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    Middle East
     Nov 4, 2005

Iran's diplomatic coup
By Neda Bolourchi

In a dramatic move, Iran's new neo-conservative government on Wednesday announced that the terms of about 40 diplomats and ambassadors on missions to foreign countries would expire by the end of the current Iranian year (March 20, 2006).

Attempting to temper the predictable onslaught of speculation the massive recall would incite, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said: "Some of the ambassadors have reached the age of retirement and have applied for it. New diplomats should replace them."

As he described the drastic changes affecting nearly half of the

Islamic republic's foreign posts, Motakki insisted in characterizing the changes as normal.

With London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Dehli, Baghdad and the UN missions in New York and Geneva said to be listed, critics noted that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad intended to remove key negotiators and diplomats who had been involved in months of delicate mediation between the Islamic republic and Europe over Tehran's nuclear program.

Thus, Mottaki's assurances failed to silence critics. Instead, commentators insist that the dismissals signal the Ahmadinejad administration's intolerance for moderates and those closely identified with the reformist policies of former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Last week, Ahmadinejad caused an international storm by saying Israel should be "wiped off the map".

Observers cite the Abadgaran coalition's censures of Khatami for agreeing to freeze nuclear activities during previous negotiations. The challenge of second-generation revolutionaries to the clerical supremacists is spearheaded by a right-wing coalition known as the Abadgaran Iran-e-Islami (Developers of Islamic Iran). Although it is widely assumed that Abadgaran is a "neo-conservative" coalition with strong links to the establishment, the grouping is in fact made up mostly of second-generation revolutionaries critical of traditional conservatives who strive to reconcile the values of the Islamic revolution with Iran's current realities.

Other observers note the almost immediate replacement of nuclear negotiator Hasan Rohani with conservative Ali Larajani months ago (following Ahmadinejad's surprise presidential election victory in June) as a key indicator that the wave of replacements is not normal but is a policy change.

More importantly, however, seems to be that a number of ambassadors are not near completing their tenures. For instance, London's relatively popular Muhammad Hossein Adeli will be completing the first of two years of deployment come March. Similarly, Mohmmad Ghasem Ali is just six months into his posting in Malaysia.

Therefore, neither man appears to be of retirement age come March 2006. While Mottaki informed the majlis (parliament) of the removals on Wednesday, news of the recalls had been known to some for more than a month.

Such a move supports reports that the new executive branch is not communicating with its traditional allies in the now conservative-dominated legislative branch (majlis). As a result, the majlis has caused problems for Ahmadinejad already by opposing four of his proposed cabinet ministers.

With Mottaki reinstating Mohammad Zavad Zarif, ambassador to the United Nations in New York, within 24 hours of the public statement of his dismissal, a similar situation may occur over the postings at other missions.

Other conflicting signals are emanating from Tehran. In the past several days, Iranian officials were said to have granted UN inspectors access to a military site. Simultaneously, word spread that Tehran had also decided to begin processing a new batch of uranium at its Isfahan plant next week. The Islamic republic froze all work there last year as a show of good faith under a deal with France, Britain and Germany - the EU-3. On Ahmadinejad's inauguration, Tehran removed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals in August, which prompted the EU-3 to suspend talks. Within days, the IAEA will meet to discuss sending Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Also adding to the conflicting signals coming out of Iran are the expanded powers of the Expediency Council. Under new rules, the council has supervisory power over the executive, legislative and judiciary powers, but can also originate top-down decision-making to shape macro and micro policies.

In addition many believe that the nuclear dossier has moved from the office of the president to that of Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council.

In an October 27 report from Aftab-i Yazd, Rafsanjani denied controlling the nuclear dossier. "This is not true and nothing has been said about this." Acknowledging that support for the nuclear program enjoyed solid and wide support, Rafsanjani continued, "There is no need for my presence there ... this is a collective matter and does not involve negotiations alone. The collective is behind the case."

While Rafsanjani's statement may likely be the typical obfuscation of an Iranian official, Ahmadinejad continues to take the offensive to strengthen his handling of governmental affairs.

As of now, the Islamic republic's news regarding its diplomatic corps is the biggest purge since the 1979 revolution. With Ahmadinejad having arguably succeeded with his first revolution in June, just by being elected, the impending changes and confusion signal an attempt for another.

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