JUDGING SOLELY by results, it is hard to characterize Mohamed ElBaradei’s tenure as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, from 1997 to 2009, as a success. The IAEA’s chief purpose is to ensure that non-nuclear-weapons states stay that way. Its tamper-proof seals secure nuclear material, its surveillance cameras monitor sensitive nuclear equipment, and its inspectors spot-check nuclear sites. But over the twelve years when ElBaradei ran the UN agency, the IAEA’s investigations were met with outright defiance, and its central mission with repeated failure.
Throughout the 1990s, Iraq misled IAEA inspectors who attempted to verify the dismantlement of the country’s nuclear program, withholding documents and restricting their access. In 2002, North Korea expelled inspectors who had been monitoring the country’s shaky compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the international agreement under which non-nuclear-weapons states forswear nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. Pyongyang withdrew from the treaty the next year, and detonated its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Pakistan never even bothered to join the treaty, and in 1998 it conducted its first nuclear test. Iran, meanwhile, was enriching more uranium than ever before and, even as it insisted its program was peaceful, played a cat-and-mouse game with IAEA inspectors.
The most positive development in nonproliferation during this time was Libya’s announcement that it was abandoning its nuclear program, and it had nothing to do with the IAEA: the program “was news” to ElBaradei, and its termination was brought about by American diplomatic efforts he also knew nothing about. Syria, too, proceeded down the path toward nuclear weapons; it built a secret research reactor with North Korea’s help that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007. Even little Myanmar, it seems, was trying to go nuclear. It was a tough time to be the world’s non-proliferator-in-chief.
This is not to say that ElBaradei wasn’t trying. As he recounts in this earnest memoir of his IAEA years, he flitted from flashpoint to flashpoint, working tirelessly to bring countries into compliance, broker deals to ease tensions, and maintain the agency’s credibility. The book is a meeting-by-meeting account of ElBaradei’s nuclear wrangling.
These were not easy tasks, given the IAEA’s limited legal authority, its reliance on voluntarily supplied intelligence, and its tight budget (a quarter of which, as American diplomats remind ElBaradei, is funded by the United States). Nor did it help that multiple governments actively tried to undermine the agency. The Iraqis once sought to entrap ElBaradei with a flirtatious woman, beckoning him to visit her at the hotel pool in Baghdad. The Americans, for their part, tapped his phone in search of damaging information.
Yet ElBaradei succeeded in retaining a great deal of credibility in both the Western and non-Western worlds. Perhaps no one had more universal access to the relevant diplomatic players than he did. He appears nearly as comfortable sipping tea in the living room of the Ayatollah Khamenei as he does bantering about the New York Yankees in the Oval Office with George Bush. (ElBaradei spent fifteen years in New York.) He is at ease discussing palace intrigue at 10 Downing Street or tensions within Iran’s ruling elite. Occasionally he is less attuned, as when he cartoonishly suggests that the Iraq war was the product of a post-9/11 “neoconservative obsession … to penalize a Muslim, and preferably an Arab, country.”
This chameleon-like ability to float from culture to culture also meant that he was viewed with suspicion nearly everywhere he traveled. As the IAEA investigated Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons program, he writes, “I often got the feeling that the Arab world—and many Westerners—expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favor of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias.” Today, as ElBaradei tries to win over voters as a presidential candidate in post-Mubarak Egypt, his years spent abroad at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna are perhaps his greatest liability. To some Egyptians, he is a cosmopolitan carpetbagger; to others, he is simply a relative unknown. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found ElBaradei trailing well behind two other politicians, Amr Moussa and Ayman Nour.
Indeed, ElBaradei’s worldview is distinctly Viennese: multilateral, anti-hegemonic, legalistic. He believes global problems like nuclear proliferation are best solved collectively, and that unilateral measures are anachronistic. His sympathies lie with the nuclear have-nots, whose resentment of the nuclear haves he understands. They seek to deny to others what they themselves want. Condoleezza Rice once complained that he was “picking on us more than picking on the Iranians,” and his ire still seems directed more at the over-reacting nuclear states than at the deceptive proliferators. All of this, of course, should play well in Egypt.
ElBaradei fixates on legal wording, insisting on characterizing Iran’s concealment as a “breach” or “violation” of its obligations rather than “noncompliance.” A deal to stop enrichment must not be called a “suspension,” but a “pause” or “time-out.” In one huffy footnote he dismisses the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led arrangement to interdict nuclear smuggling at sea, for lacking the legitimacy of the United Nations. (Never mind that the PSI actually works.) As overly judicious as ElBaradei at times appears, though, his lawyerly tendencies proved appropriate during the run-up to the Iraq war, when he steadfastly maintained that there was no evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He rightly views the episode as the agency’s finest hour.
Not everyone appreciated the ElBaradei worldview—especially John Bolton. A top State Department official and avowed skeptic of internationalism, Bolton was the Bush administration’s loudest critic of ElBaradei and led the United States’ unsuccessful campaign to torpedo his reelection to a third term as head of the IAEA. “Bolton,” ElBaradei writes, “was my ideological opposite, a champion of ‘us-versus-them’ foreign policy; he opposed multilateral diplomacy and consistently worked behind the scenes to discredit the IAEA ... He strove to undermine everything I stood for.”
At his most generous, Bolton saw the IAEA as a “wonderful but obscure agency in Vienna,” and he accused ElBaradei of being too activist as director-general—a charge for which ElBaradei makes no apologies. ElBaradei sought to make the IAEA an independent diplomatic actor rather than the technical agency some thought it should be. In Iran, he saw his duty not merely to provide information about the country’s nuclear program, but also to take public positions on how the crisis should be solved. To the Washington Post editorial page, he was a “Rogue Regulator,” an ego-driven diplomat exceeding his mandate. American diplomats chided him for speaking out about disarmament, and one Israeli official told them that ElBaradei “sees himself as a peacemaker akin to the Dalai Lama.” Like the Dalai Lama, ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with the IAEA in 2005. It only strengthened his determination. “I felt it part of my responsibility to speak out on matters that had a direct impact on the nuclear nonproliferation regime,” he writes, “a responsibility that, as a Nobel laureate, I felt even more keenly.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who rose to the top in the IAEA, ElBaradei is convinced that his agency can stop proliferation and that institutions in general can bring about peace—“that diplomacy has the capacity to resolve problems that might seem intractable.” The international community, he writes, came tantalizingly close to solving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Even global nuclear disarmament is within reach. The problem with this maximalist vision of international institutions, of course, is the existence of the very failures that the most quixotic believers contend institutions can prevent. For conflicts that are fundamentally about diverging interests—North Korea wants nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies would rather it did not attain them—the IAEA has little chance of altering the underlying calculus of each side’s foreign policy. This is why ElBaradei was never able to broker a deal that would satisfy the Iranians and the Americans. Such a deal is not brokerable.
There are cases, however, in which preventing conflict is a matter of demonstrating peaceful intentions and allaying suspicions. In these situations, institutions such as the IAEA do have a role to play: they can allow a country to signal its benign intent. In building the case for war in 2003, Rice liked to say that “We know what it looks like when a country makes a strategic decision to disarm. South Africa has done it, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. The Iraqis have not done that.” She was right: Saddam was uninterested in showing the world the true state of his weapons program (though not for the reasons the Bush administration thought). In South Africa, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, IAEA inspections have played a vital role in affirming these countries’ status as non-nuclear-weapons states. As ElBaradei recounts, Libya in 2004 wanted to demonstrate that it had disarmed, and so it allowed IAEA inspectors to remove equipment and give the country a clean bill of health. The agency was providing a valuable service, making it easier for the rest of the world to divine Libya’s capabilities and intentions.
The real value of the IAEA, then, is less as an advocacy group than as a ratings agency, providing third-party assessments of countries’ nuclear programs. It is also useful as a clearinghouse for information about these programs, a place where governments can share intelligence and compare notes. This is a decidedly minimalist vision—a sort of nuclear Moody’s—and for ElBaradei it undersells the agency’s true potential. “People would like to downsize me, put me in the job of a technician fixing cameras,” he once told an interviewer. “But I don’t see my role like that.” Too bad, since the IAEA’s verification activities are the most important thing that it does. Here, for once, it is ElBaradei who is doing the underselling.
Stuart A. Reid is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.