Nuclear haves and have-nots are blinkered hypocrites in this memoir of former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei
Careerwise, Mohamed ElBaradei became the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) head at a bad time. George W Bush and the neo-conservatives had come to power in the US. Following 9/11, they were determined to change societies they thought unfit for the 21st century. International agencies and the United Nations were a necessary irrelevance or tools to be twisted to this end. The Age of Deception, ElBaradei’s memoir, is him getting back at Bush & Co—the written word as weapon against being lied to and worse, ignored.
He begins with the biggest betrayal of all—the attack on Iraq, starting with how Iraqis created the conditions for it. In the early 1990s, they were caught red-handed with a secret nuclear programme (IAEA inspectors literally gave chase to trucks loaded with nuclear equipment). After 9/11, the IAEA and other agencies were again asked to do inspections for weapons of mass destruction, but it was essentially a pointless exercise. War had been decided in secret by the US and UK. All contrary evidence was brushed aside. ElBaradei writes on a meeting with US Vice President Dick Cheney at a time when negotiations were still ostensibly going on: ‘It was brief; Cheney was sitting behind his desk. Cheney wasted no time on small talk; he had a direct, simple message to convey. “The US is ready to work with the United Nations inspectors,” he told us, “but we are also ready to discredit the inspections in order to disarm Iraq.”’ Simple equipment like aluminium tubes were cited by US officials ‘as irrefutable proof of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions’. In the end, he hints that Bush should be tried like a common war criminal of the Slobodan Milosevic variety.
The world of nuclear weapons is essentially unfair. There is the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prevents non-nuclear countries from having weapons. But they joined the treaty under the assumption that weapon states would phase theirs out until no one had any. The second part of the bargain was conveniently ignored while the first part was enforced. Thus, it was under the NPT that Iraq was forced to abort its nuclear programme after the first Gulf War. This throws to the wind legitimacy because the only reason any enforcement is possible is based on power. When a small country succeeds in making a nuclear weapon in secret, the equations change. You cannot force it to give it up because it would then just use the bomb. This was how North Korea protected itself against an Iraq-like attack. ElBaradei writes that when this happens, it becomes clear that nuclear weapons act as insurance and the temptation to own them increases for everyone.
His description of North Korea’s ‘Orwellian atmosphere’ based on the two times he went there for negotiations is fascinating, but unfortunately sketchy. At the best hotel in town, an orange is available only at the tax-free shop for ‘hard currency’. Patriotic music plays on the streets, and at the opera, patriotic songs play to performances that always end with Koreans killing American soldiers. A casual question on why Americans are so hated gets him a 45-minute lecture by the deputy foreign minister.
There is an entire chapter on how AQ Khan, the Pakistani scientist, created a black market of nuclear weapons. A Nuclear Wal-Mart, as ElBaradei puts it. He talks of his shock of getting to know how Western intelligence agencies were aware of Khan’s network since the 1970s, but adopted a wait-and-watch policy. For a gripping chapter, it ends with an astonishing blunder on the part of the author. He says that AQ Khan is dead. Khan is alive and still a hero in Pakistan.
Not all of what the IAEA did ended in frustration. It was key to negotiations that helped Iran not getting exposed to an Iraq-like attack in 2007. For India, one of the three countries that have not signed the NPT, he has undisguised admiration. He strongly endorsed the Indo-US civil Nuclear Deal, something that the US was quick to highlight for PR. He is generous in his praise for Manmohan Singh as among ‘the world leaders I most admire’.
The Age of Deception is rivetting when ElBaradei describes meetings with world leaders. Or while giving a glimpse of how international diplomacy works (the use of ‘non-compliance’ instead of ‘breach’ in a statement is enough to send nations into a sulk); as being essentially an exercise in self-interest and hypocrisy by most countries, and yet, where IAEA manages to once in a while get things done according to the ideals that created it.