Mohamed ElBaradei is no stranger to controversy. Before the 2003 Iraq war, the United Nation’s chief nuclear inspector resisted US pressure and maintained there was no “plausible indication” that Baghdad had revived its nuclear weapons programme.
He provoked Washington’s ire again two years later when he sought, and won, another four-year term as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As the world community faces a new crisis – this time over Iran’s nuclear defiance – the former Egyptian diplomat is again in the eye of the storm. Under attack by the US administration, which accuses him of freelance diplomacy, he is at the centre of a tricky process that could decide the fate of the Iran dispute.
In western capitals, as in Tehran, attention is focused on his late November report, which will assess the progress of a “work plan” he agreed with Iran in August. Under the agreement, Tehran pledged to clear up outstanding questions about its past suspicious activities.
The deal infuriated the US, the UK, and France – the three countries arguing for tougher sanctions against Tehran – forcing them to delay a push for a fresh round of UN measures. They complained that it was ill-defined and open-ended, that Tehran would use it as a delaying tactic and that it failed to address the main UN demand for a suspension of uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of the programme.
But the attacks were also personal. Some diplomats charged privately that Mr ElBaradei was a naive meddler; others blamed his move on an ego inflated by his 2005 Nobel peace prize. “The IAEA is not in the business of diplomacy. The IAEA is a technical agency,” said Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state.
Mr ElBaradei is known to enjoy the limelight and appears satisfied that his agency now “holds the ropes”, as he puts it, in Iran’s nuclear dispute. But he scoffs at suggestions that the “work plan” is part of a political or personal agenda.
He says he is only doing his job, which is, after all, to secure as much information as possible about Iran’s past and present programme while leaving the decision on handling the future of Iran’s activities, and whether it should continue to suspend uranium enrichment to build confidence in its peaceful intentions, to the world powers.
“To be able to clarify these issues, which are the root causes of good part of the distrust [between Iran and the west], would be a significant move forward,” he told the Financial Times. “It’s the first time Iran has agreed to address all the outstanding issues …It doesn’t mean we’ll be soft on Iran or blind to what we see.”
Nonetheless, Mr ElBaradei disagrees with Ms Rice, seeing an important role for diplomacy in his job and a right to voice his opinion on international crises involving his agency.
“I don’t sit here and feel I’m only a technician,” he says. “I owe it to the international community to give them my advice. They don’t have to take it.”
In the interview he seemed deeply influenced by the Iraq experience, often referring back to the pre-invasion days. And he makes no secret that he has no intention of allowing his agency’s work on Iran to be used as a pretext for a new war.
He recalls, for example, that he had appealed to the Security Council 13 days before the Iraq conflict to give him three more months of inspections as “an investment in peace”. “They didn’t listen. The result is as we see it today,” he says.
European diplomats say the Iran case is different. However well-intentioned Mr ElBaradei might be, his “work plan” risks undermining moderates in Washington who seek gradual pressure on Iran through sanctions and playing into the hands of those he has called the “crazies” – hardliners convinced that military strikes are the only answer.
From his perspective, however, the “work plan” is only a three-month trial period and a chance worth taking. If diplomacy hasn’t worked, he says, it is not due to his deal but to the fact that Tehran and world powers have yet to sit down for serious talks.
In any case, he says, Iran does not represent an “imminent threat”.
“If people are talking about war, they have to tell me what the casus belli is – it can’t be what we see in Iran – it is far from having a nuclear weapon,” he says.
His opinion, and one that he is not shy to voice, is that both Tehran and the Security Council should take a “time out”, with Tehran suspending enrichment and the council suspending sanctions, and hold a comprehensive dialogue.
Sensitive to the causes of a country’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent – namely the need for security – he says a dialogue must address regional security concerns.
“Confidence won’t happen only when we complete our job here,” he says.
“Regulating the relationship between Iran and the international community will only happen in negotiations that take into account regional issues, from Palestine to Afghanistan. The earlier you do it the better.”
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