Abrupt Mottaki Dismissal Sign of Mounting Discord in Leadership
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
14 Dec 2010 22:51
[ analysis ] Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister since 2005, was suddenly fired by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while Mottaki was on an official state visit to Senegal. One of Iran's most experienced career diplomats, Mottaki graduated from a university in India and joined the foreign ministry in 1984. In the mid-1990s, he served as ambassador to Japan. Ahmadinejad has appointed Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), as the interim foreign minister. Born in Iraq to a clerical family and educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in nuclear engineering, Salehi was formerly the Iranian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency and deputy secretary-general of the Islamic Conference headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Reports indicate that Mohammad Ghannadi Maraghei, head of the Research Center for Nuclear Science and Technology, will replace Salehi as AEOI chief. Ghannadi has been sanctioned under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1803, which orders U.N. members to prevent him from traveling outside Iran.
Although this is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has fired an important member of his cabinet, this latest episode is another move in the behind-the-scenes power struggle between the president and his supporters on the one hand, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those who support him on the other. Ahmadinejad had already tried to fire Mottaki in 2006 and 2007, but each time was blocked by the Majles and, indirectly, Khamenei.
Since Khamenei's ascent to the position of Supreme Leader, there has been an unwritten rule according to which the foreign minister, as well as the ministers of intelligence and the interior, are either picked directly by the ayatollah himself or, at the very least, only once the president has obtained his consent. For example, former President Mohammad Khatami's first intelligence minister, Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, was imposed on him by Khamenei. After the revelation on January 4, 1999, that agents of the intelligence ministry were behind the infamous Chain Murders, an anonymous Khatami aide told the press that in the list of possibilities for the post of intelligence minister, "Dorri Najafabadi was Mr. Khatami's 15th candidate," implying that he had not been under consideration at all (no one makes a list of 15 people for such an important position). Abdollah Nouri, the Khatami administration's first interior minister, was impeached by the Fifth Majles, which was controlled by the opposition to Khatami.
Under huge behind-the-scenes pressure from Khamenei, Khatami's minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, resigned. When in 2003 there were credible reports that Behzad Nabavi, a leading member of the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin and a minister in Mir Hossein Mousavi's cabinets in the 1980s, would be appointed by Khatami as his first vice president (Iran has eight), the hardliners ratcheted up pressure on Khatami not to make the appointment.
Given this background, the most important implication of Mottaki's firing is the continuing defiance that Ahmadinejad has demonstrated toward Khamenei and the widening of the rift that has developed between the two men ever since Ahmadinejad was "reelected" last year. Ahmadinejad truly believes that he received 24 million votes in last year's presidential election and, therefore, does not need the ayatollah.
As he was assembling the cabinet for his second administration in August 2009, he fired Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei from his post as minister of intelligence. Mohseni Ejei had reported to Khamenei without informing Ahmadinejad, saying that his ministry did not believe that the demonstrations in the aftermath of last year's presidential election were preplanned or that the demonstrators had any link with foreign powers. Ahmadinejad had previously fired Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a leading figure in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, who is highly trusted by Khamenei. After the 2008 Majles elections, Pourmohammadi had reported to Khamenei, similarly without informing Ahmadinejad, about irregularities in that campaign. (After he was relieved of his cabinet position, Pourmohammadi was appointed by Khamenei to head the National Organization for Inspection, which oversees government operations, and is now a critic of Ahmadinejad.) Ahmadinejad replaced Pourmohammadi with Ali Kordan, who was impeached by the Majles. He then appointed his long-time close friend Sadegh Mahsouli -- the "billionaire minister" -- who supervised last year's presidential vote. After Mahsouli delivered Ahmadinejad's "reelection," the president appointed another close aide, Brigadier General Mostafa Mojammad Najjar -- defense minister in his first cabinet -- as the new interior minister and transferred Mahsouli to a different cabinet post.
Last year, Ahmadinejad tried to replace Mottaki with his close ally Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), but was blocked by Khamenei. Jalili has a reputation for not listening to the people with whom he is supposedly negotiating. It is said that each time he meets with the P5+1 team to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program, he lectures them about all the problems that the West has created for the world. Mottaki was never Ahmadinejad's first choice for the foreign ministry to begin with. He was Ali Larijani's campaign manager in his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2005. Larijani, a close ally of Khamenei, has been a strong critic of Ahmadinejad's. Mottaki is also close to the Jebheh Payrovan-e Khat-e Emam va Rahbari (Front of Followers of Imam and the Leader), a coalition of 14 right-wing groups that have repeatedly criticized Ahmadinejad. But because the coalition supported him in his successful 2005 presidential bid, Ahmadinejad appointed Mottaki as foreign minister.
After Ahmadinejad's attempt last year to replace Mottaki was blocked, he decided to take control of the ministry and Iran's foreign policy by other means. That signaled the beginning of the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. As I have previously reported in detail, the rift between the two men has been deepening.
Unlike Khamenei, who has rejected any rapprochement between Iran and the United States, Ahmadinejad has publicly suggested several times that he is ready to enter negotiations and meet with President Barack Obama -- indeed, has even sent him a letter. Kayhan, the daily mouthpiece of the hardliners, which is under Khamenei's control, has criticized the president for proposing to negotiate with the United States.
After Iran reached an agreement with Turkey and Brazil to swap part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, both Kayhan and Majles Speaker Ali Larijani rebuked Ahmadinejad. Larijani declared that "some were fooled by the Westerners during the nuclear negotiations." Responding indirectly to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad countered in a TV interview that his critics were uninformed.
In a meeting of his cabinet with Khamenei in the first week of last September, Ahmadinejad noted that he has made 81 trips to foreign nations and 70 foreign delegations have visited Iran during his tenure, claiming that the figures indicated his government's activity and success in the international arena. The ayatollah responded, almost angrily, "More important than the trips is the spirit and content of the diplomacy," an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad's aggressive foreign policy and belligerent rhetoric. The Supreme Leader then emphasized that diplomacy must be led by the Foreign Ministry, that "parallel diplomacy is not acceptable," and that "weakening of the country's diplomacy, particularly under the current conditions, especially by members of the cabinet, is the same as sitting on a tree's branch while sawing it to cut it off."
Khamenei was clearly expressing his disapproval of Ahmadinejad's appointment of four special envoys for foreign affairs: Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his close aide and in-law, for the Middle East; Abolfazl Zohrehvand, former ambassador to Italy and deputy to Jalili in the SNSC for media, for Afghanistan; Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, former ambassador to Germany, for the Caucasus region (in March 2009, he met with Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who just passed away); and Hamid Baghaei, head of the Organization for the Cultural Heritage of Iran, for Asia. Baghaei created tension in Iranian-Turkish relations when, in a conference this August, he said that the Ottoman government had committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Turkey protested by summoning Iran's ambassador. Mottaki was forced to apologize, acknowledging that Baghaei's comments had negative consequences for Iranian diplomatic efforts.
In sum, Ahmadinejad has evidently been trying to control all foreign affairs through his own office, bypassing both the Majles and Khamenei. The confrontation between Ahmadinejad and the Majles is, in fact, another facet of his rift with the Supreme Leader. On the ayatollah's orders, many deputies criticize Ahmadinejad severely. In fact, some of the president's harshest critics, such as Ali Motahhari, Ali Larijani's brother-in-law, and Elyas Naderan, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, are Majles deputies.
Ahmadinejad's appointments of his "special envoys" deeply angered the conservatives around Khamenei. When Baghaei declared that the newly appointed representatives would work outside the Foreign Ministry and report directly to the president, and that two others would be appointed for Africa and South America, Mottaki accused him of naivete, saying, "It is not clear from what official positions Mr. Baghaei makes such unwise statements." Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Majles' National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, declared that parallel diplomacy by Ahmadinejad's representatives was hindering the nation's diplomatic work. Boroujerdi, who is close to the ayatollah, said that foreign policy and diplomacy are under the exclusive control of the Foreign Ministry.
Motahhari sternly criticized Ahmadinejad for his intervention in the work of the Foreign Ministry. The harshest criticisms were made by the website Alef, which is run by Ahmad Tavakkoli, chairman of the Majles Research Center and a maternal cousin of the Larijani brothers. Tavakkoli accused Ahmadinejad of not heeding Khamenei's call to avoid parallel diplomacy, demonstrating that he does not believe in Velaayat-e Faghih. Ahmadinejad finally relented and changed the title each of his appointees received to "advisor."
Khamenei himself has taken actions that clearly indicate his wariness of Ahmadinejad. Two weeks ago, he presided over a gathering in which the creation of an "Islamic-Iranian model of progress" for the nation's development was supposedly debated. No cabinet members, including even the minister of economy and higher education, were invited. This was clearly a signal by the ayatollah to Ahmadinejad that he sees no important role for him in the future. The firing of Mottaki may be Ahmadinejad's response to the ayatollah's subtle message.
Kayhan criticized Ahmadinejad for firing Mottaki while he was traveling as Iran's foreign minister. Boroujerdi said that neither he nor anyone else in the Majles had been consulted on the move. Declaring that he had only heard of the firing through the press, he asked, "Is it not true that Mr. Mottaki is currently traveling?"
But Raja News, the website run by Fatemeh Rajabi, an Ahmadinejad ally and wife of Justice Minister Gholam-Hossein Elham, rejoiced, declaring that the firing was long overdue.
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