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.