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 the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was willing to sell pariah nations a complete kit showing them how to build nuclear weapons in secret.
Inevitably, in view of the danger of nuclear weapons to international order, much attention and money have been concentrated on risky plans to attack nations whose nuclear weapons programs seem to pose a threat. But under ElBaradei’s leadership the IAEA became an alternative to these military means to end nuclear proliferation. The IAEA’s rise to prominence ironically started at the beginning of 1991 after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, when it became clear that the IAEA had failed to detect Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the IAEA and all the major intelligence agencies were forced to confess that they had been ignorant of most of Iraq’s nuclear weapons activities. The IAEA was especially criticized for its failure, since it was directly responsible for verifying Iraq’s commitment not to build nuclear weapons as a signer of the NPT.
Recounting this story in his opening chapters, ElBaradei plays down the failure of the IAEA. He argues that the IAEA had a limited mandate to inspect countries’ nuclear programs and that member states did not share crucial intelligence information about what was known of Iraq’s secret nuclear efforts. However, during 1988–1990 the international press reported important details from official investigations into Iraq’s smuggling operations to obtain equipment and components for both a gas centrifuge program and efforts to build the nuclear weapon itself. In some cases, German seizures of shipments of centrifuge components revealed the type of centrifuge Iraq was pursuing in secret outside the IAEA’s view.
Of course, Iraq vociferously denied that it had either program. Yet IAEA experts read the press; they did not need to wait for official notification to be suspicious. The IAEA already had the authority to demand inspections of suspicious facilities or to at least raise questions about what Iraq was doing. It did not. The IAEA was too willing to believe Iraq’s version.
Worse, it downplayed the growing information about Iraq’s secret nuclear programs until after the start of the intrusive inspections mandated by the UN Security Council in the spring of 1991, following the war. By then, the evidence of a vast secret nuclear project was overwhelming. IAEA officials, including ElBaradei, finally understood the enormity of the failure, but they had resisted the message that inspections needed drastic improvement.
The rise of the IAEA grew out of the realization that it had failed in Iraq and had to change its methods. ElBaradei played an important part in that transformation, but most of the credit goes to Hans Blix, the director-general of the IAEA at the time. Blix was deeply troubled by Iraq’s deception and he changed dramatically the way the IAEA did its business. South Africa had just signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a state without nuclear weapons, but it refused to admit that it had previously had a nuclear weapons arsenal. The IAEA patiently put pressure on South Africa to provide the complete truth about its past nuclear program. Finally, in 1993, South Africa admitted having had nuclear weapons and allowed the IAEA, ex post facto, to verify the dismantling of those weapons.
In 1992, Blix learned that North Korea was also hiding part of its nuclear program, and he brought its duplicity to international attention, despite having to oppose his own bureaucracy, which was locked in the past and ready to give North Korea a clean bill of health. With the aid of trusted IAEA experts and officials, including ElBaradei, Blix pioneered the IAEA’s use of new inspection methods to show that North Korea was hiding several nuclear activities, including the production of separated plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. Rather than giving a clean bill of health to North Korea, as advocated by other IAEA officials, Blix sounded an important alarm about North Korean cheating, something no one believed the IAEA was able or willing to do.
Meanwhile, IAEA weapons inspectors peeled the lid off of Iraq’s extensive nuclear weapons complex throughout the first half of the 1990s. They discovered thousands of Iraqis working in over ten secret nuclear sites throughout Iraq. They learned how Iraq outfitted its nuclear facilities with high-tech equipment from throughout the world. Iraq established secret smuggling networks that depended on overseas businessmen and nuclear experts greedy for Iraq’s huge payments. The IAEA officials interviewed hundreds of Iraqi experts, getting to know them and learning their strengths and weaknesses in pursuing their nuclear endeavors. After discovering the programs, the inspectors also dismantled or destroyed them.
It was this experience that helped the IAEA judge correctly, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had not reconstituted his nuclear weapons programs. ElBaradei tells this sad and futile saga well, writing eloquently about his frustration and anger that the IAEA’s findings could not prevent or even delay a needless, unjust war. He discusses whether the immense loss of civilian lives in a war based on false claims of WMDs, and in particular nuclear weapons, is sufficient to bring Bush administration officials before the International Criminal Court. He argues:
If we are to live by the rule of law, then the prosecution of war crimes should not be limited to those who lose—the Slobodan Miloševićs of the world…. Legal norms, to retain legitimacy, must be uniform in their application.
Although the possibility of such prosecution is unthinkable in the US, many around the world agree with ElBaradei.
Fear of being truly held accountable may be one reason why hard-line Bush administration officials still refuse to admit the enormity of their mistake. Many still claim that everyone, or almost everyone, was wrong about the intelligence, apparently in an effort to deflect responsibility or imply that no one should be blamed. Yet the historical record shows that the officials in charge of US intelligence literally manufactured an Iraqi nuclear weapons program based on faulty data and, at best, on hunches about what they thought Saddam Hussein was doing. Some, such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, continue to argue that the US intelligence community made a “perfectly rational, reasonable judgment” about Iraq having WMDs.
Many members of the US intelligence community knew that these assessments were bogus when Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney were hyping them to the public in September 2002. One intelligence official said to me at the time that those who could challenge the nuclear falsehoods were told not to speak publicly. These officials appeared surprisingly fearful of the consequences of revealing their criticism, which could help explain the lack of any whistleblowers during this critical period.
The IAEA officials were less hesitant than the US intelligence officials in saying the claims were false. In the summer of 2001, a year before the Bush administration launched its public effort to convince the nation that Iraq was seeking aluminum tubes for a secret centrifuge plant, IAEA experts challenged a visiting CIA analyst who claimed such tubes were being sought. The IAEA experts found him to be incompetent about such matters and saw his analysis as part of an attempt to inflame support for invading Iraq. Their criticism of the CIA’s finding was ignored in Washington. ElBaradei did not remain quiet. He, along with Hans Blix, was one of the few brave enough to challenge the Bush administration publicly before the war, and when it counted most. Unfortunately, his efforts weren’t enough.
The failure to stop the invasion of Iraq was a bitter lesson for ElBaradei. He was determined that it not recur in the case of Iran, which he perceived could be the next target of the Bush administration.
No one, however, could argue that the evidence of secret nuclear sites in Iran was fabricated. Through its inspections the IAEA in 2002 and 2003 caught Iran lying when it denied that it was building a range of secret nuclear facilities and receiving help from A.Q. Khan. In the fall of 2002, my organization, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), was reaching the same conclusion. Building on the IAEA’s earlier critique, the ISIS was the first to publicly criticize the claims of the Bush administration and the CIA about the infamous Iraqi aluminum tubes. We subsequently exposed flaws in the Bush administration’s other so-called nuclear evidence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Meanwhile, in the late fall of 2002, ISIS, working with CNN, was the first group to publicly identify the large secret underground facility near Natanz, Iran, as a gas centrifuge plant. This ominous underground facility looked to be part of an effort by Iran to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
During this work on Iran, we became acutely aware of the Bush administration’s tentative plan, as one of its top officials put it, to march north to Baghdad and then turn right and head for Tehran. Events on the ground in Iraq subsequently disrupted those plans but not the concern that the US or Israel or both were considering military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
ElBaradei dedicated himself from 2003 until he left the IAEA in late 2009 to finding a diplomatic way out of the impasse between the West and Iran. His reputation had grown immensely after he had been proved right about Iraq and had received the Nobel Peace Prize. He sought to use his influence with world leaders to find a solution. He pushed hard for compromises from Iran and from the West, only to see his efforts stymied by both sides. The experience frustrated him greatly, and in his book he freely blames those who he thinks were at fault. Sometimes the blame appears unfair, and he risks looking strongly biased against the United States. Nonetheless, his position as a dealmaker gives the reader great insight into the thinking of the leaders of the West and Iran during the Bush administration.
ElBaradei was determined to draw the administration to the negotiating table with Iran, which he saw as the only way to finally obtain an agreement. In his view Iran sought nuclear weapons because it saw itself as vulnerable to a military attack. Only the United States, he believed, could offer Iran the security assurances it needed to modify this view. He finally succeeded in arranging bilateral negotiations toward the end of President Bush’s second term. In that effort, he credits Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for her willingness to open up talks with Iran. But by the end of the Bush presidency, a deal was unlikely, since Iran appeared determined to advance its nuclear programs and to wait to negotiate with the next US administration. Iran likely hoped for a better deal; or perhaps it was stalling for more time so it could come closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon.
Barack Obama came to office emphasizing negotiations with Iran. ElBaradei saw him as a relief from the Bush administration, giving renewed hope for a peaceful settlement. Welcomed by the Obama administration, ElBaradei came close to working out an agreement that would remove 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium from Iran in exchange for reactor fuel that was desperately needed in order to continue research and produce medical isotopes. He believed that this agreement would establish enough trust between Iran and the United States so that negotiations could aim at finding an equitable, final agreement. But alas, that effort also floundered, in this case likely because of internal divisions in Iran.
In his book and his work at the IAEA, ElBaradei has taken a consistent stand against military strikes on nuclear facilities. I agree with him that military strikes can often have negative effects, leading countries to reaffirm their determination to seek nuclear weapons and expand their efforts to get the bomb. This is exactly what happened after Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Iraq lost little time in redoubling its nuclear efforts and reaffirming the secrecy surrounding its programs. If Saddam Hussein had not miscalculated by invading Kuwait in 1990, he likely would have possessed a small nuclear arsenal by the second half of the 1990s. Few now believe that Iran’s nuclear program can be bombed out of existence, short of a sustained full-scale aerial attack on the country’s industrial and administrative infrastructure and likely an occupation. No one wants to pursue that option.
Not surprisingly, ElBaradei repeatedly denounced Israel’s September 2007 bombing of a facility in Syria suspected of being a secret nuclear reactor that would give Syria the ability to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. At the time, some in the administration likely agreed with ElBaradei. Vice President Dick Cheney in his new memoir says he was the “lone voice” advocating the bombing of the reactor. President Bush wanted a diplomatic approach. This case, however, exposes ElBaradei’s tendency to underestimate secret nuclear activities.
In The Age of Deception, ElBaradei criticizes Israel’s refusal to provide the IAEA with evidence of the reactor before making a decision to destroy it. He argues that Israel had an obligation to tell the IAEA, which could launch an investigation into the evidence. But at the time he also cast doubt on the existence of a nuclear reactor at the site. Soon after the attack, he told Seymour Hersh in a New Yorker article that he questioned whether the site was a reactor: “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”1
However, some of his experts were, in fact, well aware that it could be a reactor. The ISIS examined commercial satellite imagery of the same site that the IAEA looked at and arrived at the same conclusion. ElBaradei chose to discount the available, albeit limited, evidence of a reactor. He criticized Israel and the United States instead of focusing on the primary job of the IAEA, to investigate possible secret nuclear facilities. In casting doubt on the existence of the reactor, ElBaradei contributed to Syria’s lack of transparency about the reactor project.
Several months after Hersh’s article, the CIA provided dramatic evidence that the Syrian site housed a reactor. Afterward, there remained few who doubted that the site was a nuclear reactor. Only after ElBaradei left the IAEA, however, did the agency issue a new ruling—that the bombed site “very likely” was a nuclear reactor.
ElBaradei also underplayed the evidence about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, although to his credit his position has shifted somewhat as the IAEA gathered more information. At first, he states, there was no evidence of Iranian work on nuclear weapons. Then he grants that during the bloody Iraq–Iran war in the 1980s, “the Iranians might have originally intended to develop nuclear weapons,” but claims that this project stopped in the 1990s or early 2000s. He believes that Iran may well have decided to limit its program, “legitimately remaining a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT.” He further argues that Iran sought to develop its nuclear capability not in order to become another North Korea but rather to resemble Brazil or Japan, technical powerhouses with the capability to develop nuclear weapons, “if the political winds were to shift.” Yet Brazil and Japan are fully in compliance with the NPT and, unlike Iran, are not suspected of conducting work on nuclear weapons. To characterize them as models for Iran is not only misleading but insulting to their long-established nonproliferation records.
Moreover, a variety of states, including the United States, European nations, Russia, and Israel, have provided the IAEA with information and documents, many from inside Iran, that present evidence of Iranian work on nuclear weapons. Most of the documents concern such work before 2004, when Iran, under intense international pressure, temporarily shut down much of its nuclear complex, including reportedly its nuclear weapons work. However, some of the documents show that the work could still be going on. Despite this growing evidence, ElBaradei remains skeptical. Toward the end of the book, he writes:
But I could not reach a verdict on these allegations, which, if proven, had the potential to spell the difference between war and peace—without first being able to verify the authenticity of the documents passed on by US intelligence…. If all the documents provided to us were authentic,…then there was a high probability that Iran had engaged in nuclear weaponization studies.
More and more analysts assess that the documents are genuine.
In its most recent report on Iran—published on September 2, 2011—the IAEA wrote that it is “increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Its May 24, 2011 report laid out seven areas where the IAEA has documentation showing what appears to be Iranian work on specific components of a nuclear weapon. The detail and complexity of the information available to the IAEA make forgery the least likely possibility.
By claiming that a technical assessment of Iran’s nuclear weaponization activities presented an issue of war and peace, ElBaradei invites criticism that he was formerly suppressing factual information about Iran’s work on nuclear weapons. He denies this charge in his book. However, the more open discussion of this sensitive issue after he left the IAEA raises doubts about his claim.
ElBaradei may have feared that if the IAEA had confirmed that Iran had been working on nuclear weapons, this could set back diplomatic efforts. However, the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, the principal Western negotiators with Iran, have long accepted this conclusion. They also do not believe that such work leads directly to war. Moreover, the IAEA’s credibility and its international influence depend on its commitment to finding out and assessing as much as possible about Iran’s nuclear effort, regardless of the political implications. At times, ElBaradei has lost sight of that mission.
ElBaradei worries in The Age of Deception that the world is headed for more proliferation. The risk is no longer the United States and the Soviet Union wiping one another off the face of the earth; the threat now is of “asymmetric” atomic warfare—use of nuclear weapons by terrorists, “rogue” countries headed by aggressive dictators, or major powers using nuclear weapons against states that do not have nuclear weapons.2 “If we do nothing,” he writes, “attempting to maintain the status quo of nuclear haves and have-nots, the change will likely take the form of a veritable cascade of proliferation, or worse still, a series of nuclear exchanges.”
ElBaradei’s answer to these alarming possibilities is global nuclear disarmament. He calls for a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty between the global nuclear giants, a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, and a verifiable end to the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. He is not so naive as to think that arms reductions can solve the problems posed by Iran and North Korea. But he thinks that much can be done to stop proliferation. “By demonstrating their irreversible commitment to achieving a world free from nuclear threat,” he writes,
the nuclear weapon states can greatly contribute to the legitimacy of the nonproliferation regime and gain the moral authority to detect, deter, and defeat any cheaters in the system, with the support of the entire international community.
ElBaradei knows that progress on disarmament among the “haves” may not be enough to solve the hard cases of Iran and North Korea. These regimes may want nuclear weapons to preserve their own power both domestically and as deterrents against foreign pressure. President Obama has found negotiating with Iran and North Korea harder than he may have expected. Recently, Iran offered “full supervision” of its nuclear program in exchange for reducing the sanctions. But a day later, Iran clarified its offer by stating it would not include the minimal level of supervision the IAEA says is required. Nonetheless, as ElBaradei recommends, he remains committed to engagement with these two countries. At the same time, the Obama administration has increasingly pursued a parallel track of pressure on Iran and North Korea by means of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
This pressure includes economic and financial sanctions, interdictions of illicit cargos for their nuclear programs, sabotage of nuclear equipment slated for nuclear plants, and at least one major cyber attack, of unknown origin, against Iran’s centrifuge facilities. In the case of Iran at least, these actions have slowed its nuclear progress and bought more time for negotiations while reducing the chance of war.
ElBaradei may not support the pressure tactics of the Obama administration, but he undoubtedly understands the difficulty of finding a solution. At the end of the book, he expresses hope that the United States and Iran can find a solution through diplomacy and dialogue, believing that the “elements for a solution are finally in place.” His optimism and determination helped him seek solutions to the world’s most difficult nonproliferation problems, as his book amply shows. His most important legacy remains a strengthened IAEA—he has given the IAEA a powerful voice in all nuclear matters and enabled it to shape a more peaceful world.