Will ElBaradei's retirement rain on Obama's disarmament parade?

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — Ever wonder why Mohamed ElBaradei, retiring director-general of a wonkish international agency like the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), was forced to play Secret Agent Man during his tenure while the IAEA aped Interpol? After all, as conceived in 1956, the three pillars of the IAEA’s mission were nuclear verification and security, safety, and technology transfer.

Just as I was wondering at what point the IAEA went on the offensive, the answer appeared in an assessment of ElBaradei’s two terms. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a publication from whose title many instinctively recoil. But its origins, in fact, lay in how the scientists and engineers who had worked on the Manhattan Project recoiled from what they had wrought. Andreas Persbo and Mark Hibbs wrote the article in question, The ElBaradei legacy.

Persbo is the head of the Verification, Research, Training, and Information Centre — a mouthful I know. But it’s better known as VERTIC, positively sonorous in comparison. Mark Hibbs, meanwhile, is only the greatest reporter you’ve never heard of: He exposed the AQ Khan nuclear black market for the nuclear-industry publications he writes for, such as Nucleonics Week. ( Incidentally, I can get you a two-for-one subscription to NW if it’s packaged with EW — Entertainment Weekly.)

As far as the IAEA becoming a police agency, you may remember ElBaradei’s predecessor, Hans Blix. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the organization he then headed, UNMOVIC (one of the all-time most unwieldy abbreviations, short for United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission), searched for and found no nuclear weapons in Iraq. Persbo and Hibbs write:

The IAEA that Blix inherited in 1981 from his fellow [Swede] Sigvard Eklund was a relatively little-known technical agency associated with the United Nations. Eklund, according to a former IAEA legal affairs director, didn’t believe in nuclear safeguards or verification. [Emphasis added.]

Descriptive terms, such as “cipher” for Eklund and “neutered” for the IAEA, spring to mind. Under Blix, though, they write:

. . . that changed. When Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was discovered in 1991, Blix responded by building up the agency’s Department of Safeguards and pushing inspectors to shift their focus from accounting for declared [!] nuclear materials to searching for clandestine nuclear activities. [Again, emphasis added.]

“Shift their focus”? Try “make an about-face” — the turning point at which the IAEA morphed into police agency. Furthermore, it was ironic that under ElBaradei — a “shy, circumspect assistant deputy director-general. . . who avoided public controversy and who worked in Blix’s shadow ” — the IAEA jumped out of the frying pan it was in under Blix and into the fire. ElBaradei himself was to go full-circle from shy and retiring to, eventually, actually retiring. In the interim, he. . .

. . . told the 2000 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that he wanted the agency to go beyond routine safeguards [to] verifying the destruction of . . . fissile material [highly enriched uranium and plutonium — RW] and proposing [a] fund to [ensure that said] fissile materials were indeed being shifted to peaceful uses.

Thus did ElBaradei seize “the moral high ground on global disarmament issues to a far greater degree than any of his predecessors.” In the process, he began to alienate those staunchly defending the moral low ground — the Bush administration, of course.

During ElBaradei’s second term, that process gained momentum. In his 2003 State of the Union address President Bush claimed that Iraq had sought to obtain uranium oxide from Africa. Then, of course, Colin Powell informed the U.N. Security Council that seized aluminum tubes were evidence that Baghdad had resumed uranium enrichment research.

ElBaradei not only disputed these claims before the Security Council, he also said “that British documents that were the basis for the [Africa] allegation were forgeries.” In his 2004 memoir Blix recalled his reaction: “Wow!”

Of course, the relationship further deteriorated over Iran. Persbo and Hibbs write;
When it took three years for the IAEA Board of Governors to cite Tehran for noncompliance, ElBaradei was blamed [by some, particularly Washington] for going soft on Iran. … “He appeared to be pulling his punches,” says one former Western ambassador who knows ElBaradei well.

To whatever extent he compromised the integrity of the IAEA, it was in the service of fending off the Bush administration. ElBaradei “began telling people that an invasion of Iran would be a worst-possible outcome,” according to a member of a commission which he later set up to chart the IAEA’s future. Also, he “saw his primary task as trying to convince Iran to allow his inspectors to stay in the country.”

Others attributed the delay in citing Iran to France, Germany, Britain, and especially EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Besides, the decision ultimately lay with the Board of Governors.

In response, not only did Bush administration officials object that ElBaradei “damaged efforts to halt Iran’s enrichment program,” but some “nonproliferation advocates who were highly critical of Bush tell us that they agree with that assessment.”

Picture ElBaradei rappelling down a narrow crevice between a rock and a hard place (okay, more rock). As if he weren’t getting enough grief. . .

In August 2007, a further development led to renewed criticism of ElBaradei. “Iran and the IAEA agreed to a controversial “work plan” that would set a timetable to end the agency’s investigation of Tehran’s nuclear program. ‘For a lot of U.S. officials and some others,’ says one former U.S. diplomat, ‘[ElBaradei] crossed the Rubicon on this issue.’ [But] the work plan should be put into context …. With its authority limited [the IAEA’s choice] at times can be simple — imperfect verification or no verification at all.

But the frying pan was to get even hotter when ElBaradei advocated the U.S.-India nuclear deal. According to one of his advisors, it was “by far the most controversial position [he] ever took.” Bear in mind that India developed nuclear weapons and never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What was ElBaradei thinking? Persbo and Hibbs explain:

ElBaradei reasoned that the U.S.-India deal ‘would bring India closer [to] efforts to consolidate the nonproliferation regime [and] assure India of reliable access to nuclear technology and nuclear fuel.’ [But many] nonproliferation advocates charge that on the U.S.- India deal ElBaradei took a position on a sensitive issue that wasn’t for the director-general to decide.

In other words, both the Bush administration and disarmament types agreed that “ElBaradei’s actions and statements. . . went beyond the role of a U.N. technical agency head.”

It seems self-evident, though, that if he didn’t take stands on issues that bleed into the policy arena he would be failing to do justice to the status the Nobel Peace Prize conferred on him and his organization. Besides, “most sources told the authors that. . . . . . it was the Bush administration’s unilateral approach to issues that poisoned many board deliberations, not actions taken by ElBaradei.” The Bush administration could dish out the executive authority, but they couldn’t take it.

Looking ahead, ElBaradei calls for more intrusive safeguards. As well, because of the need for energy that’s clean (supposedly) and the imperative to keep uranium out of the hands of would-be proliferators, he sees “multilateral fuel-cycle centers,” better known as nuclear fuel banks. But, write the authors:

As ElBaradei’s tenure reaches its close, a deep and troubling divide has opened up on the IAEA Board of Governors between advanced nuclear states. . . and developing. . . member states that make up a majority of the membership. On highly publicized issues such as Iran and Syria, consensus. . . has evaporated.

All things considered, disarmament advocates view ElBaradei’s record more or less favorably and they’re concerned that his successor won’t be able to fill his shoes. Indeed, Persbo and Hibbs maintain, incoming director-general Yukiya Amano — the advanced nuclear states’ choice — needs to restore consensus with the “countries that have a deep-seated fear that additional nonproliferation initiatives are intended to prevent them from enjoying the benefits of nuclear technology.”

Consensus also needs to be reached with President Obama who, reluctant to move forward until all hands are on board, runs on the stuff like a reactor does uranium.

First posted at the Faster Times.