Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cut short a visit to Armenia on Tuesday as his new nuclear negotiator arrived in Rome for talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
A diplomatic source in Yerevan said Ahmadinejad’s abrupt departure was prompted by concern over the “internal political situation” in Iran and the negotiations in Rome on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.
“Today we are expecting strong criticism addressed to Iran,” the source told AFP.
Iran denied there had been any change to the president’s schedule.
The United States, which accuses Iran of running a covert nuclear weapons programme, has recently stepped up its rhetoric aimed at pressuring Tehran to heed UN Security Council resolutions to suspend uranium enrichment activities.
In the past week, US President George W. Bush has warned that a nuclear-equipped Iran evoked the threat of “World War III,” while Vice President Dick Cheney warned of “serious consequences” if Tehran pressed ahead with enrichment.
Iran’s new negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a hardliner close to the Iranian president, took over as point man on the nuclear issue on Sunday after the sudden resignation of Ali Larijani who fell out with Ahmadinejad.
The meeting here will be the first chance for the European Union to see if Jalili lives up to his reputation as a stubborn diplomat unwilling to offer concessions to break the deadlock in the four-year standoff.
“We are going to see what attitude they arrive in Rome with” and whether Larijani’s departure “implies a change of stance one way or the other,” said Solana’s spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach.
The EU’s top diplomat, negotiating on behalf of major powers Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the United States, will renew an offer first made in June last year of an extensive package of political and economic incentives in exchange for Iran giving up uranium enrichment.
“It’s a case of finding out once more whether there is the possibility of starting negotiations” on the offer, said Gallach.
Larijani is accompanying Jalili to the talks, and his role is a source of intrigue.
Notably, the top foreign policy advisor of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all foreign policy matters, said it would have been better if Larijani had stayed in his post.
“In the very important and sensitive situation where the nuclear issue is at the moment it would be better if this (the resignation) did not happen or at least it was prevented,” said Ali Akbar Velayati.
Larijani was believed to support a more moderate line in the nuclear standoff — at least over the presentation of policy.
There was little hope that Solana and Jalili would make major progress, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki insisting that Tehran would never yield despite the threat of further sanctions.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran … will not allow its rights to be trampled on,” Mottaki said in a letter of protest to France, which has backed unilateral EU measures against Tehran.
Mottaki also told the French daily Le Monde that his country would “pursue its nuclear activities and uranium enrichment in the framework of the rules and under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Iran insists it wants only to generate energy and has every right to the full nuclear fuel cycle.
Solana’s spokeswoman said the package on offer “gives Iran all it requires for a civil nuclear programme … and would open the way for a political relationship which would bring Iran out of its current isolation.”
The meeting, to be held at Villa Pamphili, a frequent setting for the Italian government’s official talks, is set to start at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), to be followed by a press briefing.