October 12, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

ElBaradei's prize

Nuclear proliferation is no laughing matter. Nonetheless, last week's announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2005 had been awarded to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director-general, Mohammed ElBaradei, "for 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" hardly passes the laugh test. The choice could not have been more perfect if the Nobel Committee were determined to demonstrate that Norwegians have a sense of humor.

The unlikely choice for this year's Nobel Peace Prize comes as European and American negotiations to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment cycle have reached a total impasse and as agreements with North Korea to give up its dangerous nuclear program are at best tentative. The list of countries either with nuclear weapons or capable of acquiring them is steadily growing. In other words, if the Norwegians are rewarding anything, it is failure.

The explanation that makes most sense is - surprise, surprise - that the Nobel Committee was motivated by politics, in particular a desire to administer a slap in the face to the American government. With this year's award, the committee (which is composed of five Norwegian politicians with a distinctive perspective of their own and precious little experience of the world) has again undermined the meaning of its prestigious award. Both Mr. ElBaradei and his predecessor Hans Blix were vociferous opponents of the Iraq War, and both pleaded to allow more time for IAEA inspections. The Bush administration opposed the reappointment of Mr. ElBaradei to head the agency last summer.

It would not be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize and U.S. politics got tangled. The 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, for instance, was awarded to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's policy on Iraq. Back then, a Nobel Committee member let slip that the prize was meant as "a kick in the legs to the Bush administration." Fascinatingly, though, the decision to reward the IAEA has been greeted with outrage and criticism from all sorts of directions, particularly the left. Alice Slater, founder of Abolition 2000, identified on its Web site as a global network to eliminate nuclear weapons, observed that: "The IAEA has been the world's most effective agent for increasing the spread of nuclear weapons around the planet with its industry-dominated promotion of so-called 'peaceful nuclear technology.' "

In the Middle East, interpretations were all over the map. In Egypt, Mr. ElBaradei's home country, Arab commentators saw the choice directed obviously against the United States and against Israel's never-acknowledged nuclear program, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saw it directed at Iran. In Iran, meanwhile, the spokesman for the parliament's foreign affairs committee, Kazem Jalali, predicted that "with this prize Mr. ElBaradei will become closer to the political position of the United States and the Europeans... And he will put more pressure on Iran."

Clearly there is frustration across the political spectrum with the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons. Iran managed to keep its program a secret for 18 years. North Korea concealed its program from IAEA inspectors for years before throwing them out and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iraq's nuclear program went undetected until revealed by a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who defected. Libya, too, had a massive secret nuclear program, given up in 2003 after the sobering fact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With the spread of peaceful nuclear technology, more and more countries have the potential to produce nuclear arms.

Are we doomed to live in a world of nuclear proliferation? It is certainly unrealistic to trust international agencies like the IAEA to put the genie back in this bottle. Yet, we can make the economic and diplomatic price for aspiring nuclear powers painfully high through multilateral sanctions regimes, such as those now being considered through the United Nations Security Council against Iran by the United States, France, Britain and Germany. Countries like Brazil, South Africa and Ukraine, after all, have renounced their nuclear programs. We can physically intercept transfers of nuclear material and technology through mechanisms like the cooperative Proliferation Security Initiative.

And we can forge ahead with missile defense, which is the only sure way to make nuclear weapons obsolete. Nuclear weapons will only become a thing of the past when the cost of pursuing them far outweighs the benefits.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times