TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's top nuclear negotiator will remain in place at least until the country's new hard-line president takes office, his spokesman said Wednesday, denying a report from the state news agency that said he had resigned.
But the report throws into doubt the future of Hasan Rowhani (search) — considered a moderate — once the new president takes office early next month. His departure would raise the prospect that president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) will put together a new, harder-line team for talks with the Europeans over Iran's nuclear program.
Rowhani and Ahmadinejad met Wednesday to discuss nuclear issues, Rowhani's spokesman said.
The United States says Iran's nuclear program aims to develop weapons, while Iran insists it wants only to produce electricity. The Europeans have been negotiating with Iran, trying to convince it to end parts of its program and guarantee it won't build a nuclear arsenal.
During his presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad criticized Iran's negotiators for making concessions to the Europeans — particularly a temporary freeze in the nuclear program. Since his surprise victory in last month's elections, he has said only that Iran will continue the negotiations despite the deadlock.
The Islamic Republic News Agency, which normally accurately reflects stances of Iran's ruling theocracy, reported that Rowhani, head of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, submitted his resignation to outgoing President Mohammad Khatami (search).
But the council's spokesman Ali Aghamohammadi told The Associated Press the IRNA report was "false."
"Rowhani will remain in his position until President Mohammad Khatami's term ends. After that it is up to Ahmadinejad, who has not announced any stance on Rowhani," he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (search) declined to comment on reports of Rowhani's resignation, as did diplomats from Britain, France and Germany, who have been negotiating with Iran to stop its alleged nuclear ambitions.
Rowhani, 57, is a representative of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) in the council, which is charged with forming security and defense policies. Rowhani had expressed support for Ahmadinejad's more moderate opponent, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, in last month's presidential elections.
Iranian leaders of all stripes have said repeatedly that the country will inevitably resume the key parts of its nuclear program that were suspended — particularly enrichment of uranium. Enrichment can produce the material necessary either for nuclear weapons or for a nuclear power plant.
The program was suspended last year as a gesture to the Europeans and under the threat Iran would be referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
But under Rowhani and Khatami, Iran has shown reluctance to abruptly resume uranium enrichment, a step that would likely derail the European talks.
A key test of Ahmadinejad's administration will be how long it continues that restraint. Ahead of his election victory, the Foreign Ministry underlined that no matter who is president, enrichment will eventually resume.
The nuclear program is ultimately in the hands of Iran's unelected, hard-line theocracy, headed by Khamenei. But reformers under Khatami — and Rafsanjani, a veteran insider in the theocracy who has in the past favored links with Europe and the United States — could exert an influence.
Ahmadinejad, in contrast, is a loyalist to the hard-core clerics in the theocracy, who threw their support behind him in the campaign.