Uncovering Nuclear Deception

By Adler, Michael | Arms Control Today, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Nuclear Deception


Adler, Michael, Arms Control Today


Uncovering Nuclear Deception The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times By Mohamed ElBaradei Metropolitan Books, 2011, 352 pp.

Mohamed ElBaradei has made headlines recently, campaigning in Egypt to steer his homeland's transformation to democracy. However, his book The Age of Deception is on his previous life as the world's premier nuclear diplomat. He was not afraid to make waves while in office and, on the evidence of this book, feels even fewer constraints now. He writes clearly and pulls no punches in narrating his struggle to get countries to see the campaign against the spread of nuclear weapons as one that should be built on dialogue rather than the force of arms.

ElBaradei was director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009. The tall, shy Egyptian lawyer had joined the IAEA in Vienna in 1984, when, after teaching international law in New York, he became interested in nonproliferation. He built his career at the IAEA on what he described as "telling truth to power." He opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, saying in dramatic testimony at the United Nations that his inspectors needed more time to determine if Saddam Hussein was reviving Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

He then tangled with the United States over Iran, criticizing U.S. policy as wrongheaded. ElBaradei urged unconditional engagement rather than confronting Iran with sanctions to force it to give up sensitive nuclear work. His efforts won him a Nobel Peace Prize, but they also brought claims that he was enabling Iran's reputed quest for nuclear weapons. ElBaradei faces these charges head-on in his book.

He frankly says that he felt free to speak out far beyond the technical limits of his role of verifying compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). After all, ElBaradei had described himself in an interview with The New York Times as a "secular pope" whose mission was to "make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other." The United States saw this as politicizing the IAEA's verification function in a way that reduced its credibility and effectiveness. ElBaradei responded to U.S. officials who "complained that I was overstepping the limits of my position":

I told them I had "no box," that I felt it part of my responsibility to speak out on matters that had a direct impact on the nuclear nonproliferation regime, a responsibility that, as a Nobel laureate, I felt even more keenly. When it came to reporting on verification issues, my role was to present the facts. But I had witnessed the discrediting and manipulation of the IAEA's work in the lead-up to the Iraq War and would not allow that to happen again on my watch. I felt it was important to leave as little room as possible for media hype or manipulation. And it was my charge to help Member States find peaceful solutions to nuclear tensions, by contributing my perspective and vigorously supporting nuclear diplomacy. I knew, of course, that the states themselves made the decisions in the end.

However, a Western diplomat who dealt often with ElBaradei told me when he heard I was writing this review that "if the Iranians get an atomic bomb, ElBaradei will have helped." He said ElBaradei had toned down IAEA reporting of Iran's violations of its NPT obligations and that his lobbying to allow Iran more time to comply with IAEA and UN Security Council demands weakened the impact of UN sanctions. This in turn weakened international diplomacy to get Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions, he argued.

ElBaradei seeks to set this record straight in The Age of Deception. His book starts out with his effort to investigate Iraq's nuclear program; reviews the topsy-turvy history in North Korea, where IAEA inspectors were kicked out and years later invited back in; and expresses ElBaradei's irritation that the IAEA was denied its NPT-mandated role when left out of the U. S. -British negotiations to disarm Libya and when not given the information that led Israel to bomb a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, information that would have led to an IAEA investigation rather than the military attack. …

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