When Mohamed ElBaradei was selected as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1997, he was known as a reserved bureaucrat who enjoyed the backing of the United States and was unlikely to make waves. Twelve years later, he is leaving at the end of the month with a Nobel Peace Prize to his name and a reputation among his admirers for speaking truth to power, having stood up to the George W. Bush administration over Iraq and Iran. Meanwhile, much of the world has continued to pursue nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan conducted successful nuclear tests to prove what they had, North Korea developed a nuclear bomb, and Iran acquired about 5,000 centrifuges and more than 3,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium. Critics blame ElBaradei for failing to rein in these nuclear ambitions, but we believe there is plenty of blame to go around.
Founded in 1957, the Vienna-based IAEA operates under the United Nations. The director general's job is to help the IAEA's 150 member states develop safe nuclear energy while trying to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is an imperfect system that depends on the cooperation of its members, which must declare nuclear sites and grant the IAEA access to them. Although inspections have at times uncovered illicit activities at known facilities, they are not conducive to discovering hidden nuclear sites.
An Egyptian and Muslim by birth, a lawyer and diplomat by training, ElBaradei was a rather obscure assistant deputy general at the agency when he was promoted to the top. Four months after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush pronounced North Korea, Iran and Iraq "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," effectively laying out ElBaradei's future for him. His life and legacy at the agency were largely shaped by the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the international tug-of-war over Iran.
The first open clash with the administration took place in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, when Bush and other officials argued that President Saddam Hussein had not abandoned his nuclear weapons program. They charged that Iraq had tried to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuges and 500 tons of uranium oxide from Niger that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.
ElBaradei told the U.N. Security Council that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges, documents involving the Niger sale were fakes, and the IAEA had no evidence of resumed nuclear activities. His appeal for more time was ignored, and the U.S. invaded Iraq. Wiretapping ElBaradei's telephone in hopes of finding damning information, the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to deny him a third term at the IAEA.
ElBaradei was shocked by the summary dismissal of his agency's work, which proved accurate, and became a more outspoken leader as a result, according to former IAEA staff. In 2005, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded him and the IAEA the peace prize "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes," but also clearly in recognition of their Iraq work. However, being right seemed to be of little consolation to ElBaradei. The Iraq experience caused him to distrust U.S. intelligence and colored his approach to inspections in Iran.
Conservative critics charge that ElBaradei turned a technocrat's post into a political pulpit, overstepping his mandate. ElBaradei's many statements in recent years make clear that he believed he had a twofold mission: to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and to put the brakes on U.S. hard-liners, whom he saw rushing to judgment as they had on Iraq. He kept dogging Iran for access, but reported only the information about which he had virtual certainty. "I can't really judge ambitions," he said in 2007. "I can read facts. I can read equipment."
In 2003, ElBaradei criticized Iran for concealing nuclear activities at its Natanz enrichment facility and for thwarting investigations, but he resisted U.S. pressure to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, saying he had no proof of the existence of a military program. It took three more years for the IAEA to be convinced of that and to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.
Iran is the biggest question mark hanging over ElBaradei's tenure. Was he unduly cautious, as his critics charge? Should he have declared Iran in violation much earlier and used his clout to fight for tough, meaningful sanctions?
ElBaradei's caution was understandable at the time, given the limits of his mandate and his Iraq experience. He feared that if he wrongly accused Iran, the IAEA would lose credibility and Tehran would kick out inspectors, as North Korea had. That would be bad, given that much of what we know about Iran's nuclear program comes from IAEA cameras and inspections.