One of the problems the outside world encounters when dealing with Iran is the air of mystery that surrounds the Iranian decision-making process. Who holds the keys to what? Which door should we knock on, in order to reach results or hold fruitful dialogue? On many occasions, negotiators have dealt with the President of Iran – whether current or former – only to later discover that the true key to any major decision lay with the Supreme Leader of Iran, or his inner circle, who act on his blessings.
Changes in leadership positions, or the keys to power, have always been a mystery in Iran. These reflect the conflict between the different wings of the decision-makers, but without making clear which way the wind is blowing. At first, a change might indicate that there is a growing orientation within Iran towards adopting an open-door policy. However, the outside world would soon be surprised to find out that the wind is blowing in a different direction, towards even stricter and more hard-line attitudes.
In this context, the sacking of former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his replacement by Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi will remain open to speculation and analysis, in anticipation of certain changes [in Iran’s ideological direction], if these change indeed occur.
In Mottaki’s case, indicators suggest that the manner in which he was sacked was deliberately meant to discredit him. The decree was issued whilst the former Foreign Minister was on an official mission, delivering an official message from President Ahmadinejad to Senegal. In other words, Mottaki became a “non-official” in the middle of an official visit. According to reports and analysis, Mottaki was not close to President Ahmadinejad, although he was closer to the conservative circle than the reformist circle that has been critical of the president. In turn, President Ahmadinejad is also in the middle of a power struggle with the Iranian parliament and its speaker, Ali Larijani.
Does this mean that Iran’s foreign policy [following Mottaki’s departure], which has been denounced by opposition leader [Mir Hossein] Moussavi as being provocative to Iran’s neighbours, will now be less severe? It doesn’t appear so. Iran’s acting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is also the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. This indicates that top priority will go to Iran’s nuclear file, which is the cause for the confrontation between Tehran and the Western powers, as well as the reason behind the tension that is hanging over the region, due to the lack of clarity and transparency on this issue. If Ahmadinejad has taken another step toward strengthening his authority by eliminating Mottaki, then we must assume he is seeking a specialist in political rhetoric and hard-line positions [to replace him], although nothing can be ruled out.
If in the absence of accurate information Iran’s internal changes [in government posts] and the motivations behind these remains the subject of speculation, then there are general guidelines that cannot be overlooked. Firstly, the nuclear issue may be a point of consensus amongst the political powers in Iran – both the government and the opposition – at least with regards to their public statements; however the most pressing concern with respect to Iran’s domestic politics is the economy, particularly with the effects of the international sanctions upon trade and investment. Signs of public unease became apparent when Bazaar merchants staged strikes; these same merchants were the backbone of the Khomeini Islamic Revolution that took place over 3 decades ago. Ahmadinejad’s domestic economic policies remain the main arena of conflict between the parliament and the president.
The nuclear issue could be a tool used by the Iranian leaders to stir the public sense of patriotism, but the major test of rule and preserving order is a regime’s ability to fulfil the aspirations of the people and prevent the economy from deteriorating. Previous experiences are a testament to this fact. The former Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated [as a result of this], despite being a nuclear superpower in possession of a tremendous stockpile of nuclear weaponry.