Manouchehr Mottaki, left, appears with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad… (Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA )
Reporting from Tehran and Kabul, Afghanistan — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday announced the firing of Iran's foreign minister as the longtime diplomat was abroad on assignment, pro-government news agencies reported.
Manouchehr Mottaki, an English-speaking career diplomat and relative moderate who has served as foreign minister since 2005, has long bristled at Ahmadinejad's abrasive style. He will be replaced by Ali Akbar Salehi, an American-educated former diplomat who has been serving as chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran as well as being a vice president in Ahmadinejad's Cabinet, state television reported.
Officials disclosed no reason for the ouster of Mottaki, who was in Senegal at the time, and the Foreign Ministry's website did not announce his replacement. It was unclear whether supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter of Iran's foreign and national security policies, signed off on the dismissal. But Michel Potocki, author of a book on Iran's constitution, said, "I very much doubt that Mottaki could have been dismissed without the leader's approval."
Iran is confronting the United States and other major powers over its nuclear ambitions, the subject of planned international talks in Istanbul, Turkey, next month. Mottaki's removal set off a flurry of speculation about what it means.
One Iranian website said the manner of his dismissal would only benefit Iran's foreign rivals. Ghodratollah Alikhani, a reformist member of parliament, said firing Mottaki while he was abroad was the "worst manner" of conduct, according to the website Fararu.
Members of parliament, who must ratify Cabinet appointments, said they were surprised by the move. Parliament could create difficulties before approving a new appointee, though Salehi may be viewed as above reproach.
Iran watchers were generally perplexed at what the dismissal means for those seeking to curb the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
"We trust that the talks that have just begun in Geneva will continue and that different political lineups will not lead to an interruption or a hesitation at those talks," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Brussels, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Germany is a participant in the talks.
Some said the replacement meant little. "Mottaki was a kind of gray-colored civil servant," said Francois Nicoullaud, a retired diplomat who served as France's ambassador to Tehran from 2001 to 2005. "I doubt that his absence will be noticed."
Others speculated that the rising importance of the nuclear issue made Salehi a better choice at the helm of the Foreign Ministry and Mottaki irrelevant. "As the nuclear issue is tied to foreign policy and overshadowing everything else in foreign affairs, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi is becoming a superstar," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a journalist and political analyst in Tehran.
"Salehi is a high-level nuclear scientist, but also an excellent and sophisticated diplomat," said Nicoullaud, in an e-mail exchange. "He is also, basically, a moderate and a pragmatist, who has quietly tempered all the bizarre initiatives of Ahmadinejad touching upon the Iranian nuclear program."
Within the Islamic Republic's fragmented and competitive political elite, Mottaki was often shoved aside. The foreign minister threatened to quit this year when Ahmadinejad appointed special foreign policy envoys in a move that appeared designed to further bypass him.
Foreign counterparts have called the envoys a disaster. One, Hamid Baghaei, nearly destroyed Tehran's warming relations with Turkey by referring to the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, which the Turks describe as unfortunate intercommunal violence.
Western diplomats have long struggled to discern whether Mottaki or any of the other Iranian dignitaries circling the globe spoke for themselves, their faction, Ahmadinejad's government or Khamenei, the supreme leader.
"Generally speaking, barely 20% of foreign policy is decided by Foreign Ministry apparatus," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran political scientist and frequent commentator. The rest, he said, is determined by Khamenei and numerous other players.
Foreign Ministry officials complained to counterparts abroad that Ahmadinejad defied their requests to avoid giving incendiary speeches at international forums and pursuing foreign policy adventures abroad. Mottaki recently struggled unsuccessfully to cool tempers after Nigeria accused Iranians, including two suspected members of the Revolutionary Guard, of gunrunning.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Kabul.