Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always wanted to run foreign policy. Now he has the minister in his sights.
Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York this week, attending the United Nations General Assembly alongside his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. They should be presenting a united front to the world, but diplomats at the meeting should not be too surprised if they see differences emerge between the two men, who are locked in a bitter dispute at home.
The latest bout of infighting in Iran's ruling establishment began in mid-August when President Ahmadinejad appointed four special envoys to cover the Middle East, Asia, the Caspian Sea region and Afghanistan.
The most prominent of the appointeees was undoubtedly Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a friend and relative of Ahmadinejad by marriage, who was placed in charge of Middle Eastern affairs. Mashaei is seen by many as the unofficial number two figure in the Iranian executive after the president.
The appointment of presidential envoys to oversee key areas of foreign policy was an unprecedented step, and was seized on by angry foreign ministry officials and parliamentarians who accused Ahmadinejad of trying to bypass the ministry by creating a parallel structure.
Foreign Minister Mottaki complained directly to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains oversight over Iranian foreign policy.
In unusually strong remarks, Khamenei made his support for Mottaki plain. At an August 30 meeting with Ahmadinejad, he underlined that the foreign ministry must be "responsible for cohesive and planned management of all foreign policy matters and of relations with other countries". It was essential to trust ministers, he added.
Despite what came close to a reprimand, Ahmadinejad appeared unrepentant.
Immediately after Khamenei came out in support of Mottaki, reports appeared in pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers and websites that the foreign minister had been dismissed. This was swiftly denied by a ministry spokesman.
In an editorial, the president's media advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr said the reason why special envoys had to be appointed was that the foreign ministry, despite its size, had become passive and inert.
Things heated up when Mottaki reprimanded another of the special envoys, Hamid Baghayi, who is in charge of Asian affairs. Turkey's foreign minister asked Tehran for an explanation of remarks that Baghayi had made referring explicitly to the 1915 "Armenian genocide" in Ottoman Turkey. This is a highly sensitive topic on which Tehran's policy is to stay neutral, and silent.
Mottaki urged presidential staff to "refrain from making inexperienced remarks which come at a cost to Iranian foreign policy".
He also reminded them of the Supreme Leader's comments, which he said must be regarded as the "final word" on all matters.
The Iranian parliament waded into the dispute, with 122 of the 290 members writing to Ahmadinejad on September 7 to tell him to "follow the orders of the Supreme Leader to the full" and to "refrain from pursuing parallel foreign policy activities and appointing special envoys".
At this point, Ahmadinejad executed a retreat - but only a tactical one - by changing the title of "special envoy" to "advisor" to suggest a lesser role for them. At the same time, however, he appointed two more, one to cover Africa and the other South America.
Most analysts believe the name-change is mere sleight of hand and that Ahmadinejad remains determined to use his advisors to pursue his aim of gaining more control over foreign policy.
Under the constitution, Iran's president has formal oversight over the foreign ministry. But foreign policy has always been the domain of the Supreme Leader, whose recommendations play a key part when foreign ministers are appointed. In turn, foreign ministers follow his instructions.
The Supreme Leader's office is also sensitive about appointments of ambassadors to important countries, for example Iraq.
Since coming to power in 1995, Ahmadinejad has constantly sought to expand his own authority in the foreign policy arena. One early example of this was the differences that emerged between him and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.
When Larijani stepped down in 2007 because of the increasingly difficult relationship with Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei chose to side with the president. He selected Saeed Jalili as the new nuclear talks chief - a man who, conveniently, he approved of and was also a close friend of Ahmadinejad.
Insiders say frictions between Ahmadinejad and Mottaki personally have been building for some time. Take the case of Abolfazl Zohrevand, now the president's special envoy, or rather advisor, on Afghanistan. When Ahmadinejad attended an international meeting in Rome in 2008, the resident ambassador there, Zohrevand, made a sensational announcement - the president had been the target of an assassination attack involving high-intensity radiation. Mottaki swiftly recalled the diplomat.
Differences surfaced this July at a meeting of Iranian expatriates hosted by Tehran. Ahmadinejad undercut the foreign ministry, which had traditionally looked after relations with expats, by putting his ally Mashai in charge. Tensions spilled out as soon as the event got under way, and guests looked on as foreign ministry and presidential staff quarrelled. On day two, the foreign ministry staffers walked out, to be replaced by a fresh contingent from the presidential office.
Mottaki still enjoys the support of Ayatollah Khamenei. But the president seems unabashed. Insider sources say that when Mottaki recently told a meeting of senior officials about Iran's failure to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency to call off periodic inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, Ahmadinejad berated him in hectoring tones.
The president has also used the recent defection of two Iranian diplomats as a stick with which to beat Mottaki. He suggested it was the minister's incompetent management that allowed the two to declare allegiance to the opposition Green Movement and seek political asylum in Europe.
Ghodratollah Alikhani, who sits on the parliamentary committee for national security, believes Ahmadinejad "is doing all this so that the foreign minister gets fed up with it and finally resigns".
The pressure on Mottaki is mounting, and in political circles, names of possible replacements are already being tossed around.
Much now depends on how far the Supreme Leader is willing to go to back the foreign minister - and of course also on how thick-skinned Mottaki is in resisting the pressure to go.
Mehdi Jedinia is an Iranian journalist in Washington. He was formerly editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Tehran Times.
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