Lawrence Wittner, Review of "Mohamed ElBaradei’s The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times" (Metropolitan Books, 2011)


Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany.  His latest book is "Confronting the Bomb:  A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (Stanford University Press).

Can international diplomacy cope with the nuclear dangers that now threaten global survival?  In The Age of Deception, Mohamed ElBaradei makes the case that it can—if only national governments would make a good faith effort to support it.

ElBaradei is a former international civil servant who once headed the Egyptian Bar Association, taught courses on international law at NYU Law School, and, from 1997 to 2009, served as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations entity charged with preventing the use of nuclear energy for military purposes.  It is also worth noting that he and the IAEA shared the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize and that he was a leader in the recent pro-democracy uprising in Egypt.

In this new book, ElBaradei focuses on the nuclear diplomacy of the past two decades, particularly the behavior of the governments of Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Iran, and of major nuclear powers like the United States.  What he reports is deeply disturbing—a scramble by numerous nations, driven by fear and insecurity, to obtain nuclear weapons or to maintain their own privileged nuclear status.

This scramble clearly contravenes the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Signed in 1968, the NPT represents a bargain between the nuclear weapons nations and the non-nuclear weapons nations.  Under its provisions, the nuclear nations are required to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons and the non-nuclear nations are required to forgo developing them.  If these provisions were followed, we would today have a nuclear weapons-free world.  Instead, of course, we have a world in which nine nations continue to maintain over 20,000 nuclear weapons (about 95 percent of them possessed by the United States and Russia), other nations lay plans to join the nuclear club, and terrorist groups plot to obtain nuclear weapons from national arsenals.

The story of Iraq’s experience with nuclear weapons is particularly revealing.  ElBaradei reminds us that, in the early 1980s, after Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s research reactor at Osirik, Saddam Hussein’s government began a clandestine nuclear weapons program.  But in the early 1990s, after the IAEA and other UN inspectors moved into Iraq and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear facilities, Iraq lost the ability to develop nuclear weapons.  Even so, as ElBaradei notes, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. government “was intent on retaining and even reinforcing its privileged nuclear weapons status,” and “was determined to come down harder on potential WMD proliferation by other countries.”  Charges began to emanate from the Bush administration that the Iraqi government was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program—even though these charges were quite false.  ElBaradei makes a very convincing case that U.S. officials were dishonest about their “evidence” that allegedly proved Iraq’s culpability.  The Bush administration’s goal, ElBaradi argues, was to secure “regime change.”  And it never let facts get in its way.

For example, although the IAEA had long been pressing U.S. and British officials for the supposed documentary evidence of Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger, it did not receive this “evidence” until the same day as Colin Powell’s dramatic address to the United Nations.  ElBaradi notes that, though it had taken the US and the UK more than three months to supply this “evidence,” it took an IAEA team “only a matter of hours to figure out that the documents were fake.”  One letter, supposedly from the president of Niger, “was full of inaccuracies and had an obviously falsified signature.”  Another letter, dated October 2000, was allegedly from Niger’s minister of foreign affairs.  But that individual had not held office since 1989.  ElBaradei remarks caustically:  “A forgery that had escaped detection through months of examination by the world’s top intelligence agencies was immediately exposed by an IAEA physicist using Google searches and common sense.”

ElBaradei emphasizes the far different treatment accorded North Korea, a country that secretly established a nuclear weapons development program, built nuclear weapons, and conducted nuclear test explosions.  For years, the North Korean government resisted IAEA inspections and practiced a policy of deception.  When the IAEA pressed hard for transparency, the Pyongyang government announced, in retaliation, that it would withdraw from the NPT.  In 1994, the U.S. government stepped in and worked out a compromise arrangement.  Called the Agreed Framework, this arrangement provided that North Korea would freeze the operations of its existing nuclear program in exchange for two light water (i.e. proliferation resistant) nuclear reactors, plus crude oil to meet its temporary energy needs.  ElBaradei observes:  “Put simply, the Agreed Framework was designed to buy off the North Koreans. . . .  The hope was that the North Korean regime would implode from within before full implementation of the agreement.”

But this hope failed to materialize.  The regime hung on, while the United States never delivered the promised reactors.  Eventually, the IAEA inspectors were expelled from the country and North Korea withdrew from the NPT.  ElBaradei believes that, through these actions, officials in Pyongyang were attempting to set the stage for more aid, as well as security guarantees and eventual normalization of relations with the United States.  But the Bush administration refused to consider compromise measures.  In ElBaradei’s view, Washington thereby drove “a pariah nation into still greater isolation,” giving North Korea’s “generals and scientists the extra time and motivation to develop and detonate a nuclear weapon.”  It was “an unfortunate example of ideology and absolutism getting in the way of common sense and pragmatism.”        

Today, of course, the hottest nuclear issue concerns Iran.  In 2002, the IAEA began to accumulate evidence indicating that the Iranian government, despite official denials, had been carrying out experiments on nearly every phase of uranium conversion.  Eventually, cornered by the IAEA, Iranian officials admitted this.  Nevertheless, they insisted that such experiments were designed to help Iran develop peaceful nuclear power.  And they claimed that they had practiced secrecy only because they were being barred—by the West and, particularly by the United States—from their right under the NPT to have nuclear power plants.  ElBaradei observes that, after this, “the Americans did not want to consider the Iranian arguments—despite having themselves been in the driver’s seat of the effort to isolate Iran for more than two decades.  The fact that Iran had lied was, in their view, proof positive that Tehran intended to produce nuclear weapons.

In ElBaradei’s view, during the mid-1980s, as Iran underwent devastating losses thanks to Iraq’s use of poison gas in its war with Iran, the Iranian government might have intended to develop nuclear weapons.  But, in later years, Iran seemed to back away from this goal and decide to limit its program to the development of the nuclear fuel cycle.  ElBaradei ascribes Iran’s unwillingness to halt uranium enrichment in the face of sanctions and Western condemnation to its hope for “a grand bargain with the West” and its desire to be “a technological powerhouse with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons if the political winds were to shift.”  Thus, as in the case of North Korea, ElBaradei thinks a compromise was (and is) possible—if the nuclear powers were more flexible in their approach.

Indeed, ElBaradei has some harsh words for what he calls the “double standard” of nuclear-armed nations.  Israel, for example, has bombed installations in both Iraq and Syria, claiming that these facilities were being used to develop nuclear weapons.  But Israel is one of the few countries that has refused to sign the NPT and that has developed and maintained a nuclear arsenal.  Likewise, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia not only dealt ineffectively and inconsistently with other nations suspected of developing nuclear weapons, but, through “their own failure to disarm contributed directly to proliferation itself.”  When British foreign secretary David Miliband asked ElBaradei why Iran wanted to have nuclear weapons, the IAEA official was tempted to reply:  “Why does the United Kingdom?”

In this treacherous context, ElBaradei’s prescription for dealing with the nuclear menace is to have the international community “develop an alternate system of collective security, one perceived not as a zero-sum game for a given country or group of countries, but as a universal imperative rooted in the notion of human security and solidarity.”  This new system “must be, in every respect, equitable and inclusive.  We must develop strategies to share the wealth of the planet more equally” and “invest deliberately in advanced science and technology to meet development needs.”  Furthermore, “a multinational security paradigm must rest on strong, responsive multinational institutions” —not only a strengthened IAEA, but a UN Security Council placing “far greater emphasis on peacekeeping and peacemaking; on the early identification and prevention of disputes; on agile, effective mediation and reconciliation; and on taking ownership for resolving conflicts.”  Ultimately, he writes, “we are a single, conjoined human family; like it or not, we are in this together.”

Given the fierce nationalism in the United States and other nations, this might seem like an unrealistic proposal.  But, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, continuing the current program of rivalry and war among nations appears considerably less realistic.

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