The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked his long-serving foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki yesterday and named the country's nuclear chief as acting top diplomat.
Mr Mottaki was in Senegal on a tour of African nations when he was told that he had been fired.
The sudden move highlighted a bitter power struggle at the heart of the Iranian regime but analysts said it did not signal a shift in Iran's nuclear or foreign policy and is unlikely to affect Tehran's tentative renewed talks with world powers over its atomic programme.
Mr Mottaki, a career diplomat, is close to the president's main rival, the conservative parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani. He led Mr Larijani's unsuccessful election campaign against the president in 2005.
His replacement is Ali Akbar Salehi, a nuclear scientist who is also one of Iran's vice presidents.
He was born in Kerbala, the Iraqi city holy to Shi'ite Muslims, and speaks fluent Arabic and English, which he perfected as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"He is a technical person with no foreign policy experience," a senior analyst in Tehran said.
“Many in the foreign ministry may find this humiliating and proof that the president trusts no one among them.”
There was speculation that Mr Ahmadinejad wanted a more trusted ally in place before Iran resumes high-stakes talks on its nuclear programme in Geneva with major world powers at the end of January. He insists Iran will never buckle to international demands to halt its enrichment of uranium, the key to Tehran’s nuclear programme.
In a terse announcement on his website, Mr Ahmadinejad thanked Mr Mottaki for more than five years of service – but gave no explanation for firing him.
“I hope … you will be successful in the rest of your life at the service of the people and our Islamic nation,” he said.
The Iranian president appeared to be using Mr Mottaki as a scapegoat for punitive United Nations Security Council resolutions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme. A fourth round of sanctions was imposed in June in response to Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can be used both for making fuel for reactors and for atomic weapons.
Tehran insists its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful and rejects western accusations that its atomic programme is aimed at weapons development.
Mr Mottaki, who is fluent in English, Urdu and Turkish, had been foreign minister since Mr Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005.
The president still needs parliamentary approval for the ministerial change, which could be a problem. Mr Ahmadinejad has alienated many fellow conservatives in parliament by riding roughshod over the institution’s wishes and declaring that the presidency is Iran’s main power centre after the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr Ahmadinejad also infuriated Iran’s foreign ministry this year by appointing his own special envoys to conduct overseas policy in key regions such as the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea area. The move – publicly opposed by Mr Mottaki -- was resented by many conservatives as yet another attempt by the president to monopolise power.
A prominent conservative MP, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said he was stunned to hear of Mr Mottaki’s sacking, insisting that parliament had been given no advance warning.
Another conservative MP, Mahmoud Ahmadi Biqash, said: “It’s unpleasant that he is fired in the middle of a foreign assignment. The president should have waited for Mottaki to return home first before naming a replacement.”
* The National