Iran's New Minister of Foreign Affairs
December 14, 2010
The firing of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran should not be much of a surprise. There were indications of policy differences between the foreign minister and the president. Mottaki recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s appointment of several special envoys on critical issues who were authorized to bypass the Foreign Ministry’s decisionmaking process. Also, there were clear indications that Ahmadinejad was dissatisfied with the minister’s performance. Mottaki failed to limit the scope of foreign sanctions on Iran, and Iran’s “look east” strategy, especially with regard to India and the so-called peace pipeline, had seen limited success. It was also hoped that Mottaki, who was educated in India and had close personal ties to Indian officials, would be more successful in preventing the U.S.-orchestrated freeze on Iran’s relationship with India.
The choice of Ali Akbar Salehi is a smart move by Ahmadinejad. Iran’s overall foreign policy is increasingly dominated by the nuclear issue; Salehi is the perfect candidate. As a nuclear specialist familiar with all aspects of the nuclear issue, and having served in numerous domestic and international posts relating to the nuclear field, he can direct Iran’s current nuclear diplomacy effectively. With a Ph.D. from MIT, he is more aware of the complexities of relations with the United States and will be perceived as knowledgeable by the Obama administration. In Washington, D.C., and other international arenas, Salehi can speak with more knowledge and authority than the now removed Mottaki. This at a time when hawks appear to be having more influence on U.S. policy toward Iran, while at the same time there appear to be some signs of compromise in Iran’s favor among the other members of the P5+1. As a graduate of the American University of Beirut, Salehi also will be more persuasive with Arab neighbors who are concerned about Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear intentions.
In the days before the January meeting scheduled in Istanbul, Salehi, no doubt, will carefully review Iran’s position, consolidate and improve as much as possible its diplomatic efforts, and shore up Iran’s global and regional support. As Ahmadinejad’s chosen person, it will be done with the president’s full support and with much less dissent. This centralization of nuclear policy under Ahmadinejad will provide the president with a strong hand to direct nuclear diplomacy with a knowledgeable, culturally aware, and competent foreign minister. This will likely minimize the internal squabbles on Iran’s nuclear policy and bring a degree of harmony to Iran’s internal posture toward nuclear negotiations.
The Iranian regime may also hope that Salehi’s sudden designation will encourage President Obama and his administration to lean toward a more flexible response. A new, knowledgeable foreign minister with the full backing of Ahmadinejad can speak with greater authority and may bring about a more attractive outcome in negotiations. The subtle comments from the Iranian government that Salehi’s appointment may be temporary is also a clever indication that if the P5+1 in general, and the United States in particular, do not take advantage of Salehi’s term as foreign minister, Iran may well replace him with a more hawkish figure, such as its chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. If that were to happen, then once again the P5+1 would be faced with a more militant Iranian foreign policy posture.
Though Iran has stated that the appointment of the new foreign minister does not change its nuclear policy, its actions indicate otherwise. Consider the dramatic manner in which Mottaki was relieved of his post while on an official mission in Africa. This is not insignificant. How Iran and the United States adjust to this change in leadership in Iran’s foreign policy circles will be indicative of their seriousness of intent going forward. Perhaps now they can achieve some positive movement in the nuclear negotiation impasse. All eyes are focused now more than ever on negotiations in Istanbul.
Fariborz Ghadar is a distinguished senior scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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