Interview: Mohamed ElBaradei

The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate speaks up about the Bush administration, Iran, and his rumored bid to become the next president of Egypt.


Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei knows a thing or two about conflict resolution. During his efforts, he took on some of the world’s most intransigent regimes, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, over their development of nuclear weapons — and that’s without mentioning perhaps his biggest antagonist of all: the administration of George W. Bush. But during his 12 years at the helm of the IAEA, ElBaradei also transformed the agency into a key player on some of the planet’s most explosive issues — and in 2005 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Last December, ElBaradei dropped a bombshell: He was considering a run for the country’s presidency in the upcoming 2011 election. The potential addition of a respected international figure to the presidential race threatens to weaken the grip on power held by Egypt’s aging dictator, Hosni Mubarak. In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, ElBaradei opens up about the state of a grand bargain between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue, his conflicts with the Bush administration, and the conditions under which he will pursue the presidency. ElBaradei also discloses that he will be returning to his native country in the third week in February. The world will be watching closely to see if there are indeed second acts in Egyptian public life. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: During your time as IAEA director general, does any one country or administration stick out to you as the greatest challenge to deal with?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Well quite a few. Of course, it was not easy in some cases to deal with the Bush administration. In the case of Iraq and the case of Iran, we had different viewpoints of the meaning of diplomacy and, in many cases, about the facts themselves. This is equally true with North Korea.

There is always an effort by people to use and abuse what you say. So you have to walk on very thin ice in terms of exactly measuring every word you author and every action you take — that doesn’t mean politicizing the work of the agency, but that means understanding the context in which you are operating.

When I get a piece of intelligence, for example, I have to be very aware that there is misinformation and that there are people who like to hype the issues for their own political ends.  

FP: It seems like people are beginning to doubt that the Iranians are negotiating in good faith. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think this deal still has potential?

ElBaradei: I think that, unfortunately, as we were moving ahead with this fuel package deal, which we were about to conclude, Iran fell into an internal fight as a result of the [contested June 2009] election. This issue became [part of] a payback situation in Iran, as I see it. I still have hope that this domestic hype will come to an end and then Iran will see the fantastic opportunity you have in that deal. It is not the deal per se, but the horizon that it opens.

I know from President Obama, personally, that if that deal were to take place, it would defuse that crisis by giving him the space to negotiate a comprehensive package with Iran where nothing is off the table. This would be the opening of what everybody has been hoping for, for many, many years. I hope that the Iranians, as they settle down their domestic situation, will understand the value of such an opening.

To have somebody like Barack Obama, who for the first time offers to negotiate with them without preconditions — which is something we have long been waiting for — and to have an opportunity to sit directly with the United States and talk about all the mutual grievances, is also an opportunity that will not last very long. If the Iranians are not negotiating fair and straight than there is no option other then to go towards sanctions, which would not resolve any issues and would make things worse. But people will have to take the other road, if the road of dialogue and negotiation is not open.

FP: How do you answer the complaints of the Bush administration that you failed to uphold the IAEA’s standards of compliance toward Iran during your tenure?

ElBaradei: The Bush administration was saying in 2005 that Iran had an ongoing nuclear program, and we were accused of losing credibility by John Bolton and company when we said we did not see concrete proof of an ongoing program. But we were exonerated, if you like, and our conclusion was validated by the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] report in 2007, which said that Iran had [done] some weaponization studies but was not developing weapons, and that they stopped it in 2003.

So when we said in 2005 that we don’t have concrete proof of an ongoing program, we were correct. However, nobody came back to us to apologize after all of the vilification we had in 2005. It was the same in the case of Iraq, when Dick Cheney said before the war that I was wrong. After the war all he said was that he misspoke. Well, the result of the "misspeaking" was horrendous, as I see it today.

FP: Transitioning now to Egyptian politics, there has been a great deal of talk that you will be a candidate in the next presidential election. Why do you want to be president of Egypt?

ElBaradei: I don’t want to be president of Egypt! I have a lot of plans other than being president of Egypt. You can understand that after having this thankless job for 12 years, that I wanted to have some time to do other things that I like to do, including spending time with my family — we have a house in the south of France, and I also have a granddaughter. However, this issue is coming to me by default; a lot of people are saying that they want me to be engaged in domestic politics — they want me to run for president of Egypt.

What I’ve said is that I would not even consider running for president unless there is the proper framework for a free and fair election — and that is still the major question mark in Egypt. I don’t believe the conditions are in place for free and fair elections. In fact, I just sent an article to an Egyptian newspaper today setting out what needs to be done before I could consider it. These guarantees [include] an independent judicial review, international oversight, and equal opportunity for media coverage — there is a lot that needs to be in place — and of course, the ability to run as an independent. The Constitution is written in a way that I cannot run unless I join an existing party, which, to me, is not how a democratic system works.

I would like to be, at this time, an agent to push Egypt toward a more democratic and transparent regime, with all of its implications for the rest of the Arab world. If I am able to do that, I will be very happy because we need to achieve democracy in the Arab world as fast as we can. Democracy meaning empowering people, democracy meaning a proper economic and social development, tolerance — it means building up modern societies.

FP: You faced some pretty bitter attacks in the Egyptian state media for these statements. Do you fear that foreshadows some of the repression you will face when you return to Egypt?

ElBaradei: I think the immediate reaction was a vicious attack by the government newspapers. Then I think they realized they made a terrible mistake because it backfired in their face. All of a sudden I became a national hero, sitting here in Vienna. People were just disgusted by how they reacted [to my statements].

So that immediately stopped, and now you don’t see any of that any longer and I just saw a representative of the ruling party saying that they are looking forward to my return to Egypt and that they will welcome me back. I think they realize that a vicious personal attack is not the way to go about it because they need to address the issues I have raised and will continue to raise, whether I’m in Egypt or outside Egypt.

FP: President Mubarak has been criticized harshly in Egypt and from outside, from some quarters, for his policy toward Gaza. Do you have any opinions on his policy toward Hamas?

ElBaradei: I don’t really know the details about his relationship with Hamas. All I know about Gaza is that you have to distinguish between national security and humanitarian assistance. I would quote Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, who wrote that we are failing Gaza and that 1.5 million innocent civilians have been penalized because of the behavior of some of the Hamas members. To me this is not much different from what happened to Iraq before and after the war. You end up penalizing the innocent and the vulnerable — the citizens. According to Patten, Gaza is only getting 31 of the "essential items" from the Israeli side, while they need thousands of items. They’re not getting any construction materials. They received 41 truckloads of materials; the whole place is rubble.

The need to separate your politics from humanitarian needs and from protection of civilians is a principle that was established a hundred years ago with the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions. I feel that we are moving away from that in many ways. We talked about "crippling sanctions," for example. When you talk about "crippling sanctions," you have to understand that those who are being crippled are not the people in power — it is the innocent civilians, the elderly, and the young. That is to me absolutely the wrong approach.

FP: Does that mean you would stop the construction of this underground wall that is currently being constructed between Egypt and Gaza?

ElBaradei: As I said, I don’t really know the details, but if this [border area] has been used for smuggling, drugs, weapons, or extremists, then Egypt has the right to make sure it protects its security. But what Egypt can also do is use the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow Gaza to have humanitarian assistance. For example, one idea I have is to create a free zone in the Egyptian part of Rafah [the border town]. I don’t see why we can’t have a free zone there where people from Gaza go and buy their own basic needs. So there is a difference between protecting national security, which no one questions, and providing humanitarian assistance.

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