ht answer to the sum of all fears
out of graduate school to become a full-time writer. His first book was about Shakespeare. His bold attempt to reckon with the stark issue of nuclear weapons is not that of an international relations or strategic affairs specialist. It is that of an intelligent, articulate and Jewish citizen of the West trying to grapple with a desperately alarming subject to which far too many of us continue to be rather anaesthetised.
ElBaradei served as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1997 until 2009. The Age of Deception is his account of this extraordinary experience. It covers the dramatic subjects of Iraq, North Korea and Iran, and is an eye-opening account of how the IAEA works. ElBaradei and the IAEA were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2005. After completing his work at the agency, he returned to Cairo and played a leadership role in the Egyptian opposition movement which, earlier this year, overthrew Hosni Mubarak. His refrain throughout the book is that diplomacy and dialogue, not preemptive use of military force, are the ways to deal with the nuclear weapons problem.
The New York Jew is far edgier than the Egyptian Nobel laureate. He follows in the footsteps of Jonathan Schell, author of The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (1998) and The Unfinished Twentieth Century: The Crisis of Weapons of Mass Destruction (2001), in arguing that we must abolish nuclear weapons, reversing the fateful steps taken from the Manhattan Project through the Cold War nuclear arms race.
Rosenbaum introduces us to the Russian counterparts of those in the US who have long seen the perilous fragility of the nuclear command and control system. He thinks through the moral logic of nuclear retaliation by Israel in the event it should suffer nuclear assault by Iran. He ponders the call for abolition of nuclear weapons, in The Wall Street Journal in 2007, by Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn, and concludes that the idea is right but that it seems dismally improbable it can be accomplished.
He does these things lucidly. His outlook is not shrill but sombre. It is informed by a sense that the matter was always more dangerous and command and control systems always less reliable even during the Cold War than we have been assured (when we have been told anything at all); that the nuclear balance is fast becoming even more fragile and dangerous than it was during the Cold War; and that we delude ourselves if we think any state is making rational decisions about these matters.
As Peter Bergen has expressed it, Rosenbaum fears that Armageddon may come simply because of ‘‘ the endemic incompetence of the human species’’. That incompetence covers the technical, political, cognitive and moral domains.
Rosenbaum’s dark view of the nuclear prospect is nowhere more evident than in the two chapters he devotes to the profound concern in Israel about the possibility of nuclear weapons in Iranian hands: The Ashes are Still Warm: The Second Holocaust, Israel and the Morality of Nuclear Retaliation and Iran: The ‘‘ Enigmatic Box’’ and the NIE. These alone make the book worth reading. ElBaradei devotes four chapters to Iran.
The alarming thing is that their two accounts barely overlap at all. It seems extraordinary that this could be the case.
ElBaradei makes the astounding claim that there is ‘‘ not a whiff of evidence’’ that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. He argues it has developed its nuclear facilities in secret only for fear the West would seek to prevent it from developing nuclear energy at all; and that the dictatorial leaders of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are eminently reasonable and pleasant gentlemen, much misunderstood by the West and slandered by Israel.
He records that at one point he privately admonished them that their remarks about there not having been a Holocaust and about wiping Israel off the map were not helping their cause. Astonishingly, he nowhere states that he regards such remarks as deplorable in themselves.
That a director general of the IAEA should have held the views that ElBaradei expresses about Iran seems to me deeply troubling. The general tone of his book comes across as that of a dedicated, dispassionate international civil servant, resistant to Western pressure and determined, to the best of his ability, to fulfil his mandate under the NPT. This and his frequent broadsides at the US and Israel (not least over the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s Dair Alzour nuclear plant in 2007) will appeal to many readers while alienating others. But his argument in regard to Iran is so systematically at odds with that of mainstream strategic opinion that one wonders how he feels able to sustain it. If only he were right. Read him. Understand his point of view. Then read Rosenbaum.
Paul Monk is founder of Austhink Consulting.