In January, Foreign Policy published excerpts from its interview with former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei. Following his return to Egypt on Feb. 19, here is an extended version of ElBaradei's comments on his time at the helm of the IAEA, his opinion of the George W. Bush administration, and his ambitions to run in Egypt's upcoming presidential election.
Foreign Policy: What were some of the primary skills that you needed to be effective in your job, during your 12 years as director general of the IAEA?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Well, I think the No. 1 skill is impartiality -- and that is key. Particularly in the area of verification, you are sitting in judgment of countries' behavior, and that is very difficult for countries to stomach. You are, in one way, hired by them -- and on the other, sitting in judgment of their behavior.
That means you have to be impeccably impartial and stick to the facts. But, that being said, you will always have disagreements because, obviously, you are trying to be an objective judge in a very subjective political environment -- the security environment.
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?
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.
The problem, in our area of work, is that you are dealing with very subjective policy views from different states. So you try to separate the wheat from the chaff and make sure that you are only dealing with facts. You must try to understand where people are coming from.
There is a lot of misconception when you hear that this is just a technical organization. Every aspect of our work is in nuclear security, nuclear verification, or nuclear power, and so there is always a policy dimension to it. And you have to understand the context within which you are working and the implication of what you are doing or saying. 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.
That will continue to be the same. 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. These are all policy issues, and you must make value judgments. You try to find a way to get the antagonistic parties together and try to find a solution. Of course, you cannot impose a solution but, from where you are sitting, you can see options and possibilities where things can move forward.
At the end of the day, we are not doing verification for the sake of verification. We are doing inspection to make sure that countries are not developing nuclear weapons. If, in addition to our verification, you see a way for direct engagement between the parties and a way to build trust, of course you try to suggest the way forward. I've been doing that in the case of Iran and in tough cases like North Korea.
Just before I left office, there was this deal about fuel [where the Iranians would transfer their stocks of enriched uranium out of the country, in exchange for fuel plates for their nuclear reactor], which I still believe is a fantastic opportunity for both the United States and Iran to get engaged. I have been, while doing verification on Iran, actively pursuing that package on behalf of the United States and behalf of Iran -- I was mediating between the two. That is part of the job: You have to understand that it is partly mediation, partly inspection, partly diplomacy. You wear so many hats and switch between them quickly in order to keep your eye on the ball. That way, you keep the world safer and more secure and ensure that we do not end up killing each other for the wrong reasons.