x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tehran staggers and Mottaki falls

Manouchehr Mottaki never was a central player in Iran's nuclear negotiations.

It mattered little that in his last major appearance as the foreign minister of Iran, Manouchehr Mottaki dutifully delivered a textbook defence of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and nuclear programme to a largely sceptical audience at the Manama Dialogue two weeks ago. On Monday, his boss, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, decided he had to go.

Predictably, the Iranian president’s allies have justified the move by the lacklustre performance of the comparatively bland Mr Mottaki. In reality, the reasons for this unsurprising, if brutal and arguably discourteous dismissal – Mr Mottaki was in far away Senegal when the news was delivered to him – have more to do with the struggle for power between conservative cliques in Tehran than his effectiveness as foreign minister.

To be sure, Mr Mottaki did not have an easy ride as his country’s top diplomat. For a start, the foreign ministry has become a marginal player in Iran’s security and foreign policy decision-making. Many of its talented and urbane diplomats have been sidelined for suspected sympathies with the reformist wing. It organised a controversial conference on the Holocaust that drew international opprobrium. It has been kept in the dark by the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guard and other players who run security policy in regards to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and the Levant. Mr Mottaki also paled in comparison with his sophisticated predecessors, Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, who had direct access to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

And while Mr Velayati and Mr Kharazi were in sync with the presidents they served, Mr Mottaki was never Mr Ahmadinejad’s choice for the post. In the 2005 presidential elections he was a top adviser to Ali Larijani, the scion of Iran’s most powerful political family and the leader of a conservative faction. At the insistence of Mr Khamenei, keen then to unify the various conservative groups, Mr Larijani became the secretary general of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council – and Mr Mottaki got the less important foreign affairs portfolio.

That arrangement did not last long as Mr Larijani and Mr Ahmadinejad’s strong personalities clashed over the nuclear negotiations. The former left his job in October 2007 but quickly rebounded when he was appointed speaker of Parliament. Even then, Mr Ahmadinejad spared his foreign minister no embarrassment: he appointed special envoys that reported directly to him and circumvented the foreign ministry. One of these envoys is the controversial Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, Mr Ahmadinejad’s relative, closest confidante and purported choice as presidential successor.

To add to Mr Mottaki’s troubles, he never was a central player in the nuclear negotiations, as demonstrated by his absence at the inconclusive Geneva talks earlier this month. That was the purview of Mr Larijani and later of his replacement, Saeed Jalili. His relations with the latter, an Ahmadinejad ally, were execrable. Instead, he became confined to selling the country’s position, engaging in damage control and lobbying small nations on relatively peripheral issues: getting Iran a seat on a UN women’s rights panel, blocking a UN resolution condemning Iran’s human rights violations, and containing the fallout of an embarrassing episode of arms smuggling by IRGC elements to Nigeria.

Mr Mottaki, his detractors now say, has not advanced Iran’s interests abroad, most notably failing to prevent the adoption of UN sanctions against his country. This accusation of diplomatic timidity may be true, but it smacks of scapegoating: no amount of lobbying could help Iran in recent years. It also may be the case that Mr Mottaki had become so inconsequential that Mr Khamenei consented to his dismissal.

Mr Mottaki’s replacement is Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation and a vice president to Mr Ahmadinejad. Mr Salehi’s profile has risen in recent years. The MIT-trained nuclear scientist, whose diplomatic credentials include a stint as his country’s representative to the UN nuclear watchdog, was a key player when Turkey and Brazil brokered the Tehran declaration in May.

Interestingly, he was named in a recent UN Security Council Resolution sanctioning Iran for its illegal nuclear procurement, and he has even been hit with a travel ban. Already there is chatter that Mr Salehi, as one of the architects of Iran’s nuclear programme, will have the authority and legitimacy to reach a nuclear compromise – or the very opposite.

There is a broader context to the Mottaki episode: Mr Ahmadinejad is trying to increase the powers of the presidency to the detriment of those of Parliament. He has imposed the lifting of subsidies over the objection of many parliamentarians, and plans to introduce direct patronage that would reward his base. These manoeuvres may be a prelude for the next presidential elections scheduled for 2013, and Mr Mottaki’s dismissal evidence that Mr Ahmadinejad has momentarily gained the upper hand in this arms wrestling.

Factionalism of this type, maddeningly difficult to navigate for outsiders, has been a staple of revolutionary Iranian politics. It is undeniably a complicating factor when it comes to foreign policy. In late 2009, Mr Jalili, with the backing of Mr Ahmadinejad, agreed to a scheme to transfer low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor. The Obama administration hoped this arrangement would create needed confidence for future nuclear talks. Though billed as a pragmatic figure, Mr Larijani opposed the deal to deny the president a political victory (the Green movement did the same) and got Mr Khamenei’s backing. Mr Mottaki was tasked with spinning Iran’s reversal even as it angered Russia and China.

There is an important irony in this political drama: even as the Iranian regime consolidates its authority by repressing internal dissent and squashing the Green movement, the regime is fracturing from within. Though not irremediable in the short term, these disputes show that political dysfunction in Tehran is more to blame than western rigidity.

Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the former political editor of The National