- Associated Press - Saturday, December 18, 2010

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran’s nuclear chief replaced the country’s sacked foreign minister Saturday and said his top priorities include building a “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, an announcement that appeared meant to ease suspicion and fear across the Persian Gulf about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ali Akbar Salehi, who still heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said he also wanted stronger ties with key ally and growing regional player Turkey and with China and Russia — two nations whose veto power on the U.N. Security Council is crucial to Tehran’s battle to ward off more sanctions.

Mr. Salehi also reached out to the European Union, in a shift from the confrontational stance Tehran usually takes toward the West.

“In spite of the EU’s illogical, unprincipled and unjust behavior, still EU members are pursuing dignified relations with Iran for many reasons, including the energy issue,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Mr. Salehi as saying. “Should the EU change as soon as possible its method of confrontation into one of cooperation, it will be in the interest of both parties.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad abruptly fired his longtime foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, on Monday while he was in the middle of a visit to Senegal. He gave no public explanation, but the president may have wanted to install a figure more personally loyal to him as Tehran resumes critical talks with world powers over its nuclear program.

The United States and some of its key allies believe Iran is using its civil nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Iran has denied the charges, saying its nuclear program is geared toward generating electricity and producing medical isotopes for patients.

The doubts over Iran’s true aims are shared by the United States’ Arab allies in the Gulf. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, has forcefully urged Washington to take military action against Iran to “cut off the head of the snake,” according to the secret diplomatic memos made public by WikiLeaks.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf Arab nations said this month they are watching Iran’s nuclear ambitions with “utmost concern” and appealed to the West for a greater voice in the renewed talks with Tehran.

Mr. Salehi, who was introduced as the new top diplomat at a Foreign Ministry function on Saturday, indicated he wanted to ease those worries.

Saudi Arabia deserves to enjoy special political relations with Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two effective regional countries in the Islamic world which can resolve many problems together,” IRNA quoted Mr. Salehi as saying at the function.

Despite Iran’s best arguments that its nuclear work is entirely peaceful, the U.N. has imposed four rounds of sanctions in response to its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can be used both to produce reactor fuel and material for nuclear warheads.

Iranian media reports over the past year have said that some lawmakers believed Mr. Mottaki was not a forceful or persuasive enough advocate for Iran on the world stage.

Mr. Mottaki refused to attend his own farewell event Saturday in an apparent gesture of protest.

Mr. Salehi will serve as caretaker foreign minister until a permanent replacement is named. Under Iran’s constitution, the president has three months to name Mr. Salehi or another candidate, who must then survive a vote of confidence in parliament.

Besides its neighbors across the Gulf, Mr. Salehi said Iran needs to pay special attention to improving ties with China and Russia as two permanent Security Council members who have in the past blocked harsh sanctions against Iran.

Neither nation, however, stood in the way of the latest round of penalties, imposed in June.