VIENNA — The chief of the world's nuclear weapons watchdog organization considers five years of U.S. and international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions a failure, as Tehran moves ever closer to obtaining the means to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The United Nations Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions to try to get Iran to halt uranium enrichment and other activities, while the United States and Europe have offered economic and security incentives. Yet Iran continues acquiring nuclear technology and stockpiling sensitive material.
"We haven't really moved one inch toward addressing the issues," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. "I think so far the policy has been a failure."
The 66-year-old Egyptian diplomat and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize laureate also urged world leaders to address broader unease about security, poverty and perceived injustice rather than zero in on narrow security concerns, such as nuclear weapons.
"Now, I am talking more and more about poverty, HIV/AIDS" and other matters, he told The Times this week during a rare one-on-one interview at the agency's headquarters in Vienna. The nuclear issue "is the tip of the iceberg."
Still, atomic energy remains the focus of his U.N.-related agency and ElBaradei said he felt optimistic about an eventual U.S.-led settlement between Tehran and the West.
He said U.S. President-elect Barack Obama gave him "lots of hope" after he inserted a proposal to abolish all nuclear weapons in the Democratic Party platform and advocated opening diplomatic dialogue with rivals.
"He is ready to talk to his adversaries, enemies, if you like, including Iran, also [North] Korea," he said, adding that the Bush administration was reluctant to do so. "To continue to pound the table and say, 'I am not going to talk to you,' and act in a sort of a very condescending way -- that exaggerates problems."
During 11 years as head of the agency, ElBaradei has sparred frequently with the Bush administration, which sought unsuccessfully to deny him a third term in 2005. That move was the result of the bitter dispute he had with Washington over its insistence that Iraq had a nuclear program. Its nonexistence vindicated him and earned him and his agency the Nobel.
Still, some Western diplomats accuse his agency of not being tough enough on the nuclear ambitions of countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Others criticize him for veering off his mandate by offering the West unsolicited diplomatic advice and political commentary instead of focusing on the agency's core activities: monitoring and inspecting member states' nuclear programs and reporting back to its governing board.
Experts say he's walked a tightrope of criticism from both Iran and U.S. allies such as Israel.
"From a Western perspective, he's been too quick to give the benefit of the doubt to Iran and shade his reports sometimes in ways that sometimes downplayed Iran's violations and lack of cooperation," said Mark Fitzpatrick, an arms control expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
But ElBaradei has received accolades for getting Iraq right, insisting that it had no nuclear program even in the face of U.S. criticism.
"When he's done well is when he's led an agency of technical experts," Fitzpatrick said. "When he's done poorly is when he's exceeded the technical requirements of the job and taken on a larger political aura. He's been criticized for trying to cast himself in a mediator role."
During the interview, ElBaradei, who is scheduled to retire in about a year, shed his severe public persona, punctuating freewheeling comments about weapons proliferation, world peace and contemporary politics with laughter. He sat surrounded by his collection of African art while wearing a gray pinstriped suit and a bright orange Salvatore Ferragamo tie.
He spoke of possibly living in southern France, where he recently purchased a home.
"It's nice to try something else," he said. "All I know is, I think I would like to continue to do public service."
A New York University law student and professor during the 1970s and '80s, he closely follows American foreign policy debates. He cited recent opinion pieces in U.S. newspapers, and said he hoped those advocating engagement with Iran and other alleged nuclear scofflaws such as Syria and North Korea would prevail over those arguing for containment and isolation.
Iran is one of the incoming Obama administration's main foreign policy puzzles. Not only has it refused to stop producing enriched uranium, which can be used to build a bomb as well as fuel a power plant, but Tehran has also consistently sidestepped questions about evidence suggesting it was operating a secret weapons program until at least 2003.