Is Iran's acting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi going to be around for more than a drink of water?
Ali Akbar Salehi is said to have fond memories of the United States -- a legacy of five years spent studying for a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He has also been described by one British former acquaintance
-- recalling the man he knew as Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic
Energy Agency in Vienna -- as "open-minded," "a modernizer, not a conservative,"
and "a scientist, not an Islamist."
All of which must have made Salehi appear a rather strange bedfellow of Iran's famously fiery president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, as the pair arrived in Istanbul together on December 22 for a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization, which groups Iran with Turkey, Pakistan, and Central Asian states.
It's Salehi's first official trip abroad since Ahmadinejad appointed him acting foreign minister on December 13 following the unceremonious dismissal of Manuchehr Mottaki.
With Mottaki's sudden removal still unexplained -- although he and the president were known to have long been at odds -- the focus has shifted to Salehi's suitability and whether Ahmadinejad sees him as a permanent replacement.
As the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and figurehead of its disputed nuclear program, the 61-year-old's appointment is seen by observers like Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, as heralding the "nuclearization" of the Islamic republic's foreign policy.
Salehi -- a 'good diplomat' Khamanei can trust?
The possibility also remains that the technocratic Salehi's
tenure will be temporary and that Ahmadinejad will clamor for a more ideological
permanent appointee. Under Iranian law, interim appointments can only stay in
office for three months before being forwarded to parliament for approval.
Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees Salehi's appointment -- and Mottaki's removal -- as part of a wider power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for dominance over foreign policy. In the tussle for control, Khamenei may have imposed Salehi on Ahmadinejad after the president surprised him by firing Mottaki.
In such circumstances, Khalaji believes, there is little prospect of harmony between Ahmadinejad and his new foreign minister. "What I know is that Ahmadinejad doesn't like Salehi much because Salehi is close to Khamenei" as well as to parliament speaker and key Ahmadinejad rival Ali Larijani, Khalaji says.
"Ahmadinejad hates a foreign minister who reports directly to the supreme leader rather than to him and this is what made him angry with Mottaki. Especially in the last two years, Mottaki's relationship with Khamenei was very close. He was reporting to Khamenei directly and that drives Ahmadinejad crazy," Khalaji adds. "Ahmadinejad is so possessive, he is a control freak and he wants everyone around him to work totally under his control."
The result may be a prolonged bargaining session between Khamenei and his protege in which Ahmadinejad tries to persuade the cleric to allow him to have own man.
A Good Diplomat
The problem is that while Khamenei may see Ahmadinejad's sidekicks -- such as Said Jalili, the hard-line chief of the Supreme National Security Council -- as ideological kindred spirits, he feels they are unqualified to run the Islamic republic's diplomacy.
"Khamenei believes people around Ahmadinejad are good people but he does not trust them in terms of being good diplomats," Khalaji says. While Khamenei might consider people around former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to be good diplomats, "he cannot trust them because they are not faithful to his agenda."
According to Khalaji, this was a "paradox for Khamenei for a long time. Good diplomats are not faithful to Khamenei's agenda. People who are faithful to Khamenei's agenda are not good diplomats and that's why Salehi is a good choice. Because, according to Khamenei, he is a good diplomat."
Salehi "knows the language of Westerners, he knows the diplomatic language and literature very well. At the same time, he looks faithful to Khamenei's agenda -- and it's very rare."
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