December 12, 2004

What's Beryllium Got to Do With It?

Not one, not two, but three government officials decide to leak to the Post the fact that the Bush administration has been wiretapping Mohamed ElBaradei's phone calls. Evidently more than a few people are standing in ElBaradei's corner—but who and why? And more importantly, what does this have to do with the White House's forthcoming Iran policy?

As ArmsControlWonk pointed out a few weeks ago, "anonymous intelligence sources" have been trying for some time now to leak reports that Iran is cheating on its agreement with the IAEA by purchasing beryllium in bulk, and has accused the IAEA of not following up on the matter. (Note, the intelligence here comes from the MEK.) They floated this allegation first in September, and then in December, after the IAEA reached an agreement with Iran. They're coming up again today, as Iran is expected to resume nuclear talks with the EU.

For now, leave aside the (very relevant) question of whether beryllium is actually the crucial bomb-making ingredient the U.S. claims it is. What's important for the politics of all this is that ElBaradei has dismissed the charge as a technical detail, as "gutter allegations", and is even now suggesting that the beryllium experiments are part of a civilian program. There are two ways to read this refusal: One, that ElBaradei's reticence here "smacks of an effort to conceal something" (The Washington Times theory); or two, that ElBaradei no longer trusts U.S. intelligence to "keep looking" for damning evidence—not unlikely, considering the debacle on Iraq's WMDs, wherein ElBaradei was jerked around in late 2002 to hunt down a program he and his team had destroyed a decade ago—and he wants to avoid any needless confrontations.

So let's bring this back to the Post story above. Three "government officials" are leaking information to put the White House in an unfavorable light in this whole dispute—especially since "the intercepted calls have not produced any evidence of nefarious conduct by ElBaradei." That would seem to drive a stake through the Washington Times theory—that ElBaradei is downplaying the beryllium charges to protect or collude with Iran. Now does that also mean that these officials think that the beryllium allegations, along with other U.S. intelligence that Iran is covertly pursuing a weapons program, merely amount to so much bullshit driving the country towards yet another war? Maybe. As I said before, much of this depends on how crucial beryllium really is

What's crucial, however, is that the IAEA and the White House apparently don't trust each other, and have been slow to get on the same page intelligence-wise. John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, along with the Washington Times, seem to think the problem lies with ElBaradei. Others—ElBaradei included—seem to think the problem lies with Iran hawks in the White House. Seems like an important dispute to try to resolve, no?
-- Brad Plumer 8:36 PM || ||