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June 1, 2018
Uncovering Nuclear Deception

Reviewed by Michael Adler

The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times
By Mohamed ElBaradei
Metropolitan Books, 2011, 352 pp.

Mohamed ElBaradei has made headlines recently, campaigning in Egypt to steer his homeland’s transformation to democracy. However, his book The Age of Deception is on his previous life as the world’s premier nuclear diplomat. He was not afraid to make waves while in office and, on the evidence of this book, feels even fewer constraints now. He writes clearly and pulls no punches in narrating his struggle to get countries to see the campaign against the spread of nuclear weapons as one that should be built on dialogue rather than the force of arms.

ElBaradei was director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009. The tall, shy Egyptian lawyer had joined the IAEA in Vienna in 1984, when, after teaching international law in New York, he became interested in nonproliferation. He built his career at the IAEA on what he described as “telling truth to power.” He opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, saying in dramatic testimony at the United Nations that his inspectors needed more time to determine if Saddam Hussein was reviving Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

He then tangled with the United States over Iran, criticizing U.S. policy as wrongheaded. ElBaradei urged unconditional engagement rather than confronting Iran with sanctions to force it to give up sensitive nuclear work. His efforts won him a Nobel Peace Prize, but they also brought claims that he was enabling Iran’s reputed quest for nuclear weapons. ElBaradei faces these charges head-on in his book.

He frankly says that he felt free to speak out far beyond the technical limits of his role of verifying compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). After all, ElBaradei had described himself in an interview with The New York Times as a “secular pope” whose mission was to “make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other.” The United States saw this as politicizing the IAEA’s verification function in a way that reduced its credibility and effectiveness. ElBaradei responded to U.S. officials who “complained that I was overstepping the limits of my position”:

I told them I had “no box,” that I felt it part of my responsibility to speak out on matters that had a direct impact on the nuclear nonproliferation regime, a responsibility that, as a Nobel laureate, I felt even more keenly. When it came to reporting on verification issues, my role was to present the facts. But I had witnessed the discrediting and manipulation of the IAEA’s work in the lead-up to the Iraq War and would not allow that to happen again on my watch. I felt it was important to leave as little room as possible for media hype or manipulation. And it was my charge to help Member States find peaceful solutions to nuclear tensions, by contributing my perspective and vigorously supporting nuclear diplomacy. I knew, of course, that the states themselves made the decisions in the end.

However, a Western diplomat who dealt often with ElBaradei told me when he heard I was writing this review that “if the Iranians get an atomic bomb, ElBaradei will have helped.” He said ElBaradei had toned down IAEA reporting of Iran’s violations of its NPT obligations and that his lobbying to allow Iran more time to comply with IAEA and UN Security Council demands weakened the impact of UN sanctions. This in turn weakened international diplomacy to get Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions, he argued.

ElBaradei seeks to set this record straight in The Age of Deception. His book starts out with his effort to investigate Iraq’s nuclear program; reviews the topsy-turvy history in North Korea, where IAEA inspectors were kicked out and years later invited back in; and expresses ElBaradei’s irritation that the IAEA was denied its NPT-mandated role when left out of the U.S.-British negotiations to disarm Libya and when not given the information that led Israel to bomb a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, information that would have led to an IAEA investigation rather than the military attack. The Western concern was that IAEA involvement could have derailed the secret talks with Libya and that an IAEA investigation would have helped the Syrians continue their nuclear work, just as Iran has while under inspections.

The stories are told straightforwardly, with anecdotal details, such as that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sometimes buys five or six pairs of shoes at a time. There are good, previously unreported details about ElBaradei’s meetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and U.S. President George W. Bush, who, according to ElBaradei’s account, told the IAEA chief, “I’m not a trigger-happy Texas cowboy, with six-guns” and then jokingly mimed drawing pistols from both hips.

ElBaradei writes about his joy when he and the IAEA were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He recalls that when he and his wife, watching television at home, heard the announcement, “[we] embraced, tears streaming down our faces.”

The bulk of the narrative, however, is about the Iranian crisis. The IAEA has been on the front lines for the diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program. It is the world’s eyes and ears for verifying Tehran’s nuclear work.

ElBaradei also defends the essential role of his UN agency in monitoring national nuclear programs and points out its limits. The IAEA has a mandate that makes it more of an accountant taking inventory of a country’s nuclear material than a detective investigating nuclear activities, even if the agency has come up with an additional protocol and other measures to make some detective work possible.

ElBaradei decries the lack of genuine negotiations in key nuclear disputes, criticizing the United States and its allies for preferring power politics to outreach. He presents a worldview in which global structural inequalities, a North-South divide of haves versus have-nots, torpedo the possibility of reconciliation. This is a picture that clearly has more resonance among developing countries than among the developed industrial states. ElBaradei says the deal incorporated in the NPT is broken. The nuclear-weapon states pledged to work on disarmament. Non-nuclear-weapon states pledged not to seek the bomb. In return, they were to get peaceful nuclear energy. But “the United States and the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons and showed no signs of giving them up; yet they were threatening Iraq for allegedly seeking to acquire such weapons. For many in the developing world, and particularly in Arab and Muslim societies, this was both ironic and grossly unfair.”

In Iraq, there was another wrinkle: “For a war to be fought over unsubstantiated [weapons of mass destruction] charges—and for the IAEA’s nuclear diplomacy role to be pushed to the side, serving as merely a fig leaf of due process—was for me a grotesque distortion of everything we stood for. It went against nearly half a century of painstaking labor by committed scientists, lawyers, inspectors, and public servants from every continent. I was aghast at what I was witnessing.”

In North Korea, which defied the world community by developing nuclear weapons, ElBaradei says that the United States had “failed to live up to its commitments…by not delivering [promised] power reactors.” The lesson to be learned is the mistake “of treating only the symptoms of insecurity, instead of developing a comprehensive, long-term approach designed to defuse the causes of tension. Security guarantees and development assistance are always more effective than punitive measures that inevitably escalate the tension.”

ElBaradei was right about Iraq not having weapons of mass destruction and about the inefficacy of diplomacy with Iran. Since 2003, Tehran has been under constant international pressure over its nuclear work. It has developed, however, a program with thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium even while the Western battle cry was “not one centrifuge turning.” ElBaradei says the West failed to be realistic about what was needed to cut a deal with Iran.

He did not hesitate to criticize U.S. policy. In one incident, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Gregory Schulte brings a message from Washington that ElBaradei’s comments that Iran “had pretty much gained the knowledge to enrich uranium” and that this could not be taken away were undercutting the international front to get Tehran to stop enriching, a process used for making reactor fuel but also bomb material. ElBaradei told Schulte to tell Rice “that I am equally disappointed that she did not understand the purpose of my statements, which is to show that the current strategy is not working and that the opportunity still exists to adjust the strategy.”

Indeed, ElBaradei is sharply critical of the West. He sometimes even portrays the behavior of states such as North Korea and Iran as an understandable reaction to the policies against them, undercutting the Western view that proliferation must be treated as unambiguously illegal. ElBaradei writes, “Western alarmism notwithstanding, Iran’s rapid expansion of its enrichment operations, after an extended period of relative restraint, was indeed cause for concern. It signaled a shift: resignation to the fact that the West would not show flexibility or compromise and determination to pursue the nuclear technology that many Iranians viewed as a national achievement.”

This would seem to mean that Western intransigence is to blame for Iran expanding its nuclear program, but U.S. officials and diplomats think Iran, far from being the victim, has been playing with the West as it exploits opportunities to do exactly what it says it wants to do: have an industrial level of enrichment. Seen this way, Iran is a cynical manipulator of diplomacy and international treaties rather than an offended party trying to ensure its national security. The gulf between ElBaradei’s and the Western views is a fundamental one. It is easy to see why the IAEA chief and his Western counterparts had such sharp differences, expressed privately and to some extent publicly, over how to deal with Iran.

Many officials in the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as European diplomats, felt that ElBaradei bent over backward to give Iran breaks. For instance, ElBaradei presented a report in November 2003 that outlined some two decades of Iranian concealment of key nuclear facts and activities. He said Iran was dragging its feet in clearing up these issues. ElBaradei concluded, however, that “there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to above were related to a nuclear weapons programme.” As ElBaradei observes: “John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was furious that the IAEA had not taken a more hard-line position against Iran.” Such a position could have led to Iran being brought at this early stage before the UN Security Council, which unlike the IAEA has the power to impose sanctions. The Americans felt ElBaradei was letting the Iranians off the hook.

ElBaradei’s answer: “My reference was clear: if anyone had lost credibility over their careless use of the term evidence, it was the Americans and their allies in their catastrophic rush to war in Iraq.”

The conflict over interpretation of data on Iran would flare six years later when the United States and France charged that ElBaradei was failing to confront Iran with the implications of intelligence that showed it engaging in weapons work. ElBaradei said he did not have proof the documents were genuine. Iran dismissed this “evidence” as forgeries.

ElBaradei’s successor took a sharply different tack, one that put increased pressure on Iran. Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano came to office saying his goal was to report facts and avoid going beyond that to enunciate policy. He edged closer than ElBaradei had to saying the Iranian program had a military dimension when he wrote in his first report, in February 2010, that the intelligence “raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

In the end, it was either ElBaradei’s biggest strength or his biggest failing that he used his perch at the IAEA to go beyond a verification role to take a political lead in defining the era’s key battles. Iran was the front where he had the greatest influence, but even after he enthusiastically greeted the emphasis on engagement by new U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 and worked hard for a fuel-swap deal, the result was the same. The Iranians failed to make the gestures ElBaradei thought they should. The diplomacy remained where it has always been—stalemated—and Iran’s nuclear program continues to expand.

ElBaradei’s narrative shows that fighting proliferation is fraught with problems of perspective as nuclear weapons are political as well as military statements. ElBaradei grew in stature in the 12 years he was the world’s top atomic investigator. The IAEA became increasingly central, even if some felt that ElBaradei, haunted by Iraq, erred in underplaying the need for aggressive action on other proliferation fronts.

In his book, the professorial Egyptian doubles down on his conviction that negotiation must prevail over sanctions or force. Whether one agrees with him or not, The Age of Deception is a crucial contribution to the debate on what the past can teach the world as it tries to build a safer future.

Michael Adler is a public policy scholar at the WoodrowWilsonInternationalCenter for Scholars in Washington, where he writes on Iran and nonproliferation issues. He covered the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 2002 to 2007 as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse news agency.