It could have come straight out of The Apprentice’s boardroom. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed his Donald Trump flair today by firing Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki while he was on an official visit to Senegal. The high-profile ouster was unusual in Iran’s opaque political scene, which is more often characterized by discreet negotiations away from the public eye.
Ahmadinejad has had long-standing differences with Mottaki: during the 2005 presidential elections, Mottaki was the campaign chief for Ali Larijani, the current Parliament speaker and one of Ahmadinejad’s top rivals. There were rumors of Mottaki’s ouster shortly after Ahmadinejad’s contested electoral win last year. But he was kept in his post at the behest of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some analysts say that today’s move shows the president is even willing to sidestep Khamenei to purge potential rivals from the top tiers of government. “Ahmadinejad’s camp now doesn’t even care what The Leader says,” says Mohammad Reza Heydari, a former Iranian diplomat in Norway who defected earlier this year and is now the spokesman for the Green Embassy campaign, a group linked with the opposition in Iran.
Tensions between Ahmadinejad and Mottaki have been building up in recent months. In August, the president appointed several regional envoys to cover foreign-policy matters, a move the ministry claimed was akin to creating “a parallel foreign ministry.” Mottaki also had not been able to deliver on a number of key foreign-policy issues of late. Last month, UNESCO cancelled a high-profile conference in Tehran for World Philosophy Day. That was followed up by a snub of Iran’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Women’s Agency, a newly created body that combines four other U.N. organizations focused on women’s-rights issues. And, despite a lot of aggressive lobbying by Iranian diplomats, the U.N. General Assembly committee focused on human rights last month issued a resolution condemning rights violations in Iran.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was named as Mottaki’s temporary replacement. Under the Iranian Constitution, the president has six months to present a new ministerial candidate to the Parliament, or majles, for approval. The appointment of Salehi, an MIT grad, shows the importance of Iran’s nuclear program in the country’s overall foreign policy. “Ahmadinejad wants the foreign policy of Iran to be united with the nuclear policy,” Heydari says. For the moment, it seems that Salehi, who has a reputation as a sharp and efficient operator, will be doing both jobs. “Salehi is much smarter and smoother than Mottaki, and may prove more effective at creating divisions in the international community,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That could mean a tough round of negotiations when the U.N.’s P5+1 group meets Iranian officials for talks about the nuclear program in Turkey next month.
And with one more rival safely sidelined, Ahmadinejad will no doubt be happy to take the credit for any gains.