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Iran president risks crisis over oil nominee

November 2, 2005

By Paul Hughes

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran’s novice President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad named an obscure figure as oil minister on
Wednesday, risking a domestic political storm after already
stirring one abroad with his call for Israel’s destruction.

Parliamentarians quickly signaled they could veto Sadeq
Mahsouli’s appointment to run the oil portfolio of OPEC’s No. 2
producer, just as they threw out Ahmadinejad’s attempt to place
a close political ally in charge of the ministry in August.

Ahmadinejad’s three-month-old government also faced sharp
criticism from reformists for its decision to recall dozens of
experienced ambassadors — the biggest diplomatic shake-up
since the 1979 Islamic revolution — at a time of heightened
international concern over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

A diplomat in Europe said Iran would start processing a new
batch of uranium next week, despite pressure from the United
States and European Union to halt all sensitive nuclear work.

“Beginning next week, the Iranians will start a new phase
of uranium conversion at Isfahan,” said the diplomat familiar
with results of inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Iran froze all activity at its Isfahan plant last year
under a deal with France, Britain and Germany, but resumed work
there in August, prompting the EU trio to suspend talks with
Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor who was elected on
promises to stand up to Western pressures and funnel oil wealth
to the poor, faces tough times ahead, political analysts said.

HOW MUCH ROPE?

“Ahmadinejad is clearly out of his depth,” said Ali Ansari,
an Iranian expert at Exeter University in England.

“It will have to be resolved internally. There is a view in
Iran that if you give him enough rope, he’ll hang himself. But
how much rope will it take?”

Political heavyweights, including former presidents
Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have rebuked
Ahmadinejad for stoking Western pressure through tough rhetoric
such as his statement last week that Israel must be “wiped off
the map.”

Such open criticism is rare in Iran where key policy is
usually forged by consensus and where Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei has the final word on all state affairs.

Ahmadinejad won support at a rally on Wednesday in Tehran
where a few thousand demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S.
flags and chanted “Death to America” to mark the 26th
anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy by radical
students.

“What Mr Ahmadinejad said about Israel is based on our
Islamic beliefs and the international reaction is for political
reasons to put pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue,”
lawmaker Ali Riaz told Reuters at the rally.

But amid the bussed-in students and posters telling U.S.
President George W. Bush to “Go to Hell,” some Iranians felt
the anti-Western rhetoric was backfiring.

“We should moderate our stance. We don’t want to be like
North Korea, isolated and under sanctions,” said a 34-year-old
employee of state broadcaster IRIB, who declined to be named.

Washington severed ties with Tehran in 1980 and has imposed
unilateral sanctions on the Islamic state, barring virtually
all trade and investment, including in the oil sector.

DIPLOMATIC PURGE

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki acknowledged on
Wednesday that Iran would replace more than 40 of its
ambassadors by March but said the shake-up was due to
retirements and the expiry of postings, not political factors.

But critics said most of those affected were moderates who
disagreed with the president’s foreign policy line and that
many had not been long in their posts and had not been due to
retire.

“As a radical hardline president, Ahmadinejad wants to show
that Iran’s nuclear and foreign policies have changed,” said
political analyst Saeed Leylaz.

Lawmakers in the conservative-dominated parliament appeared
stunned that Ahmadinejad had for a second time passed over
experienced oil hands to nominate an industry outsider to run
the country’s most prestigious cabinet job.

“Presumably the amount of information that we have about
him is about as much as he knows about oil,” Mohsen Yahyavi, a
board member of the state oil company and member of
parliament’s energy commission, told Reuters.

Analysts said it was not clear whether Ahmadinejad enjoyed
the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei who recently handed
far-reaching supervisory powers to the more moderate and
pragmatic Rafsanjani, who favors better ties with the West.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in London, Louis
Charbonneau in Berlin)




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