ROME, (AP) – Iran’s nuclear negotiators and the European Union’s foreign policy chief are to meet separately with the Italian premier in Rome on Wednesday to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program, a day after an EU-Iran session on the contentious subject.
Tuesday’s meeting, also in the Italian capital, was a debut of sorts for the newly appointed top Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Jalili, accompanied by his predecessor, Ali Larijani, whose resignation was announced over the weekend, met with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The session offered a first chance to test whether Larijani’s departure signaled a hardening of Iran’s already defiant stance in its nuclear standoff with the West. Both sides described the meeting as constructive and said more talks would likely be held by the end of November.
Italy is not among the group of countries that has been negotiating with Tehran, which includes the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. But it is Iran’s No. 1 trading partner in the EU and as of this year is on the U.N. Security Council as a non-permanent member.
On Wednesday, Solana met over breakfast with Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, and was scheduled to meet with Italian Premier Romano Prodi later in the day. Prodi was also to hold talks with the two Iranians.
Larijani’s departure was widely interpreted as a victory for hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though a conservative, Larijani was considered more moderate than Ahmadinejad within Iran’s hard-line camp and the two had reportedly differed on how to approach nuclear talks.
Jalili, an Ahmadinejad loyalist, insisted Tehran’s line would not change, and received the support of Larijani. “Negotiation and cooperation is our basic approach,” Jalili said after Tuesday’s meeting. “The course that we’ll continue will be the same trend that he (Larijani) has pursued in this period of time.”
The U.S. and some of its allies accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and have demanded it halt uranium enrichment, a technology that can lead to the development of weapons. Tehran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, including generating electricity.
Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment has led the U.N. Security Council to impose two sets of sanctions against Tehran. But Ahmadinejad has vowed not give up “one iota” of the right to enrich uranium.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, with EU support, agreed last month to delay until November any new U.N. resolution to toughen sanctions, giving Iran more time to cooperate with an investigation into past nuclear activities that is being conducted by U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Ahmadinejad has said he believed the nuclear issue was over. But he also said this month that the government was prepared to answer questions from the IAEA.
Speaking to reporters after the Rome talks, Larijani was dismissive of speculation about his resignation and alleged differences with Ahmadinejad. He said the replacement was just a matter of a generational change.
“The point is our country is a democracy, there is rotation and circulation of forces and powers,” he said. “Jalili is a friend of mine, seven or eight years younger, energetic.”
Jalili, 42, fought in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s as an officer in the Revolutionary Guards. With a Ph.D in political science, he has been a career diplomat since the late 1980s.
Named by Ahmadinejad as deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, he has in the past served as a quiet envoy for the president, taking messages to European officials. He accompanied Ahmadinejad on a recent visit to New York. He has also frequently defended Iran’s nuclear program to the foreign press.