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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)Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/chi-0501280064jan28,1,2506141.story CHICAGO TRIBUNE CHICAGO TRIBUNE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 proliferation.

"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 produced.

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 believe that.

"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 own.

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 list.

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, and smarter."

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 officer.

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 2001.

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.

´Two-term´ rule

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 something damning.

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 still stung.

"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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