Converting a crisis into an opportunity: Thomas Land reports from the United Nations International Atomic Energy headquarters in Vienna on moves to establish the Middle East region as a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Author:Land, Thomas

MOHAMED EL BARADEI, director-general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has set out to convert the crisis generated by Iran's controversial nuclear power policy into an opportunity to free the Middle East of nuclear weapons. The moment may just be ripe for such a bold attempt. The Egyptian Nobel Peace Laureate has declared: "We cannot afford to miss it."

Both El Baradei and the 139-member IAEA have won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize by "their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way," says the Norwegian award committee. The prize was intended to promote the deadlocked global disarmament process at a time when "there is increasing danger that nuclear arms will spread to both states and terrorist groups."

In the long term, a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone as envisaged by the IAEA chief would depend on a watertight commitment by the UN Security Council to protect all countries of the region from aggression by their neighbours. He has observed: "Any attempt to achieve security for one country at the expense of insecurity for others will ultimately fail."

As a first step, an "agreement for a mechanism to assure countries of a reliable supply of nuclear fuel while removing from their reach the sensitive, weapons-grade elements of the fuel cycle could be in place very soon," El Baradei told the eminent Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference in Washington during November 2005. This, he went on, would take away any justification for countries to say: "I want to make my own fuel."

El Baradei is an international lawyer, academic and career diplomat aged 63. He was appointed last year for a third four-year term as chief executive of the UN nuclear watchdog. This was a setback for the United States which had tried to unseat him for his refusal before the last Gulf War to pronounce Iraq guilty, in the absence of evidence, of pursuing the illegal development of weapons of mass destruction.

El Baradei's portion of the Nobel prize money will go towards funding orphanages in Egypt. Those who know him well describe him as modest, methodical, objective and fair.

There are signs that Iran is at last ready to compromise in the face of enormous international pressure to modify its hardline uranium enrichment policy. The Islamic republic barely escaped referral to the UN Security Council for...

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