TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed his long-serving foreign minister on Monday and named one of his own close allies, Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, as his interim replacement.
The sacking of Manouchehr Mottaki is an indication of a struggle between the president and parliament in which the assembly has accused Ahmadinejad of concentrating more power in his own hands and riding roughshod over the views of lawmakers.
There was no indication, however, that the switch signaled any shift in Iran’s nuclear policy or the broad lines of its foreign policy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word on nuclear policy and other matters of state.
“I appreciate your diligence and services as the foreign minister,” state news agency IRNA quoted the hardline Ahmadinejad as saying in a letter to Mottaki.
Mottaki is viewed as an ally of conservative parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election and is now seen as the key rival of the president in his political battle with the assembly.
Ahmadinejad has delayed signing into law legislation passed by parliament, and held up funds due to be invested in Tehran, all the while insisting it is he who has precedence over the assembly within Iran’s multi-layered political system.
Larijani, a critic of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, has tacitly urged Khamenei to rein him in, to little visible effect.
Prominent lawmakers have warned that they may take legal action against the president, and even impeach him, for his alleged disregard of the constitution. Some MPs accuse him of spending petro-dollars without parliamentary approval.
The president also partly sidelined the traditionally more liberal Foreign Ministry by appointing several regional foreign policy advisers who appeared more influential than the minister.
Khabaronline, a website close to the government, said Mottaki had “harshly criticized the president for setting up a parallel diplomatic apparatus.”
Ahmadinejad appointed Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, as caretaker foreign minister, state television reported. IRNA said Salehi would also keep his nuclear post.
“Salehi was Ahmadinejad’s first choice for the foreign ministry in 2005 ... but Khamenei rejected Salehi,” said a moderate former official, who asked not to be named.
Ahmadinejad is due in Turkey next week ahead of a second round of nuclear talks with major powers in Istanbul in January.
The nuclear dispute is Iran’s biggest foreign policy issue, with the West accusing it of seeking a nuclear weapons capability, a charge the Islamic Republic denies.
U.S.-based Iran analyst Trita Parsi wrote that Salehi’s appointment “may indicate the nuclearization of Iranian foreign policy.”
While this might not indicate Iran’s intention to seriously engage big powers on the nuclear issue, it is, he said “at least a recognition that the parties recognize that they are close to crunch time and they are fielding their best players.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran had made a “good start” in the first round of talks last week and progress should not be affected by the removal of Mottaki.
“It wasn’t more than that but it was a good start to a return to serious negotiations,” she said in Canada.
Mottaki’s replacement may also indicate an attempt by Iran to mend ties with its Arab neighbors, who are also deeply concerned by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear arsenal and Tehran’s support for militant groups across the Middle East.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks say Mottaki had a “heated exchange” with Saudi King Abdullah last year. The cables said the king had exhorted U.S. officials to “cut off the head of the snake,” meaning Iran.
Salehi was born in Kerbala, an Iraqi city holy to Shi’ite Muslims, and grew up speaking Arabic, so his affinity with Arab countries might prove useful in his new role.
The sacking also coincided with a diplomatic spat between Iran and Britain, whose ambassador, Simon Gass, criticized Tehran’s human rights record on his embassy’s website on December9.
Iranian lawmakers demanded the government downgrade relations with Britain for interfering in Iran’s internal affairs, state media reported.
Britain is at odds with Iran over its nuclear program and was accused by Tehran of fomenting street protests that erupted after last year’s disputed presidential election.
“This is the minimum cost that London should pay for confronting the Iranian nation,” said Kazem Jalali, spokesman for parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs committee, denouncing Gass’s “impudent behavior.”
Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari and Hossein Jaseb; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Kevin Liffey