For ElBaradei, Crises are the Norm

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Coming at a moment when his work puts him at the fulcrum of an international showdown between the West and Iran, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei on Friday welcomed his Nobel Peace Prize award as a "shot in the arm." ElBaradei shared the 2005 award with the organization he heads up, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog responsible for policing the nuclear programs of signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or NPT.

And ElBaradei certainly needs all the support he can muster as he confronts concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and key European countries want the IAEA'S 35-member board to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for action over its failure, over a decade, to disclose various aspects of a program Tehran insists is for civilian energy purposes, but which Western governments suspect is a covert bomb program. But many members of the IAEA board are reluctant to foment a confrontation over the issue.

The Egyptian lawyer and diplomat who has led the Agency since 1997 and was recently reelected to a third four-year term, has not enjoyed the full confidence of the Bush administration, which initially sought to have him replaced when his second term expired. ElBaradei fell afoul of the administration in 2002, when the U.S. was seeking UN support for action against Iraq. The Bush case was not helped by ElBaradei telling the Security Council that his inspectors had found "no evidence" that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted a nuclear program.

Aside from high-profile showdowns over Iraq, North Korea and Iran, ElBaradei has for years been sounding warnings over the limitations of the existing treaty frameworks to prevent nuclear-weapons proliferation. In an interview with TIME in 2003, he explained how "thirty years ago not many countries could get the technology required to make a bomb. Now 30 to 40 can." He advocates strengthening the non-proliferation regime by restricting access to bomb-grade fuel and by banning the enrichment of uranium except under international supervision.

Despite the limitations of the existing treaty framework, ElBaradei believes that strengthening it remains the only plausible course of action because no single country or group of countries enjoys sufficient international trust. "You can't just bomb your way into every country that you suspect of harboring WMD," he said. "You need a system. The lesson of Iraq is that you need to have a working system in place."

ElBaradei's view that countries, such as North Korea, who claim to covet nuclear weapons a deterrent to aggression by current nuclear-armed states ought to be given security guarantees is not exactly conventional wisdom in Washington. The IAEA chief's critics charge that he had been overly legalistic, for example, declaring at one point that his inspectors in Iran had uncovered "no evidence" of non-compliance with existing rules despite the country's acknowledged long-term pattern of deception over aspects of its program. Still, the U.S. has had to accept that like the NPT itself, ElBaradei may be as good as it gets in terms of a universally accepted nuclear policeman. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among the first to congratulate the new Nobel laureate by phone.

Speaking to reporters in Vienna Friday, after receiving a round of applause from his staff, ElBaradei said: "The award sends a very strong message: 'Keep doing what you are doing — be impartial, act with integrity.' And that is what we intend to do."