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Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Steps Down

Iran says its top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has resigned. He will be replaced by a relatively unknown deputy foreign minister with close ties to the Iranian president. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

An Iranian government spokesman told state-run media that Ali Larijani's resignation is effective immediately.

Spokesman Gholem Hussein Elham said Larijani will be replaced by Saeed Jalili, a young deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs. Jalili is a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The spokesman said Larijani resigned for personal reasons and that he wants to devote time to other political activities. He did not elaborate.

He said Larijani had tried to resign several times, and this time President Ahmadienejad accepted his resignation.

Larijani had been scheduled to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Rome on Tuesday for a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. Iranian and EU officials say the talks will go ahead on schedule, with Jalili representing Iran. Local media indicated that Larijani might still attend the talks along with his successor.

Larijani has been chief nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme National Security Council since 2005. He is considered a hardliner, but was also known to differ with President Ahmadinejad over tactics for handling nuclear-related talks with the West. Larijani was seen as advocating a more pragmatic approach than the president.

Some analysts say his resignation and replacement by Jalili are signs that Mr. Ahmadinejad is consolidating his influence over the nuclear program and Iran's nuclear-related dealings with the West.

The Iranian government spokesman said the switch does not reflect a change in policy.

The UN Security Council has demanded that Iran stop enriching uranium and comply with an aggressive inspection program by the UN nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA. Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran has steadfastly refused to shut down its enrichment program and has said it has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology.

The United States and the European Union believe that Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and designed only to produce nuclear energy.

Russia has been a key mediator in the crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin has advocated more dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the standoff, while the United States has favored more sanctions. On a visit to Tehran on Tuesday, Mr. Putin said he believes Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceful. He rejected the use of force against Iran, something the United States has refused to rule out.