By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, March 29 (Reuters) - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has selected a new ambassador to represent Tehran at the United Nations, Hamid Abutalebi, a veteran diplomat who has held key European postings in the past, Iranian sources said.
Abutalebi, who has served as Iran's ambassador to Italy, Belgium and Australia, was chosen to replace Iran's outgoing ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, sources said. Khazaee's departure was previously announced.
A spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission declined to comment.
Abutalebi began working for the Islamic Republic's foreign ministry in the early 1980s, not long after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
One Western diplomat at the United Nations said on condition of anonymity that Abutalebi was connected to circles close to Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both considered to be pragmatists who have good relations with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Abutalebi was a diplomat under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative who angered the United States and Europe with his anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric. But Abutalebi is not considered to be close to Ahmadinejad, the Western diplomat said.
He added that Abutalebi is not known to have played a role in the secret nuclear discussions between Washington and Tehran that led to an interim deal last November between Iran and the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Under that deal Iran agreed to halt some sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
Tehran denies allegations from Western countries and their allies that it is covertly developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.
If granted a visa by the United States to work in New York as Iran's U.N. envoy, Abutalebi will replace Khazaee.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman did not have an immediate response when queried on Saturday about Abutalebi as head of Iran's U.N. mission.
Khazaee was viewed by Western U.N. delegations as relatively moderate, Western diplomats said.
Iranian sources, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Abutalebi was selected months ago to replace Khazaee, an economist who took up the post in 2007. Abutalebi is hoping to arrive as early as next month, the sources said.
Iranian diplomats, like the envoys of North Korea and Syria, are confined to a radius of 25 miles from Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan.
Iran's U.N. mission is its only diplomatic operation in the United States and has played a role as a conduit for unofficial exchanges of messages between Washington and Tehran on nuclear issues or the release of U.S. citizens held in Iran, Western diplomats said.
The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 during a hostage crisis, but it is required to allow U.N. diplomats to come to New York under its host country agreement with the United Nations. It does, however, reserve the right to refuse visas to those seeking to work as diplomats in New York. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)