Replace the 'Icy' Motakki with the 'Fiery' Salehi!

12/15/2010 05:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last September, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed four of his closest aides as his special envoys in key areas like Afghanistan, Caspian Sea, Middle East and Latin America, Manouchehr Motakki -- at that time the country's foreign minister -- openly expressed his disapproval of the decision and complained directly to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei took Motakki's side, and said parallel foreign policy work must be avoided. This comment was enough to show president Ahmadinejad that he had no choice but to rescind the appointments.

From the day Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office back in 2005, it was clear for all politicians in Iran that Motakki was one of the government's least wanted cabinet members. Motakki's presence as a minister was a choice made by Ayatollah Khamenei that was forced onto Ahmadinejad from the beginning of his first presidency. Even Ahmadinejad's attempt to get rid of Motakki during his second term in office didn't succeed because conservative members of parliament threatened to block any of the Iranian president's other choices for his cabinet if Motakki did not remain in the foreign ministry.

Motakki was discharged by Ahmadinejad on Monday while he was on an official trip to Senegal. The president's sudden decision to fire his foreign minister of more than five years surprised many members of parliament and perhaps even Ayatollah Khamenei. It remains unclear what led the president to fire Motakki before his return to Iran. Perhaps Ahmadinejad thought having Motakki in Iran and consulting the parliament before discharging the foreign minister would allow the supreme leader an opportunity to step in and again save Motakki, who was the last member of government affiliated with conservatives close to Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran's speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, who is Ahmadinejad's biggest rival and strongest opponent in the parliament.

Ahmadinejad's decision to replace the 'icy' Motakki with the 'fiery' head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, sends the message to other nations that nuclear diplomacy is the priority in Iran's foreign policy. Salehi, who is close to Ahmadinejad, will take charge of the foreign ministry until the president officially nominates him as the next foreign minister and asks parliament for a vote of confidence. By the time this happens, we should see more diplomatic activity on the part of Iran and more intense negotiations with western countries ( 5+1) over Iran's nuclear program. Motakki was consistently accused of diplomatic failure, with his performance at the United Nations widely viewed as being weak since he was unable to prevent the imposition of four rounds of sanctions against Iran by the UN Security Council. In the past few years, some lawmakers close to the president and to reformists pushed Ahmadinejad to dismiss Motakki, arguing that Motakki failed to adequately defend Iran at international organizations such as the United Nations.

The accusations worsened last month after Nigeria discovered a ship full of illegal weaponry at one of its ports. Motakki was sent to Nigeria to resolve the issue, and claimed upon his return to Iran that the situation was not very important and had been settled with his Nigerian counterpart. But the case was not settled and Nigeria reported the illegal shipment to the UN Security Council.

The last golden opportunity to slip through Motakki's hands was the Manama security conference in Bahrain from December 3 through December 5. The security conference, which took place just days after the WikiLeaks disclosure of documents showing Arab leaders' unhappiness about Iran's nuclear program, was an opportunity for Motakki to build trust and restore the confidence of Arab countries in the Islamic Republic. But in this he failed as well, according to various Arab media reports from Manama. Motakki's diplomacy in Bahrain was neither active enough nor intense enough to adequately reassure anxious Arab leaders that Iran is not a threat to them. There is no doubt that Motakki's counterpart, Arab leaders and the Iranian president were disappointed by his performance in Manama.

At a time when sanctions are literally taking Iran's breath away, it is crucial for Ahmadinejad to have Arab nations be on Iran's side, or at the very least not be an enemy of the Islamic Republic. Motakki failed to achieve this goal.

Appointing a new face, such as Ali Akbar Salehi, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to represent Iran's foreign ministry may ultimately prevent another round of sanctions against Iran.

"In the wake of the Geneva talks, we and our allies are determined to maintain and even increase pressure," Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's nuclear chief advisor said Friday. "We need to send the message to Iran that sanctions will only increase if Iran avoids serious negotiations and will not be lifted until our concerns are fully addressed," he said.

By dismissing Motakki, Ahmadinejad may be sending his own message: installing a figure more loyal to the Iranian president will help clinch a deal with the six powers.

This article has been syndicated from the Egyptian Gazette news paper.