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Profile: Egypt's Mohamed el Baradei, Former IAEA Chief

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Mohamed el Baradei

Mohamed el Baradei

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Why Mohamed El Baradei Matters:

Mohamed el Baradei is an Egyptian-born lawyer who headed the United Nations' IAEA or International Atomic Energy Agency from 1997 to 2009. His tempered voice in diplomatic negotiations over Iran's plans to become a nuclear power earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. El Baradei is a potential contender for the Egyptian presidency in 2011. As such, El Baradei's candidacy would set up a clash between the reformist-democratic forces he would represent and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is grooming his son Gamal to follow him. Egypt, which has never known democracy, might discover a taste of it.

El Baradei's Origins and Youth:

Mohamed El Baradei was born in Cairo, Egypt, on June 17, 1942, into a family of lawyers. He was one of five children. His father served as president of the Egyptian Bar Association. His maternal grandfather was a member of the Egyptian Supreme Court. After displaying brilliance from his earliest days in school (as well as on the squash court), El Baradei received his undergraduate degree from Cairo University in 1962 and law degrees from New York University in 1971 (LL.M.) and 1974 (J.S.D.). He also taught at NYU as an adjunct professor in the early 1980s. El Baradei is married and has two grown children.

El Baradei's Early Career:

El Baradei joined the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he was 22, in 1964. Deliberative, dispassionate and scholarly in his approach, his diplomatic skills were quickly apparent. He was sent to Egypt's diplomatic missions at the United Nations in Geneva and New York, then became a special assistant to Egypt's foreign minister in the 1970s. He was part of the Egyptian delegation Anwar el Sadat led to Camp David for peace negotiations with Israel, mediated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in 1978. In 1980, he became a senior fellow at the UN's Institute for Training and Research in New York.

Rising Through the Ranks at the IAEA:

El Baradei joined the IAEA in 1984 in New York as a legal adviser, moving to the agency's Vienna headquarters, where he became assistant director general for external relations in 1993 and, in 1997, director-general of the agency, succeeding Hans Blix. El Baradei would remain at that post, despite persistent and at times questionably legal attempts by the Bush administration, to oust him. El Baradei made his first mark beyond the agency when, in 2001 and 2002, he stood firm by the IAEA's findings that Iraq had dismantled its nuclear weapons program--assertions President Bush erroneously disputed.

El Baradei, Iraq and Iran:

El Baradei was among the investigators who searched Iraq for weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war in 2003, and found none. El Baradei also produced documentation discrediting allegations by the Bush administration that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons. The United States launched the invasion of Iraq anyway on March 20, 2003. The experience added to El Baradei's stature as an evidence-based, non-ideological diplomat and defined much of his subsequent approach in dealing with Iran's moves toward nuclear status. El Baradei did not want Iran turned into another Iraq.

Bush Administration Spies on El Baradei to Oust Him:

The Bush administration was an outspoken enemy of El Baradei. The administration, the Washington Post reported in 2004, "has dozens of intercepts of Mohamed ElBaradei's phone calls with Iranian diplomats and is scrutinizing them in search of ammunition to oust him as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency." The report added that "the efforts against ElBaradei demonstrate the lengths some within the administration are willing to go to replace a top international diplomat who questioned U.S. intelligence on Iraq and is now taking a cautious approach on Iran."

Iran's Nuclear Program:

El Baradei didn't discount the potential or intentions of the Iranian regime to develop offensive nuclear capabilities. But his approach differed markedly from that of the Bush administration. He favored a diplomatic track--talks and sanctions, not confrontation. El Baradei's diplomatic strategy reflected his own philosophy and demeanor. "Iran's policy of concealment over a number of years [has] created a confidence deficit," he told Newsweek, but, he told another newspaper, "You will never solve your problem until you sit around the table and put your grievances on the table and find out how to move forward."

El Baradei As Appeaser?:

Mohamed El Baradei never lacked for enemies. The conservative National Review charged that El Baradei was "the classic international-organization man." The Arab press targeted El Baradei's relative silence on the Middle East's one certain nuclear power: Israel, which developed nuclear weapons in the 1960s and lied about those developments to three American presidents. Nevertheless, El Baradei stood by his warning against an Israeli strike on Iran, saying, "There is no military solution. ... If a country is bombed, you give them every reason... to go for nuclear weapons, and nobody can even blame them."

El Baradei's 2005 Nobel Peace Prize:

In 2005, El Baradei shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the IAEA for, in the Nobel Committee's words, "their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way." In his Nobel lecture, El Baradei mentioned neither Iran nor Israel. He spoke of the universality of peaceful religions and the universal potentials of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. "Imagine," he said, echoing his favorite theme, "a world where we would settle our differences through diplomacy and dialogue and not through bombs or bullets."

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"ElBaradei’s whirlwind interviews," The New York Times subsequently reported, "made it clear that he had come home to shake up the leadership’s long monopoly on power, even as he continued to dance around the question of whether he would run for president."

The paper added, "His message as he dominated the media landscape was a call for the people of Egypt to press their government for more political freedoms, a provocation in a nation where dissent is hardly tolerated and where a viable political opposition has not been allowed to grow. His point was this: Without amending the Constitution to allow fully free elections, Egypt could not improve any of the deep social and economic problems that had been allowed to fester under the governing party.

“My goal is that there wouldn’t be one savior for Egypt,” ElBaradei said in a three-hour television interview shortly after he arrived. “My goal is for Egypt to save itself. Help me in order to help you. If you want this country to change, then every one of you must participate to show his desire.”

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