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Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator resigns

TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, a relative moderate who struggled fiercely against the uncompromising agenda of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has resigned his high-profile post, government officials announced Saturday.

The resignation of Ali Larijani dealt a major setback to Iranian moderates trying to forge a compromise over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, which is strongly opposed by the West.

For two years, Larijani had served as secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, which advises the highest levels of the Iranian government on key matters of state. His withdrawal from the scene “may make negotiations even more problematic than in recent months,” said Patrick Cronin, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.

Larijani, scion of a powerful clerical family and a confidant to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is said to oppose Iran’s isolation over its insistence on enriching uranium. Insiders said he advocated cutting a deal with the West to end the crisis, which has led to two sets of economic sanctions against Iran.

Within Iran’s inscrutable inner leadership circle, Larijani was often at odds with Ahmadinejad, who refused to tone down his rhetoric or steer a more moderate course on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

“The difference between Ali Larijani and President Ahmadinejad was on the cost of the nuclear issue,” said an adviser to Larijani, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Ahmadinejad insists on not any inch of compromise.”

Word of Larijani’s resignation came a few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tehran, the Iranian capital, and proposed a deal to end the nuclear stalemate, and just before Larijani was to have discussed the issue with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

“We will consider what you said and your proposal,” Khamenei reportedly told Putin, according to the official IRNA news agency, before adding: “We are determined to satisfy the needs of the country in nuclear energy, and it is for this that we take seriously the question of enrichment.”

Analysts said the resignation probably signified that Iran’s leadership had opted to reject Putin’s proposal, which most observers say was a deal in which Iran would halt its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for concessions from the West.

“Mr. Ali Larijani believed in a sort of compromise on uranium enrichment, but President Ahmadinejad thinks that Iran should go ahead with the current uranium enrichment and current nuclear policy,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. “Therefore, Mr. Ali Larijani had no option but to resign.”