Nuclear feud

Published December 27, 2004 10:45PM (EST)

Sunday's New York Times sheds light on the underground nuclear supply network of AQ Khan -- designer of Pakistan's nuclear bomb who transformed himself into a nuclear entrepeneur, supplying designs and technology to such nations as Libya and Iran. The story identifies the emerging fault lines between the key international organization set up to monitor nuclear proliferation -- the International Atomic Energy Agency -- and the Bush administration. The lack of cooperation, the authors, William Broad and David Sanger suggest, enabled the Khan network to operate longer and in a much wider potential market than it could have had the information and intelligence been shared.

War Room sought out Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government -- and author of a seminal report on the nuclear black market -- to probe deeper into growing wedge between the world's two major backstops against proliferation. Bunn says that the IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, now appears headed for a showdown with the Bush administration -- a dispute that has its roots in ElBaradei's willingness to challenge the administration's policies in Iraq and Iran.

"In the lead up to the Iraq war," says Bunn, "ElBaradei told the Security Council, 'There are no nuclear weapons in place in Iraq. The inspections are working.' He debunked the administration's key evidence -- the aluminum tubes and the nuclear cake from Niger. Of course, he was proven right. But as they say, there is nothing worse than being proved prematurely right."

ElBaradei did not soften the relationship when, eight days before the presidential election, the IAEA released information to the UN Security Council that a huge amount of high explosives were left behind by American troops at the al-Qaqaa arms depot in Iraq. "Bush," says Bunn, "interpreted that to mean that ElBaradei was campaigning for Kerry. But in fact he was just passing along information passed to him by the Iraqi government."

Which brings us to the present, as ElBaradei engages in a diplomatic wrangle with the Bush administration over Iran's nascent nuclear program. In the past year, the IAEA has been putting increasing pressure on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program -- which could lead to obtaining fuel for use in a future nuclear weapon. In November, El-Baradei announced that his strategy of negotiation had convinced the Iranians' to put their enrichment program on hold, and to permit surveillance cameras to be installed in those facilities. President Bush, however, has indicated his desire to bring the issue to the Security Council in hopes of imposing sanctions on Iran. This position puts the United States at odds with most of the United Nations membership.

"In reality, the U.S. could hardly hope for someone better than ElBaradei to be head of the IAEA," says Bunn. "The weakness of the IAEA has always been that its perceived by much of the developing world" -- potentially aspiring nuclear powers -- "as a tool of America. ElBaradei has been pushing hard for inspections and a variety of other initiatives that have built its credibility."

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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