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.
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.
To ElBaradei's critics, who have resurfaced in the current Iran crisis, the diplomat has gone far beyond the mandate of the head of a technical agency. He's been criticized for playing down Iran's nuclear program, for creating too high a threshold of provability, for allowing Iran to "buy time," and for creating tension inside the agency between those responsible for safeguards and verification and himself, as a Nobel Prize-winning interlocutor with a vision of peace, but who operates in secrecy to avoid being blind-sided or becoming a yes man.
"The director general thinks if he tells the unvarnished truth, there will be a war," says a Western diplomat in Vienna. "So he soft-pedals the information. The problem is, it isn't his job to play supreme arbiter; it is his job to report."
"Why do we never know when IAEA reports are coming out? Because the safeguards people are fighting with the director general," says the diplomat.
Did ElBaradei act too slowly on Iran?
The critique became so pervasive in the past year that Mr. Amano, who has served for a year as head of the IAEA board of governors, quietly ran for his new position as someone who would return the agency to its core mission. A central question for Amano is whether he will strengthen the safeguard component of the IAEA – and push to require something called "additional protocols," a system of vigorous, transparent, and unannounced inspections anywhere in a member country. Under ElBaradei, the protocols were voluntary – allowing states like Iran to balk.
Amano, in his speech to the IAEA governors ahead of his vote, vowed to carry the nonproliferation torch, commenting that this was appropriate since he comes "from a country that has the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
"You can't strengthen safeguards applied around the world if you are carrying as much baggage as ElBaradei is today," says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, which closely monitors the IAEA and analyzes its reports. "He's made too many tough statements that haven't been followed up. The new guy can take a stance for safeguards among countries that have cheated."
In the view of verification and safeguards advocates, and some Western diplomats, ElBaradei is caught in a complex diplomatic game that has dulled his core instincts as a verification guy. In this view, he has stopped acting with the urgency of an IAEA director.
Speaking of Iran's newly revealed centrifuge site at Qom, brought to light by France, the US, and Britain, says Mr. Albright: "He [ElBaradei] was told about Qom by three member states. He should have said, 'We want in now. We want special inspections.' He should have worked it. But days went on, and there was nothing. Finally, it took the P-5 [the permanent members of the UN Security Council] to negotiate access."
Defenders say that ElBaradei is responding to the reality of an Iran that is fast becoming a nuclear state, and that he has been in a unique position to negotiate based on his understanding and contacts. As he argued on "Charlie Rose," "The Middle East is in a total mess right now. And it is becoming gradually radicalized.… Iran, I think, is the gate to – hopefully – a beginning of stability of the Middle East…. When you engage a regime … that's how you change behavior. There [are] a lot of activities by Iran [that] people disapprove of, but [change] is not going to happen by not talking to them." •