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The ElBaradei Candidacy

Egypt’s potential savior, Iran’s nuclear enabler, or both?

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER and KHAIRI ABAZA
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His reputation in the West is much more ambivalent. A strong argument can be made that ElBaradei sat on his hands while Iran made the most important strides in its illicit drive to develop nuclear weapons. While Iran has not yet acquired the bomb, analysts are unanimous that the mullahs are getting close. ElBaradei, for his part, seemed unwilling to accept this, even at the tail end of his term, when the evidence was glaring. 

In September 2009, he stated that there was no concrete evidence that Iran even had a nuclear weapons program. “In many ways,” he stated, “I think the threat has been hyped.” The same month when reports surfaced that the IAEA was withholding evidence of Iranian nuclear activity, ElBaradei’s organization fired back, insisting again that there was “no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran.” In November, responding to an Iranian announcement that it had started work on a new nuclear plant, ElBaradei stated that the fortified underground site near the city of Qom was “nothing to be worried about.”

Considering this record, it is surprising that ElBaradei’s reputation is as strong as it is in his home country. Egypt has been at odds with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The mullahs renounced all ties with Egypt when Cairo granted asylum to ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and relations became downright cantankerous after Egypt made peace with Israel. After the 1981 assassination of Sadat, Iran erected a four-story mural lionizing the assassin, Khaled Islambouli, on a large building in Tehran. 

Egypt, a Sunni state, is alarmed over Iran’s violent influence among Iraq’s radical Shiites, and the potential for Tehran to create a large sphere of influence—a “Shiite Crescent” —from Iraq to Lebanon and beyond. And then there is Tehran’s meddling in the Gaza Strip, which abuts Egypt. Iran helped train and arm Hamas to carry out the violent 2007 coup that gave it control of Gaza and, in the process, brought instability to Egypt’s doorstep.

Yet, when it comes to ElBaradei, Egyptians don’t care. They view him as the man who can finally bring democracy to Egypt after more than a half-century of authoritarian rule.

Washington, of course, welcomes the idea of a democratic Egypt. Despite the Obama administration’s cutbacks in the financing of democratization programs in the Arab world, the State Department still views liberal reform as key to beating back the forces of radical Islam. Egypt would be a big win. Indeed, Arabs refer to Cairo as Umm al-Dunya, the mother of the world. 

Is Mohamed ElBaradei the man who can bring about this sea change and fulfill the Bush Doctrine in the most influential country in the Middle East? Many Egyptians seem to think he could be. Westerners remain, however, rightly untrusting of the man who was asleep at the switch while Iran defied the world and inched ever closer to its nuclear bomb.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Arab politics. Jonathan Schanzer is the foundation’s vice president for research.

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