ROME – Iran's new top nuclear negotiator — holding his first international meeting since his appointment — met Tuesday in Rome with the European Union's foreign policy chief on Tehran's contentious nuclear program.
Saeed Jalili was appointed his country's chief negotiator after Ali Larijani stepped down over the weekend. The departure of the more moderate Larijani was seen as a victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that could push the Islamic Republic into an even more defiant position in its standoff with the West over its nuclear activities.
However, Larijani attended the Rome talks Tuesday alongside Jalili and the EU's Javier Solana, according to Iran's Foreign Ministry. The talks had been scheduled before Larijani's announcement.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and have demanded it halt uranium enrichment, a key step in the production of atomic weapons. Tehran denies the claim, saying its program is for peaceful purposes including generating electricity.
Before Larijani resigned, an EU official, who requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of the matter, told The Associated Press that the Rome meeting would focus on Tehran's refusal to heed U.N. Security Council demands for a freeze on uranium enrichment.
On Tuesday, officials in Solana's office declined to confirm the agenda of the meeting, saying only that the discussions aim to push Tehran to enter formal negotiations on its nuclear program.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions over Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
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 by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Italy is not a member of the negotiating group, 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.
The Rome talks will also offer Western officials a chance to test whether Jalili's appointment marks a stiffening of Tehran's position.
Jalili, whose official title as secretary of the Supreme Security Council makes him the chief nuclear negotiator, is a close loyalist of Ahmadinejad, but little is known of his background.
The 42-year-old fought in Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s as an officer in the Revolutionary Guards. With a PhD 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 spoken to the foreign press defending Iran's nuclear program.
Larijani was viewed as moderate compared with Ahmadinejad, and the two often clashed over how to negotiate with the world on the nuclear issue.
Larijani was seen as committed to a diplomatic solution over Iran's nuclear program, while Ahmadinejad was not seen as favoring talks with the West over the issue.
The president has said his country would not negotiate over its "nuclear rights" and that he believed the nuclear issue was over. However, he also said this month that the government was prepared to answer questions from the IAEA.
It was not clear whether Larijani left his post under pressure, but his departure was interpreted by many in Iran as giving Ahmadinejad a free hand in dictating his views to the less experienced Jalili.