While Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei – who may soon take up a leadership position in Egypt’s interim government – is known in the West as a moderate, liberal voice of Egypt, in Israel the former International Atomic Energy Agency head is remembered for a faintness on Iran that enabled it to make huge strides toward a nuclear weapon.
“I am worried about the possible appointment of ElBaradei,” former US ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich told Israel Radio on Sunday.
“For many years he was very comfortable for the Iranians, and without this softness I don’t think the Iranians would be where they are today [regarding their nuclear program]. I don’t think his intentions toward Israel will be comfortable, though this will have to be tested.”
While Israeli government officials have so far refrained from relating to ElBaradei’s possible emergence in a leadership role, in 2009 they barely hid their relief when he stepped down after 12 years as IAEA chairman, a position that earned him and the agency he represented a Nobel Prize in 2005.
Interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour declared his intention Saturday of appointing ElBaradei as interim prime minister, but then backtracked at the last minute because of the fierce objection of the Salafist al-Nour Party.
ElBaradei visited Israel for 48-hours in 2004, meeting then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and delivering a lecture on nuclear non-proliferation at Hebrew University.
“His record as head of the IAEA is one of reverberating failures,” one diplomatic official told The Jerusalem Post in December 2008, just prior to when ElBaradei stepped down. The official said that ElBaradei would be judged by the fact that during his tenure, Syria, Libya, North Korea and Iran all developed nuclear programs. “The IAEA failed in all four cases,” the official said.
In 2007 and 2008 ElBaradei staked out a position that held it was just a matter of time before Iran would master the nuclear fuel cycle, and therefore sanctions would not be able to stop it. He also argued that sanctions would only unify the Iranian people around their regime, a premise many claim was disproven in the recent elections in Iran, which were widely seen as a repudiation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies.
Both Israeli and US diplomats argued that ElBaradei’s words about the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear capacity and the futility of sanctions were counterproductive, and made it more difficult to get countries to back a robust sanctions regime.
The later years with ElBaradei at the helm of the IAEA were also marked in Jerusalem by a feeling that the IAEA could have – in its periodic reports on Iran – spelled out in much more detail how the Iranians were violating their commitments to the IAEA, and provide much more precise detail for the world to see clearly the nuclear strides Tehran was making.
Some believed he was intentionally too easy on the Iranians in IAEA reports in order to forestall sanctions.
There was at the time a sense that a more detailed list of what the Iranians have done to avoid IAEA inspection would have led to greater international outrage, which could in turn have helped efforts to get tougher sanctions earlier on.
Israel was also irritated by ElBaredi’s public censuring of its reported attack against a nuclear installation in Syria in 2007, a nuclear installation that the Syrians were developing under the nose of ElBaradei and the IAEA. Soon after the attack he lashed out at Israel for taking “the law into their own hands.” He said that had Israel or the US had any evidence of a Syrian nuclear site, they should have approached him about it.