Top Diplomat's Ouster Hints At Political Battle In Iran
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decision this week to abruptly sack his foreign minister shocked some Iranian commentators. The two politicians have had their differences, but Ahmadinejad's move to replace a career diplomat with a nuclear scientist sparked a new debate about Iran's nuclear intentions.
It also shed some light on the infighting among Iran's conservative factions.
On Tuesday, a day after Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was fired while still on state business in the West African nation of Senegal, newspaper editorials in Tehran reflected anxiety and some alarm.
The pro-reform Arman, perhaps predictably, called Mottaki's firing "absolutely unbelievable and shocking."
But the conservative Kayhan was also disturbed, noting that "in diplomatic language, sacking a minister while he is on a foreign mission reflects a serious problem in the country's foreign policy, and a clear insult to the dismissed diplomat."
The foreign policy problems were highlighted last month when Gambia severed its ties with Iran, and Senegal recalled its ambassador, following scandals involving Iranian arms shipments to Africa.
As for insulting Mottaki, analysts say that was clearly Ahmadinejad's intent. Mottaki not only has had strong policy differences with the president, but also worked on the campaign of one of his main rivals, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, in the 2005 elections.
The question is whether Ahmadinejad was also defying Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Not everyone believes Khamenei blessed the dismissal.
"There is another reading, that Ahmadinejad took the decision in spite of Khamenei," says Emile Hokayem with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
According to this view, he says, the president is taking a strategic step to show a little independence from the supreme leader -- "[to show] that Ahmadinejad is growing bolder and trying to position his own people ahead of the 2013 presidential elections, which promises to be a key moment in the struggle between conservatives."
Ahmadinejad can't run again in 2013, but he has apparently picked his brother-in-law and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his preferred successor. Ahmadinejad has said publicly that he would enjoy being a vice president in a Mashaei government.
That has sparked concern that Ahmadinejad is looking at Russia's Vladimir Putin as a political role model. Putin is still widely considered the real power in Moscow, despite no longer being president.
Encouraging Ahmadinejad's Decline
Mottaki's firing also leaves Iran's Foreign Ministry in the hands of former nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi. He is seen as a highly intelligent technocrat who is not currently aligned with any political faction.
His diplomatic skills may be tested quickly.
Pressure from Israel and other countries for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to increase in 2011, says Theodore Karasik, based in Dubai at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
One of the main alternatives to military action involves encouraging Ahmadinejad's political decline -- something that Karasik says is already happening among the president's core rural supporters, largely because of the painful need to reduce lavish economic subsidies that Iran can no longer afford.
"Ahmadinejad's popularity is in decline. And when he goes around the country, he's talking to the lower classes. That's his power base. But with the status of the economy, he's becoming less popular," Karasik says.
On the other hand, analysts say the strategy of waiting for Iranian voters to change their government grew more dubious after elections in 2009. Those widely criticized elections returned Ahmadinejad to power and set off massive protests and a brutal government crackdown that effectively sidelined the pro-reform opposition.
For now, the political contest seems to be limited to Iran's conservative factions. To many observers, it looks like Ahmadinejad's tactics include removing rivals, empowering allies and consolidating power in the president's office.
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