The 67-year old Nobel Peace Prize laureate will end his tenure as one of the world's most respected diplomats as he used his stature to call for a reduction of nuclear arsenals and to talk about how to prevent the spread of such weapons.

Mohamed El Baradei is retiring on Monday as chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the Iran nuclear issue unresolved and IAEA inspectors banned from North Korea.

But the 67-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate ends his tenure as one of the world’s most respected diplomats, who has made the most of his agency’s limited powers and managed to retain his independence amid intense political pressures.

As he turned from little-known Egyptian IAEA official to outspoken leader during his 12 years in office, Mr. El Baradei has used his stature to call for a reduction of nuclear arsenals and to talk about how to prevent the spread of such weapons.

He succeeded the Swede Hans Blix in 1997, having climbed the career ladder from studying law in Cairo, through the Egyptian diplomatic service and on to becoming Mr. Blix’s deputy and head of the IAEA external relations department.

‘Speak truth to power’

His tendency to “speak truth to power,” as he is fond of saying, and to protect the integrity of the IAEA, came into the spotlight shortly before the Iraq war started in 2003.

He told the UN Security Council that his inspectors had found no Iraqi efforts to build a nuclear programme, contradicting U.S. claims that were used as a reason to go to war.

“It gives me no consolation that the agency’s findings were subsequently vindicated,” he said earlier this month, in his last statement at the UN General Assembly in New York before Yukiya Amano of Japan becomes the next director general.

“He demonstrated he was going to go on the evidence that the IAEA itself could build, and he was very cautious about playing the Bush administration’s political game,” said Rebecca Johnson, head of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in London.

Despite pressure from the U.S. and Israel, ElBaradei followed the same policy in the probe of Iran’s contentious nuclear programme, an issue that has exposed the IAEA’s limited powers.

IAEA inspectors have found out much about the nuclear programme since it was revealed in 2002, but Tehran has refused to answer questions about alleged nuclear-weapons studies, making the most of the IAEA’s limited rights to demand access to key documents, sites and officials.

'Should have been tougher'

In interviews with DPA, several experts said Mr. El Baradei could not be faulted for failing to resolve this nuclear standoff, nor for the fact that his inspectors were twice expelled from North Korea.

“ElBaradei can only be as tough as the member states on the IAEA Board of Governors are,” said Daryl Kimball, who heads the Arms Control Association, a think tank in Washington.

However, that view is not widely shared in Israel, where Iran’s nuclear activities are seen as a direct threat to national security.

The IAEA chief should have been tougher and should have put the proof of burden on Tehran, Israeli nuclear expert Ephraim Asculai said.

He said he is quite sure that one day Iran will get to the point of building a nuclear weapon.

“Then ElBaradei’s record will not be all that great,” said Mr. Asculai, who is affiliated with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Another point of criticism often heard among Vienna diplomats and IAEA staff is that winning the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the IAEA has inflated Mr. El Baradei’s ego.

Supports India-U.S. deal

In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, he described himself as a “secular pope” who draws strength from people telling him that he is doing “god’s work.” But the Nobel Prize provided him with a louder bullhorn to speak out on nuclear disarmament. He has argued that if nuclear-armed countries want to stop the spread of such weapons, they should set an example by reducing their own nuclear stockpiles.

He also recognised nuclear energy as one way to lift people from poverty in developing countries.

That was likely one reason why Mr. El Baradei supported the 2006 nuclear cooperation pact between India and the U.S., even though nuclear-armed India has not signed the international treaty banning the spread of these weapons.

Since then, there have been calls for similar deals in Pakistan and Israel, two nuclear weapons states not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Mr. “El Baradei made an enormous error in embracing that deal,” said Mr. Kimball, who otherwise thinks highly of the outgoing IAEA chief.

With the Iran file still open and disarmament an unresolved topic despite Mr. El Baradei’s best efforts, his successor, Amano, 62, starts out with a full agenda.

Meanwhile, Mr. El Baradei plans to write a book and spend more time with his wife, Aida Elkachef, and his two grown children, both in Vienna and at his house in France, officials close to the IAEA said.

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