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Transcript of Interviews

Superman and Sisyphus

DER SPIEGEL Interview with Mohamed ElBaradei

8 December 2005 (Article in DER SPIEGEL, 49/2005 Edition, page 78)

(See SPIEGEL ONLINE: English Version | German Version)

Translated from German

Mohamed ElBaradei will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo this weekend - a man who has been acclaimed, spied on and reviled as no laureate before him. Has the Egyptian ElBaradei, working on behalf of the United Nations, successfully prevented the proliferation of nuclear weapons? Or has he in fact failed?

Vienna in winter: boiled beef and chocolate cake, coachmen´s whips, shining lights at the Christmas markets and cosy coffee-houses. Vienna in winter fits so perfectly into the cliché of this city that one is hardly surprised to hear strains of Johann Strauss coming from splendid old villas. All that is missing is the call for everyone to start waltzing! Vienna is idyllic, and especially now, with the first snowflakes dancing, it has something enviable, almost provokingly peaceful.

That, at any rate, is how Mohamed ElBaradei, 63, feels about it - which may be because, as the Chief of the IAEA, he is confronted daily with provokingly unpeaceful Powers. For example the North Koreans and their dictator Kim Jong Il, who withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, threw all UN inspectors out of the country in 2002, and now need to be brought back into the fold. The radical Iranian regime, suspected of trying to make a bomb. Or terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, which are looking for the ultimate weapon and attempting to get hold of nuclear material on the black market.

[Photo: Laureate ElBaradei and wife Aida (in their Vienna flat): "The danger of a nuclear war has never been so great as it is today."]

ElBaradei has just received another of these phone calls that presage ill.

Pensively, the man who was re-elected in September for a third term of office as the world community´s chief weapons inspector looks out of his window on the fourth floor of a villa near the Schwarzenberg Palace. He has insisted on living near the city centre, among "normal" people in a "normal" street. As often as possible he tries to immerse himself in the world down there, on the other side of the noise-reducing double-glazed windows, away from the UN´s discussions about dangers to the world´s survival. He prefers to steal away in the early hours. With his baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, he jogs through the crooked streets, reads the newspaper in a coffee-house - alone, hoping not to be recognized.

"I love Vienna", says ElBaradei with his soft voice, which always sounds as if he does not want to upset anybody. And as a diplomat always aiming for balance without injurious preferences, he hastily adds: "Apart from Vienna I especially love Cairo, where my roots are - and New York, where I spent such interesting years."

ElBaradei runs his hand over his almost hairless head, which together with the small round glasses on his nose gives him something of the ascetic - a touch of Gandhi. The trimmed moustache, the perfectly fitting conservative clothes and the always upright bearing point in an entirely different direction - more than a touch of aristocracy. ElBaradei brings together opposites.

On 7 October he was sitting with his wife Aida watching CNN news on television when a live announcement from Oslo was broadcast: "2005 Nobel Peace Prize to be shared equally between IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and his Agency."

At the subsequent modest ceremony among his staff in the Vienna International Centre across the Danube he could not suppress tears of emotion. It is not customary to hear a crowd calling "Mohamed, Mohamed" in the normally very sober working atmosphere of the glass towers. He said the award was an encouragement to continue the weapons inspections "regardless of person and country".

Congratulations came from around the world. From France´s President, Jacques Chirac, whom ElBaradei values more highly than any other politician for his political far-sightedness, and from the "authentic" Joschka Fischer. Phone calls also came from senior US staff - quite surprising considering that the Bush Administration had made every effort to push the IAEA Chief out of office because of his resistance to the Iraq war. And even had his phone bugged by the CIA, as the Washington Post revealed in December 2004.

[Photo: Nuclear test in the Pacific (1954), nuclear politicians Kim, Ayatollah Khamenei*: Weapon for dictators?]

[* Top right: in Pyongyang in October. Bottom right: in Tehran in August, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranís newly elected president, kissing his hand.]

ElBaradei reacts coolly to being spied on: "I knew I had nothing material to hide. Nevertheless it was unpleasant not to be able to chat with my children without unwanted eavesdroppers listening in." With similar nonchalance, at least outwardly, he brushes off the smear campaign launched by interested circles according to which he, as a Muslim, had engaged in secret talks on an Islamic nuclear weapon. "Too nonsensical to be worth commenting on."

Ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell congratulated him. For a long time he was very sceptical of the IAEA and its Chief - he believed in the CIA´s "proofs" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In his speech to the Security Council on 5 February 2003 he mentioned as evidence of Saddam Hussein´s nuclear programme the attempted import of aluminium tubes, even though ElBaradei´s UN inspectors had determined that they were not suitable for making centrifuges for bomb production. Meanwhile Powell calls his UN speech a black spot in his life. Powell´s now congratulating his former adversary on the Nobel Prize, in ElBaradei´s opinion, shows character and greatness.

The congratulations from Condoleezza Rice are even more astonishing. The new Chief of the State Department is promising close cooperation with the IAEA - a 180-degree about-turn. Before the Iraq war, as George W. Bush´s security adviser, she severely criticized the weapons inspectors and sounded off about threats of nuclear mushroom clouds that Saddam could unleash - one of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq that has long been refuted, like so many others.

No acclaim has come from Pyongyang. North Korea´s Stalinists regard the award as a conspiracy. Iranian government representatives have been very reticent with their congratulations: they increasingly feel that ElBaradei´s precise inspection demands and his open criticism of the transparency of their nuclear programme are a nuisance. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace were horrified at the award. They deplore the promotion of the civil use of nuclear energy by the Agency and its Chief - and indeed promoting nuclear technology to combat starvation, disease and environmental pollution is one of the IAEA´s functions.

[Photo: Nuclear inspectors and their chief ElBaradei in Vienna: "Difference between war and peace"]

This is precisely the inherent contradiction in ElBaradei´s duties: He is supposed to help all Member States achieve the state of the art in science and technology - and then ensure its peaceful use by applying strict safeguards. Above all, however, he is expected to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to keep the ambitious nuclear have-nots in line and also to hold the possessors of the ultimate weapon, the Americans, Russians, Chinese, British and French, to their commitment to reduce their arsenals.

The ElBaradeis´ living-room has a friendly colour scheme. Soft Persian rugs offset brighter hues; the music case holds CDs from Bruckner to Sibelius, also the jazz classics which our host loves - but nothing too experimental. On the walls there are modern paintings of varying quality, bought not in aspiration to high art, let alone as an investment, but just as the fancy took him. One in Moscow, another in Accra. There is an antique curved dagger from Oman on the desk as a decoration, a sharp weapon from another age.

In ElBaradei´s office on the top floor of the UN building, two kilometres from here, he has a reproduction of Edvard Munch´s painting The Scream over his couch. It shows a deeply disturbed, shocked person who must have seen something terrifying - or must fear such a thing. In his home, however, there is no gloomy picture to darken the mood. His wife Aida, 52, tries to keep the apocalyptic away from her husband, at least at home.

p>But of course the nuclear bomb problem never leaves him alone. You can talk to the chief weapons inspector about Elfriede Jelinek´s Piano Teacher, about the Yankees´ chances in the baseball league and about actors´ performances deserving an Oscar (he thinks Ben Kingsley in Gandhi is unmatched, that being his favourite film anyway); but within half-an-hour he will get back to the central topic of his life, which drives him and torments him.

"I am afraid that the memory of Hiroshima is beginning to fade", he says. "I am afraid that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of dictators or terrorists. And I am also afraid of the nuclear arsenals of democratic countries, for as long as these weapons exist there can be no security against the catastrophic consequences of theft, sabotage or accident." So far no civilization had yet succeeded in giving up its most powerful weapons voluntarily. "Perhaps we can manage that. At any rate I firmly believe the IAEA can make the difference between war and peace."

Really? Isn´t the IAEA actually a pretty toothless watchdog? Does ElBaradei not lack true powers to control and sanction, degrading him to the world´s chief Geiger counter, possibly letting him sometimes function as a lie detector - but never really to enforce disarmament?

"We have improved and strengthened international safeguards", says ElBaradei. "But as a UN body, we can only be as strong as its members want us to be. We inspectors are both masters and slaves of those we inspect - a difficult situation."

How realistic is the danger of a nuclear war, compared with the time when he took office as chief weapons inspector in 1997?

"It has never been so great as it is now. Export controls have failed and a black market for nuclear material has arisen in which even terrorist groups can help themselves."

What does he demand in dealing with his toughest problem cases?

"It is essential for us to return to North Korea with our inspectors and surveillance cameras. The plans are in a drawer, and if there is a chance to speed things up I will go to Pyongyang myself."

How much longer will he put up with the cat-and-mouse game played by the Iranians, who sometimes cooperate with the IAEA and then rebuff it again? Why does he not conclude what is obvious to most experts: that Tehran is doing everything to be able to build a nuclear bomb?

"It is true that the Iranians have deceived us several times. But we have no conclusive proof of a prohibited military nuclear programme. We expect more transparency from Tehran - but nothing would be worse than a withdrawal by Iran from the Agency, which would leave us without any control options."

ElBaradei has a vision: he wants a five-year world-wide moratorium on plans for new uranium enrichment and fission facilities; conversion of research reactors using highly enriched uranium to less dangerous substances; strengthened IAEA safeguards as a worldwide standard; and UN sanctions for would-be nuclear Powers that resist safeguards. The existing nuclear Powers too must finally make their contribution, ban the weapons and not - like the USA - work on deployable mininukes.

ElBaradei´s wife serves mineral water. Until a year ago she worked as a teacher at Vienna´s UN pre-school. The IAEA chief discusses everything with his worldly-wise and warm-hearted partner. Handling great politicians and working with children, they both agree, requires a lot of patience, cajoling, psychological skills - and also clearly drawing the line and occasionally speaking out loud and clear. "We found that we apply similar methods."

They have tried to pass on values such as social responsibility and willingness to work to their own children. Both live in London. Mustafa, 26, is, his mother says, "still searching for his professional role"; he studied biotechnology and is now doing jobs as a sound engineer and producer for CNN. Laila, 29, is a successful lawyer and "as such not accessible to advice", as her father says. As a law graduate himself he should know.

[Photo: ElBaradei (middle), son of a lawyer, with his parents and siblings in Cairo (around 1960): Roots in East and West.]

ElBaradei´s wife does not mind if he withdraws after dinner. She knows he likes to work until late at night. Sometimes, when he seeks distraction, he looks at the yellowing family photos on a little side table, which hark back to his roots, the beginnings of his career.

The Gezira Club in Cairo, with its swimming pool, riding stables and golf links, is the traditional meeting place and playground of the Egyptian upper class. Here Mohamed ElBaradei used to be a frequent visitor, and it was here too that he often used to meet Aida. It was here the music played.

In the time of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the pan-Arab autocrat, his father was President of the influential Egyptian Bar Association. He campaigned for a free press and an independent legal system and his fundamental democratic convictions left their mark on Mohamed and his four siblings. Other upper class children, on the other hand, went into the islamic underground. Aiman al-Sawahiri, for example, son of a professor and nine years younger than ElBaradei, joined the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequently became Osama Bin Laden´s mentor.

ElBaradei studied law at the University of Cairo. But for him democracy was rather something that had been achieved in the West and so, after his finals, he went to the USA. In 1974, he graduated with a doctorate from the New York University School of Law.

As a diplomat he also rose up the career ladder quickly and was among those who went to Camp David for the spectacular Egyptian-Israeli peace talks. In 1980, ElBaradei moved to the UN, and four years later went for the UN to Vienna. However, when a successor for the long-serving chief of the IAEA, the Swede Hans Blix, was being sought in 1997, ElBaradei was neither his predecessor´s favourite nor the first choice of the Egyptian delegation. As a West-East compromise candidate, he succeeded because others failed.

Today, Messrs. Blix and ElBaradei profess the utmost respect for each other. The tenseness of their relationship at that time was probably attributable to their different styles: the Swede - a confident public speaker who never passed a microphone by, the Egyptian - more of a quiet type who favoured behind-the-scenes consensus solutions.

In 1991 they both learnt a lesson. In the course of the UN investigations demanded by the world community after the Kuwait war, it became clear that the Iraqis had succeeded, without the IAEA´s knowledge, in secretly enriching uranium, thereby taking an important first step towards building a bomb.

Saddam´s people tried constantly to impede the UN inspectors. But nuclear installations cannot be kept secret for long, at least not when you know where to look. ElBaradei´s team blew up nuclear research centres and pulverized equipment. When the international inspectors had to leave Iraq at the end of 1998, they were convinced that they had discovered and destroyed the entire nuclear programme; opinions differed about the chemical and biological weapons programme.

Saddam continued to provoke the world community. In November 2002, he had to bow to international pressure and allow inspectors back into the country; a direct result of the military threat built up by the USA. The search for weapons of mass destruction soon proved to be a fruitless farce. While Saddam was certainly capable of anything, Iraq´s technological capabilities had been severely reduced by the sanctions. There was no trace of a resurrected nuclear programme.

That was just the opposite of what people wanted to hear in Washington, where the decision to go to war had clearly been made long before. Vice-President Dick Cheney spoke about the US government knowing "with absolute certainty" that Saddam was pursuing his nuclear ambitions. The "main evidence" supplied by the British secret service and presented by an indignant George W. Bush in his Address to the Nation in January 2003: the dictator had supposedly wanted to buy uranium secretly in the west African State of Niger.

It took several weeks for the "evidence" to be made available to the IAEA, but after a mere 48 hours the inspectors exposed it as a crass counterfeit. The Minister from Niger who had purportedly signed the contract was at the time in question no longer in office.

In February 2003, Blix and ElBaradei set off for Baghdad for the last time. They promised the Iraqi leadership that finally there would be no more provocation. But did their trip really offer one last chance for peace, as Bush and Blair claimed? Those were ElBaradei´s most bitter moments say colleagues. The gap between diplomatic semblance and raw reality. Driving around in brand new Land Rovers, parleying in palaces with the smell of bombs over the city almost perceptible and sensing the coming suffering of the civilians. At the beginning of March 2003, ElBaradei made the case for a final investment in peace at the UN Security Council, asking for just a few months more for the inspectors to make their final report on Iraq. Two weeks later the war began.

At that time, speaking before the Security Council in his customary elegant and courteous fashion, and almost as an aside, ElBaradei ridiculed the Niger papers and humiliated the protagonists, Bush, Blair and Co. Do leading politicians and secret service chiefs forget something like that? Is the CIA´s monitoring of ElBaradei and the White House´s opposition to his re-election a consequence of what he said then? ElBaradei replies indirectly. "Somebody once said: It is dangerous to be wrong, but sometimes it´s even more dangerous to be proved right in the end."

Over the past years, the successes and setbacks for ElBaradei and his UN organization have balanced each other out. He has pointed out time and again that the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has to be brought into line with modern times. Since its conclusion, not only have the non-signatories Israel, India and Pakistan become nuclear Powers but, according to ElBaradei, 35 to 40 further States possess the technical know-how to build a bomb. His idea of an additional protocol, allowing UN inspectors access without much notice to any location - at least in Member States, is beginning to make inroads. To date 69 States have signed it, including Iran last year (even though its parliament has not yet ratified the agreement).

Nevertheless, the threat persists of a horrifying comeback of nuclear weapons - and marginalization of the UN weapons inspectors. The IAEA has contributed little to the latest dramatic discoveries. The clandestine Iranian nuclear programmes in Arak and Natanz were disclosed by exiled opposition groups. The network of Adbul Qadir Khan, the Pakistani nuclear dealer, has for the most part been uncovered by secret services (and to date the IAEA has only been allowed to question the biggest of all black market dealers in writing). Libya came to an agreement about its nuclear weapons´ about-turn with the USA alone. And, although all the neighbouring States and the USA are sitting at the table of the six-party talks about North Korea´s nuclear future, the United Nations, the body responsible for disarmament, is not.

In recent months, several people who know Mohamed ElBaradei well are seeing a new side to the eternal optimist: namely, depression about his Sisyphean task. "He has always been someone who really likes sentimental films", says Laila ElBaradei in London about her father. "But for some time now he only wants to go to films which he knows have a happy end."

Everything will now, she thinks, be overridden and overshadowed by the triumph of the Nobel prize. "You should go to the IAEA; I think the new sense of hope is tangible there."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, a faceless glass palace on the other side of the Danube, is a massive place with more than 2300 employees. The IAEA was founded in 1957 after American President Dwight Eisenhower´s spectacular "Atoms for Peace" speech to the UN. Today, it has an annual budget of 304 million dollars and has 138 Member States from A(fghanistan) to Z(imbabwe). Amazingly, this giant organization nevertheless emanates a sense of great solidarity, almost like a family. This is surely largely attributable to its Chief. ElBaradei is highly respected by the staff - not just because he has now "reeled in" the Nobel prize.

Despite his innumerable international appointments he is regularly to be seen at staff meetings. Alongside his - perforce - much publicized nuclear bomb related work, he is committed to far less spectacular IAEA activities, such as the use of isotopes in combating malaria or the provision of radiotherapy equipment for countries in the third world. At the beginning of the year, ElBaradei himself was in attendance when the first patient in a new cancer centre in Ghana received radiation therapy.

The corridors of the glass palace in Vienna are hung with posters: for the next major social event - the annual IAEA ball in the Hofburg in Vienna; for the volleyball club calling for new members; a cartoon on a noticeboard shows a bridal pair plighting their troth "until weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq".

The nations represented by the people around ElBaradei are really united: his closest colleagues include two Americans, a Ghanaian, an Australian and a Finn.

David Waller, the American IAEA Deputy Director General for Management, says - possibly with a critical eye on Washington - the West would have to clone someone like ElBaradei if he didn´t already exist: "We need a Muslim from the Arab world who has spent most of his professional career in the West and understands both worlds."

Olli Heinonen, IAEA Deputy Director General from Helsinki with a doctorate in radiochemistry, is the safeguards expert responsible for problem cases. He accompanied ElBaradei to Pyongyang and simply says: "His critics would be astonished to see what a tough negotiator he is and how cutting his voice becomes when he catches someone out in a lie." As a boss, ElBaradei is not at all easy "because he knows and demands so much".

ElBaradei´s speech writer, Laban Coblentz, can also say a thing or two about how demanding he is. "He knows every detail and has a memory like an elephant, which sometimes makes him lose patience with incompetents." Coblentz, an American, served two years with the U.S. Navy in a nuclear submarine and was then responsible for safety at nuclear power plants.

ElBaradei has proposed that a copy of the Nobel prize medal be made for each IAEA staff member. For the festivities in Oslo he has invited, aside from his closest colleagues, his former New York professor, as well as his children, and his mother and siblings will also be there.

Three days full of banquets, receptions, ceremonial acts and speeches. The most important will be that delivered by the prizewinner, following the presentation of the certificate in the presence of the King of Norway, Harald V. It is ElBaradei´s opportunity, in front of a worldwide audience, once again to draw urgent attention to proliferation as the greatest danger for world peace. Maybe one of the other speakers will draw the connection between Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel prize, who developed dynamite in 1867 and lost his brother in a dynamite explosion, and the present award winner, whose duty is to safeguard the vastly more destructive nuclear bombs.

It will be festive and also somewhat relaxed. The supporting musical programme is being kept a surprise to the very end. But, traditionally, the prizewinner can choose performers. ElBaradei has nominated Norah Jones, the jazz singer, and Yo-Yo Ma, the classical cello virtuoso. Both are very relaxing.

The glass full of mineral water will have to be raised often. But no espresso - probably in remembrance of a rather uncomfortable encounter two years ago. "Who would you rather drink coffee with, George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein?" a journalist asked him, hoping to trip him up. To which ElBaradei, with the tremendous acuity of the top diplomat he is, replied: "Impossible to answer. I never drink coffee."

But he senses that, even on these Nobel evenings, he will not be able to completely shrug off his ever-present cares, or banish from his mind the searing pictures of Hiroshima.

Faced with these problems, how nice it would be to save the world in one fell swoop like Superman with his superhuman powers. Instead, ElBaradei will have to re-assume the mantle of a latter-day Sisyphus, rolling the (radioactive) stone up the hill only to fail in his task at the very last moment time and again - a parable of power and powerlessness.

But didn´t the fabled Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, King of Corinth, manage to outsmart even Death using his diplomatic acumen? So isn´t he, for all his laborious penance, something of an example and a victor?