The Bush administration, having found no alternate candidate or support from any allies, has given up on its attempt to force out Mohamed ElBaradei as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to two U.S. officials.
With ElBaradei's bid for a third term virtually guaranteed when the agency's board meets next week, the White House decided to invite him to Washington for a talk tomorrow with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the terms of U.S. support, the officials said.
"We're willing to lift our objections under certain conditions," one of the officials said. "Namely, get tougher on Iran."
The Bush administration's vigorous but solitary campaign -- including a complete halt of intelligence sharing, recruitment of potential replacements and eavesdropping on ElBaradei in search of ammunition against him -- won not a single ally on the IAEA board.
ElBaradei, who repeatedly challenged U.S. assertions about Iraq's weapons programs, does not need Washington's backing to be reappointed. He is supported by the 34 other countries on the IAEA board.
But Washington's blessing would give ElBaradei additional muscle and could bolster agency investigations of nuclear programs in countries such as Iran. The United States stopped sharing intelligence with the IAEA six months ago when it began efforts to replace ElBaradei. But with the leadership issue nearly resolved, U.S. officials predicted the intelligence relationship would resume. The IAEA relies heavily on countries to provide information that could help them uncover clandestine nuclear programs.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian diplomat and international lawyer who turns 63 this month, arrives late today and will meet tomorrow with Rice and Robert Joseph, who replaced John R. Bolton last week as undersecretary of state for arms control.
Bolton was the driving force behind efforts to oust ElBaradei -- whose stance on Iraq and cautious approach on Iran put him deeply at odds with the White House. But Bolton's efforts ran into trouble in December after revelations that U.S. officials were culling intercepts of ElBaradei's phone conversations for material to use against him.
ElBaradei's office had no comment on the invitation to Washington, issued Friday. The State Department would not comment on whether the United States has decided to support him, but spokesman Kurtis Cooper said he "wouldn't be surprised if the issue came up." He said Rice plans to discuss several items on the agenda for the IAEA board meeting on Monday in Vienna. The first item is ElBaradei's reappointment.
At talks last week in London, European officials implored their U.S. counterparts to resolve the issue and back ElBaradei, arguing that the continued stance against him was causing unnecessary friction at a time when unity was needed in dealing with Iran, according to the U.S. officials and a senior European diplomat.
The two U.S. officials, who would discuss the issue only on the condition of anonymity, said Rice decided afterward to invite ElBaradei to the State Department and officially offer U.S. support for his candidacy. But she also wants to make it clear that the White House expects several things in return.
"He is going to win either way, and if we went in opposing him, it would be ugly for us and for him," one official said. "So it's in everyone's interest to use the opportunity to work better together."
Specifically, the administration wants ElBaradei to be more publicly skeptical on Iran. In the past two years, his inspectors have uncovered a large-scale nuclear program the Iranians built in secret over 18 years.
Iran says the program was set up to produce fuel for nuclear power, and ElBaradei has said repeatedly there is no proof to contradict Iran's story. The administration has rejected those findings and believes that ElBaradei's comments have hurt its campaign to ratchet up international pressure against Iran.
Publicly, the administration has said its efforts to remove ElBaradei were motivated solely by a desire to see U.N. executives adopt term limits. "Our feeling on the director general is that we support the long-standing policy of two terms for director generals," Bolton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April when it was reviewing his nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations. "That's been the policy. Currently, there are no candidates to oppose him, so we'll have to see how that policy plays out," he said.
But many allies viewed the campaign as retaliation against someone who questioned U.S. intelligence on Iraq and was vindicated when no weapons of mass destruction were found.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, told the foreign relations panel that Bolton was out of bounds in his efforts against ElBaradei. Wilkerson said Bolton went "out of his way to bad-mouth him, to make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in."