ROME, Oct 23 (Reuters) Iran's new nuclear negotiator arrived in Rome today to meet Western diplomats who will try to gauge whether his appointment is a sign Tehran has hardened its stance on its atomic programme.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana will meet Saeed Jalili, a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has vowed not to compromise on Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology.
Jalili replaced Ali Larijani, whose resignation as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator was announced on Saturday. Larijani was, however, still scheduled to attend the Rome talks.
Analysts have said Jalili's appointment might signal a hardening of Tehran's position over its nuclear plans.
Iran's refusal to halt work that can be used to make fuel for power plants or, if Iran wanted, material for warheads has already prompted the UN Security Council to impose two sets of sanctions.
Iran insists its plans are peaceful.
The Iranian delegation arrived at Rome's Ciampino airport ahead of the talks scheduled for 2130 ist at Rome's lavish Doria Pamfili villa.
Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said the EU official's mandate remained unchanged, namely to explore the scope for entering formal negotiations with Iran on international requests that it halt sensitive nuclear activities.
''We have to be open to whoever they send,'' she said of Jalili's surprise appointment.
Solana has been in touch with US, Russian and Chinese officials ahead of the talks, she added. ''There have been intensive preparations for the meeting.'' SENSITIVE CONDITIONS Some Iranian officials have questioned the timing of changing the chief negotiator when the West is pushing for tougher penalties on Iran for not heeding U.N. demands to suspend uranium enrichment activities.
''In the sensitive and important conditions in which the nuclear issue is (now) being studied, it would have been better if such important changes did not happen,'' said Ali Akbar Velayati, international affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Although Ahmadinejad is Iran's most public voice on atomic policy, Khamenei has the final say in all state matters. Analysts say Khamenei would have had to approve Jalili's appointment, indicating his support for the president's tough line.
Jalili has taken over as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, traditionally also the chief atomic negotiator.
Larijani is still on the council as one of two representatives of the supreme leader.
Some diplomats have been wary about the choice of Jalili for negotiator. One said he ''specialises in monologue'', not debate.
Jalili, who was a deputy foreign minister, toured European capitals in recent weeks to discuss Iran's nuclear dispute.
World powers have agreed to delay further penalties on Iran at least until November to see if Iran cooperates with UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and to await a report by Solana.
Tehran insists its nuclear programme is aimed at producing electricity so it can preserve more of its massive oil and gas reserves for export.
US President George W Bush has said a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to a third world war. France is pushing for stronger European Union sanctions against Tehran, as well as pressing for further UN measures.
REUTERS SZ KP15220