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ElBaradei in Washington's crosshairs
By Ehsan Ahrari

When a major policy fails to produce the desired results, put the blame on an unrelated reason for its failure and go after the removal of that unrelated reason. That, in essence, is what the United States is trying to achieve in its current endeavors to remove Mohammad ElBaradei as the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). His supposed fault, according to US sources, is that he "lacks impartiality" in his dealings with Iran in the ongoing diplomatic crisis over its nuclear programs. A front-page report of the Washington Post published on December 12 has thrown light on the continuing power play between Washington and the IAEA, a tussle that ElBaradei might lose - despite that it has done nothing wrong.

There is no doubt that Iran's supposed aspiration to develop nuclear weapons has vexed the US for many years. Even in the first Bill Clinton administration in the early 1990s, that very issue clouded US-Russia relations, since Moscow was, and remains, involved in providing Iran with nuclear technology. In the post-September 11, 2001, environment, depriving the so-called "rogue states" - whose new label under the Bush administration became "axis of evil" states - of weapons of mass destruction has become one of the foremost objectives of President George W Bush's national-security strategy. That was also the first purported reason underlying the US-led invasion of Iraq. However, the absence of nuclear weapons in Iraq has created a sort of long-term drawback - if not a credibility gap - for the US when it comes to accusing another member of that "axis" of nuclear ambitions, and then persuading the world body to impose punitive sanctions.

That was why the US had to take a back seat and let the European Union's "big three" - France, Germany and the United Kingdom - take the lead in negotiating an agreement with Tehran to freeze its uranium-enrichment program. This development aside, the role of the IAEA has remained a source of ongoing, if not permanent, friction with the White House. The United States' modus operandi on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation is to consider an accused "axis of evil" nation guilty, and then to insist that it should produce incontestable evidence proving its innocence. The chief motivation of the IAEA, on the contrary, is to bring about nuclear non-proliferation with a country under inquiry without any prior assumptions of its guilt. At the same time, the IAEA is not interested in responding to the specific national-security agendas of any of the member nations of the world body, and it insists on maintaining strict neutrality and impartiality in the entire process of its inquiry. That was the chief reason the IAEA came under major criticism from the US when Hans Blix was heading it, during its dealings with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

ElBaradei shares that legacy of impartiality for which the IAEA is despised in US national-security institutions. According to the Washington Post report, the US has eavesdropped on ElBaradei, as it did during the term of Blix. Some Bush partisans are claiming that the intercepted calls have shown a lack of impartiality by the chief of the IAEA as he tried to help Iran navigate a diplomatic crisis over its nuclear programs. However, according to that report, the "intercepted calls have not produced any evidence of nefarious conduct [of partiality] by ElBaradei". Others take the position that "the transcripts [of the intercepted calls] demonstrate nothing more than standard telephone diplomacy".

A well-known US intention in this entire episode of questioning ElBaradei's impartiality is to force him into not seeking a third term next summer. However, the Egyptian diplomat has an impeccable reputation and strong support among the 35-nation board of the IAEA, which is likely to vote for his reappointment. In a rare show of independence from the Bush administration, even the United Kingdom is reportedly reluctant to press for ElBaradei's ouster. However, outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell is citing the so-called "Geneva rule" of limiting the chief of the IAEA's tenure to two terms. What might be helping ElBaradei is the fact that no acceptable major candidate has yet emerged, even though a near-ideal US choice is reported to be Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

The ElBaradei controversy only underscores America's frustrations with the international negotiating process that is not immediately leading to iron-clad guarantees about Iran's promise to freeze its uranium-enrichment program. But the chief of the IAEA has broken no rules and has shown no favors toward Iran. In fact, by becoming unpopular within the chauvinistic cadres of American bureaucrats, if anything, ElBaradei, like his memorable predecessor Blix, has proved that he is a stickler for going by the book, and for the use of international diplomacy for the sole objective of bringing about global nuclear non-proliferation.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Dec 14, 2004
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