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Middle East


Who Is Mohamed Elbaradei?

February 1, 2011 - 12:52 PM | by: Eric Shawn

He seems an unlikely revolutionary leader.

And Mohamed Elbaradei, the taciturn, bespectacled former United Nations diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has no shortage of critics who say his sudden ascension could prove troubling for U.S.-Egyptian relations.

“I would be very worried, both for the United States and its friends in the region, like Israel, about the implications of any substantial involvement by Elbaradei in setting Egyptian national policy,” warns John Bolton, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, who had extensive dealings with the Egyptian as a U.N. official.

Elbaradei headed the U.N’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or I.A.E.A., for 12 years. It was in that role that some accused him of being biased toward Iran, though he denied it. He had a stormy relationship with the George W. Bush administration, which tried to block his reappointment as head of the agency in 2005.

Critics accused Elbaradei of sometimes seeming to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt, and downplaying a possible military aspect to its nuclear program despite what the U.S. and others said was evidence to the contrary.

Less than a year and a half ago, Elbaradei told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, that “we have no indications, no concrete proof that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. That is my view. That is the views of the agency.”

The U.S. and its allies have long accused Iran of trying to build a nuclear bomb. Just this week, the British Defense Secretary predicted Tehran could have a nuclear weapon by next year. Iran, though, has always denied it is attempting to build a nuclear bomb.

Elbaradei also has a history of sharply criticizing U.S. foreign policy and has questioned Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. He also strongly opposed the war in Iraq. He correctly refuted some of the evidence the Bush administration used to support the case for the invasion, such as saying supposed nuclear aluminum tubes and yellow cake uranium from Niger had no connection to any Iraqi nuclear program.

He told “The New York Times” in 2007 that “my job is to add a ’secular pope’, if you like, as described by the Secretary General, and I think it applies to me.”  He also said, “I have a strong belief in what my job is about. I’d like to make my own decisions and not be told what I have to do, particularly when it conflicts with my beliefs. I see my role as a public servant. I feel that I have a duty and a responsibility to the international community to tell them how I see things, from where I’m sitting.”

But critics, like Former Ambassador Bolton, fault him.

“He is one of those fashionable anti-American international leftists. He’s already criticized the United States for its policy in Egypt this week, and he announced in his previous presidential campaign that he would recognize Hamas and end sanctions against Hamas, which presumably means opening the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. He has also said the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not an extremist organization.”

Despite that, others think he will tow a moderate path.

“He’s a secularist,” notes former United States Ambassador to Israel and Syria, Edward P. Djerejian, who now heads the noted James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, in Houston. He says Elbaradei is “moderate. He has strong opinions on issues, but this is a centrist political personality and he’s the type of personality I believe could probably give the disparate groups in Egypt a link…maybe he is that sort of eclectic Egyptian personality that people could gravitate toward in the beginning. Now whether that means Mohamed Elbaradei will become the next leader of Egypt, or the next President of Egypt, I simply don’t know.”

One former U.N weapons inspector who has known Elbaradei for decades, told me that in private, Elbaradei actually “used harsh language with the Iranians,” and he claims that Elbaradei  “is not anti-American.”

But the inspector told me that Elbaradei believed that as a top U.N. official, he had a moral responsibility to be objective, and impartial not matter what the critics say.

Elbaradei has now shed that role as he marches with the protestors on the Cairo streets.

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