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Salehi's Turn


31 Jan 2011 05:12Comments
salehi+mottaki+praying.jpgConfirmation of Ahmadinejad's new foreign minister completes purge of rivals from diplomatic apparatus.

[ analysis ] Born in Kazemein, Iraq, of Iranian parents in 1949, Ali Akbar Salehi joins several other top-ranking Iranians with an Iraqi connection (Ali Larijani, Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, and Mohammad Reza Naghdi come to mind). Newly confirmed as the Islamic Republic's foreign minister, Salehi speaks perfect Arabic and fluent English and is probably the only member of the country's elite with some vestige of nonclerical aristocracy -- his father's uncle was connected to the Qajar dynasty as official scribe and later served as calligrapher for some of the last Shah's royal edicts.

Salehi arrived in Iran at age nine. A few years later, he left for the American University of Beirut, where he got his B.S. in mechanical engineering. He then went to MIT, where in 1977 he received a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering.

After the Revolution, he became chancellor of Sharif University, Iran's leading institution of higher education in science and technology. He did several high-level technocratic stints until 1997, when then President Mohammad Khatami appointed him as Iran's top International Atomic Energy Agency representative in Vienna. However, he unexpectedly turned into a critic of the nuclear policy under Khatami and his chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani. He did so from an unmistakably hardline position.

On November 30, 2004, as he was being interviewed on national TV about Iran's nuclear policy, he shocked the show's host and viewers by attacking the recently signed Paris Agreement between Iran and the so-called EU-3 -- Britain, France, and Germany -- as deeply flawed. It was Salehi himself who had signed that very accord, extending a temporary moratorium on Iranian nuclear activities, on behalf of the Islamic Republic just a few days earlier. He was predictably removed soon after, but the incident showed that behind a gentle and moderate façade there lurks a man well attuned to the winds of political change. The rising domestic offensive against Khatami could well have alerted an ambitious politician to jump ship before the ascending hardliners could purge the diplomatic apparatus of nonconformists.

Salehi's criticisms paved the way for his advancement once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami as president. Having endeared himself to the right, he became deputy head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a ceremonial but high-profile job. In 2009, Ahmadinejad made him the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, a position he retains.

The new helmsman

Salehi's stance on many matters remains vague. What we do know is that he is devoted to regional, good neighborly policies. Since being named acting foreign minister in December, he has already made several journeys to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Most significantly, he is a gung ho pro-Russia strategist. He has staked his reputation on a long-term working relationship with the Russians centered on the Bushehr nuclear reactor -- not a promising enterprise, it seems.

In his favor, Salehi is a nuclear expert and has earned some respect among international nuclear negotiators and experts. On the other hand, he has very limited diplomatic experience and, before his recent appointment, none at all within the Foreign Ministry itself. That venerable body, now celebrating its 200th anniversary, is in the throes of a serious institutional crisis thanks to presidential diktats. Through forced retirements, unusual reassignments, major organizational changes, and finally the humiliating sacking of former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahmadinejad has demoralized and emasculated the ministry to an unprecedented degree.

Salehi's appointment will not stem the tide. If anything, since he owes his new position entirely to Ahmadinejad, the trend can be expected to continue. When asked Sunday in the Majles (parliament) what he would do about the issue of parallel diplomatic activities -- euphemism for plenipotentiary emissaries appointed by Ahmadinejad to replace Iran's ambassadors -- he merely said that he would not object to them if their activities fell within the framework of the ministry's functions.

As was predicted in these pages, the Majles has ended up approving Salehi's appointment despite its initial misgivings and the candidate's complete lack of experience within his own ministry. How could it be otherwise? One way or other, Iran's entire foreign policy is now inextricably bound up with and geared toward the single issue of the nuclear program. Who exemplifies that better than Salehi? On top of this, Ahmadinejad now can no longer be accused of conducting Iran's nuclear diplomacy outside official Foreign Ministry channels.

While limited resistance to the move was put up by the Majles's small reformist faction and its most outspoken MP, Ali Motahari, deputies from four other blocs spoke in favor of Salehi: pro-administration MPs, along with heavyweights from the national security, Larijani, and Isargaran factions. Ahmadinejad, who attended the session, was apparently so confident of victory that he devoted only three sentences of a 30-minute-long speech to the Salehi appointment. Still, of the 241 deputies who cast a vote, 60 opposed the appointment and another 35 abstained. The reason for the opposition, according to the powerful MP Assadolah Badamchian, was not any problem with the candidate per se, but rather a broader matter: displeasure among the deputies at the president's disregard of constitutionally mandated separation of powers.

With this move, the purge of Ahmadinejad rivals from Iran's diplomatic apparatus is complete. The purge began with the firing of Rohani, a close ally of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from the Supreme National Security Council and his replacement by Ali Larijani, representing the combined interests of the regime's traditionalists and neo-pragmatists. Larijani was then removed in turn and replaced by Saeed Jalili from the hardline camp. Finally, the remaining traditionalist presence was terminated with the unceremonious sacking of Mottaki on December 12.

A crucial consequence: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is now left without even a symbolic presence in the top echelon of the Islamic Republic's diplomatic corps.

A vexing question: Given the travel bans imposed by the European Union on Iran's nuclear experts and leadership, will Salehi retain his title as Atomic Energy Organization chief while he conducts the nation's foreign policy in capitals around the globe?

Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau. He writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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