x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iranian envoy to UN nuclear agency set to leave his post

Departure seen as sign of Rouhani's desire for fresh start.

VIENNA // Iran's envoy to the UN atomic agency will leave his post next month, in what may be a further sign of the desire by the country's new president, Hassan Rouhani, for a fresh start with the outside world over its disputed nuclear programme.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh's surprise departure comes after Mr Rouhani on Friday appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, a former foreign minister who is seen as a pragmatist, to replace a hardliner as the head of Iran's atomic energy organisation.

Mr Rouhani has pledged to improve Iran's relationship with world powers in an attempt to ease stringent international sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme, which it says is entirely peaceful but the West suspects has military aims.

Mr Soltanieh, a nuclear physicist and an energetic diplomat in his early 60s who often rails against the West in meetings of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had been leading negotiations with the agency that had proved fruitless.

"I confirm that my mission, assignment, will be over on September 1," Mr Soltanieh said. "I'm proud that I've served my country and I'm grateful for their trust and I will go back home of course to serve my country."

A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA said Mr Soltanieh "was the face" in Vienna of the previous Iranian government and that his replacement may be another indication of Mr Rouhani seeking a better atmosphere in Tehran's international dealings.

"If the president wants a new dynamic, maybe he needs a new person" as ambassador to the UN agency, the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Mr Salehi - also a former ambassador to the IAEA - was seen as a further signal that Mr Rouhani intends to pursue a more flexible approach to Iran's nuclear dispute with the West than his hardliner predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The IAEA's chief nuclear inspector, Herman Nackaerts, Mr Soltanieh's counterpart, is to retire next month, meaning both sides may enter new discussions with new chief negotiators. The next meeting has yet to be scheduled.

There was no word on who would replace Mr Soltanieh, who has held the job for some seven years.

The IAEA has for years been investigating allegations that Iran has carried out research and tests to develop nuclear weapons, a charge the country denies.

Western diplomats have accused Iran of stonewalling the IAEA's inquiry, and Tehran's relations with the UN agency have become increasingly strained in recent years.

A European diplomat said Mr Soltanieh still seemed to have cordial personal relations with IAEA officials in talks early last year on what the UN agency calls the "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear programme.