The Top Nuclear Detective

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Supporters of Mohamed ElBaradei, Fayoum, Egypt, June 4, 2011

Whether the issue is Iran’s secret efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon, a nuclear accident in Japan, or the threat of loose nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is constantly and deeply involved. Based in Vienna, Austria, this once-obscure United Nations technical agency has grown into an essential voice during some of the most dangerous crises in the world.

Few are better qualified to chart this rise than Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian head of the IAEA from 1997 to 2009 (who is now, in retirement, expected to be a candidate for president of Egypt). His new memoir, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, recounts his twenty-five-year career at the IAEA and his important part in its emergence as an international force for transparency. ElBaradei led the IAEA in opposing the Bush administration’s false claims about Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the same time, the IAEA exposed Iran’s covert nuclear program, cornering the Iranians into confessing a wide-ranging secret program to enrich uranium in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, ElBaradei and the IAEA shared the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Armed with the prestige of that prize and worried by the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, ElBaradei sought to broker a solution to the standoff with Iran over its uranium enrichment program and avoid a war that he worried Israel and the Bush administration could launch at any time. He was right to worry. In far too many confrontations involving nuclear weapons, hawks have exaggerated the nuclear evidence and advocated military strikes or regime change. He is particularly critical of those who would condemn Iran’s suspected quest to get a bomb while ignoring Israel’s nuclear arsenal. ElBaradei wanted to go further, convincing all countries to abandon nuclear weapons. His efforts inevitably ran into fierce opposition, and he deserves praise for doggedly trying to defuse crises and find diplomatic solutions to some of the world’s most difficult security challenges.

There have been successes in stopping nuclear proliferation. South Africa dismantled its small nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s and many other countries, such as Brazil, Libya, Taiwan, and South Korea, have abandoned their nuclear weapons efforts. There are now only nine nations with nuclear weapons, rather than the twenty or thirty so often feared.

In The Age of Deception, ElBaradei stresses three current dilemmas. First, countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea have deliberately and secretly violated their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the main international treaty against nuclear proliferation. Second, after September 11, 2001, it became clearer than ever that terrorist groups could attack with a “dirty bomb” or even a nuclear weapon. Third, in 2004 it was revealed that a network run by …

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