A Prize and a Warning

12 October 2005
The awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director general Mohamed el Baradel, was a slap in the face for the Bush administration's unilateralism, its undermining of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treat (NPT), and especially its war in Iraq, says Bennis.

The Nobel Peace Prize is rarely just about peace. It’s almost always as much about making a diplomatic point—or several—as it is about acknowledging a noted peacemaker. Often the political purpose is subtle, even hidden.

But that wasn’t the case this time around. In awarding the prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N’.s nuclear watchdog, and its director-general Mohamed el Baradei, the political point was open and clear. It was the Nobel Committee’s slap in the face to the Bush administration’s unilateralism, its undermining of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and especially its war in Iraq.

The official citation’s statement that el Baradei is "fearless" puts the prestige of the Norwegian Nobel committee squarely behind the man who first stated publicly that the U.S. claims regarding Iraq’s alleged purchase of yellowcake uranium from Niger were based on forged documents. Its recognition that the work of the agency el Baradei leads is "incalculably" important represents a direct refutation of the Bush administration’s pre-invasion claims that the IAEA nuclear inspections in Iraq were tantamount to the UN doing nothing. And the statements that "the threat of nuclear arms ... must be met through the broadest possible international cooperation" and that the "clearest expression" of that cooperation is found "in the work of the IAEA and its director general," stand in clear repudiation of the Bush claims that unilateral U.S. action can legitimately be used against such threats, and that the IAEA and el Baradei should be sidelined in favor of the U.S. veto-dominated U.N. Security Council.

Overall, the award is a not-very-subtle reminder that the consistent IAEA assertion that there was no viable nuclear program in Iraq was true, while Bush administration claims of Iraqi nukes and other WMDs aimed at U.S. targets were lies.

It was Mohamed el Baradei, after all, who refused to bow to U.S.pressure in 2002 and 2003, and instead continued to report to the Security Council that IAEA inspectors had found no evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq. He put the arms inspectors, like the United Nations as a whole in that period, on the side of the global mobilization for peace taking shape in the streets of capitals throughout the world. As The Washington Post described it, "El Baradei became a champion in the eyes of many who opposed the war in Iraq, especially those in the Arab world." And his actions made Bush administration view the IAEA, and especially el Baradei himself, as implacable opponents.

It was not as if el Baradei had always rejected U.S. views. To the contrary, the former Egyptian diplomat’s appointment as director-general of the IAEA in 1997 was orchestrated largely by U.S.diplomats. But even beyond his role in opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a day he called "the saddest in my life," el Baradei had long staked out independent positions far at odds with Washington’s demands. In particular, he had criticized Israel’s widely known but formally unacknowledged nuclear arsenal, calling on Tel Aviv to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and bring its nukes under international inspection. Further, he called for creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a concept outlined in the U.S.-drafted 1991 resolution ending the U.S. war in Iraq of that period but never championed by other UN officials.

But it was his opposition to the Iraq War, and his refusal to back false U.S. claims of Iraq’s nuclear capacity that consolidated the Bush administration’s opposition.

From 2003 on, Washington tried without success to orchestrate el Baradei’s departure from the IAEA. What an effort it was, starring none other than John Bolton, Bush’s U.N.-bashing, treaty-unsigning, unconfirmable-but-nonetheless-ambassador to the United Nations, who was, until 2004, undersecretary of state for disarmament affairs. Mohamed el Baradei became a particular obsession of his, and The Washington Post revealed that Bolton’s efforts to get the IAEA chief fired included extensive bugging of el Baradei’s phone in an fruitless effort to find material to discredit him. Not a single other government—not even the always loyal Tony Blair—followed along, and eventually the United States, isolated, gave up its effort and el Baradei was confirmed for a third term earlier this year.

The Nobel Committee called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and asserted that the fact "that the world has achieved little in this respect makes active opposition to nuclear arms all the more important today." This focus on the global urgency of nuclear disarmament stands in stark defiance of the U.S. position that only proliferation of nuclear weapons in new states is dangerous, and that recognized nuclear weapons powers somehow have the right to increase or even use their nuclear arsenals at will. By contrast, the Nobel Committee stated specifically that "when disarmament efforts appear deadlocked... IAEA's work is of incalculable importance."

The timing of this prize was clearly linked to the increasingly visible role of the IAEA in the context of the escalating U.S. threats against Iran linked to Tehran’s nuclear program. In its determination to get the Iran nuclear issue into the UN Security Council, where it believes, contrary to international assessments that there might be the possibility of imposing harsh international sanctions on the country, the Bush administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on the IAEA. That has included pressuring el Baradei, whose recent language towards Iran has grown somewhat harsher most likely as a result of that pressure, but the IAEA has refused to cave in to U.S. demands for findings of current illegality by Iran. ElBaradie has maintained the consistent position that Iran’s nuclear fuel production is under close IAEA scrutiny and there is no evidence of illegal weapons activity.

The Nobel Peace Prize does not stop wars or bring down empires. But, as el Baradei said a few hours after the announcement: "The award sends a very strong message. ‘Keep doing what you are doing—be impartial, act with integrity,’ and that is what we intend to do."

If the prize helps Mohamed el Baradei keep the IAEA on the side of the global challenge to Bush’s wars and unilateralism, it will prove its importance.

About the authors

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of both TNI and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC where she directs IPS's New Internationalism Project. Phyllis specialises in U.S. foreign policy issues, particularly involving the Middle East and United Nations. She worked as a journalist at the UN for ten years and currently serves as a special adviser to several top-level UN officials on Middle East issues, as well as playing an active role in the U.S. and global peace and Palestinian rights movements. A frequent contributor to U.S. and global media, Phyllis is also the author of numerous articles and books, particularly on Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, the UN, and U.S.

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