With the election of a successor to head the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei is preparing to leave the post he has held for more than 10 years. He faced many challenges, but he will be remembered mainly for one thing.
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei is to leave his post after 12 years in office
Mohamed ElBaradei's message was clear: "We are not going to say that this is a material breach unless obviously we see a gross violation of the resolution," the Director General of the International Atom Energy Association (IAEA) said at the end of January 2003. He was responding to demands by the administration of US President George W. Bush to find the so called "smoking gun," i.e. proof that Iraq possessed or developed nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
In the same statement, ElBaradei estimated that the IAEA needed four or five months to verify that Iraq did indeed not possess that weapons capability. Less than two months later the military invasion of Iraq began.
While his steadfast opposition to the Iraq war alienated the US, it is perhaps also the one fact that he is known for most by people around the world. "But in the end he couldn't prevent the war, even though he was morally and factually correct", says Goetz Neuneck, Deputy Director of the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. "But can one really demand of any international organisation that it prevents a war that has been decided upon by the world's superpower already half a year before?"
ElBaradei supports the peaceful use of nuclear energy
So while he failed in the end to stop the war in Iraq, there is little doubt that his role during that time helped him and the IAEA earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. That the head of an organisation whose official mandate is technical, not political, was awarded the prize is a sign of the unusual stature and popularity ElBaradei and the IAEA had gained, says Neuneck.
James Acton, a non-proliferation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinks that ElBaradei did all he could do on Iraq, but he has a different take on the effect the peace prize has had on ElBaradei: "Since he got the Nobel Prize he has decided he is the leading authority on every security issue in the world." Acton doesn't believe it is helpful for instance that the head of the IAEA talks constantly about peace in the Middle East.
Philipp Bleek, a nuclear arms expert, who is currently a fellow at Georgetown University and Berlin's Global Public Policy Institute, says that ElBaradei's greatest achievements are raising the profile of the IAEA, in addition to securing better funding and increasing its prominence in preventing nuclear-related terrorism. His biggest failure, adds Bleek, was his inability to transcend politics on these issues that are almost universally regarded as some of the most pressing on the international security agenda. Still, says Bleek, "I would give him a good grade."
On the most difficult cases for the IAEA, Iran and North Korea, ElBaradei tried to position himself and his organisation as a neutral player. He focused on sending in more inspectors to those countries, but ultimately couldn't make much substantial progress as far as the nuclear activities of both countries are concerned, says Neuneck.
Bleek faults the IAEA for not detecting Iran's hidden enrichment program, but adds that ElBaradei did call for clarifications from Iran once the news broke in 2002 that Tehran was covertly enriching. "On North Korea, the IAEA did play a technocratic role, providing inspectors when needed, but had little political role."
Mohamed ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005
Another conflict, which ElBaradei, just like his predecessors, couldn't solve is the conflict that is inherent in the structure of the IAEA which is supposed to promote the use of nuclear energy for civilian purposes and prevent its military development at the same time. ElBaradei, who is Egyptian, clearly supported the access to nuclear energy for developing nations, a position he was criticised for by nuclear energy opponents, says Neuneck. But all in all, he adds, ElBardei's tenure was positive. "When people will talk about the role of the IAEA in 10 years, they will remember ElBaradei."
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge