Ali Akbar Salehi is said to have fond memories of the United States -- a legacy of five years spent studying for a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He has also been described by one British former acquaintance -- recalling the man he knew as Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna -- as "open-minded," "a modernizer, not a conservative," and "a scientist, not an Islamist."
All of which must have made Salehi appear a rather strange bedfellow of Iran's famously fiery president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, as the pair arrived in Istanbul together on December 22 for a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization, which groups Iran with Turkey, Pakistan, and Central Asian states.
It's Salehi's first official trip abroad since Ahmadinejad appointed him acting foreign minister on December 13 following the unceremonious dismissal of Manuchehr Mottaki.
With Mottaki's sudden removal still unexplained
-- although he and the president were known to have long been at odds -- the focus has shifted to Salehi's suitability and whether Ahmadinejad sees him as a permanent replacement. Going 'Nuclear'?
As the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and figurehead of its disputed nuclear program, the 61-year-old's appointment is seen by observers like Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, as heralding the "nuclearization" of the Islamic republic's foreign policy.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) looked over Manuchehr Mottaki's (center) shoulder, will Ali Akbar Salehi (left) be next to feel the heat?
"It is quite important that this is the person in charge of the nuclear file at a technical level, but also a person who was deeply involved in the negotiations," he says. While Salehi wasn't at talks in Geneva on December 6-7 between Iran and six world powers, Parsi says he was the one negotiators "had to run all the ideas by, which gives you an indication of the importance that they ascribe to him."
Parsi points out that "there is so much focus on the Iranian nuclear program and this is a person who is more or less in charge of that program becoming foreign minister is what I would call the nuclearization of Iran's foreign policy -- meaning that the nuclear program is taking an increasingly important role in Iran's foreign-policy calculations."
Iran has already been subject to four rounds of United Nations sanctions over its refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment work, a project the West suspects is aimed at producing an atomic bomb despite Tehran's insistence that it is peaceful. On December 21, the U.S. Treasury Department announced fresh sanctions targeting two Iranian banks that it said supported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as Iran's national shipping line. Reaching Out To The Arabs
Speaking publicly on December 18 for the first time since taking office, Salehi said a key policy priority would be forging close links with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, along with Turkey.
The focus on Saudi Arabia may provide one clue to the reasoning behind his appointment. Born in the holy city of Karbala in Iraq, Salehi is fluent in Arabic, as well as English.
The parlous state of relations between Tehran and the Saudis was revealed in the recent disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, with one dispatch quoting the kingdom's monarch, King Abdullah, as urging the United States to destroy the Iranian nuclear program and to "cut off the head of the snake." Another cable described the king telling Mottaki to his face to "spare us your evil."
"I do believe that these things are connected because I think the Iranians value the relationship with Saudi Arabia," Parsi says. "It's not a relationship they can afford to [let] go sour and clearly there have been some tensions between the Saudis and Iran and there have been some tense meeting between Mottaki and the king of Saudi Arabia." Pawn In Political Game
Yet others see Salehi's elevation in a different light. Having spent much of his working life spent in academia and possessing an intellectual mien -- his Ph.D. thesis was titled "Resonance Region: Neutronics Of Unit Cells In Fast And Thermal Reactors" -- there are question marks over Salehi's ability to manage a large bureaucracy like the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Salehi -- a 'good diplomat' Khamanei can trust?
The possibility also remains that the technocratic Salehi's tenure will be temporary and that Ahmadinejad will clamor for a more ideological permanent appointee. Under Iranian law, interim appointments can only stay in office for three months before being forwarded to parliament for approval.
Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees Salehi's appointment -- and Mottaki's removal -- as part of a wider power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for dominance over foreign policy. In the tussle for control, Khamenei may have imposed Salehi on Ahmadinejad after the president surprised him by firing Mottaki.
In such circumstances, Khalaji believes, there is little prospect of harmony between Ahmadinejad and his new foreign minister. "What I know is that Ahmadinejad doesn't like Salehi much because Salehi is close to Khamenei" as well as to parliament speaker and key Ahmadinejad rival Ali Larijani, Khalaji says.
"Ahmadinejad hates a foreign minister who reports directly to the supreme leader rather than to him and this is what made him angry with Mottaki. Especially in the last two years, Mottaki's relationship with Khamenei was very close. He was reporting to Khamenei directly and that drives Ahmadinejad crazy," Khalaji adds. "Ahmadinejad is so possessive, he is a control freak and he wants everyone around him to work totally under his control."
The result may be a prolonged bargaining session between Khamenei and his protege in which Ahmadinejad tries to persuade the cleric to allow him to have own man. A Good Diplomat
The problem is that while Khamenei may see Ahmadinejad's sidekicks -- such as Said Jalili, the hard-line chief of the Supreme National Security Council -- as ideological kindred spirits, he feels they are unqualified to run the Islamic republic's diplomacy.
"Khamenei believes people around Ahmadinejad are good people but he does not trust them in terms of being good diplomats," Khalaji says. While Khamenei might consider people around former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to be good diplomats, "he cannot trust them because they are not faithful to his agenda."
According to Khalaji, this was a "paradox for Khamenei for a long time. Good diplomats are not faithful to Khamenei's agenda. People who are faithful to Khamenei's agenda are not good diplomats and that's why Salehi is a good choice. Because, according to Khamenei, he is a good diplomat."
Salehi "knows the language of Westerners, he knows the diplomatic language and literature very well. At the same time, he looks faithful to Khamenei's agenda -- and it's very rare."