The United Nations' chief nuclear weapons inspector will give a report Monday to the U.N. Security Council that offers the United States little encouragement in its campaign to convince the world that using force against Iraq appears to be the only option.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian who heads the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, quietly made clear that until there are concrete facts before the public about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the world should resist declaring war.
A lawyer known for his careful deliberation and a certain exacting logic, ElBaradei says his report will largely dovetail with that of Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief inspector for chemical and biological weapons as well as missile systems.
"Both of us are going to say we have no evidence of proscribed activities," ElBaradei said flatly. "We are both going to plead for more time."
But the reports will diverge in assessing how cooperative the Iraqis have been -- ElBaradei says his inspectors have received "reasonably good cooperation," while the chemical and biological inspectors feel that they have received considerably less than they need.
In many ways, this is a moment of truth for the IAEA. If ElBaradei's report and that of Blix are used to justify a war, ElBaradei says, it will be a deeply regrettable result that will abort the inspection mission. But if his request for more time is granted, it raises the stakes for his agency -- perhaps to an unrealistic level.
Both results are fraught with peril for the IAEA. If President Bush ignores ElBaradei's request, the agency's capacity to peacefully defuse nuclear danger will have been cast aside at the very moment when it is pursuing the most aggressive inspection regime it has undertaken.
On the other hand, if the inspectors win more time, it is unclear whether they can fulfill their mission to the satisfaction of U.N. member countries. The U.S. and Britain have already expressed deep doubts that the inspectors are any match for what the two countries believe is a concerted effort by Iraq to conceal its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
ElBaradei, 60, seems an unlikely person to be doing battle for such high stakes. He is described variously by former colleagues, associates and policy experts as "quiet," "modest," "academic" and "a diplomat," adept at finessing differences among U.N. countries by tweaking legal language.
But in other ways he is strikingly suitable for the stage on which he finds himself. A rigorous lawyer known for his canniness, he has a claim to credibility in both the East and the West with his roots in the Arab world but a prestigious American legal education and a career spent in the West.
Even with such credentials, however, it is far from clear that the United States will heed ElBaradei's plea for several months' more time -- he refuses to be pinned down to an exact schedule.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell both say that an attack would be justified regardless of what the inspectors say because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has not led them to his weapons of mass destruction.
Indeed, if that is the only criterion, then the weapons inspectors' equivocal assessment of the cooperation they have received may be seen as enough by the U.S. and Britain to justify using force.
"The administration wants to and needs to frame this in terms of Saddam's not providing the documentation, the full accounting and the cooperation required," said James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor to President Clinton and now director of the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program.
"To the extent that the inspectors say that Saddam has not accounted for his mass-destruction program, the administration can say, 'Hey, this is not something we're making up -- it's something the inspectors themselves are saying.' "
ElBaradei says such a rationale is thin at best. Sitting in his 28th-floor office overlooking Vienna, he talked soberly about the gravity of the situation facing the world as it confronts Iraq as well as the challenges the IAEA faces on a host of other fronts, including North Korea and Iran.
An articulate man with a taste for culture -- his office is decorated with textiles from Turkey and small statues from Egypt, and on a recent two-day trip to Moscow he found time to go to the Bolshoi Ballet -- his view of the crisis with Iraq reflects above all his legal training and background.
A Student of Law
The son of a highly regarded human rights lawyer in Egypt and a lifelong student of international law -- he has a doctorate from New York University Law School and has spent much of his professional life practicing international law at the United Nations -- ElBaradei finds it most disturbing that the debate pays scant attention to legal doctrines that have become norms for taking military action.
In ElBaradei's view there are only two conditions for the use of force: self-defense and collective defense. The latter was the rationale when a U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq in 1991 after Baghdad invaded Kuwait.
The recent talk from the Bush administration about preemption goes down a dangerous road, he said. "I personally believe as a lawyer that you have to put maximum restraint on the use of force," he said. "Because otherwise, where do you draw the line? Where do you stop the preemption? Do you have preemption of the preemption?"
In addition to a legal rationale, he wants to see facts. "It would be useful to see evidence that the Iraqis have proscribed weapons. Just saying, 'We believe they do' isn't enough. People need evidence.
"A war is a serious thing, a terrible thing. Before we embark on a war, we need to be convinced we failed."
From ElBaradei's vantage point and that of some prestigious think tanks, including most recently the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the inspectors have not had nearly enough time to answer the questions left open in 1998 when inspections were halted.
ElBaradei wants his team of about 40 inspectors in-country and at the agency's headquarters in Vienna to do more environmental sampling, obtain more documentation and follow up on intelligence that has just begun to come to the agency from the United States and other countries in the last two to three weeks.
The agency is still testing a shipment of aluminum tubes that the United States alleges were destined for use in a uranium-enrichment centrifuge. So far, his inspectors believe that the tubes were to be used for conventional rockets but say they could be adapted for nuclear-related uses. "We are still doing some tests," he said.
He has been frustrated so far in his effort to have his inspectors conduct interviews with Iraqi scientists without Iraqi government witnesses present. The scientists themselves have refused such conditions, it is presumed, because they fear that they immediately fall under suspicion of having betrayed something and risk reprisals from Hussein's regime. ElBaradei's next step will be to offer to take scientists out of the country, but it is unclear whether any will go.
If ElBaradei's view prevails and the inspectors are granted more time, he faces a difficult question: Can he succeed in determining with certainty whether Iraq has worked toward developing nuclear weapons, or is this a task that is all but impossible to accomplish?
The agency has a mixed track record, and although ElBaradei has been at the helm only since 1997, he has been one of its top officials since 1984. The agency was severely criticized for having inspected Iraq before the 1991 Persian Gulf War but having missed altogether its clandestine nuclear weapons program.
"ElBaradei shares with Blix a need to protect the institutional reputation of the agency," said Steven Dolley, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.
"Clearly, Iraq is the biggest challenge they've ever faced -- but it was distressing to hear them make claims ... that Iraq's nuclear program was completely neutralized in 1998 -- there were a number of unresolved issues," he said.
The IAEA's culture was more that of passive auditors than a skeptical detective agency, agreed Lawrence Scheinman, a disarmament expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Washington office, but he noted that much changed when it became clear what the nuclear agency had missed.
The culture has become far more skeptical, and the agency won new legal powers to conduct more intrusive inspections, said Scheinman, who has dealt with the IAEA for years.
But that may not be enough.
Robert J. Einhorn, assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration, sees the agency and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission's task as exceedingly difficult -- if Iraq wants to hide its weapons.
"It's recognized that a determined violator of nonproliferation norms can get away with a lot," said Einhorn, now director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's very difficult for an organization like IAEA to find such cheating."
ElBaradei acknowledges that the agency will never be able to give a 100% guarantee that Iraq -- or any country -- has given up every last piece of its nuclear weapons program, but he thinks that given enough time, the nuclear agency could come close.
"We might miss a computer study on weaponization, or we might miss one experimental centrifuge development, but these are not the kinds of things that you can make a nuclear weapon with," he said.
Arabs Likely to Listen
One benefit of allowing ElBaradei's inspections to run their course is that if he finds something proscribed, he is far more likely to be able to persuade the rest of the Arab world of the need to act.
Since he became director-general of the IAEA, he has reached out to Arab states, doing interviews in Arabic on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television and writing the occasional opinion piece for the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat.
"It's hard for the Arabs to say the IAEA is a stooge for the Americans when Mohamed is running it," said John Simpson, director of the Mountbatten Center for International Studies at the University of Southampton in England and a longtime watcher of the IAEA.
In the case of Iraq, ElBaradei is able to speak to Hussein's advisors in their first language -- something that his predecessors could not do.
With his understanding of the Arab world and the West, ElBaradei resists the Bush administration's inclination to characterize situations in absolute terms: black and white; good and evil.
"People like us don't fit 100% anywhere, but you fit everywhere. You come to understand nothing is black and white -- everything is gray. There is no ultimate truth -- there are shades of truth."