The abrupt resignation of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator signals a turn toward a harder line with the US and Europe as talks over Iran's nuclear program resume in Rome Tuesday.
The high-level change also exposes a power struggle between conservative factions in Iran, say analysts, that has now boosted the power of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while raising questions about the calculations of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei.
It shows that Mr. Ahmadinejad is "still very much in the driver's seat [and] the consequences for Iranian foreign policy are going to be fairly dire," says Ali Ansari, author of "Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Conflict in the Middle East." "It plays right into the hands of American hard-liners."
Iranian officials insist that the departure of Ali Larijani, the conservative secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and a former protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei, will not alter Iran's nuclear policy. But naming a relatively obscure official with little negotiating experience to replace him is not likely to produce a breakthrough either.
"The whole Iranian political scene is in shock," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii. "That puts a lot of pressure on Mr. Khamenei right now to come in and explain, justify, and more importantly, calm down the political environment."
"Mr. Khamenei has been put on the spot because [it] either says that he is out of control – that he doesn't have control over what is happening in the country – or he is on the side of Mr. Ahmadinejad," says Ms. Farhi, contacted in Boston.
Such a position could prove difficult for the supreme leader, "because there is a tremendous amount of unhappiness, even among the conservatives, about the way things are being run in Iran," adds Farhi. "If all of that from now on should be blamed not only on Ahmadinejad but also on Khamenei ... that undermines [his] position as a consensus builder."
Iran is under increasing pressure from the West, which accuses Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon – a charge Iran denies. American diplomats are pushing for a third set of UN Security Council sanctions over Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Last week, President Bush said he had been telling world leaders, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems you ought to be interested in preventing them [the Iranians] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
But Iran's strategies for peaceful nuclear energy are "unchangeable goals" regardless of who negotiates, foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on Sunday. "There is complete solidarity among the ranks of Iranian officials."
Mr. Larijani, a hard-liner and the candidate chosen by Iran's traditional conservatives months before the June 2005 presidential elections, has led Iran's side in all crucial talks since then. He was highly critical of the more moderate negotiating tactics of his reform-minded predecessors, and in 2006 dismissed an offer of Western economic incentives in exchange for halting Iran's nuclear program, saying the Security Council "should not think that they can make us happy with candies."
But Larijani is widely known to have been frustrated at Ahmadinejad's uncompromising public stance, and even direct public contradictions that eroded his negotiating room. The latest came this week, when Ahmadinejad refuted a statement made by Larijani that Russian President Vladimir Putin had given a nuclear proposal to Khamenei. Iran's state news agency quoted Khamenei telling Mr. Putin he would "ponder your words and proposal," which Iranian officials believed may have involved trading a "time out" on UN sanctions for Iran suspending enrichment. One official was quoted saying the "main reason for Putin's visit was to convey this message." Khamenei told Putin that Iran was "avoiding adventurism and not giving pretexts to the enemy."
Over time, Larijani has won some plaudits for his diplomacy. He was instrumental in resolving a crisis when Iran's Revolutionary Guard force seized 15 British sailors in Iraqi waters and accused them of spying last April. And he oversaw an agreement with the UN's nuclear watchdog in August that aims to clarify all outstanding nuclear issues by year's end.
Part of the surprise for Iran watchers has been the speed of Larijani's departure for "personal reasons," and how quickly his successor – Saeed Jalili, a deputy foreign minister and Ahmadinejad ally – was named.
Experts say Mr. Jalili, who was just 14 years old at the time of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, is a hard-line dogmatist. Reuters quoted a diplomat in Tehran saying Jalili "specializes in monologue," not debate.
The choice is in keeping with the ascent of several key Ahmadinejad picks who, in ministries of interior, intelligence, and culture, have focused on creating a conservative "security outlook" across Iran to defend against "enemies."
"Jalili is even more anti-Western" and behind a number of "very provocative" diplomatic moves aimed at the British, says Mr. Ansari, who teaches at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Larijani was most obviously Khamenei's man," says Ansari. "There is something not right here, otherwise [Khamenei] would be in there to protect his man."
Already there are a chorus of complaints, with some ranking members of parliament calling for an investigation. Conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli said: "The experience and positions held by Larijani are not comparable with the deputy foreign minister, who has little experience."
The English-language Iran Daily newspaper said Iran's nuclear plans would not change, but that "it is obvious that the new group will pursue Ahmadinejad's nuclear direction with added commitment and zeal."
Days before Larijani resigned, his predecessor Hassan Rohani, who still sits on Iran's security council, issued this warning in the newspaper Etemad-e Melli: "We are now, more than ever, under threat. A country's diplomacy is successful when it doesn't allow the enemy to find more allies against it. Unfortunately our enemies are increasing."
The political jousting comes after several signs that Iranians – and Khamenei – appeared to have been trying to rein in the most vocal hard-liners, led by Ahmadinejad. The president's allies were trounced in elections last December, while rival Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a former president and head of the powerful Expediency Council – did very well.
Mr. Rafsanjani was further elevated in September to head the Experts Assembly, which can oust the supreme leader, but so far there has been little moderating affect on the president.
It's becoming more difficult to predict Iran's course, says Farhi. "We are dealing with extremely contested political terrain. Players are involved in a very intense process of making decisions that both create consensus about foreign policy [while] not losing their political position.
"That creates a very fluid dynamic," she says, "that does not allow us to talk about trends."