TEHRAN (AFP) — Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani has resigned, officials said Saturday, fuelling fears Tehran will take an even tougher line in the crisis with the West on its contested nuclear drive.
Analysts said the resignation of Larijani -- a conservative but by no means a political ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- would help the Iranian president further consolidate his grip on policy-making.
Larijani is to be replaced by deputy foreign minister Saeed Jalili, the government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham announced. Jalili is seen, by contrast, as a close confidant of the president,
"Larijani had resigned several times and finally the president accepted his resignation," state news agency IRNA quoted Elham as saying.
Jalili will take up his post, whose official title is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, on Sunday, Ahmadinejad's senior advisor Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi told IRNA.
However Larijani is to join his successor to participate in talks on Iran's nuclear programme with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Rome on Tuesday, Elham said.
Rumours have been circulating in Iran for months that Larijani was at odds with Ahmadinejad over the hardline president's confrontational style of presenting nuclear policy and had offered to resign.
Elham offered no explanation for the resignation except to say that Larijani had "personal reasons" for stepping down.
Samareh Hashemi insisted that there would be no change in Iran's nuclear policy after Larijani's resignation.
"The nuclear policies of the country are defined and announced by the supreme leader and president. With the replacement of individuals, there is no change in the Islamic republic's nuclear policies," he added.
Political analyst Mohammad Sadegh al-Hosseini said that the appointment was made to increase Ahmadinejad's control over nuclear policy ahead of parliamentary elections on March 14 and a presidential poll in summer 2009.
"It is a step towards consolidating the camp of Ahmadinejad and shutting the door to any kind of differences," he said.
"Jalili will be pretty hardline, so maybe slightly less inclined to have a tactic of negotiations," said Alex Bigham, head of the London-based Foreign Policy Centre's Iran research programme.
Larijani, who took on his post after Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, has led two years of sensitive talks with EU officials over Iran's nuclear programme.
He replaced the moderate negotiating team which had served under reformist president Mohammad Khatami and reversed the suspension of uranium enrichment that had been agreed with EU powers.
But Larijani's wordy and relatively moderate rhetoric always contrasted starkly with the populist president's confrontational and sometimes provocative statements on the nuclear standoff.
The resignation came a day after Ahmadinejad flatly contradicted a statement by Larijani that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a proposal to Tehran over its nuclear programme during his landmark visit to Iran last week.
"The declaration over Putin last week had possibly played a role," in the resignation, said an analyst close to Larijani who asked not to be named.
Despite several meetings during the past year, Larijani and Solana have failed to overcome the key sticking point in the dispute -- Tehran's refusal to suspend its sensitive uranium enrichment activities.
The influential head of parliament's research centre, Ahmad Tavakoli, said he regretted Larijani's resignation: "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.
The UN Security Council has already imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities, a process that can be used both to make atomic fuel and, in highly enriched form, a nuclear weapon.
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