TEHRAN (AFP)- Iran Sunday insisted its policy in the nuclear crisis with the West would not change after the sudden resignation of chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, amid fears it would take an even tougher line.
Larijani, who was seen as having a moderating influence on nuclear policy, stepped down following a prolonged disagreement with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the handling of Iran’s position.
His successor is deputy foreign minister Saeed Jalili, a close confidant of the president, who is expected to implement Ahmadinejad’s hardline stance on the nuclear issue in his new job.
The top nuclear negotiator — whose official title is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council — has the job of leading talks with the European Union and UN nuclear watchdog on Iran’s nuclear case.
But foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini insisted on Sunday the change in personnel did not herald any switch in policy.
“The resignation of Mr Larijani was agreed by the president but the policies and strategies of the Islamic republic on the nuclear issue are unchangeable goals,” he told reporters.
“Our officials will continue strongly along the same road and no change will come about,” he added.
Ahmadinejad’s senior adviser Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi told state news agency IRNA: “With the replacement of individuals there is no change in the Islamic republic’s nuclear policies.”
Government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham, who announced the resignation on Saturday, said Larijani had already offered to resign “several times” — a clear indication he was unhappy with Tehran’s nuclear policy.
However Larijani will still join his successor for talks on Iran’s nuclear programme with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Rome on Tuesday, Hosseini said.
Larijani will in fact stay on the council in his position as the representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hosseini did not confirm that the Rome meeting would be his last.
“This is how we will attend for this meeting. For the future let us wait and see,” he said.
The change comes at a hugely sensitive time, with Western powers urging more UN sanctions action against Tehran and threatening unilateral measures of their own to put economic pressure on Iran.
The extent or content of the disagreement between Larijani and Ahmadinejad was never made public, although it was an open secret in Tehran that the two did not see eye-to-eye.
While Larijani is a conservative and regime insider, his wordy and sometimes moderate rhetoric contrasted markedly with the provocative broadsides issued against the West by the president.
Western analysts said that Jalili was likely to take a harder line in nuclear negotiations that reflected more closely the ideas of the president.
“I think it makes it harder to strike a deal, because there is nobody to negotiate with who has some pragmatic inclination,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“With Larijani out of the picture there is nobody to talk to, and it indicates that the supreme leader is not in a mood for a compromise either.”
Larijani replaced moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani after Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, and held two years of sensitive talks with EU officials.
But Larijani and Solana have failed to overcome the key sticking point in the dispute — Tehran’s refusal to suspend its sensitive uranium enrichment activities.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the new appointment.
The influential head of parliament’s research centre, Ahmad Tavakoli, said: “The experience and positions held by Larijani are not comparable with the deputy foreign minister, who has little experience.”
The West, led by the United States, believes that Iran’s nuclear programme is cover for a drive to develop an atomic bomb, but Tehran insists it only wants to generate electricity.
Washington has never ruled out a military strike to end Iran’s nuclear defiance, but a top general warned that Tehran was well prepared to launch a massive response against any attack.
“In the first minute of an invasion by the enemy, 11,000 rockets and cannons would be fired at enemy bases,” said a brigadier general in the elite Revolutionary Guards, Mahmoud Chaharbaghi.