Timing, in the realm of unblinking nuclear diplomacy, is everything, so it was perhaps foolhardy of Mohamed ElBaradei to mark his imminent retirement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by suggesting Iran's nuclear threat had been "hyped". "Yes, there's concern about Iran's future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and international community," he told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the beginning of September. "But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far."
Then, just three weeks later, bang! True, Iran did not suddenly acquire a deliverable nuclear weapon, but the IAEA was caught flat-footed when Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown announced in Pittsburgh that intelligence reports had found Iran was operating a second, secret nuclear installation near the holy city of Qom. A formal inspection will be made of the plant later this month, but it is now clear that Tehran is considerably closer to becoming the world's 10th nuclear power than was previously thought.
The three leaders made clear that news had come to light through their own intelligence agencies, not via the IAEA in Vienna. Indeed, in a report only a few days before the Pittsburgh announcement, the IAEA had said that Tehran had downgraded its production of enriched uranium, seemingly unaware that the second site existed. Washington had dismissed that report and given warning that so far as it was concerned Iran was still not being transparent with the United Nations inspectors.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper, basing its report on Israeli and American intelligence, claimed that the IAEA report had suppressed a classified annex that expressed explicit alarm about Tehran's activities. The key question for those who fear that a new nuclear arms race is underway is: has ElBaradei got Iran completely wrong in the way, in 2003, he got Iraq absolutely right? In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, he consistently warned the Bush administration that the war would be based on a false premise because Saddam Hussein did not actually have the weapons of mass destruction American and British intelligence had supposedly identified.
Since then Washington has been distinctly cool towards ElBaradei and his work, which proves the old saw that misjudgements can be overlooked, but that you will never be forgiven for having been proved right. But there is another factor at play too, which is that ElBaradei appears to have changed personally since he and the IAEA were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Technically he was cited for the prize for being an "unafraid advocate" for strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But in truth he was being rewarded by a highly political Norwegian Nobel committee for having spoken up publicly against George W Bush's bogus Iraq intelligence.
There is, even his friends concede, a grandness - indeed, a hauteur - to Mohamed ElBaradei. He was born into a wealthy and well-connected Cairo family in 1942, the son of Mostafa, a head of the Egyptian Bar Association. He had a French nanny, an expensive private education, and aged 19 he was a national youth squash champion. He is tall and still slim, partly because he cannot abide the formal diplomatic dinners that can be the curse of his sort of job.
He trained as a lawyer in Cairo and New York, but never practised, instead joining the Egyptian diplomatic service and rising swiftly up the ranks, while showing a keen eye for the sorts of roles that get one noticed. For four years he served as special assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, before migrating into the United Nations bureaucracy, biding his time before landing a big international job. He joined the IAEA secretariat in 1984, and 13 years later was eased into the top job.
Despite American opposition, he was appointed to his third term in September 2005. Indeed, so intense was his loathing of the Bush administration that he subsequently - and somewhat implausibly - claimed that he only stayed on the extra four years to annoy them. Since winning the Nobel Prize, ElBaradei has given the impression of a man who thinks he has outgrown the confines of his role. He often speaks more like a United Nations secretary general than a nuclear inspector. Indeed in an interview with The New York Times two years ago he described himself as a "secular pope" with a self-appointed mission to "make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other".
"You meet someone in the street - and I do a lot - and someone will tell me: 'You are doing God's work', and that will keep me going for quite a while." To say that to a newspaper without any trace of irony takes some doing, even for a trained lawyer. Colleagues report that he has no small talk and has a horror of having to chat to members of staff in the lifts at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Rather than be forced into conversations in the staff restaurant, he takes his lunch in with him in the morning, and eats it at his desk.
Diplomats who do business with him report he is a shameless name-dropper and terribly vain. His official biography on the IAEA website is inadvertently hilarious in its listing of his every honour, including his "Distinguished Visitor" status in Quito, Ecuador, his honorary degree from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, and his Prize for Global Understanding awarded by Delta Air Lines. Some have accused ElBaradei of dwelling too long upon his personal achievements rather dealing with his agency's primary role of curbing proliferation. The planet has sufficient stockpiles of nuclear weapons to destroy every single country several times over. With approximately 23,000 warheads, there is enough lethal firepower in various national arsenals to create an estimated 2.3 million blasts the size of the original Hiroshima explosion.
The prospects of superpower mutually assured destruction may have receded with the end of the Cold War, but the threat remains from smaller and aspiring nuclear states. Libya and South Africa have both surrendered their past nuclear ambitions. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have removed the weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union. Japan and Germany would be readily nuclear capable had they not long ago formally renounced the idea of building them, relying instead on American treaty obligations for what amounts to a nuclear deterrent.
America and Israel will be pleased to see the back of ElBaradei when he retires at the end of next month. His relations with Washington have improved marginally since the Obama team took over from the Bush people, who he referred to as "crazies" for talking of aspiring nuclear powers as members of an axis of evil. But he is still not liked or trusted by Americans, who find his haughty manner insufferable, even as President Obama recalibrates US foreign policy with his efforts to build proper alliances with Muslim countries.
ElBaradei's legacy might prove kinder in the long term, for the director general job puts any man in an impossible situation in having to deal with Iran without enraging Israel. ElBaradei cannot claim to have succeeded in the latter part, despite reminding people endlessly that as a young man, he had a Jewish girlfriend. He bases his attitude towards Iran on the lesson of Iraq. "In total, one out of three Iraqis has had his or her life pulverised because of a war that never, in my view, should have been fought in the first place," he said recently, reminding the world once again how right he was at the time.
No wonder there will be some relief when he is replaced by the colourless figure of Yukiya Amano, described as "a veteran Japanese diplomat", which is another way of saying he won't be making so many waves as the man he succeeds. In many ways, the world - and particularly Washington - seems to be coming around to ElBaradei's view of dealing with Iran. President Obama's shift towards direct diplomacy with Tehran, as part of wider engagement with the Muslim world, was sanctified yesterday with his winning of the Nobel peace prize.
ElBaradei will no doubt be chuffed to be joined in the pantheon of laureates by a man who sees the world more his way, even if Barack Obama is just a president of the United States, rather than a secular pope who for the past 12 years has been doing God's work in Vienna. * The National