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Ahmadinejad Encroaches On Supreme Leader's Foreign-Policy Turf

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has made a series of new appointments
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has made a series of new appointments
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By Golnaz Esfandiari
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's appointments of special envoys for foreign affairs is seen as a direct challenge to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Decisions on foreign policy issues -- including the contentious issue of Iran's nuclear program -- are traditionally subject to the supreme leader's approval. However, four appointments made by the president in recent weeks suggest that he intends to exert greater influence on Iranian diplomacy, and could be trying to wrest outright control from Khamenei in the sphere of foreign policy.

Special presidential envoys for foreign policy are not without precedent -- President Mohammad Khatami, for example had two such envoys. The difference is that under Khatami, the appointment of envoys was decided by consensus and subject to approval by the president's cabinet, while Ahmadinejad appears to be making appointments unilaterally.

On August 22, Ahmadinejad appointed his highly controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his special envoy to the Middle East. Hamid Baghei, the head of Iran's Cultural Heritage Foundation, was appointed as special envoy for Asia affairs. Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh has been named Iran's envoy on Caspian Affairs. And Abolfazl Zohrevand, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, is now the president's envoy to Afghanistan.

'Weakening Of Iran's Diplomatic Apparatus'

The appointments have been criticized as a blow to Iran's Foreign Ministry and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who believed to owe his appointment to Khamenei and is considered one of the few remaining so-called pragmatists in the Iranian government. On September 7, Mottaki warned against the "weakening of Iran's diplomatic apparatus," while the Foreign Ministry has denied reports that Mottaki was prepared to resign over the situation.

Tehran-based analyst and journalist Hassan Fathi says Ahmadinejad wants to demonstrate that he can act independently from the supreme leader. Fathi adds that Mottaki has the support of Khamenei. "The Foreign Ministry is one of those places -- like the Intelligence Ministry -- that has been always monitored by Khamenei, who has placed loyalists there, including Mottaki," Fathi says. "For example, when Mottaki goes on a mission, he first reports to Khamenei, then to the cabinet."

This is not the first time Ahmadinejad has challenged Khamenei. For example, in 2009 he refused to rescind his appointment of Mashaei to the position of vice president, which Khamenei objected to. Mashaei later resigned himself and Ahmadinejad gave him several other posts, including chief of staff.

Ahmadinejad has also called for a debate with U.S. President Barack Obama, despite Khamenei's criticism of officials who suggest the possibility of negotiations with the United States.

In Washington, Iran analyst Rasool Nafisi says Ahmadinejad is trying to "go over the head" of Khamenei, and to lay the groundwork for "a more free hand" for himself in foreign policy.

Khamenei indirectly blasted Ahmadinejad's decision in an August 30  meeting with the Iranian cabinet, during which he warned against parallel activities in different areas -- including foreign policy. "Another management point [that should be observed] by the cabinet is that duplication in various fields, including in the foreign-policy arena, must be avoided and ministers should be trusted within the framework of their authorities and responsibilities," Khamenei was quoted as saying.

Other figures within the Iranian establishment have also criticized the move -- including the parliament's speaker, Ali Larijani, who questioned the rationale behind it. On September 7, 122 legislators in Iran's 290-seat parliament called Ahmadinejad's move "illegal" and warned against duplication of foreign-policy roles.

Several lawmakers have said Ahmadinejad should remove his envoys and not interfere with the supreme leader's traditional oversight of foreign-policy matters.

The envoys have come under criticism by lawmakers for their lack of diplomatic experience. The most controversial choice is Rahim Mashaei, who has angered hard-liners and the president's allies in the past over actions and comments deemed anti-Islamic, including conciliatory remarks about Israel.

More Upheaval Expected


Ahmadinejad appears to be indifferent to the criticism, and reports emerged this week that he is getting ready to introduce more special envoys.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki
Baghaei was quoted by Iranian official news agencies on September 6 as saying that the Iranian president is set to appoint two more envoys, one for African affairs and another for South America.

Fathi says he's not surprised, as Ahmadinejad "has demonstrated that he's not into making compromises, he's stubborn, obstinate, and persistent. I don't think he's going to back off or cooperate with other bodies in this regard."

Nafisi, who believes "Ahmadinejad's persistence" has been a trademark of his presidency, says the Iranian president appears to be weighing his options. "He only retracts if he feels that he cannot go any farther, like in the case of allowing women into soccer stadiums," he says. "When he saw the tremendous [backlash], he couldn't go forward anymore. He retreated."

Looking at the bigger picture, Nafisi says the combative Ahmadinejad is trying to distance himself from the clerical establishment and from Khameni, and to push for a new style of presidency with an eye to Iran's future presidential vote. There is increasing speculation that Ahmadinejad could try to retain power by supporting the candidacy of one of his closest aides; namely, Mashaei.

Meanwhile, observers predict that Iran is positioned to face more domestic and international tensions in the near future.

Only days following his appointment as Ahmadinejad's envoy to Asia, Baghaei created a diplomatic uproar when he said that that mass killings and deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire constituted "genocide." Turkey demanded a high-level explanation from Tehran and Mottaki reportedly told his Turkish counterpart that Iran's position was in line with Turkey's.

Nafisi believes there could be more such diplomatic rows in the future. "It seems to be that this group of Ahmadinejad and his clique would be even more crisis-prone. Even, say, Mottaki and Velayati [Khamenei's adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati] and others who are closer to the office of Ayatollah Khamenei."
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by: Majid from: Mashad
September 09, 2010 02:42
I have never read a more primitive analysis of Iranian poliics. Please read up on Velayate Faqih and the concept of leadership in Islam before making such stupid sensationalist "news."
In Response

by: Amuzegar from: London
September 09, 2010 18:35
This is not the only one, most articles published about Iran by Radio Free Europe are the same - a simple minded view of events in Iran. If you want to see more, look at Persian Letters written on this website - compiled by one person with the responsibility of sifting the Iranian media and blogs to find something that is anathema to Western readers and feeds hatred of the Islamic regime and by default Iran. You will not find a positive report in Persian Letters. The funny thing is, bloggers viewpoints or reports, without verification, are just translated and posted on this web site.

by: Anonymous
September 09, 2010 14:08
Ahmadinejad has to be careful, he was elected or rather selected solely because of the support of Khamenei.

by: Brian from: Toronto
September 09, 2010 15:29
Agree Majid, this is a very simple minded view of Iran. I lived there for 2 years and I came to realize that it has a very sophisticated political system, much sophisticated then we in the West assume.

by: A.J from: Maryland
September 09, 2010 18:25
this article actually demonstrates how complicated the political scene is in Iran. There is a Foreign Ministry, there are foreign envoys and there is the supreme leader who decides about everything and who has his own envoys, then there is Ahmadinezhad who is attempting to co-opt extant structures of the Iranian government for his own benefit.

by: Ahmed from: Europe
September 09, 2010 19:52
Majid and Brian, if you are such an "expert" on Iranian politics. Please, enlighten the rest of us and explain the complex system of Iranian politics that our western minds are to feeble to understand.

I see complaints in the comment section all the time on Iranian articles saying that they are bad articles because they fail to capture whats going on. So, please explain it to the rest of us... I really want to know.

by: Anonymous
September 10, 2010 00:45
The fight within the Iranian establishment is interesting to watch.

by: Brian from: Toronto
September 10, 2010 23:02
Well, Ahmed, from Europe or should I said from the "ghettos" of North Tehran. Based on your emotional outbursts your approach to Iran is irrational.

We in the west have hard time realizing that Muslims actually do want to live in an Islamic society, because for us religion is dead. So we think that all systems which do not negate GOD are barbaric. The reality is different. Islamic system in Iran does not provide same "freedoms" and rights like we have in the West, but why should it? Its a different system and society. Political culture in Iran is based on principles and morals, we are used to having a system based on corporate and elite interests, so we do not understand the Islamic system in Iran or elsewhere, that's why our governments support Hosni Mubarak and his likes.

Iranian political system is more judicial then executive. To assume that the Supreme Leader can be sidelined by Ahmedinejad is ridiculous. Ahmedinejad is a staunch supporter of the concept of Islamic rule.

But for Ahmed and his likes my arguments will never make sense because they worship New York city and they want a freedaaammm to drink and go clubbing. That's their definition of "freedom".

by: Ali from: Bethesda
September 12, 2010 14:09
Radio Liberty must be proud of its reporting on Iran because it is clearly upsetting regime agents so keep up the good work. One question for Amuzegar, when was the last time a 'positive' report came our of Iran?! Stoning, killing or young people, torture, ... these are news coming out of Iran. Open our eyes. Have you read Abdollah Momeni's letter?
In Response

by: Amuzegar from: London
September 16, 2010 21:25
I read Momeni's letter and I even wrtoe about it. I am afraid I cannot help you if can't see the wood for the trees. I see the glass half full and not half empty. My eyes are fully open.

by: Brian from: Toronto
September 12, 2010 16:47
" because it is clearly upsetting regime" It seems that this is the only objective of the Western media, to upset the regime, instead of reporting the reality.

by: Hooman from: Tehran
September 18, 2010 09:43
Brian -
Point one: please stop the personal attacks. Also, there are many readers here who have spent considerably more time in Iran than two years, so a little modesty in your assertions would be in order.
Point two: arguing that Iranians' Muslim identity makes them disinterested in values such as government accountability, rule of law, or freedom of belief and speech, is an infinitely cruder simplification than any of those you criticize.
Point three: the author's main line is simply that Ahmadinejad is jostling for increased power within the system (a system which, of course is dominated by Khamenei). That's more or less what is obviously taking place. I agree that it would be an exaggeration to conclude that Ahmadinejad is trying to "sideline" Khamenei. But this analysis only appears in this article as a quote from one of the interviewed academics, so why attack the author for it in such a disrespectful way?
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