Vienna: Late in August, Mohamed ElBaradei put the finishing touches on a nuclear accord negotiated in secret with Iran.

The deal would be divisive and risky, one of the biggest gambles of his 10 years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran would

Everyone’s best hope: Described by his detractors as drunk with the power of his Nobel and faulted for his nuclear deal with Iran, IAEA director general ElBaradei is the best source of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear progress. As IAEA members meet in Vienna on Monday, the self-described ‘secular pope’ will urge sceptical nations to give Iran’s pledge of atomic transparency a chance to work, and not dismiss it as a time-buying ruse.

The next day, diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the US marched into his office to deliver a joint protest. The deal, they said, amounted to irresponsible meddling that threatened to undermine a United Nations (UN) Security Council strategy to punish, not reward, Tehran.

ElBaradei, an Egyptian-born lawyer, was polite, but firm.

“If Iran wants to answer questions, what am I supposed to do, tell them it can’t?" he asked. Then, brandishing one of his characteristic mangled metaphors, he dismissed his critics as “living room coaches who shoot from the hip".

Almost five years after he stood up to the Bush administration on Iraq and then won the Nobel Peace Prize for his trouble, ElBaradei now finds himself at the centre of the West’s turbulent confrontation with Iran, derided yet relied upon by all sides.

To his critics in the West, he is guilty of serious diplomatic sins—bias towards Iran, recklessness and, above all, a naive grandiosity that leads him to freelance far beyond his station. Even some of his own staff members have become restive, questioning his leadership and what they see as his sympathy for the Iranians, according to diplomats here.

The Iranians themselves also seek to humiliate him and block his inspectors.

“He is the man in the middle," said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman long respected for his foreign affairs acumen.

“The United States and Iran simply do not believe one another. There is deep distrust," he added, and that makes the situation “very difficult" for any go-between.

Even so, while ElBaradei’s harshest detractors describe him as drunk with the power of his Nobel, what keeps him on centre stage is a pragmatic truth: He is everyone’s best hope.

He has grown ever more indispensable as American credibility on atomic intelligence has nosedived and European diplomacy with Tehran has stalled. For the world powers, he is far and away the best source of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear progress—information Washington uses regularly to portray Tehran as an imminent global danger.

Even the Iranians need him (as he likes to remind them) because his manoeuvres promise to lessen and perhaps end the sting of UN sanctions.

ElBaradei, 65, seems unfazed, even energized, by all the dissent. He alludes to a sense of destiny that has pressed him into the role of world peacemaker. He has called those who advocate war against Iran “crazies", and in two long recent interviews, described himself as a “secular pope" whose mission is to “make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other". He added, “You meet someone in the street—and I do a lot— and someone will tell me, ‘You are doing God’s work,’ and that will keep me going for quite a while."

It is precisely that self-invented role that enrages his detractors. They say he has stepped dangerously beyond the mandate of IAEA, a UN agency best known for inspecting atomic installations in an effort to find and deter secret work on nuclear arms.

“Instead of being the head of a technical agency, whose job is to monitor these agreements, and come up with objective assessments, he has become a world policymaker, an advocate," said Robert Einhorn, the state department’s non-proliferation director from 1999 to 2001.

In particular, ElBaradei is faulted for his deal with Iran, which has defied repeated Security Council demands to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Critics say the plan threatens to buy Tehran more time to master that technology, which can make fuel for reactors or nuclear bombs. Despite Iran’s long history of deception, ElBaradei’s supporters cite his vindication on Iraq—no evidence of an active nuclear programme has been found—as reason to listen to him now.

“He could have saved us a disastrous war if we had paid attention to him," said Thomas Franck, an international law professor at New York University Law School who taught ElBaradei there decades ago and remains a close friend.

After the Iran accord became public, The Washington Post published an editorial branding ElBaradei a “Rogue Regulator". His wife, Aida, who is his closest political adviser, came up with a response—T-shirts that succinctly frame the ElBaradei debate: “Rogue Regulator" will be stenciled on the front, “Or smooth operator?" on the back.

A tall, shy man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, ElBaradei is so averse to small talk that he refuses even superficial conversation with staff members in the agency’s elevators, aides say. Rather than venture into the dining room or cafeteria, he brings lunch from home and eats at his desk. He must be arm-twisted to make even the briefest appearance at important agency functions.

“He is very reserved, very aloof," Aida ElBaradei said recently over tea in their apartment, filled with rugs from Iran and the awards and other baubles that come with her husband’s rock-star-for-world-peace persona.

ElBaradei grew up with a French nanny and a private school education. He studied law and joined the foreign service, eventually serving in New York.

While working on his doctorate in international law at New York University, he went to Knicks games and to the Metropolitan Opera.

Moving up the diplomatic ladder, he eventually settled in Vienna, where he became the nuclear agency’s legal counsellor and then head of external relations. His ascent to the top job, in 1997, was a surprise.

After none of the proposed candidates received the needed votes, the US ambassador to the agency at the time, John Ritch, led a quiet campaign for ElBaradei, a close friend. In a cable to Washington, Ritch recalled, he said the US could do no better than backing “an Egyptian who is a passionate Knicks fan".

ElBaradei started out with the modest goal of reorganizing the agency, which today has about 2,300 employees. Then came Iraq. Before the war, the Bush administration repeatedly warned of Saddam Hussein getting the bomb, and called on atomic inspectors to confirm that view.

Instead, in March 2003, ElBaradei told the Security Council that after hundreds of inspections over three months, his teams had found “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme".

The invasion, 13 days later, was “the saddest day of my life", he said.

Even as American troops found no unconventional arms, the Bush administration took aim at ElBaradei and his agency, barring his inspectors from Iraq and working behind the scenes to keep him from a third term.

He said he had been “99% decided" against running until he learned that John Bolton, then Washington’s UN ambassador, was determined to block him.

ElBaradei recalled “a sense of revulsion" that such a personal decision should be made “by anybody else". His wife said she told him, “Mohamed, you run—tomorrow!" Ultimately, with no candidate of its own and no international support, the US backed down.

In October 2005, a month into his new term, the Nobel call came.

The standoff with Iran entered its current phase on 10 January 2006, when it broke IAEA’s protective seals on equipment at its underground site at Natanz and resumed efforts to enrich uranium.

When the West began imposing sanctions, Iran retaliated by cutting back on its co-operation with ElBaradei’s agency and barring dozens of its inspectors.

ElBaradei himself was humiliated on a rare visit to Tehran in April 2006. Two days before his arrival, the Iranians announced a breakthrough—industrial-level enrichment. Still, ElBaradei hoped to meet the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Instead, he spent much of his time cooling his heels in a hotel room.

Critics say ElBaradei has responded to such provocations by going soft on Tehran— glossing over its violations, caving in to its demands and writing reports that bend over backwards to be conciliatory. For instance, they say he has added to inspection woes by moving half a dozen top investigators off the case, which the agency defends as normal rotations. The chief Iran inspector, Christian Charlier, who spoke out publicly about Iran’s evasiveness, was put on the Brazil file.

“He’s naive and idiosyncratic, and that amounts to being dangerous," Bolton said. “His argument for years was that he could talk Iran out of being a nuclear threat. Then it was, ‘OK, we’ll just let them experiment.’ Now it’s, ‘You’re never going to get them to give up.’"

But ElBaradei’s supporters say he is engaged in a balancing act that deals as much with Washington’s excesses as Tehran’s.

Last May, after vice-president Dick Cheney warned from an aircraft carrier off Iran’s coast that the US was ready to use its naval power to keep Tehran from “gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region", ElBaradei offered a quick response: He declared that Iran had achieved “the knowledge" of enrichment— implying that it was too late for military action or other Western punishment for refusing to stop its atomic efforts.

“The fact of the matter," he said, “is that one of the purposes of suspension—keeping them from getting the knowledge—has been overtaken by events."

His remarks outstripped the analyses of his own inspectors, who were reporting technical problems at Natanz, and fuelled suspicions that he was exaggerating Iran’s progress as a political manoeuvre. Even so, that argument—that Iran has already crossed an important line—is the tacit assumption behind the new accord. The plan, released on 27 August, sets a firm timetable for Iran to clear up half a dozen controversies about past secret activities, while also improving access for IAEA inspectors.

The diplomats who marched into ElBaradei’s office the next day shredded the plan point by point.

They expressed dismay that the accord, negotiated with no diplomatic input, omitted any stipulation that Iran suspend enrichment. One envoy noted that the plan forces inspectors to ask questions on only one issue at a time, leaving the most sensitive topics until the end. There was general alarm that the document suggested treating Iran like a “routine" case, instead of a country that had lied repeatedly and, according to some governments, harbours a secret nuclear-arms programme.

ElBaradei’s response, paraphrased by a Western official, was that “all you are doing is being suspicious". “The agency cannot judge Iranian intentions," he added.

In the days that followed, representatives of other countries hammered ElBaradei. But a week later, many governments had started to believe that their strategy was backfiring. They decided to try to co-opt ElBaradei rather than isolate him.

The new thinking went like this: He and the Iranians had won this round. Much of the world would consider the agreement on a timetable a step forward. By contrast, Western diplomacy was hopelessly stalled.

On 7 September, envoys from the four Western powers again visited ElBaradei’s office. But this time they offered support for his effort to clear up the past and said they welcomed his renewed support in pressing Iran to suspend enrichment and let inspectors conduct wider inquiries.

In the interview, ElBaradei called the shift “a complete change"—the result of his explaining and “standing firm". He called his accord a sound step towards defusing the Iran confrontation.

“I have no qualm that some people have distrust because of Iran’s past behaviour," he said. But sanctions alone, he added, would solve nothing. “You need to sit together and talk about it and try to work out mechanisms to build confidence."

And if the Iranians do not keep their promises, he said, “I told them very openly that it will backfire."

Last week, when the agency’s board gathered here and discussed the new plan, the American envoy, Gregory Schulte, stunned colleagues by praising ElBaradei. He told the board that the deal was “a potentially important development and a step in the right direction".

Even so, diplomats and visitors say that in unguarded moments, ElBaradei has expressed the conviction that a lasting accommodation with Iran must wait until the Bush administration is gone.

The danger, some analysts say, is that by then Iran might have acquired the ability to make a bomb.