September 17, 2007


An Indispensable Irritant to Iran and Its Foes (ELAINE SCIOLINO and WILLIAM J. BROAD, 9//17/07, NY Times)

Late in August, Mohamed ElBaradei put the finishing touches on a nuclear accord negotiated in secret with Iran.

The deal would be divisive and risky, one of the biggest gambles of his 10 years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran would answer questions about its clandestine nuclear past in exchange for a series of concessions. With no advance notice or media strategy, Dr. ElBaradei ordered the plan released in the evening. And then he waited.

The next day, diplomats from the United States, France, Britain and Germany marched into his office atop a Vienna skyscraper to deliver a joint protest. The deal, they said, amounted to irresponsible meddling that threatened to undermine a United Nations Security Council strategy to punish, not reward, Tehran.

Dr. ElBaradei, an Egyptian-born lawyer, was polite but firm. “If Iran wants to answer questions, what am I supposed to do, tell them it can’t?” he asked.

Then, brandishing one of his characteristic mangled metaphors, he dismissed his critics as “living room coaches who shoot from the hip.”

Almost five years after he stood up to the Bush administration on Iraq and then won the Nobel Peace Prize for his trouble, Dr. ElBaradei now finds himself at the center of the West’s turbulent confrontation with Iran, derided yet relied upon by all sides.

To his critics in the West, he is guilty of serious diplomatic sins — bias toward Iran, recklessness and, above all, a naïve grandiosity that leads him to reach far beyond his station. Over the past year, even before he unveiled his deal with Tehran, Western governments had presented him with a flurry of formal protests over his stewardship of the Iran case.

Even some of his own staff members have become restive, questioning his leadership and what they see as his sympathy for the Iranians, according to diplomats here.

Yet the Iranians also seek to humiliate him and block his inspectors. [...]

In May, after Vice President Dick Cheney warned from an aircraft carrier off Iran’s coast that the United States was ready to use its naval power to keep Iran from “gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region,” Dr. ElBaradei offered a quick response: he declared that Iran had achieved “the knowledge” of enrichment — implying that it was too late for military action or other Western punishment for refusing to stop its atomic efforts.

“The fact of the matter,” he said, “is that one of the purposes of suspension — keeping them from getting the knowledge — has been overtaken by events.”

His remarks outstripped the analyses of his own inspectors, who were reporting technical problems at Natanz, and contributed to suspicions that he was exaggerating Iran’s progress as a political maneuver. Even so, that argument — that Iran has already crossed an important line — is the tacit assumption behind the new accord.

The plan, released Aug. 27, sets a firm timetable for Iran to clear up a half-dozen controversies about past secret activities, while also improving access for I.A.E.A. inspectors.

The diplomats who marched into Dr. ElBaradei’s office the next day shredded the plan point by point.

They expressed dismay that the accord, negotiated with no diplomatic input, omitted any stipulation that Iran suspend enrichment. One envoy noted that the plan forces inspectors to ask questions on only one issue at a time, leaving the most delicate topics until the end.

There was general alarm that the document suggested treating Iran like a “routine” case, instead of a country that had lied repeatedly, and, according to some governments, harbors a secret nuclear-arms program.

Dr. ElBaradei’s response, paraphrased by a Western official, was that “all you are doing is being suspicious; the agency cannot judge Iranian intentions.”

In the days that followed, representatives of other countries hammered Dr. ElBaradei with sharp criticism. But a week later, many governments had begun to believe that their strategy was backfiring. They decided to try to co-opt Dr. ElBaradei rather than isolate him.

The new thinking went like this: he and the Iranians had won this round. Much of the world would consider the agreement on a timetable a step forward. By contrast, Western diplomacy was hopelessly stalled.

On Sept. 7, envoys from the four Western powers again visited Dr. ElBaradei’s office. This time, though, they offered support for his effort to clear up the past, and said they welcomed his renewed support in pressing Iran to suspend enrichment and let inspectors conduct wider inquiries.

“We told the Americans it would do no good to criticize ElBaradei, that it would only make him look even more like a hero,” said one senior European official.

In the interview, Dr. ElBaradei called the shift “a complete change” — a result of his explaining and “standing firm.” He called his accord a sound step toward defusing the Iran confrontation.

“I have no qualm that some people have distrust because of Iran’s past behavior,” he said.

But sanctions alone, he added, would solve nothing. “You need to sit together and talk about it and try to work out mechanisms to build confidence.”

And if the Iranians do not keep their promises, he said: “I told them very openly that it will backfire. Absolutely.”

It's worth reading this whole piece if for no other reason that that upon finishing you can have no better idea how far along Iran is with its nuclear program than when you started. And we're going to second-guess our decision-makers on the basis of knowledge that's this sketchy?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2007 10:49 AM

Of course they will be second-guessed. The fact that they have to work with imperfect and incomplete information and still reach a decision has absolutely no bearing on what their detractors will say.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 11:23 AM