to Iran that sanctions will only increase if Iran avoids serious negotiations and will not be lifted until our concerns are fully addressed.”

In a letter that was issued Monday, Ahmadinejad expressed gratitude to Mottaki for his years of service as foreign minister.

“Hereby, I thank you for your services as efforts during your tenure in the Foreign Ministry,” it said.

Asked about the dismissal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa just outside Ottawa, said she had no comment or insight about it. But she said that “whether one person or another is foreign minister is not as important as to what the policy of the Iranian government is.”

The latest round of sanctions, imposed by the Security Council in the spring, is making it increasingly difficult for Iran to conduct business around the world, and the United States and its allies said Friday that new sanctions were planned in an effort to test “Iran’s pain threshold.”

In another move Monday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador, Simon Gass, over accusations that Britain has interfered in Iran’s internal affairs, Iranian state media said and The Associated Press reported.

Gass has been critical of Iran’s human rights record and, in an article posted Thursday on the British Embassy website, wrote that the British government “will continue to draw attention to cases where people are deprived of their fundamental freedoms.”

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