FOR SOME time Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian diplomat who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, has made it clear he considers himself above his position as a U.N. civil servant. Rather than carry out the policy of the Security Council or the IAEA board, for which he nominally works, Mr. ElBaradei behaves as if he were independent of them, free to ignore their decisions and to use his agency to thwart their leading members -- above all the United States.
Mr. ElBaradei was lionized by opponents of the Iraq war for debunking Bush administration charges that Saddam Hussein had restarted his nuclear program before the 2003 invasion. Emboldened, he has now set himself a new task: stopping what he considers to be the "crazies" in Washington who "want to say, 'Let us go and bomb Iran.' " We're not part of that camp, though we consider its members saner than many of the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But what's really unacceptable is Mr. ElBaradei's way of accomplishing his aim, which is to excuse the Iranian activity that most justifies the would-be bombers -- uranium enrichment -- while also trying to undermine the principal non-military leverage against it, which is economic sanctions.
Three times in little more than a year the Security Council has passed legally binding resolutions ordering Iran to end its enrichment program; two of them have had relatively weak sanctions attached. Never mind that, says Mr. ElBaradei: He's decided that the world should simply accept Iran's enrichment capacity and that sanctions are the wrong response. His frequent public statements to this effect have been harmful, but now he's gone further. Last month, the IAEA struck its own deal with the Iranian regime, aimed not at the enrichment but at a separate set of unresolved questions about Iran's nuclear activities. According to the agency, Tehran agreed to a timetable for clearing up these matters by the end of this year.
The answers to the questions are important: The IAEA wants to know, for example, how Iran came to possess Pakistani designs for molding enriched uranium into cores suitable for bombs. But Mr. ElBaradei's freelancing has two major consequences. One is to allow the Iranian government to focus on its past activities rather than its present campaign to build and install centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The IAEA issued a report last week playing down the centrifuge operation, saying that "only" 2,600 were operating or being installed and tested in July. But Mr. Ahmadinejad announced over the weekend that 3,000 were in place -- and even the lower number is a 50 percent increase over the number that inspectors counted earlier this year. By the time the IAEA and Iran are done talking about past questions, Iran will almost certainly have enough working centrifuges to produce a bomb within a year.
The other effect of the IAEA agreement will be to hand Russia and China -- which have been taking advantage of Western economic pressure to rapidly increase their exports to Iran -- a pretext to resist another U.N. sanctions resolution. Moscow and Beijing could join Mr. ElBaradei in arguing that nothing should be done before the end of the year. By then, the options of the Bush administration and other governments that believe Iran's nuclear program must be stopped, and not accommodated, may be greatly attenuated -- thanks to a diplomat who apparently believes he need not represent anyone other than himself.