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The Talented Mr. Mottaki


06 Jan 2011 14:367 Comments

The former foreign minister's sole evident skill? Survival.

mottaki+behindcurtain.jpg[ analysis ] Almost three weeks after the event, the unorthodox and unusually brusque manner in which former Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was removed from office is still reverberating throughout the Islamic Republic's political circles. Moved by factional considerations, many have stated that Mottaki was a hapless victim of presidential imperiousness, while more than a few have heaped praise on him for allegedly standing up for his principles. Insiders, however, consider his five-year-plus tenure as the country's top diplomat to have been an unmitigated disaster for the foreign policy establishment and the Foreign Ministry itself in particular.

Protesting Mottaki's humiliation has become the new cri de coeur of every disaffected faction in Iran: While traveling on a diplomatic mission to Senegal on December 13, he was informed by his hosts that he had been relieved of all his duties by his president and would no longer be accorded diplomatic niceties. A dejected Mottaki was forced to depart the Senegalese presidential compound in the middle of an official function completely unescorted and without the usual diplomatic pomp.

Angry reactions were erupting even before Mottaki's plane touched down in Tehran. "Earthquake at the Foreign Ministry," ran the headline in Khabar, published by Majles Speaker Ali Larijani. "Astonishing Development," said Jahanonline, published by former Basij militia leader Alireza Zakani. Even the fanatical Kayhan was unstinting in its admonishment of the president. In a column titled "With Which Justifications?" the paper's ultra-hardline editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, took Ahmadinejad to task for his insulting treatment of his longest-serving minister.

Almost immediately, speculation over the cause of Ahmadinejad's sudden decision arose. Many traced it to Mottaki's objection to the presidential appointment of "special envoys" outside the Foreign Ministry. Some, like the centrist Panjareh, opined that Mottaki's dismissal could be traced to his one-time attendance at the "office of a top-ranking leader of the country" -- Ahmadinehad's nemesis, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Kayhan wondered if Mottaki had incurred Ahmadinejad's displeasure by protesting the dispatch of the president's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to Jordan for alleged secret talks. As for die-hard pro-government publications, they uniformly attributed the unceremonious sacking of the minister to his lack of revolutionary zeal and inability to carry out his responsibilities.

For his part, Mottaki refused to attend the official ceremonies for his departure. He followed up with an open letter in which he decried the absence of decorum in his removal, describing its manner as "un-Islamic, outside political and diplomatic norms, and disrespectful." When 260 MPs wrote him a letter of gratitude for his accomplishments, he responded with a thank-you note that bordered on self-hagiography. "Steadfastness in defense of God," wrote Mottaki, "is what transpires from your letter." He ended his remarkable missive with a poem on mystical, epistolary love.

An Uneasy Alliance

For Ahmadinejad's first cabinet in 2005, the choices for the foreign ministry were decidedly unglamorous. To secure enough votes for his most cherished cabinet posts from the Majles (parliament), the new president had to wage a pitched battle against the other conservative factions, which were demanding a share of power. In the end, four candidates failed to obtain enough votes from the MPs and several barely made it through. Moreover, to placate the power centers that had made his electoral victory possible -- notably the Supreme Leader's office, religious traditionalists, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- Ahmadinejad reluctantly had to go along with some compromise candidates for cabinet positions such as those at the Trade and Foreign ministries. This was considered a necessary concession for winning approval of his candidates for key ministries like Oil.

Mottaki, an uninspiring former diplomat with no command of the English language, was a member of the Majles's Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee. He must have struck Ahmadinejad as the ideal candidate. In the 2005 election, Mottaki had headed Larijani's campaign. He was also close to Bahonar's Islamic Engineers Association and was known to have a good rapport with the powerful Motalefe Islami, or Islamic Coalition Party. He thus could guarantee the votes of three important parliamentary factions without being beholden to any one of them. Still, the Majles only barely approved the unexceptional candidate, giving Mottaki the second-lowest number of votes received by any of those who made it into Ahmadinejad's first cabinet.

According to recently published reports, the new president quickly became disillusioned with his foreign minister. Ahmadinejad found him plainly ill-suited to serve the needs of his newly assertive foreign policy agenda. Newspapers first reported the possible axing of the phlegmatic foreign minister on January 9, 2007. It was rumored that Mashaei, then head of the Cultural Heritage Organization, was in line to take over the ministry. The issue soon died away, but only temporarily.

It resurfaced again in autumn 2007 when Ahmadinejad was preparing to carry out a shake-up of his cabinet. On October 24, the Majles was abuzz with rumors of Mottaki's imminent departure. The next day, Dariush Ghanbari, his former colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, clarified the matter: "Almost certainly, Mr. Mottaki either resigned or was terminated, but due to some mediation efforts, he will stay on at his job," he told the press.

The issue came up yet again in late 2008. This time it involved Iran's controversial ambassador to Italy, Abolfazl Zohrevand, who ran the embassy as a personal fief and refused to answer to Mottaki, his nominal boss. Rumors of financial impropriety were also swirling. When Mottaki sent a fact-finding mission to Italy, Zohrevand not only refused to cooperate but sent its members straight back to Iran. This prompted Mottaki to try to end the insolent ambassador's Italian residence, as any foreign minister would have done. Citing the supposedly "special relations" between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Zohrevand, Ahmadinejad intervened to keep the ambassador at his post. This time, it was Mottaki who threatened to resign, one of a series of such threats that were never carried out.

Mottaki's potential termination came up publicly twice more. The first occasion was in 2009, when Ahmadinejad announced the makeup of his second cabinet. To everyone's surprise, apparently including that of Mottaki himself, he was renominated for the Foreign Ministry job -- in fact, he was the only holdover from the previous cabinet.

Finally, last August 22, as the foreign policy establishment woke up to learn of Ahmadinejad's appointment of several permanent "special envoys," entirely supplanting the Foreign Ministry, everyone was convinced Mottaki would resign in protest against such blatant encroachment on his turf -- especially given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's stated objections stated to the appointments. But Mottaki did not step down.

The Supreme Leader's Imprimatur?

Throughout Mottaki's lengthy stay at the Foreign Ministry, he regularly claimed that he had been Khamenei's personal choice for the job from the very beginning -- thus rationalizing his overlong incumbency on the grounds that "the Leader asks for unity and stability." Many people have automatically assumed that due to the ministry's importance, the ayatollah had personally picked Mottaki for the position back in 2005. The truth is that even though Khamenei signed on to the choice made by Ahmadinejad and his selection committee, at no time was Mottaki even remotely close to the Leader. This is evident from the offices he held prior to becoming foreign minister and the number of times he actually met with the Leader privately or in group sessions.

The definitive answer to the question was provided in a report about the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei meeting that preceded the Mottaki firing. On January 2, Ayandenews, a website run by the Rafsanjani faction and the only "official opposition" site allowed to function at present, gave an exceptionally detailed account of the events surrounding the dismissal. According to Ayandenews, Khamenei first heard of the president's intention to fire Mottaki a week before it happened -- albeit in the sort of bizarre manner for which Ahmadinejad is known. The Leader expressed no objection. Although he was apparently somewhat surprised by the timing of the move, had Mottaki been connected to him in meaningful way, the dismissal would definitely not have occurred.

An Abysmal Record

Regardless of one's feelings towards the Islamic Republic, it is impossible for Iranians and friends of Iran to stay indifferent to the tribulations of a venerable institution such as the Foreign Ministry, where countless diplomats and specialists have dedicated their lives to promoting the nation's interests. Certainly, the expertise and experience of these individuals will be sorely needed once a democratic government emerges in Iran. Mottaki's record must be judged with these considerations in mind.

According to a political scientist in Tehran with intimate knowledge of the Foreign Ministry, discontent over Mottaki's stewardship seethes behind its walls. "Under his watch," said the academic to Tehran Bureau on condition of anonymity, "the professionals, the diplomatic corps, came under attack from Ahmadinejad. Many were purged or were reassigned to divisions outside their areas of expertise. Whole departments were permanently shut down or brought under the control of various Ahmadinejad cronies." The academic added, "While nepotism and favoritism did exist in the ministry from the beginning, it reached absurd heights under Mottaki."

These observations are bolstered by a report from Fararu, a website run by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. According to Fararu, Mottaki had his wife, Tahereh Nazari Mehr, transferred from the Ministry of Health where she was a drug specialist and put in charge of a newly minted entity in the Foreign Ministry called the Bureau of Human Rights and Women. To create the position for his wife, he annexed the Human Rights Bureau from the Political Department and welded it to the Women's Office. Similarly, his brother, a dentist by profession, became an attaché in the Bahrain embassy. Then there are the ambassadors to Columbia and India, who had next to zero diplomatic experience upon their recent graduation from Imam Sadegh Univeristy, but were very well connected -- to the foreign minister himself.

An important function of any foreign ministry is to neutralize adversaries and build friendly relations with those that have been neutral. Mottaki has done neither. "He could have at least tried to minimize damage to Iran-GB relations or Iran-France relations," said the academic. "Today, Iran's relations with these two important European states are at an all-time low." As for Asian countries like India that used to have friendly ties with Iran, the Foreign Ministry has done nothing to stem the downward trend.

"Even relations with African countries, which is supposed to be Mottaki's single achievement, have been deteriorating. In short, he has absolutely nothing to show for" his tenure.

Further evidence of Mottaki's phenomenal incompetence was revealed by the newspaper Tehran Emrooz on December 25 in a major interview with Iran's former ambassador to China, Javad Mansouri. Before becoming a professional diplomat, Mansouri was one of the founding fathers of the Revolutionary Guards, adding weight to his comments. Mansouri began by emphasizing that foreign leaders and diplomats did not regard Mottaki as speaking for Iran since they knew of the yawning rift between him and Ahmadinejad. "There were innumerable instances where foreign officials asked him if a comment he had made reflected the official Iranian position or was just his personal opinion," he said.

"At present, the Foreign Ministry has been turned into the human resources department of the president's office. That's why every directive sent down is implemented without questioning. The ministry itself plays no role in policy formation and in decision making. In reality, the independence of the Foreign Ministry is greatly diminished."

In answer to this reporter's puzzlement over the fact that "foreign policy is always formulated at higher levels" than the ministry, Mansouri responded, "In the periods before Mr. Mottaki, the ministry's involvement was at least an element in the decision-making process. But in Mr. Mottaki's era, he didn't play any effective role whatsoever, even if he was present at high-level meetings, whereas in the past the foreign minister played a key, decisive role in setting the foreign policy course."

On the question of the four special envoys appointed by Ahmadinejad, Mansouri said, "It seems to me that this decision was the final liquidation of the Foreign Ministry since with it the ministry was effectively incorporated into the presidency."

159615_124.jpgFor those who maintain that foreign ministers in Iran have never been more than toothless appendages of the presidents and Supreme Leaders, one can look at the record of the two main predecessors to Mottaki: Ali Akbar Velayati (pictured in center) and Kamal Kharazi. Whether or not one agrees with him ideologically, nobody doubts for a moment that Velayati, today a close Khamenei adviser and confidant, was an effective and powerful foreign minister. What about Kharazi?

Even more than Mottaki, Kharazi was a compromise candidate par excellence. One of Khamenei's sons, Masood, is married into the Kharazi clan, a prominent traditionalist Isfahan family. His brother, Mohsen, is a famous conservative cleric who sits on the Assembly of Experts; Mohsen's son Sadegh is a well-known reformist diplomat. In 2005, after Ahmadinejad's rise to power, Khamenei asked Kamal Kharazi to take charge of the newly formed five-member Council for Foreign Policy Strategies, which advises the Supreme Leader.

In his eight years as foreign minister, and despite his dour demeanor, Kharazi was always present as a decision maker in all important policy deliberations save the nuclear issue, from which even then President Mohammad Khatami was excluded. Kharazi played a prominent role in the Afghan talks in Geneva and was centrally involved in many other hot-button matters.

Mottaki's Agenda

The question arises as to what Mottaki's true objectives were. There is reason to believe that his only aim throughout was to hold onto his job at any cost. Consider the case of the special envoys. While it is not uncommon in other countries for the head of state to appoint special envoys, it is unheard of to have several such emissaries on a permanent basis who have absolutely no diplomatic experience. Ahmadinejad must have expected Mottaki to resign after the appointments were announced. But the minister made no more than a curt comment about the issue, and that one week after the Supreme Leader had expressed his opposition to the move. Mottaki could certainly have tried to highlight the issue by tendering his resignation, for which there is precedent. In 2008, Davood Danesh Jafari, then minister of economics, resigned over undue interference in his ministry. Both Danesh Jafari's resignation and his subsequent criticism of the government's economic policies have gone a long way in exposing the inner workings -- and hypocrisy -- of the Ahmadinejad administration.

Even Mottaki's shocked reaction to his firing seems disingenuous today. According to Fatemeh Olia, a high-ranking Majles deputy, two months prior to the dismissal, one of Mottaki's vice ministers told the Foreign Affairs Committee, to which she belongs, that his boss would not be in his post much longer. For Mottaki, no humiliation, no matter how great, could force him to resign, even if it meant having his one-time junior assistant Said Jalili become his boss or having his vice ministers attend meetings with the president without his knowledge.

When Ahmadinejad's patience with Mottaki finally ended on December 13, he had plenty of reasons for his decision. According to former diplomat Mohammad Reza Heidari, who defected to Norway last year, "Mottaki was blamed for failing to prevent the passage of the U.N. resolution condemning Iran's violation of human rights. He was blamed for failing to lead Iran to obtaining a seat in the U.N. Women's Rights Panel. Then came the embarrassing story of sending illegal weapons to Nigeria. Mottaki traveled to Nigeria to minimize the damage but he failed there too. And the final blow came when UNESCO did not see Iran fit for holding a conference on philosophy."

This litany of failures covers the span of just a few months.


The dismal truth is that whoever is selected as Mottaki's permanent replacement is not expected to fare much better at the crisis-ridden Foreign Ministry. The very idea behind his removal was to fill the post with a more pliant individual, closer in thinking to the president. On top of that, Ahmadinejad is much more powerful today than he was in 2005 and much more capable of forcing a hand-picked candidate through the Majles.

The names of three possible successors to Mottaki are being mentioned by observers: Ali Akbar Salehi, Zaker Isfahani, and Mojataba Samareh Hashemi. All three are expected to accede to Ahamdinejad's demand for absolute loyalty as a precondition for selection.

Salehi, currently the acting foreign minister, headed the Atomic Energy Organization and is trained in nuclear science. He is fluent in Arabic and English and respected by nuclear experts and negotiators outside Iran. If he becomes the candidate, it would be a signal by Ahmadinejad that the nuclear issue remains the primary focus of his foreign policy and that he is personally in charge of it. On the downside, Salehi has very little experience in diplomacy and no knowledge at all of the inner workings of the Foreign Ministry. The rift between the foreign minister and the career diplomats that grew under Mottaki would only deepen.

Isfahani, the governor of Isfahan province, is a right-wing intellectual and author who is respected by various conservative factions, improving his odds of approval in the Majles. He too has scarcely any diplomatic experience.

Samareh Hashemi, a former first vice president of Ahmadinejad's, is the only one of the trio who has actually worked at the Foreign Ministry. Under Velayati, he was the director for personnel. While this gives him some clout in the eyes of certain Majled deputies, insiders have not forgotten the harsh, religiously stringent working environment he imposed at the ministry during his long tenure. His affiliation with hardline Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute would not be considered a plus either.

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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What a crappy article. No successes from the Foreign Ministry the past 5 years? None?

What about relations with Turkey? With Brazil? With Venezuela? With Bolivia? With Lebanon? With Syria? And how about Iraq? All are at an all-time high. All!

And what's with the falsely triumphant tone of "once a democratic government emerges in Iran"? How is trying to overturn an election result "democratic"? In democracies, you don't try to overturn a result because your side lost. You accept the result. And you don't win elections by a minority, you win them by a majority.

My advice? Respect the result and respect the majority. Want change? There's the parliamentary election this year and in 2013 there'll be a new president.

And stop already with the continual demonization of Iran and anti-Iran narrative. We're bombarded enough with that through the mainstream media. You want another ruinous war on our hands or something?

Pirouz / January 6, 2011 7:23 AM

"My advice?" Pirouz/January 6, 2011 7:23 AM

For goodness sake, NO THANK YOU!

Cy / January 6, 2011 10:20 AM

@ Pirouz
Do you really think that calling this commentary a " Crappy article " is a good starting point for a constructive debate? We all need to act intelligent and respectful, whether we are pro or con of certain point of view. Remember, you harvest what you sow.

Nobody forces you or anybody else for that matter to read these articles, nor anybody is bleeding heart fan of your comments(so far as i can tell) or anybody else in particular. Here is a public forum which requires certain level of mannerism.
So how about toning it down a little bit and debate in a manner that deserves your comments a respectful answer.

I know that you are adamant about the validity of the election and conjure up different pols and articles. But seriously this debate is not gonna be settled any time soon. Years have to come and go before people can forget this last election and ensuing bloodshed.


persianTraveler / January 6, 2011 10:44 AM

"And how about Iraq?"

Do you want to thank Mottaki, or the US for that? lol. I thought any reasonably minded person would see that one. But I forget who i'm talking to sometimes. This is the same guy who celebrated Ali Pahlavi's death on another website.

"There's the parliamentary election this year"

Must be the same process in the US where anyone of a certain age can run, and aren't purged because the lack of loyalty to the government or more liberal political beliefs.

"In democracies, you don't try to overturn a result because your side lost."

That's right. People do that in dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. That must give you a hint what kind of government is controlling Iran. Of course, you won't be able to see that living in your own protected bubble in sunny California.

My advice? Stop pretending to be Iranian when you don't speak farsi and have never set foot in Iran.

GooGoo / January 6, 2011 5:48 PM

Mr. Pirouz,

You seem to believe you have a keen insight into all these matters. If Mottaki was so wildly successful as foreign minister, why was he suddenly and uncerimoniously shown the door?

Gene / January 7, 2011 2:40 AM

Pirouz, let me know how much you get paid to troll websites all day and provide regime's viewpoint...hey, if the money is good, I may sell my soul and join you!

I can't imagine that any of you people could possibly believe in god and judgement day or you would not be so adamant about completing the requirements for burning in his hell.

bahman_Azad / January 7, 2011 8:06 AM

I think the article is well balanced when we consider it comes from a Green. While it maintains its usual Green attack on Ahmadinejad, it does provide a better insight as to why Mottaki was fired. It shows there were real reasons behind letting him go, that's pretty fair thinking for a Green. I think we should give credit where it is due, when someone can write a balanced article by ignoring his personal itch to condemn Ahmadinejad at every opportunity.


You make some good points, that there are certainly many foreign policy achievements in Iran. Too many. None of which will be recognized by the diaspora Greens (there are none left in the country). But I think the article's point was to show that there were solid reasons behind his dismissal. I did not see the article about condemning Iran's foreign policy, rather about the failures that were attributed to Mottaki by insiders. I think this article was illuminating.

I saw Mottaki on Fareed Zakaria once, and I thought he was very unimpressive. He did not defend his positions well, and was too disinterested. By contrast I saw the interview by Charlie Rose with Larijani, who studied in UCLA, and found him amazingly well versed in his positions, and did allow Charlie to push him around. One would have expected more from a foreign minister.

Anonymous / January 7, 2011 11:47 AM