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Short-lived celebration

October 10, 2005

THE ERA OF GOOD FEELING surrounding the International Atomic Energy Agency and its leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, for their deserved win Friday of the Nobel Peace Prize unfortunately is unlikely to last long. For the United Nations, success never seems to resonate as much as failure. Following the peacekeeping disasters of Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, few remembered that U.N. peacekeepers won the Nobel in 1988. The U.N. and Secretary-General Kofi Annan won the award in 2001, but that triumph seems distant compared to the oil-for-food and other scandals.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was gracious in praising the winners. The U.S. initially opposed ElBaradei's bid for a third term as head of the IAEA but backed down because of his wide-scale support. It's a tense relationship because of differing stances on Iran, as well as the fact that ElBaradei had urged a diplomatic approach to Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war and was skeptical about U.S. claims on Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It turned out, of course, that the IAEA was right; Iraq did not have nuclear or chemical weapons.

The peace prize committee was right to note that the threat of nuclear weapons is increasing again. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the end of 2002 and is thought to have enough material for several weapons. Iran insists it wants nuclear power only for energy, but it hid its program from the IAEA for years and has rejected efforts by a trio of European nations -- Britain, France and Germany -- to get it to accept safeguards. Last month, the IAEA board approved a resolution condemning Iran's nuclear activities.

But the IAEA's power is limited. It is China that is hosting talks with North Korea, the United States and three other countries and leaning on Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program. And it is the European trio taking the lead with Iran.

The agency does its best work when given unfettered access. That normally means the country being inspected tells the agency where its facilities are and leaves it to the monitors to ensure that they meet nuclear treaty safeguards. But India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and do not have to accept inspections. The extent of Iran's program was found only after dissidents tipped the IAEA on where to look.

Nuclear proliferation is one of the biggest problems today. At least in the short term, the peace prize brings the IAEA and ElBaradei enhanced clout that even nations such as Iran and North Korea should recognize. But to succeed, the inspectors need the all-out support of the nations that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, all of which possess nuclear weapons.

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