Iran restarts nuclear plans as 40 top envoys face sack

Among the moves signalling its political retrenchment, the government also announced yesterday that 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats would be removed in the next four months.

Although the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said they were being recalled because they were retiring or coming to the end of their term, Western diplomats said that the biggest radical diplomatic overhaul since the 1979 revolution was politically motivated.

At least five senior ambassadors who have all been involved in negotiating with the Europeans on the nuclear dossier ­ the envoys to London, Paris, Berlin, Geneva and Kuala Lumpur ­ have been sacked.

The hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, adopted a tough position on a number of issues, including Iran's nuclear programme, even before his election in June. Since then, Iran has been on a collision course with the West, where there are suspicions that the regime is developing a nuclear bomb under cover of a civil programme.

Yesterday, a source close to the International Atomic Energy Agency said that the Iranians had informed the IAEA on 24 October that it would process a new batch of uranium at its Isfahan atomic plant, beginning next week. A Western diplomat said the decision was in clear defiance of a specific demand from IAEA board members last month.

"They are digging themselves into a deeper hole," the diplomat said, referring to the next board meeting of the IAEA later this month which is to decide whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

But, in anticipation of that meeting, IAEA inspectors were yesterday allowed into a high-security military facility at Parchin for a second time. An IAEA spokesman welcomed the move and expressed hope that it would lead to further measures "to resolve outstanding issues". Mr Ahmadinejad encountered domestic opposition with his nomination of a fellow former member of the Revolutionary Guards, Sadeq Mahsouli, as oil minister.

Mr Mahsouli, an ideological extremist, previously held posts as deputy defence minister and governor of the city of Orumiyeh. His choice is typical of Mr Ahmadinejad, who has stated his belief in the effectiveness of youthful idealists over proven managers.

But parliamentarians signalled they might be prepared to veto the president's choice for the second time, after rejecting his first nominee in the summer.

Mr Ahmadinejad's beliefs are causing consternation, even within the hardline circles that enthusiastically embraced the president when he was elected. Just three months into his tenure, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken the rare step ofpublicly defending his president.

His comments about "wiping Israel off the map" that sparked international outrage a week ago were received with less clamour in Iran, but prompted some figures to question the president's judgement. Analysts now believe the presidency could be thrown into greater turmoil if Mr Mahsouli is rejected next week.

The debate has already opened up rifts among the right-wingers in power, with more pragmatic hardliners viewing Mr Ahmadinejad as a dangerous maverick.

The oil post sets the tone of a presidency more than any other. Iran is the second largest crude oil producer in Opec, and the minister can cause world oil markets to jump or fall with a misplaced word.

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