He´s the world´s nuclear arms watchdog. - But why does the Bush administration want him out? (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) By Tom Hundley VIENNA, Austria 01/28/05)
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VIENNA -- Mohamed ElBaradei would seem perfect for the job.
An Egyptian diplomat, law professor and weapons expert who knows his
way around Manhattan, he is as comfortable negotiating with the
mullahs running Tehran´s nuclear program as he is courtside at New
York Knicks games.
And as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he
is the world´s watch-dog in the high-stakes struggle to curb nuclear
"ElBaradei is exactly the kind of person you would want in the role --
someone from a developing country who has a Western intellect but a
Third World sensitivity," said John Ritch, a former U.S. ambassador
to the nuclear agency.
But the Bush administration wants ElBaradei out. It is not clear why.
In his office at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, ElBaradei, 62,
brushes aside recent reports that U.S. spy agencies have been
listening in on his phone conversations. He prefers to talk about
what causes him to lose sleep: the real and present danger of a
nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group.
"A terrorist group getting its hands on a nuclear weapon -- that is
the most serious threat one could imagine," he said. "These are
people who, if they get a nuclear weapon, will use it. They will not
be deterred because it is not in the nature of their ideology to be
deterred." The only way to prevent this, he said, is to make sure
that all existing nuclear materials are secured and to reduce the
amount of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that is being
Building a crude bomb is relatively simple. The hard part for
terrorists is getting their hands on the necessary fissile materials.
Producing enriched uranium or plutonium requires a great deal of
sophisticated technology that still is beyond the capabilities of
even the best-financed terrorist group.
Tight controls over the supply of nuclear material are what El
Baradei calls the "choke point" that prevents terrorists or rogue
states from going nuclear.
That is why Iran´s nuclear program has become the most pressing issue
on the IAEA´s agenda.
For decades, Iran has openly -- and legally -- pursued the
construction of a nuclear power plant while secretly developing two
undeclared facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
The U.S. was aware of those activities but did not share its
intelligence with the IAEA. Iran´s secret was blown in 2002 when an
Iranian dissident group disclosed details of the project. Follow-up
inspections by the IAEA that began in 2003 uncovered a complete fuel
cycle and evidence pointing to a fairly advanced weapons program.
"On the question of whether they have weaponized, the jury is still
out," ElBaradei said. "What I know for sure is that they have
mastered the technology.
"Even if you are not weaponizing . . . if you are showing your
neighbors and the world that you can . . . enrich uranium and
separate plutonium, and that you have the technology to make a
nuclear weapon should you decide to do so, that in itself is a
deterrent," he said.
In other words, Iran has what ElBaradei calls a "virtual nuclear
weapon." It has become a nuclear player.
Most arms control experts and regional analysts believe Iran wants
nuclear weapons not to attack Israel or to arm Hezbollah terrorists,
but rather because it has rational security concerns. Iran lives in a
nuclear neighborhood. Pakistan, India and Russia, to say nothing of
Israel, all have nuclear bombs. Iraq, with whom it fought a long war,
tried to acquire them.
"If you really want to be treated as one of the big boys, you
ultimately need to develop nuclear weapons," ElBaradei said.
There are equally sound reasons why the U.S., Europe and ElBaradei do
not want to see Iran join the nuclear club. The biggest fear is that
a nuclear-armed Iran will destabilize the region and put pressure on
Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to seek weapons of
their own to balance out Iran´s advantage.
Iran insists its nuclear intentions are strictly peaceful. Few
"They want a bomb," said Gary Samore, a member of the National
Security Council during the Clinton administration. "They are within
striking distance of a weapon. The question is, can they get it
without a confrontation with the big powers?"
Europe and the U.S. are in fundamental disagreement on how best to
defuse the Iranian crisis.
EU believes in dialogue
The European Union, represented by Britain, France and Germany,
believes in dialogue and engagement. Painstaking negotiations between
the so-called EU3 and Iran resulted in an agreement in November in
which Iran promised to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment
program and allow on-site inspections.
The Europeans now are pushing Iran to make the suspension permanent.
The IAEA´s main contribution to all of this has been its on-site
inspections, which have revealed, among other things, that Pakistan
had been providing Iran with nuclear technology for at least a decade.
"We can get people in on the ground, looking around where no one else
can go," said David Waller, the agency´s deputy director
general. "What we knew two years ago [about Iran´s nuclear program]
and what we know now is like night and day."
The EU3 wants the U.S. to join the talks with Iran, but the Bush
administration is not interested. Administration hard-liners want the
IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for immediate
sanctions, even though it appears highly unlikely that the Security
Council would impose any.
That, in a kind of Iraq redux, would allow the U.S. to claim that the
Security Council had shirked its duty, forcing the U.S. to act on its
The administration already has branded Iran part of the "axis of
evil" and hinted at military actions against the Tehran regime. In
this week´s issue of The New Yorker magazine, investigative
journalist Seymour Hersh reports that the U.S. has been conducting a
secret operation inside Iran since last summer, and that Pentagon
planners have been working closely with Israel to develop a target
ElBaradei, who angered administration hawks by refuting their claims
about Iraq´s nuclear program, supports the EU3´s approach on Iran,
and that appears to be the main reason that the administration has
launched a campaign to oust him.
U.S. seeks toughness
Administration officials have complained that ElBaradei is conflict-
averse. In particular, the State Department´s John Bolton,
undersecretary for arms control and international security, has made
clear he does not think ElBaradei has shown sufficient toughness with
Iran. Ritch, the former U.S. ambassador, disagrees.
"What would toughness be? Answering a State Department phone call on
the first ring and then parroting the instructions that are given? As
a valuable international leader, ElBaradei would last about an hour
if he did that," he said.
"ElBaradei knows 100 times more about the NPT [Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty] and how to make it work than any
neoconservative in Washington," he said. "He´s as tough as they are,
Aides who have worked alongside ElBaradei in his dealings with the
Iranians also say he´s plenty tough.
"I´ve never seen him pound a table, but I have seen him take the
gloves off, and believe me, he can be extremely direct," said Laura
Rockwood, an American lawyer who serves as the IAEA´s principal legal
Given the institutional constraints on the IAEA -- it has no police
powers; it can only punish violators by reporting them to the
Security Council -- ElBaradei defends the diplomatic approach.
"A lot of these issues can only be resolved through dialogue," he
said. "You will never solve your problems . . . until you put your
grievances on the table and find out how to move forward.
"Some people equate that with being soft -- that if you do not pound
on the table and you do not scream, then you are being soft . . . but
I think this is absolutely the wrong approach," he said. "Maybe this
is my legal and diplomatic background."
The son of a prominent Cairo lawyer, ElBaradei studied law at Cairo
University. He joined the Egyptian diplomatic service, and served in
Egypt´s permanent mission to the UN in Geneva and New York. The young
diplomat also served as a diplomat to Egyptian foreign minister
Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the 1978 Camp David talks.
While in New York, he obtained a doctorate in international law cq
from New York University, and taught at the university´s law school.
NU It was during that time that he became a serious student of arms
control and NBA basketball, the latter during the Madison Square
Garden glory days of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier.
He went to the IAEA in 1984 and held a series of high-level policy
positions before succeeding Hans Blix as director general in 1997. He
was not Blix´s first choice as a successor, nor was he the choice of
his own government, but ElBaradei had the backing of the U.S. and
other governments that sit on the IAEA board. He was reappointed in
ElBaradei´s office, in the UN´s sterile complex on the outskirts of
Vienna, reveals little of the man. A few ornamental rugs, some modern
paintings, a clean desk and an unspectacular view--the consummate
diplomat, he gives nothing away. Words are measured out carefully;
the rhetoric here is decidedly low-key.
His manner is courtly; his associates describe him as shy and
relentlessly self-effacing. Everyone in the office calls him Mohamed.
The Bush administration´s relationship with ElBaradei soured during
the run-up to the Iraq war. While National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice was raising the specter of "mushroom clouds" over
American cities, ElBaradei was reporting -- accurately, as it would
turn out -- that Iraq had effectively abandoned its nuclear weapons
program after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Departing Secretary of State Colin Powell cited an informal "two-
term" rule as the reason ElBaradei should step down, but ElBaradei´s
supporters say they believe administration hawks, chiefly Bolton, are
determined to punish ElBaradei for not playing ball on Iraq.
The campaign to oust him took a peculiar turn last month when The
Washington Post reported that the administration had been
eavesdropping on his phone calls to Iran in an effort to come up with
According to the Post, the phone intercepts produced no evidence of
nefarious conduct on ElBaradei´s part. Still, the sniping against
ElBaradei keeps coming, and the Post article quoted an anonymous U.S.
official who said, "The plan is to keep the spotlight on ElBaradei
and raise the heat."
Diplomats and arms control experts are alarmed at the damage that
could do to the IAEA´s credibility as a nuclear monitor.
"The Bush people who want him to be a dog on a leash are myopic,"
Ritch said. "Even if he accepted that role, he wouldn´t be of value
to anybody, including the United States, because he would immediately
lose his standing.
"Mohamed´s not going to compromise with nuclear rule-breakers, but
neither is he going to make himself a tool of one nation´s ideas,
current instincts or passing demands," he said.
Makes him more credible
Waller, the IAEA´s deputy director general, noted that "the mere fact
that Mohamed does not walk in lockstep with the U.S. has added to his
credibility and served the U.S. interest along the way."
The reports that the U.S. eavesdrops on his phone conversations came
as no great shock to ElBaradei, but he said the invasion of privacy
"It bothers me that I am not able to have a private talk even with my
own staff," he said. "It also creates a sense that we are not able to
act independently, and that´s very important to me. On the other
hand, I really have nothing to hide."
ElBaradei´s job looks safe. The U.S. tried to advance the candidacy
of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer for the job, but
Downer was reluctant to challenge ElBaradei, and the Dec. 31 deadline
for submitting a candidate´s name has passed.
Meanwhile, Bolton´s fortunes have slipped. He had hoped for the No. 2
job at the State Department. But Rice, President´s Bush´s nominee to
succeed Powell, picked U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick
instead, and it now appears Bolton will leave the department.
The U.S., however, can still sandbag ElBaradei´s reappointment. The
IAEA´s board of governors must approve a third term by a two-thirds
majority, a process that could be drawn out for several months. If
the U.S. can deprive him of the necessary votes, it may be able to
slide in a compromise candidate.
ElBaradei said he hopes for a quick resolution so the agency can get
on with its substantive work.
"The one thing I do not lose sleep over," he said, "is whether I stay
or not." (Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune 01/28/05)
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