Mohamed ElBaradei, who has become a leading symbol for democratic change in Egypt, emerged as a bitter foe of the United States when he led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 1997 and 2009.
In 2005, the State Department launched a failed campaign to block the Egyptian lawyer from winning a third term as director general of the IAEA. That same year, the Nobel committee awarded him the Peace Prize.
“You have to remember what he said. He said he had a moral responsibility as a Nobel laureate to do things that were not normally in the portfolio of a director general. This was his opinion of his responsibility,” said Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA weapons inspector who worked closely with Mr. ElBaradei.
In a 2007 interview with the New York Times magazine, Mr. ElBaradei described himself as a “secular pope” who saw his role in international politics to “make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other.”
It was this view that led many Western and U.S. diplomats interviewed for this story to conclude that at times Mr. ElBaradei worked as Iran’s advocate and not an independent auditor of its nuclear program.
“ElBaradei consistently demonstrated a pro-Iran bias when he was at the IAEA,” said John R. Bolton, who worked with Mr. ElBaradei as an undersecretary of state and as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“The context was ElBaradei felt very burnt by the Iraq experience,” a Western diplomat said. “He thought we were on the war path with Iran, which was the opposite of the truth. He intervened in a very political way on the Iran file, which goes beyond the technical mandate of the director general of the IAEA.”
Concerns about Mr. ElBaradei’s management of the Iran file came to a head in August 2009, when the Associated Press first reported on a secret file from the agency that documented what the agency’s inspectors on the ground considered to be the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.
“The public reports on the Iranian program did not always use the same tone as what was said in private discussions,” Mr. Heinonen said. “But it is up to the discretion of the director general as to how he wants to explain the negotiations and the inspections of Iran’s program to the member states.”