Iran nuclear chief becomes acting foreign minister

TEHRAN Mon Dec 13, 2010 11:22am EST

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed the country's top nuclear official as the caretaker foreign minister on Monday.

Ahmadinejad wanted the nuclear scientist to be his foreign affairs chief when he became president in 2005, but factional pressures forced him to accept a different candidate and Ali Akbar Salehi was pushed to the political sidelines.

But on Monday, Ahmadinejad appointed him caretaker in place of dismissed Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki with whom the president's relations had never been smooth.

With his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, awarded in the 1970s, Salehi has played key roles in Iran's nuclear program which has been one of the main causes of tensions with the United States and the West.

In 1997, he became the international face of Tehran's nuclear program when he was appointed ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.

In that post he had to defend what Iran sees as its right to peaceful technology against hostile countries that believe Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons. The issue remains central to Iran's relations with the rest of the world.

As nuclear envoy, Salehi earned respect among diplomats, many of whom harbored suspicions about Iran's true nuclear aims, but valued his reasonable approach and professionalism.

"The important thing to note is that Iran had to do some of its activities very discreetly because of the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for the past 25 years," Salehi said in 2003 after handing over previously undisclosed details of the nuclear program to the IAEA.

Failing to get the foreign minister position Ahmadinejad wanted for him, in 2005 Salehi entered the political wilderness, serving as an under-secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a regional grouping where his fluent Arabic was an asset.

Born in Kerbala, the Iraqi city holy to Shi'ite Muslims, he grew up speaking Arabic and his affinity with Arab countries -- which often have troubles relations with their mainly Persian neighbor -- might prove important in his new role.

No stranger to the political spotlight since his appointment as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation in 2009, Salehi performed a political coup de theater ahead of Iran's resumption of talks with major world powers earlier this month.

A day before the talks in Geneva, Salehi appeared live on television to announce Iran had made its own uranium concentrates for a key enrichment plant for the first time -- a defiant signal it would not back down on the nuclear issue.

(Reporting by Robin Pomeroy and Hashem Kalantari; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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