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IRAQ - The Fate Of Larijani & Iran's Nuke Plan.

When the UNSC's 60-day deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear activities expires on Feb. 21, 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. A report in the FT of Feb. 17 suggested that Lajinani might be replaced as a top nuclear negotiator.

Soft-spoken, dapper and bespectacled, notably self-confident in his dealings with Western diplomats and politicians, Larijani is frequently said to be close to 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.

On Feb. 10, Larijani flew to Germany to attend the annual Munich security conference, where he addressed an audience including US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and met European officials for the first time since October. Only hours before he was due to arrive, he cancelled the trip, and then 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".

When he made his speech on Feb. 11 Larijani 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 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, Larijani said Iran 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, Ahmadi-Nejad argued that anyone who retreated "from Iran's rights...[would become] the most hated person".

Ironically, Larijani had a reputation as a critic of talks with Europe when he became secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) in mid-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.

Larijani lacks Ahmadi-Nejad's populist charisma and, despite backing from powerful conservatives, came a poor sixth in the June 2005 presidential election. Unlike the president, a blacksmith's son with no clerics in his family, Larijani is a natural member of Iran's Shi'ite theocracy as the son and son-in-law of ayatollahs. His background hardly suggested a top security post.

Larijani 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 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, but spent 10 years as head of state broadcasting.

During his first year at the SNSC, Larijani presided over a gradual restart of the atomic programme, while looking to Russia and China to block UNSC action. The sticking point remains Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, even for a brief period, to allow serious negotiations to begin.

The FT on Feb. 17 reported Iranian officials as suggesting Larijani had hinted that Iran might suspend enrichment if assured that resumed negotiations would recognise its "right" to nuclear technology, including limited uranium enrichment under full UN supervision. The FT said: "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, Larijani faces the same problem as his predecessor Rowhani - how to edge towards negotiations while avoiding domestic criticism of giving way over Iran'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 foreign policy advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, as a sign of impatience with Larijani. The FT quoted a "regime insider" as saying: "I think it's possible the leader may want to blame someone for the UN resolution. This means he could make a fresh start fairly soon by removing Mr Larijani".
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Title Annotation:Ali Larijani
Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Feb 19, 2007
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