Last week, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, abruptly fired his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. Even by his low standards of etiquette, the event was unprecedented, leaving aghast even traditional supporters of the president.
Mottaki was visiting Senegal to mend relations in West Africa after Iranian weapons shipments had been seized in Gambia. The shipments were understood to have been the works of Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
Clearly then, Mottaki was in Senegal on Ahmadinejad's behalf to fix a relation broken by Ahmadinejad's ideological companions - and it is not far-fetched to read the episode as a stab in the back. Indeed, even Mottaki said so - he called the humiliating dismissal (apparently, he was notified by his Senegalese host, who no doubt must have been amused) "unIslamic".
There are proximate and distant causes to this incident. The proximate causes are the weapons shipment and, more generally, the IRGC's modus operandi, which is a frequent source of embarrassment for Iran's Foreign Ministry. This is not to say that Mottaki is a moderate who minds what the IRGC does abroad - but he probably resented that the IRGC operated behind his back, leaving him in charge of cleaning up the mess afterwards. Then there was a brawl between Mottaki and Ahmadinejad when the president moved to appoint his own foreign policy envoys, in a move that appeared designed to side-step Mottaki. Though the Supreme Leader's personal intervention led Ahmadinejad to back down, the envoys were still appointed as "advisers" and began running their own missions on behalf of Ahmadinejad. Mottaki's dismissal in a policy area where the Supreme Leader has the last word can only mean that Ahmadinejad had Ali Khamenei's blessing.
This possibility reveals the more distant causes for Mottaki's firing. Mottaki - a career diplomat and a close ally of Ali Larijani - was never Ahmadinejad's darling. Despite their longstanding ability to get along, tensions ran through their relationship. His removal then appears to reflect a further settling of scores - just as Ahmadinejad managed, in late 2007, to remove Larijani from the post of National Security adviser (in charge of the nuclear file) and replace him with loyalist, Saeed Jalili, it appears Khamenei has now given him the green light to tighten his control over his cabinet.
Why now is a matter of speculation - but one can imagine that, with the prospect of domestic turmoil as subsidies are lifted and international isolation continuing, the president wants to be surrounded by unflinching loyalty and the Supreme Leader, once more, agrees with him.