Portrait of Mohamed El-Baradei
It has been some time now since Mohamed el-Baradei, a shy, high-ranking civil servant, went unnoticed on his trips abroad. As Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he is the second Egyptian to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after Anwar el-Sadat. Today he receives media coverage as if he were a head of state. This 63 year-old jurist is the reassuring countenance behind nuclear anti-proliferation, because he prefers persuasion to the use of force. Verification and diplomacy work when they walk hand-in-hand together, he is known to repeat incessantly.
But for a good part of the world, he is above all the man who defied the United States in the Iraq crisis. On March 7, 2003, before the UN Security Council, he demolished the main “proof” offered by the backers of the war with a few words pronounced with a steady voice: the letter concerning the purchase of uranium from Niger by Saddam Hussein’s régime was a clumsy forgery. US Secretary of State Colin Powell went pale. The Swede Hans Blix, Mr. el-Baradei’s predecessor at the head of the IAEA, who at the time had responsibility for verifying that Iraq concealed no chemical or bacteriological weapons, was taken aback: Mohammed didn’t give me any indication, he recalls soberly in his book on the Iraq crisis.
On that day, the Egyptian jurist rose out of the shadow of his mentor, Hans Blix, who had recruited el-Baradei in 1984 as head of the agency’s legal department before creating the post of Deputy Director for International Relations exclusively for him. However, during the long reign of Mr. Blix at the helm of the IAEA (sixteen years), it was Washington which gave the thumb’s up for the promotion of Mr. el-Baradei--Cairo wanted another Egyptian. In the UN universe, the IAEA is the godchild of Americans. It was the USA which brought the agency to the baptismal font and which contributes nearly a quarter of its budget. The head of the AIEA is not appointed by the UN Secretary-General; he is elected by the Council of Governors.
In 1997, the selection of Mr. el-Baradei, born in 1942 in Cairo where he studied law, and trained at NYU where he earned a PhD and taught, represented a geopolitical reorientation: He is a Western spirit with third-world sensibility, said a former US ambassador when he profiled this ideal candidate. The moment had come to remove nuclear oversight from the blind alley of East-West relations. The 1991 discovery of a clandestine nuclear program in Iraq revealed the inadequacies of the verification program run by the Agency and the refusal of Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) became a source of increasing irritation to Arab-Muslim nations.
More introverted than Mr. Blix (Those who ridiculed the paternalism of the Swede, Hans Blix, also make fun of the pharaonic style of Mr. el-Baradei.), the Egyptian head of the IAEA was cautious about his origins: when he traveled to Iraq for talks with members of Saddam Hussein’s régime in the winter of 2002-2003, he was careful never to speak Arabic with them out of fear of being accused of bias. He was disconcerted when, during the campaign led against him by the hawks of the Bush Administration, who were opposed his third term at the IAEA, his telephone conversations with Iranian leaders were monitored and he was accused of hindering an IAEA investigation of Egypt.
But he walked away from the ordeal strengthened. The rhetoric of el-Baradei is welcomed by developing nations, explained a representative of the non-aligned nations in Vienna. El-Baradei believes that non-proliferation is not an end in itself; it also involves obligations by nuclear nations. The head of the IAEA has reminded the USA and its allies that there can be no solution to the current crises without a genuine effort at disarmament. Those to whom el-Baradei addresses his warnings cannot pretend to be deaf forever. Reelected in June 2005, Mohamed el-Baradei will remain in his post beyond George Bush’s eight years.