( AP ) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cut short a planned two-day visit to Armenia on Tuesday, officials there said, as the hard-line leader faced growing unhappiness back home over the resignation of Iran's top nuclear negotiator.
The sudden replacement of negotiator Ali Larijani fueled already increasing complaints - even from conservatives who were once his supporters - that the fire-brand president was mismanaging Iran's most vital issues, particularly the confrontation with the West over the nuclear program.
Beyond the suddenness of Larijani's weekend departure, the choice for his replacement, Saeed Jalili, also came as a surprise. Jalili was a low-profile deputy foreign minister, noted mainly for his loyalty to Ahmadinejad.
In a sign the displeasure may reach high levels in Iran's clerical establishment, a foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, complained over the surprise change, which took place just ahead of key talks Tuesday with the European Union.
"It was definitely better if this did not happen in the (current) important and sensitive situation when the nuclear issue is on the table," the adviser, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, was quoted as saying by the semi-official news agency, ISNA.
Jalili met Tuesday in Rome with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Larijani attended to help the transition. Solana said the talks were "constructive" and more were planned by the end of November.
Solana's spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, said the meeting was aimed "at creating the right framework to start formal negotiations" on Iran's nuclear program, and cited the U.N. Security Council's demand for a halt to Iranian uranium enrichment as one of the main issues.
The resignation has been widely interpreted as a victory for Ahmadinejad, enabling him to impose a tougher line in nuclear negotiations. Though a conservative, Larijani was considered more moderate than Ahmadinejad within Iran's hard-line camp and had reportedly differed with the president over how to approach nuclear talks.
After the meeting in Rome, Larijani sought to play down such speculation, expressing his support for Ahmadinejad and saying the change was just a matter of bringing in a younger man for the negotiations.