As of yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, has a new director-general, the understated Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano. Mr. Amano has his work cut out for him.
His predecessor, 67-year-old Mohamed ElBaradei, stepped down after 12 years with what, by his deplorable standards, amounted to a bang rather than a whimper.
In the last few days, ElBaradei declared bitterly that the IAEA's probe of allegations that Iran has been trying to make nuclear arms is at "a dead end" because Teheran is not cooperating.
He warned that confidence in Teheran had shrunk in the wake of its belated revelation of a previously secret nuclear facility at Qom.
He slammed Teheran for rejecting a proposal meant to delay its ability to make nuclear weapons. Iran would have had to ship out most of its stockpile of 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Its demand to "dilute" the proposal, ElBaradei stressed firmly, "was unacceptable because it could mean Teheran retaining enough enriched uranium for use in a nuclear weapon."
Reflecting its outgoing director's frustrated assessments, the IAEA's board on Friday overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding that Iran stop construction at the Qom facility and stop uranium enrichment.
The US promptly warned that its "patience" on Iran might be exhausted by year's end. Britain, sounding increasingly irritated, urged Iran to "accept the hand that has been extended toward it." And the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, spoke of "one last chance for dialogue" before "very harsh" sanctions.
"Why did Iran announce 10 new uranium enrichment sites when it has only one nuclear plant to burn this fuel?" Kouchner demanded, not unreasonably, referring to the defiant Iranian response to the IAEA's resolution.
THE ANSWER to Kouchner's question, and to the wider question of why Iran treats the IAEA with such contempt, is simple: because, under ElBaradei's blinkered watch, it has learned that it can.
It has watched North Korea proceed serenely to a nuclear weapons capability. It has adroitly exploited international disunity, and its own significant circle of diplomatic allies and trading partners, to ensure that sanctions efforts to date have caused it no great inconvenience. But most of all, it has benefited from the naivety, or worse, of ElBaradei's IAEA.
Listening to the outgoing director-general in the final few days of his term, one might have believed that here was the furious, final re-emphasis of a warning too long ignored. In fact, however, ElBaradei's farewell talk of untenable Iranian non-cooperation, of dead-ends and of dangers, was a departure.
Previously, he had assured the international community that Iran was ready "to cooperate fully with us and to demonstrate full transparency" (2003), that "the most sensitive part of the Iranian program, which is the enrichment program, is now under complete agency inspection" (February 2009), that, "in many ways" the Iranian nuclear "threat has been hyped" (July), and that the greatest danger in the region stems from the threat of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities (October).
That final assertion came in the course of an interview with an Austrian newspaper in which he declared that, with Iran, "negotiation is the only possible solution," and noted: "Israel says it cannot tolerate an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons. But when you talk now with Arab leaders, they say they cannot tolerate a nuclear Israel."
THERE, IN a few words, is the essence of ElBaradei's failure - his incapacity or disinclination to distinguish between the dangers posed, on the one hand, by a tiny country that, over several decades during which its very existence has frequently been under threat, has not resorted to the use of a reported nuclear capacity, and, on the other, by a regional bully that has brazenly lied to the international community about its nuclear program, oppressed its own people, relentlessly incited the elimination of a sovereign state, and vowed to remake the entire world order.
The IAEA is charged with preventing the proliferation of nuclear technology, to ensure that the most devastating, last-resort weaponry remain out of reach to those who cannot be trusted with it. Given the accelerating ease of technology-transfer, the task is complex enough. Under ElBaradei, a man incapable of recognizing where the most potent dangers were sited, it became a lost cause.