The Hunt for ElBaradei

The Geneva Rule makes sense. The informal guideline, which says the head of an international organization should not serve more than two terms, helps prevent domination or corruption by any one individual or country. It also ensures a fresh infusion of new ideas and energy. Today, the United States is opposing a third 4-year term for Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), solely because, it says, the world must keep faith with the Geneva Rule. The trouble is, though the rule is a useful guideline, there should be exceptions to it. This is one of them.

As then Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted last year, the Geneva Rule has been ignored in the past “on many occasions.” Of the four men that have headed the IAEA over its 48 years, only the first, U.S. Congressman Sterling Cole, served just one term, from 1957 to 1961. The next director general, Swedish scientist Sigvard Eklund, held the job for 20 years. Then the Swedish lawyer Hans Blix held it for 16 years. The Geneva Rule has not been applied consistently to other international organizations, either. Robert McNamara held the top job at the World Bank for 13 years (1968-81), and David Morse ran the International Labour Organization for 22 years (1948-70), among others.

Many of the 35 members of the IAEA’s board of governors are rightly suspicious that U.S. opposition to ElBaradei has more to do with politics than principle. During a recent visit to Europe, IAEA officials told me privately that U.S. opposition is thought to stem from a personal vendetta against ElBaradei on the part of former Under Secretary of State John Bolton, now President Bush’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton wants ElBaradei out, officials say, and a more compliant director general appointed. Bolton directed a similar operation in 2002 that forced Jose Bustani to resign as head of the organization that oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Treaty.

What are ElBaradei’s sins? His opposition to the war in Iraq and his supposedly “soft” position on Iran’s nuclear program. ElBaradei led weapons inspectors into Iraq in November 2002. By January 2003, as the full court press for war in Iraq was reaching an apex, ElBaradei reported that his team could not find any evidence to support the U.S. claim that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. And his March 2003 findings, sent to the U.N. Security Council, refuted all of the purported evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program, including the infamous aluminum tubes, uranium from Niger, and reactivated nuclear production plants.

The Bush administration was furious. Vice President Dick Cheney heaped scorn upon ElBaradei and his inspectors. Of course, ElBaradei’s intelligence ultimately proved to be much more accurate than the Bush administration’s. Everyone now agrees that ElBaradei was correct.

The Egyptian-born ElBaradei annoyed the Bush administration anew in September 2004 with a report on Iran. Administration hard-liners, including Bolton and Cheney, believed that they had solid evidence of an Iranian weapons program that could be used to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council—or to provide justification for military strikes against the Islamic Republic. But the IAEA report found that the traces of highly enriched uranium that U.S. officials touted as proof of Iran’s weapon activity could be plausibly traced back to Pakistan, a U.S. ally and the source of Tehran’s nuclear equipment. Inspectors from the IAEA did not find any definitive evidence of weapons-specific work in Iran. To be sure, the inspectors said, vital questions remained. There were 14 instances where Iran failed to disclose nuclear imports and activities, but nothing pointed conclusively to a clandestine weapons program. That conclusion made it impossible for the United States to convince the IAEA board of governors to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

How did the U.S. respond? By tapping ElBaradei’s telephones, the first move in a campaign to oust him. The intercepts, made public in December 2004, produced no evidence of improper, or even mildly suspicious, activity. They embarrassed the United States, not the director.

Nor could the United States find anyone to stand against ElBaradei in his bid for reelection. U.S. officials tried desperately last year to convince Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq, to run against ElBaradei. Downer declined, as have others. The filing deadline passed at the end of last year with not a single candidate willing to run against a man widely considered (outside the Bush administration) to be hard-working, honest, and effective in his post.

Yet some U.S. officials are still pushing, trying to pressure other IAEA member countries to withhold their support, hoping that ElBaradei will then decide to resign. On April 27, the board of governors postponed a decision on ElBaradei’s reelection. Although reports showed ElBaradei to be a 34 to 1 favorite, diplomats wanted to avoid a confrontation with the United States. They’ll try to reach consensus again at the next board of governors meeting in June.

ElBaradei is in many ways the perfect man for this very difficult job at this difficult moment. He is sensitive to the passions and protocols of the Middle East, and dedicated to enforcing compliance with treaty obligations. He has balanced intrusive inspections of Iran with delicate diplomacy, convincing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to support a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. He understands that he is responsible to all 35 members of the agency’s board of governors, not just one. He is pushing the envelope by not just enforcing inspections but seeking innovative fixes for a weapons regime in need of repair. His speech to the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York this month contained more than a dozen sensible suggestions for making it more difficult for nations to develop nuclear bombs.

This is the kind of leadership the United States should want at the IAEA. Turning the corner office over to an American lapdog would only undermine the organization’s credibility and usefulness. The IAEA can only work if it is seen as—and truly is—independent of any one nation’s agenda. Rather than engaging in a vindictive head-hunting operation, the United States should use its political power to ensure the agency has the funds, staff, and resources it needs to police the world’s nuclear danger points. It’s time to call off the hunt.

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