TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's government announced Wednesday that 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats, including supporters of warmer ties with the West, will be fired, continuing a purge of reformers as the regime takes an increasingly tough stance at home and abroad.
The diplomatic changes are part of a government shake-up by ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) that includes putting Islamic hard-liners in key posts at security agencies. Some Iranians worry the president will bring back strict social policies.
Ahmadinejad has steered the Persian state into a more confrontational stance in its dealings with other nations, particularly in facing suspicions about whether Iran's nuclear program is illicitly trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge the regime denies.
The president also raised a storm of international criticism last week by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki (search) announced the diplomatic shuffle to parliament. He said that "the missions of more than 40 ambassadors and heads of Iranian diplomatic missions abroad will expire by the end of the year," which is March 20 under the Iranian calendar.
Since winning election in June to succeed reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search), Ahmadinejad has taken a harder line in negotiations with the European Union over Iran's nuclear program.
Hard-liners have criticized Khatami's government for agreeing to freeze much of Iran's nuclear activities, and Ahmadinejad has already replaced the negotiating team with hard-liners.
"He wants to remove any official or diplomat with liberal thinking or anybody who backs better relations with the West," said political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand.
Mottaki, whose announcement was reported by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, did not specify which ambassadors were being removed.
IRNA, however, said they include Iran's ambassador to Britain, Mohammad Hossein Adeli, a leading member of the pragmatic foreign policy wing that supports improved contacts with Europe and other countries.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry also said the ambassadors to France, Germany and Malaysia — all with links to moderates — would be fired. The officials agreed to discuss the firings only on condition of anonymity, because they are not authorized to speak to journalists.
Mottaki said Iran's envoy to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is known for his pragmatic approach, would keep his post. Zarif, however, previously was removed from Iran's nuclear negotiating team.
Iran's top security decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council, which oversees the nuclear talks, also has been caught up in government overhaul. Among the new members is Mohammad Jafari, a former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Ahmadinejad also has appointed hard-liners to senior Interior Ministry posts and replaced most of Iran's provincial governors during the past month.
Tensions with Europe and the United States are high after Ahmadinejad's regime resumed the conversion of uranium into gas. That is the final step before enrichment, which produces radioactive material that is usable both as reactor fuel and for atomic bombs.
Washington accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop atomic arms in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Tehran denies that, saying the nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity.
The board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets Nov. 24 to review Iran's cooperation on the nuclear issue. Washington and European nations want Tehran referred to the U.N. Security Council.
To show it is cooperating with the IAEA, Iran let U.N. inspectors last week look for signs of a secret nuclear arms program at Parchin, a high-security military site, diplomats close to the IAEA said Wednesday.
Iran also handed over documents and granted interviews with several senior officials thought linked to black market purchases of uranium enrichment technology, one diplomat said.
But at the same time, the regime also takes a harsh tone about the West.
On Wednesday, more than 10,000 demonstrators shouted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" in front of the former U.S. Embassy — the largest such demonstration in years.
Hard-liners organize protests at the site annually to mark the anniversary of the embassy's seizure on Nov. 4, 1979, by militants who held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The United States broke relations with Tehran after the takeover, and they have not been restored.
Demonstrators carried a large picture of Ahmadinejad emblazoned with his quote, "Israel must be wiped off the map." They burned U.S. and Israeli flags and effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"We have to continue our confrontation with the United States and Israel," the hard-line newspaper Jomhuri Eslami said in an editorial.