ElBaradei leaves nuclear watchdog with legacy of honesty, Iran leniency
Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down from his post at the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA at the end of November. He's been seen both as an honest broker and as being too soft on Iran.
After 12 years of increasing international prominence, Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down on Nov. 27 as head of the world's nuclear watchdog – giving way Dec. 1 to Yukiya Amano, a quiet and experienced team player who jokingly tells colleagues he is the only Japanese they will ever meet who doesn't play golf, watch baseball, or sing karaoke.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The transition takes place amid international concern over the rise of Iran's nuclear program, which has increased its number of centrifuges (crucial for enriching uranium and making nuclear fuel) from zero to 8,000 in recent years, with at least two violations of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rules.
Mr. ElBaradei's departure worries some and delights others. During the Egyptian-born lawyer's tenure the agency moved from being a low-key monitoring office to standing at the center of what is arguably the globe's No. 1 overall security issue, the danger of nuclear proliferation. Under ElBaradei, the agency became an unusual international actor. Much of the rise of the agency's profile came after ElBaradei stood up, under great pressure, to the American White House ahead of the Iraq war in 2003 to tell the UN Security Council the agency found "no evidence" of a nuclear program by Saddam Hussein. Later proved correct in the context of a war that profoundly shocked many in Europe and elsewhere, the stand brought a new honest-broker cachet to the agency, gave it prominence, and garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for both ElBaradei and the IAEA general staff.
'Never sought the limelight'
ElBaradei, described by a colleague as someone who had greatness thrust upon him – "he never sought the limelight … he is actually quite shy" – spent the next years on Iran, trying to avoid what many in the agency saw as an attempt by America and Israel to push for another war. Because he is a Muslim and an Arab, ElBaradei has become a higher-flying diplomat, a Mideast broker – someone who, as he told public TV's Charlie Rose, is dealing with "the larger picture," a rapprochement between the US and Iran, and bringing Iran into the comity of nations, making it a stable regional player.
"ElBaradei wants to be fair, that is at the core of his being, and that drives some people crazy who want a quick fix" on questions like Iran, says a senior IAEA official who has worked with ElBaradei for years. "Before ElBaradei, nuclear inspectors were like bank accountants looking for paperwork; today it is more like 'CSI' crime scene."
Banking on his honest-broker role, ElBaradei has worked to give nations that profess to want a civilian nuclear-power program the benefit of the doubt. This has put him at odds with industrial states, nuclear powers, and the scientific community, who want more vigor in exploring those doubts through tougher safeguards.