Follow-up on the Baradei affair

As promised, here is the post-election follow-up on the allegation that Mohammed Al Baradei is covering up a secret Egyptian nuclear weapons program. It's long, so click "more" to get the whole thing.



First of all, rather conveniently two new stories have come out of the IAEA since Libération published its article (which as far as I can see only AFP has followed up so far, but that's not surprising considering last night's momentous events.) The first story is that Al Baradei is conceding that the agency has no real solid information on the Al Qaqaa explosives theft aside a letter from an Iraqi interim government official:

IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei confirmed in an interview yesterday that the sole source for the story that dominated the news last week was a letter sent to the agency on October 10 from an Iraqi official, Mohammed Abbas.


"All we know (is that) the Iraqis reported to us the material is missing," Mr. ElBaradei told The New York Sun. "We have been out of Iraq for a long time. If it were destroyed I would be very happy, if it hasn't been destroyed I'd be very worried. But I have no clue."


According to a Washington source, Pentagon and State Department officials now suspect Mr. Abbas might have acted on his own and was unauthorized to write a letter to the IAEA.


Shortly after Mr. Abbas's letter was sent to Mr. ElBaradei, it was leaked to the New York Times and CBS, creating the political controversy regarding the missing explosives. After that, Mr. El-Baradei sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council, describing the Abbas letter to him.


The rest of the article, which seems at least slightly hostile to Baradei (it's the New York Sun), covers allegations that IAEA officials deliberately leaked the letter, that Al Baradei is politicizing the Al Qaqaa information deliberately to influence the elections (well that didn't work), and that the Bush administration will oppose his going for a third term at the head of the IAEA. It also notes that Al Baradei, commendably but perhaps not to the taste of the US and Israel, supports a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The second story that followed Libération's scoop was that Al Baradei is now putting more pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. He took a somewhat more confrontational policy towards Iran during his annual General Assembly report on 1 November:

El-Baradei's annual report to the UN General Assembly yesterday noted progress in understanding the nature of Iran's program, after the government had initially provided "changing and contradictory" information. But he cited some reversals in Iran's pledge to suspend uranium-enrichment activities.


"I have continued to stress to Iran that in light of serious international concerns surrounding its nuclear program, it should do its utmost to build confidence through these voluntary measures. I have also asked Iran to pursue a policy of maximum transparency so that we can bring outstanding issues to resolution and over time provide the required assurance to the international community," el-Baradei said.


One day earlier, Iranian lawmakers unanimously approved the outline of a bill that would force the government to resume the process of uranium enrichment.


Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hussein Musavian, has said a compromise is still possible in negotiations with three European states offering to provide fuel for Iran's planned power plants.


(A few days after I wrote the above lines, it was announced that Iran and France, Germany and the UK had indeed reached a tentative agreement.)

But let's go back to the Egypt nuclear program issue. Libération's central claim is that diplomats (read spies) suspect that Egypt may have had a joint nuclear program with the Libyans.

The French government had denied all knowledge of Egypt's nuclear program.

A few days after Libération, published the article, the AP ran a story quoting diplomats saying that the IAEA had "discovered plutonium particles near an Egyptian nuclear facility and is trying to determine if they are evidence of a secret weapons program or simply the byproduct of peaceful research."

In comments to The Associated Press, the diplomats warned against assuming Egypt might have contravened the Nonproliferation Treaty by trying to separate plutonium, a substance used to make nuclear weapons. The traces could be from a cracked research reactor fuel element or have other, non-military origins, said the diplomats on the condition of anonymity.


"From time to time these things pop up in places they should not be at," said a diplomat familiar with the investigations of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. "Most of the time, there is a reasonable answer."


Until the IAEA issues a formal report, of course, this is all speculation. But I really wonder about the timing of this -- the accusations against Baradei and the allegations that Egypt is processing plutonium -- in light of the current negotiations to get Iran to stop its nuclear program. Interestingly, yesterday Colin Powell said that US officials would probably discuss the matter with their Iranian counterpart in the forthcoming conference on Iraq that will be hosted by Egypt.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.