The Bush administration has been listening in on telephone conversations between the director of the international nuclear agency and Iranian diplomats with the aim of gathering evidence to remove the UN bureaucrat from his post, it was reported yesterday.
With Washington's campaign against the IAEA chief, Dr Mohammad ElBaradei, now in its second year, the administration has acquired dozens of telephone intercepts of such conversations in the hopes of finding evidence of wrongdoing, the Washington Post said. The newspaper quoted three anonymous US government officials as saying that the administration embarked on its eavesdropping mission to collect material that would discredit Dr ElBaradei in his dealings with Tehran in the crisis over its clandestine nuclear programme.
At the IAEA headquarters in Vienna it is taken for granted that Dr ElBaradei's phone calls are tapped. Officials shrug that such activities go with the territory. The CIA had no comment when contacted yesterday.
For the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, Dr ElBaradei has been an enemy since he exposed the hollowness of Washington's claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal during the run-up to the war on Iraq. In recent months, as global efforts to halt Iran's clandestine nuclear programme gathered pace, some US officials who were sceptical of a diplomatic resolution accused Dr ElBaradei of hiding evidence of Tehran's weapons programme from the nuclear watchdog.
Under a deal brokered by Britain, Germany and France, Tehran agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment. However, Washington has been pressing for Iran to be taken to the UN security council.
State Department hardliners, such as the under secretary for arms control, John Bolton, have openly complained about Dr ElBaradei's differing approach. However, the wire taps produced no clear evidence of inappropriate contact between Dr ElBaradei and officials in Tehran. "Some people think he sounds way too soft on the Iranians, but that's about it," one official told the Post.
The IAEA director has said he intends to seek a third term when his current mandate at the agency expires next summer. Dr ElBaradei, a 20-year veteran of the IAEA, enjoys broad support among the agency's 35-strong executive.
Some experts argued yesterday that Washington would do better to expend its diplomatic capital on urging the IAEA to get tougher on Iran, rather than conducting a covert campaign against its chief. "I think we should be more wholeheartedly supporting the Europeans," Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for the first President Bush, told CNN yesterday. "I think we have little to lose by reaching out, and trying to draw them [Iran] at least into freezing their programme."
During the run-up to the Iraq war, the nuclear chief was viewed as an obstacle to America's campaign to convince the international community that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The feud between Dr ElBaradei and the hawks in the Bush administration flared again during last autumn's US presidential campaign when the nuclear chief pointed out that hundreds of tons of explosives had gone missing from Iraq's nuclear complexes following the US takeover.
Earlier this year the former international development secretary, Clare Short, alleged in a BBC interview that the office of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, had been bugged. The UN's former chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, also told the Guardian he suspected both his UN office and his home were bugged before the Iraq war.
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