TEHRAN Iran's chief nuclear negotiator has resigned and the man named to replace Ali Larijani could present the West with a harder line in a long-running dispute over Tehran's atomic ambitions.
Saturday's announcement exposed a rift over tactics with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who accepted Larijani's resignation and has taken an uncompromising approach in the nuclear standoff.
Analysts say Saeed Jalili, the senior foreign ministry official replacing Larijani, is close to the president and his appointment showed that those determined to defy the West were gaining a greater influence in decision-making.
A government spokesman said there would be no policy change.
Western states fear Tehran wants to build atomic bombs. They have imposed two sets of sanctions through the United Nations and are considering a third. Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, insists its aim is only to produce electricity.
"Larijani has resigned due to personal reasons, but this does not mean changes in policies and programs," said government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator since 2005, had been set to meet EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Rome on Tuesday for more discussions about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The European Union said the talks would go ahead. "We have just spoken to the Iranians. Solana is keeping to his plan to travel to Rome on Tuesday and will meet whatever senior negotiator the Iranians send," an EU spokeswoman said.
EU diplomats said the Iranian negotiator would be Jalili. Later, Iranian state TV quoted Elham as saying Jalili would be the next chief nuclear negotiator.
European officials say Larijani had difficulty getting the Iranian establishment to support his negotiating strategy, even though he stuck firmly to the broader policy of refusing to halt sensitive nuclear work.
Washington has refused to rule out the use of force if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute. Russia supports "direct dialogue" with Tehran and President Vladimir Putin said this week he saw no evidence Iran's program had military aims.
Iranian analysts said Larijani sought to persuade the West through diplomacy to ease pressure on Iran and was regarded as a pragmatist. But they say Ahmadinejad's verbal broadsides against Western states and refusal to show any flexibility undermined those efforts, sometimes at a crucial points in the talks.
Major powers have agreed to delay new sanctions until November. They want to see if Iran's deal with U.N. inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Tehran's intentions yields results and to await a report by Solana.
Elham did not rule out Larijani also attending Tuesday's talks in Rome. "There is no obstacle for Mr. Larijani's presence in the talks," ISNA news agency quoted Elham as saying.
The final say in Iran in all matters of state, including nuclear policy, lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But analysts say he tends to look for a consensus among several different political camps to reach decisions.
"This (Larijani's resignation) will show that the hardline position, the defiant position of Iran will continue and there will not be much chance of any change in the Iranian position," said one Iranian analyst who declined to be named.
Larijani may have felt he had nothing more to offer in talks with Solana, the analyst said. "The president left no more room for Larijani to maneuver and negotiate."
Ahmadinejad has said Iran's nuclear file is closed although he has said Iran is ready to answer outstanding questions from the IAEA about its program.
A conservative lawmaker, Ahmad Tavakoli, said Jalili, unlike Larijani, lacked the experience to secure Iran's nuclear rights, Fars News Agency reported.
The United Nations has demanded Iran suspend uranium enrichment, a process which can be used to make fuel for power plants or, if Iran wanted, material for warheads.
Iran has repeatedly refused to comply. It has turned a cold shoulder on other mooted proposals such as a "timeout" where Iran would stop expanding its enrichment work in return for the West halting moves to impose more sanctions.
An IAEA team arrived in Tehran on Friday to start four days of talks with Iranian officials about Iran's work on more advanced centrifuges used in enrichment, state radio said, part of a plan agreed with the IAEA to try to clear up suspicions.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Lisbon, Karin Strohecker in Vienna and Robin Pomeroy in Rome)