This week, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei ended his controversial and unsuccessful term as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. His last days on the job caused a great deal of consternation, even more than the rest of his 12 years in the bureau overlooking the Danube, at United Nations headquarters in Vienna.
On Sunday, the Iranian government announced it would set up another 10 facilities for enriching uranium, beyond the existing two at Natanz and Qom. This was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant response to the IAEA board of governors' concern about aspects of Iran's nuclear program that "have military potential," and the agency's call that Tehran stop building at Qom and enriching uranium. The decision can also be considered a rude gesture to the person who was considered Iran's most important supporter and benefactor in the international community, ElBaradei.
ElBaradei was born 67 years ago in Egypt, and studied law at the universities of Cairo, Geneva and New York. He served in the Egyptian foreign service for about 15 years, and then began a three-decade career with the United Nations, first in New York and later in Vienna.
He started off as an inconspicuous lawyer, but after being elected to head the IAEA in 1997, everything changed. Three nuclear crises took place during his term, in Iraq, North Korea and Iran. Thanks to the first crisis, he won worldwide fame when the Americans invaded Iraq. ElBaradei and his aides refuted the Bush administration's claims that Saddam Hussein had a secret nuclear program, and maintained that documents detailing Iraq's supposed attempts to acquire uranium from Niger were forged. They were right. Bush made a mistake, was misled or perhaps even lied.
ElBaradei's conduct regarding Iraq's non-existent nuclear weapons brought him a great deal of international prestige. He became a popular speaker in important forums around the world, and in 2005 he and the agency received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to curtail nuclear proliferation.
The prize, as people who knew him observed, went to his head and made him haughty, arrogant and self-righteous. But that's when things began to go downhill.
"He started to behave as if he knew better than anyone else and could not make a mistake," one of the senior officials in the agency complained. But it was after winning the prize that his career reached a nadir that stained his earlier achievements. While it could be argued that ElBaradei hardly had any control over North Korea's unstable and defiant nuclear program, the poor management of the crisis with Iran has to be attributed largely to him - the Egyptian diplomat is responsible for his organization's placatory approach toward the Iranian nuclear program. For almost a decade, starting in 1992, the agency inspectors did not notice that Iran had a secret nuclear program that violated its international commitments. Even when the agency had the information, in 2002 (to a considerable degree thanks to American, British, German and Israeli intelligence), ElBaradei ignored it and made every possible effort to undermine its reliability.
He intervened repeatedly to distort his inspectors' reports on Iran's nuclear sites, and he made sure that the IAEA's periodic reports about Iran would be camouflaged in diplomatic gibberish. Time and again they repeated the phrase that "no proof was found" that Iran's nuclear program had military aspects, even though they were blatantly obvious. ElBaradei was opposed to sanctioning Iran, not to mention military action, and repeatedly attempted to conduct a dialogue with Tehran in order to reach a compromise.
It is not clear whether his backing for Iran stemmed from his origin - as some Israeli Atomic Energy Commission officials and others believe; from his legal background and careful phrasing; or from a naive belief in international diplomacy and dialogue at any price, while consistently rejecting the military option. Maybe it was all these factors. Whatever the case may be, his conduct toward Iran raised the ire of George W. Bush's administration, which sought to have him replaced.
ElBaradei's relationship with Israel, which he visited twice, was tense. To the chagrin of the international agency, he repeatedly called for a nuclear-free Middle East, which was interpreted as targeting Israel. His animosity toward Israel found special expression after the attack in September 2007 on Syria's nuclear facility. He ensured that Israel's name be mentioned in the IAEA reports about the Syrian nuclear plan, even though this was not necessary. And he added a paragraph stating that Israel had carried out the attack, even though it had never officially admitted doing so.
Given his conduct toward Iran and his attitude toward Israel, some in Israel even considered trying to defame him by presenting him as an Iranian collaborator.
Toward the end of his term, ElBaradei changed his tone about Iran, creating the impression that he had had awakened from his illusion that Iran could be convinced to compromise. In the past few weeks, he made several resolute declarations, saying that perhaps Iran indeed wanted to nuclear weapons, as Israeli and American spokesmen had been claiming for years. But this was too little, too late. It will not suffice to clear his reputation in the West, and more importantly, it will have no effect whatsoever on the fact that he misled world opinion about the real nature of the Iranian nuclear program.
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