The shock resignation of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the country's future co-operation with UN inspectors, heightening the risk of US military strikes.
Iran sought to reassure the West yesterday that Tehran's policy over negotiations with Western powers attempting to curb its nuclear programme would not change after the replacement of Ali Larijani with a reputedly hardline deputy foreign minister, Saeed Jalili.
Mr Jalili is more closely associated with the radical Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Mr Larijani, who had been a rival of Mr Ahmadinejad in the last presidential elections. Iran's nuclear policy is, however, decided by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom Mr Jalili will report in future.
In a further sign that Tehran wanted to reassure the West, negotiations between the European security chief, Javier Solana, and Mr Larijani are to be held as expected in Rome tomorrow. Mr Larijani will be accompanied to the talks by his successor. The Europeans are offering a package of economic and technological incentives if Iran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment programme which has fuelled concern around the world about Iran's intentions because the process can eventually lead to production of a bomb.
But Iran has steadfastly refused to bow to UN demands to halt enrichment. President Ahmadinejad said in August that the nuclear dossier is now "closed" and talk of US military strikes was "propaganda". Mr Jalili's links to the president, known for his fiery brand of rhetoric, could signal that Iran does not fear challenging the US, at a time when President Bush is saying a nuclear Iran would trigger "World War Three".
The timing of Mr Larijani's departure comes at a critical stage in an agreed "work plan" between the UN nuclear agency and Iran, which is engaged in a race against the clock to avert the threat of additional UN sanctions before the end of the year.
The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who feels directly threatened by the Iranian nuclear programme, is touring European capitals to press for strengthened UN sanctions.
Iran has promised to clear up outstanding questions regarding its past nuclear activities within weeks in an attempt to prove to the International Atomic Energy Agency that its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.
The UN Security Council will wait until next month, when the IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei is to report back on progress before considering further sanctions. "Either they co-operate, or they don't. That's what we're going to judge," said a Vienna-based diplomat, who described the departure of the pragmatic Mr Larijani as "unfortunate".
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, is to discuss the impact of the replacement of Mr Larijani, and the "next steps" on Iran with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington today, according to a Foreign Office spokesman.
The US continues to stress a diplomatic solution is Washington's preferred route to resolve the standoff with Iran over the country's right to enrich uranium but is refusing to rule out the military option.
The hawkish US Vice-President, Dick Cheney said yesterday that Iran was a "growing obstacle to peace in the Middle East" and warned of consequences if Iran did not halt its sensitive nuclear activities.
Mr Jalili has served since 2005 as deputy foreign minister and was responsible for Europe and America. ( Independent )