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Iran may tap moderate to lead nuke talks

Aug. 20, 2013 at 1:57 PM

TEHRAN, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- Iranian officials signaled Tuesday they may change the leader of their nuclear negotiating team, possibly tapping a diplomat educated in the United States.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who defeated more conservative candidates in June elections, has already named a fellow moderate, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as foreign minister. Now, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said it's possible Zarif will be named to take over as lead nuclear negotiator, The New York Times reported. That his name was floated publicly likely indicates such a decision has already been made but hasn't been announced officially.

Zarif would replace Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner who made no progress on talks surrounding Iran's highly controversial uranium enrichment program. Jalili was a personal emissary from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately has the final say over the direction of the Iranian nuclear program. The Times said it was likely the ayatollah had already signed off on replacing Jalili with Zarif to lead nuclear negotiations.

Jalili was one of the conservative candidates defeated by Rouhani in the recent election.

Zarif spent much of his youth in America and was educated in U.S. schools. He's seen largely as a moderate who refers to the United States as a "rival" nation to Iran, not as harsh as the typical references to America as Iran's "enemy," preferred terminology among hard-liners.

Iran has been negotiating unsuccessfully for years over its uranium enrichment program. Iran insists the program is for domestic energy production but the group of nations known as the P-5-plus-1 -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Britain, China, Russia, France and the United States, plus Germany -- has long suspected Iran is really trying to build nuclear weapons.

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