(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has replaced Iran's key oil and industry ministers, a major Cabinet reshuffle widely seen Monday as increasing his control over industries that are the source of most of the country's revenues.
Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri Mahaneh and Industry Minister Ali Reza Tahmasebi have resigned and been replaced by caretaker ministers, the official IRNA news agency said late Sunday. But Iran's major newspapers said Monday the two had effectively been dismissed by Ahmadinejad.
State-run media gave no reason for the alleged dismissals and only carried statements from the president, who named the head of the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), Gholam Hossein Nozari, as oil caretaker minister, and a Teheran chain store manager, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, as industry caretaker minister.
Hamaneh's dismissal is unlikely to bring a shift in Iran's policy on oil issues, but may re-launch plans for a huge shake-up in the management of the energy sector that Hamaneh had resisted.
Ahmadinejad was elected on a populist agenda in 2005, promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. His failure to keep those promises has provoked increasingly fierce criticism from both conservatives and reformists in recent months.
Ahmadinejad had promised to clamp down on what he claimed was the country's oil "mafias." He was forced to accept Mahaneh as oil minister only after his three nominations for the post were rejected by Parliament one after the other.
The rejection of Ahmadinejad's nominees was viewed at the time as a major embarrassment for the president, with Parliament saying his candidates lacked the skills to run the Oil Ministry.
Reformist political analyst Saeed Shariati says lawmakers are now preparing for the March 14 parliamentary elections and may not oppose Ahmadinejad over his choice for a new oil minister.
"Ahmadinejad now feels one of his own men can get a vote of confidence from the parliament and increase his control over the oil industry," Shariati said.
Hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who is the head of the powerful Guardian Council, has long claimed of fraud within Iran's Oil Ministry, though the allegations were never proved. Ahmadinejad also vowed to revolutionize the oil ministry and redistribute Iran's wealth, which is concentrated in its energy sector.
The reformist daily Etemad, or Confidence, said Monday that Hamaneh's failure to attract foreign investment and the fact he didn't heed to Ahmadinejad's "oil mafia" claim were the main reasons behind his dismissal.
Presidential adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr called the changes "steps forward" in the right direction. "Replacement of the two ministers is a sign of ... moving forward," the official IRNA news agency quoted Javanfekr as saying.
Shariati, the political analyst, said the reshuffle didn't aim at improving efficiency in the oil ministry.
"This replacement is not about efficiency but about dominating a wealth that is the source of over 80 percent of government income," Shariati said.
He said the president was unable to extend his full control over the ministry as long as Hamaneh had been minister. "Ahmadinejad and his allies need to bring the wealthiest ministry under their full control," he said.
Shariati also contended the President was using Hamaneh as a scapegoat to ease public dissatisfaction over fuel rationing that was imposed in June. The government move caused major outcry among consumers and sparked some riots, but had little to do with Hamaneh.
At the Industry Ministry, outgoing minister Tahmasebi was widely viewed as having lost his job for resisting Ahmadinejad calls for widespread reforms. The daily Hambastegi, or Solidarity, said Tahmasebi resisted the president's orders on some key nominations within his ministry.
Changes are also needed within Iran's Foreign Ministry, the daily Etemad Melli, or National Confidence, quoted Ahmadinejad as saying Sunday.
"The structure of the Foreign Ministry has to change in step with the global responsibilities of the Islamic Republic of Iran," the daily quoted Ahmadinejad as telling a group of foreign-based Iranian diplomats and ambassadors.
This call for change comes after many liberal-minded diplomats were dismissed over the past two years for supporting warmer ties with the West.
In 2005, Ahmadinejad's hard-line government removed 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats amid increasing tensions between Iran and the United States over its nuclear program.