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When the UN Security Council’s 60-day deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear activities expires on Wednesday, one man could still hold the key to a negotiated deal: Ali Larijani, Iran’s top security official and the country’s chief nuclear negotiator. But hopes are faint.

Soft-spoken, dapper and bespectacled, notably self-confident in his dealings with western diplomats and politicians, Mr Larijani is frequently said to be close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet now he finds himself at the centre of the gathering storm, with little practical help or public support for his position either at home or abroad.

Ten days ago, Mr Larijani flew to Germany to attend the annual Munich security conference, where he addressed an audience including Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, and met European officials for the first time since October.

Only hours before he was due to arrive, he cancelled the trip, and then, equally suddenly, agreed to reinstate it, after urgent phone calls from Berlin.

Whether the hesitation was caused by divisions in Tehran or more innocent reasons, he apologised to his hosts, and blamed his “engagement in our regional problems”. He then abandoned his prepared text, and patiently sought to persuade a profoundly sceptical audience of Iran’s willingness to find a negotiated solution.

But on the same day, president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad gave a rousing speech in Tehran marking the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. These were clear echoes of a growing public debate in Iran over the nuclear issue.

In Munich, Mr Larijani said his country had no desire to threaten Israel and was willing to discuss technical limitations to ensure it could not make highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. In Tehran, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad argued anyone who retreated “from Iran’s rights . . . [would become] the most hated person”.

Ironically, Mr Larijani had a reputation as a critic of talks with Europe when he became secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 2005. He memorably said his predecessor, Hassan Rowhani, had “swapped a pearl for a candy” in suspending uranium enrichment for two years while securing only a promise of economic, political and technical incentives.

Mr Larijani lacks Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s populist charisma and, despite backing from powerful conservatives, came a poor sixth in the 2005 presidential election. Unlike the president, a blacksmith’s son with no clerics in his family, Mr Larijani is a natural member of Iran’s ruling elite as the son and son-in-law of ayatollahs.

His background hardly suggested a top security post. He was a student of computer science and mathematics, before doing a doctorate in western philosophy (and writing a book on Immanuel Kant). He earned his revolutionary credentials as acting head of the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, but spent 10 years as head of state broadcasting.

During his first year at the national security council, Mr Larijani presided over a gradual restart of the atomic programme, while looking to Russia and China to block UN security council action.

The sticking point remains Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, even for a brief period, to allow serious negotiations to begin. Iranian officials suggest Mr Larijani hinted Iran might suspend enrichment if assured that resumed negotiations would recognise its “right” to nuclear technology, including limited uranium enrichment under full UN supervision. This appears to be the bottom line of Iran’s collective leadership, even if opposed by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who argues sanctions cannot hurt Iran and that the US and Israel will not dare to attack.

Hence, Mr Larijani faces the same problem as his predecessor – how to edge towards negotiations while avoiding domestic criticism of giving way over the country’s “rights”. His task has become more difficult as Iran’s political elite becomes convinced the US (and UK) will not recognise Iran’s rights to have a nuclear power programme of its own.

Some in Tehran saw the recent dispatch to talks in Moscow of Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, as a sign of impatience with Mr Larijani.

“I think it’s possible the leader may want to blame someone for the UN resolution,” says a regime insider. “This means he could make a fresh start fairly soon by removing Mr Larijani.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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