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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator resigns


Ali Larijani played a key role this year in defusing a crisis that erupted when Iranians seized a group of British sailors and Marines in disputed Persian Gulf waters off southern Iraq. .

TEHRAN -- Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, a relative moderate who struggled against the uncompromising agenda of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has resigned his high-profile post, government officials announced Saturday.

The resignation of Ali Larijani dealt a major setback to Iranian moderates trying to forge a compromise over Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology, which is strongly opposed by the West.

For two years, Larijani had served as secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, which advises the highest levels of the government. His withdrawal "may make negotiations even more problematic than in recent months," said Patrick Cronin, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.

Larijani, a confidant to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is said to oppose Iran's isolation over its insistence on continuing its uranium enrichment program. Insiders said he advocated cutting a deal with the West to end the dispute, which has led to two sets of economic sanctions against Iran.

Within the inner leadership circle, Larijani was often at odds with Ahmadinejad, who refused to tone down his rhetoric or steer a more moderate course on the nation's nuclear ambitions.

"The difference between Ali Larijani and President Ahmadinejad was on the cost of the nuclear issue," said a Larijani advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Ahmadinejad insists on not any inch of compromise."

Word of the resignation came a few days after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin visited Tehran and proposed a deal to end the stalemate, and just before Larijani was to have discussed the issue with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

"We will consider what you said and your proposal," Khamenei told Putin, according to the official IRNA news agency. "We are determined to satisfy the needs of the country in nuclear energy, and it is for this that we take seriously the question of enrichment."

Analysts said the resignation probably meant that Iran's leadership had opted to reject Putin's proposal, which most observers say was a deal in which Iran would halt its enrichment program in exchange for concessions from the West.

"Mr. Ali Larijani believed in a sort of compromise on uranium enrichment, but President Ahmadinejad thinks that Iran should go ahead with the current uranium enrichment and current nuclear policy," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. "Therefore, Mr. Ali Larijani had no option but to resign."

Enriched uranium can be used to power electricity plants or, if highly concentrated, become explosive material for an atomic bomb.

President Bush has said Iran should not have the know-how to create such a weapon. The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Iran halt enrichment until questions about its past nuclear activities are cleared up.

The West, led by the U.S., accuses Iran of using a legal nuclear energy program to mask an illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons technologies. Iran says its program is only for generating electricity.

Reacting to the resignation, White House spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said, "We seek a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran's nuclear program and hope that whomever has this position will help lead Iran down a path of compliance with their U.N. Security Council obligations."

Larijani had tried before to tender his resignation.

"Larijani had resigned several times, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally accepted his resignation," government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said Saturday, according to IRNA .

Elham downplayed the resignation, saying that Iran's policies would not change and that Larijani resigned for personal reasons to pursue other political activities. But a former advisor to the Iranian government on the nuclear issue said that "the gap between him and Ahmadinejad had reached a point that he simply had to resign."

Larijani has long been considered a relatively moderate voice. In 2005 he pushed for a two-year suspension of Iran's enrichment program, and this year he played a key role in defusing the crisis that erupted when Iranians seized a group of British sailors and marines in disputed Persian Gulf waters.

Diplomats say Larijani had a fruitful line of communication with Solana, the EU point person on Iran's nuclear issue.

The Fars News Agency reported that Saeed Jalili, deputy foreign minister for European and U.S. affairs, would fill the post for now and attend the Tuesday meeting with Solana in Italy.

"I think this is a very risky move that lightens Iran's diplomatic clout -- because for one thing, Jalili is too young and inexperienced to handle this big job, which means he will be at the president's beckoning," the former government advisor said, describing Ahmadinejad as "equally a novice on nuclear diplomacy."

Elham said Larijani might join the delegation. A Supreme National Security Council official said the post would be permanently filled within days.

Some analysts pointed out that style rather than substance characterized the differences between the two camps on the nuclear issue.

"Larijani was not advocating making major nuclear compromises, but he appreciated the need to retain constructive dialogue with the EU and felt Ahmadinejad needlessly undermined Iran's case with his blusterous rhetoric," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Replacing Larijani with Jalili buys Iran more time to pursue its ultimate goal of becoming a nuclear power, said Saeed Leylaz, an Iranian analyst and economist.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is in a race against time with the West," Leylaz said. "All in all, Iran is going toward more radicalization and full nuclear power."


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