Legacy-building IAEA chief goes public with closed-door remarks
Insiders say Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was rather reticent and stiff in public when he took the job in 1997. He’d spent decades below the radar in Egypt’s foreign service, U.S. academia and the U.N. nuclear watchdog as head of the legal and external relations divisions.
But Mohamed ElBaradei evolved into a politically outspoken tribune for international peace and fair play.
That reputation grew as he challenged George W. Bush’s neocons over bogus evidence of mass-destruction weaponry they used to invade Iraq, and their policy of threatening rather than negotiating with Iran, which seemed to backfire by encouraging, not dissuading, Tehran to build up nuclear capability.
ElBaradei’s campaigning for negotiated non-proliferation, disarmament and development through peaceful uses of the atom earned a Nobel Peace Prize for him and the IAEA in 2005.
Now, as he prepares to retire in November, the 66-year-old, self-described “secular pope” has gone into legacy-building overdrive. Media interviews have proliferated with cable TV or web magazine outlets that air or publish his remarks unedited.
This week ElBaradei went public even in private, expounding off-the-cuff and very undiplomatically at a closed door meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors, then authorising his remarks to be “leaked” to the media outside.
At other governors’ meetings dealing with hot-button issues like Iran’s stonewalling of IAEA investigators, I had to chase participants by sms or after-hours phone calls just to get tiny,
broken snippets of what ElBaradei had said inside.
This time, whole transcripts of his interventions on the boardroom floor found their way to nuclear beat reporters.
ElBaradei pulled no punches. And the pickings were rich.
On Tuesday, he lambasted the governors for their protracted failure to reach consensus on a big budget rise he wants to upgrade a crumbling inspections regime he said threatens to turn the IAEA into a laughing stock among nuclear proliferators.
“What you are reaping today is what you have sown for the last 20 years of zero real growth budgets,” he said.
“The whole idea that now we have to go out and borrow or hold out our hands and say, ‘Please give us some money to do safety and security,’ is really a bastardisation of an international organisation,” ElBaradei fumed.
“Today our lab lacks the equipment to do sensitive particle analysis. How can I come here and tell you I have credible conclusions on issues that have tio do with war and peace?
“If you come to me and say cut here or cut there, I and my colleagues will not assume responsibility if in a couple of years from now we see another Chernobyl, or a nuclear terrorist attack, or a clandestine nuclear programme.”
On Wednesday, ElBaradei dispensed with diplomatic caveats by telling the BBC it was “his gut feeling” that Iran “definitely would like to have the technology that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so”.
To IAEA governors, he said the IAEA’s mission to prevent nuclear weapons spreading to unstable regions was “going around in circles” because it lacked enforcement tools and world powers
had not negotiated seriously with states like Iran, or shared intelligence with U.N. inspectors in a timely way.
“We are sometimes called the ‘watchdog,’ but we don’t bark at all if we don’t have the legal authority to do our work.
“The U.N. Security Council shouldnot necessarily mean just sanctions. It is supposed to be a forum to find solutions,” he said. “When there’s no dialogue, we come to a standstill. We are completely gridlocked in North Korea and Iran.”
On Thursday, simmering tensions between Israel and ElBaradei boiled over at the Board when the Jewish state’s envoy accused him of political bias and lacking assertiveness in his probe into an alleged secret plutonium reactor site in Syria.
That was a “totally distorted” position, ElBaradei shot back. He upbraided Israel for trying to tell the IAEA how to do its verification job but hindering it from doing that job by having bombed the purported reactor to ruin in 2007 before alerting inspectors first to check the evidence.
“(Israel says) we refrain from using tools. Israel is not even a member of the Non-Proliferation Regime, to tell us what tools are available to us. You cannot sit on the fence, making use of the system, without being accountable.
“To say I am biased, I won’t dignify that with a response.”
On Thursday, the IAEA governors, citing rights disputes, derailed ElBaradei’s campaign for a global nuclear fuel supply bank that would reduce the appeal of proliferation-prone enrichment in unstable states.
It was a stinging setback to his vision of stemming the spread of nuclear arms knowhow while sharing atomic energy for peaceful purposes in a safe, accountable way.
This time, ElBaradei was silent.
But he still has a few more months to weigh in on this and all his passionately-felt themes of war and peace — and later when he will be in demand on the global lecture circuit.
(International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei attends a board of Governors meeting at Vienna’s UN headquarters June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer (AUSTRIA POLITICS ENERGY HEADSHOT))