Top aide under reformist ex-president named Iran security body chief

DUBAI (Reuters) - Former defense minister Ali Shamkhani was appointed head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Iranian news agencies reported on Tuesday, in a further sign of a shift towards relative moderation under new President Hassan Rouhani.

Iranian outgoing Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani speaks with journalists during a news conference at the Defence Ministry in Tehran August 9, 2005. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Rouhani, who replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, has remade the Islamic Republic’s top foreign, nuclear and domestic policy teams to broadly reflect his wish for more pragmatism and less ideological rigidity in decision-making.

Shamkhani, who will succeed Islamist hardliner Saeed Jalili as security council chief, served as defense minister under two-term reformist president Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005.

An ethnic Arab of Iraqi descent, Shamkhani is seen as aligned with the more pragmatic wing of Iranian politics suppressed for eight years under Ahmadinejad.

While defense minister under Khatami, Shamkhani undertook a landmark visit to Saudi Arabia in 2000 in an effort to thaw relations between the two regional arch-rivals.

Shamkhani earlier commanded Revolutionary Guards naval forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He has written several books on military tactics and also taught military strategy in university, Mehr news agency said.

Rouhani was elected in June promising more transparency and less confrontation in Iranian foreign relations and to shore up the economy, in part by securing an easing of harsh sanctions imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Last week Rouhani announced that Iran’s future nuclear negotiations with six world powers would be transferred to the foreign ministry from the security council, although officials later said the latter would retain a role.

Tuesday’s report gave no further detail on the extent of the security council’s hand in nuclear negotiations that it had led since 2003. Jalili, a conservative hardliner, presided over six years of sporadic talks that failed to find any common ground.

Rouhani may have chosen to place nuclear talks in the foreign ministry’s hands to streamline the diplomatic process. However, clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains the final say on any proposed deals.

The last round of negotiations in April with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany again fell short of any breakthrough. However, some believe more progress can be achieved under Rouhani.

The six world powers have demanded that Tehran cease enrichment of uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent to reduce concerns that it could be used for nuclear weapons, suspicions Iran says are unfounded.

Rouhani has defended Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, a stance that has help derail any progress in past talks.

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Mark Heinrich