Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has signaled a possible hardening of the country's foreign policy and a strengthening of his own position by firing his foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, with whom he was known to have an uneasy relationship.
He appointed the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, who has spearheaded the country's disputed nuclear program, as a temporary replacement, naming him as "caretaker of the Foreign Ministry."
Mottaki's sacking followed years of tense if correct relations with the president but was nonetheless unexpected.
In a statement published by the state news agency, IRNA, Ahmadeinejad gave no reasons.
"I thank you and appreciate the work and the services you have rendered during your tenure in the Foreign Ministry," the statement said. "I hope your efforts receive praise by God and you will be successful in the rest of your life at the service of people of our Islamic nation."
However, the magnanimous words appeared to mask disagreements between the two men that observers believe had intensified recently.
'Strained For A Long Time'
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company in Israel, says Mottaki was upset by Ahmadinejad's recent appointment of four personal foreign-affairs emissaries. He was also left isolated by Nigeria's seizure in November of weapons that were believed to have been shipped from Iran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
"They've had a very strained relationship for a long time. There were two issues recently which added to the strain. One of them was Ahmadinejad appointing his own foreign emissaries -- that one did not go down well and Mottaki brought [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei" -- who has the last word on all state affairs -- "into the matter and Khamenei then issued a directive saying you shouldn't do parallel work and Ahmadinejad made them advisers rather than emissaries," Javedanfar says.
"The other incident is the Nigerian arms smuggling. Mottaki wanted the IRGC to answer questions but they did not cooperate. That left him high and dry. That definitely added to the tensions."
Javedanfar suggests Ahmadinejad "wants the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) force and the IRGC to be able to operate under the protection of Iran's Foreign Ministry."
It is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has asserted his strength over foreign policy against relatively pragmatic figures as he has sought to establish a more radical line.
In 2007, he effectively fired the National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and replaced him with a close ally, Said Jalili.
There was speculation then that Mottaki, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey, might also be forced out. But he survived despite having known links with Larijani, apparently because Khamenei opposed his removal.
Javedanfar says the sacking could not have occurred without Khamenei's agreement.
"This has happened today because Khamenei allowed it to happen," Javedanfar says. "The foreign minister, defense minister, [and] the minister of intelligence are usually basically appointed by the supreme leader and the Majlis [parliament] and the president just agree to it. What this shows more than anything else is that Khamenei has agreed."
He speculates that there could be a number or reasons for Khamenei's stance.
"One of them is because he was worried about the infighting between the two [Ahmadinejad and Mottaki] and the consequences that it could have," Javedanfar says. "And the other is that perhaps he is allowing Ahmadinejad to come up with his own cabinet in order to prepare for tough times ahead, which means probably stronger sanctions and a more strained relationship with the West and having a president and a foreign minister who disagree so strongly doesn't help Iran's stance."
Mottaki's permanent replacement will have to win parliamentary approval.
Despite Salehi's appointment on a caretaker basis, there will be speculation that Ahmadinejad will opt for a more hard-line and divisive figure, such as his close adviser, Mojteba Samareh Hashemi, who is known to have staunchly conservative views.
written by Robert Tait based on RFE/RL and agency reports