Skip to main content
Select Source:

ElBaradei, Mohamed

Mohamed ElBaradei

Mohamed ElBaradei (born 1942), Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Later that year he was appointed to a third term as IAEA director.

A lifelong diplomat and one of just a few individuals from the Arab world active at the top levels of the world of international relations, ElBaradei was active in trying to resolve conflicts at several of the world's major flashpoints, all of them involving new nuclear threats. The IAEA, an intergovernmental organization affiliated with the United Nations (UN), conducts inspections and negotiates with governments in an attempt to stop the spread of nuclear weaponry and to insure that nuclear materials are used exclusively for peaceful purposes. ElBaradei's activities brought him into conflict with the United States in the twin trouble spots of Iraq and Iran, but the Nobel Prize and his subsequent reappointment signaled a strong vote of confidence from the international community.

Won Squash Tournament

ElBaradei (the name is generally spelled without a hyphen in Western lettering but appears as El-Baradei on the website of the Egypt State Information Service) was born into a professional family in Cairo, Egypt, on June 17, 1942. His father, Mostafa ElBaradei, was a lawyer who once became president of Egypt's national bar association. ElBaradei's mother, Aida Hegazi, recalled (according to America's Intelligence Wire) that her son was a standout from an early age. "I hope he has a bright future," his kindergarten teacher told Hegazi. "I can tell he is brilliant." As a boy he loved athletics, excelling at squash and winning a national tournament in that sport. But as time went on, he decided that he wanted to take after his father, and enrolled in law school at the University of Cairo.

ElBaradei received his law degree in 1962, and two years after that, at the age of 22, he joined the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "His early diplomatic training is apparent in everything he does—from the relaxed but careful way he talks to journalists, to his dealings with countries' nuclear programs," noted a BBC News profile. Twice he was sent abroad to Egypt's United Nations missions, once to Geneva, Switzerland, and once to New York City, New York. There he enrolled at New York University (NYU) and earned a doctoral degree in international law in 1974. As part of Egypt's UN delegation he had responsibility for political, legal, and arms control issues. He also became a lifelong fan of the New York Knickerbockers' professional basketball team.

Becoming a special assistant to Egypt's Foreign Minister, ElBaradei was part of the delegation that traveled to the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David in 1978 and concluded a groundbreaking set of peace accords with Israel. A youthful star of the international diplomatic corps, he took a job in 1980 with the United Nations as a senior fellow, directing the program in international law at the UN Institute for Training and Research. This post took ElBaradei back to New York City, where he served from 1981 through 1987 as an adjunct professor of international law at NYU.

Familiar with a wide range of legal and diplomatic issues, ElBaradei joined the IAEA as a legal adviser in 1984. He held several policy posts within the organization, rising to assistant director-general for external relations in 1993. The IAEA is based in Vienna, Austria, and ElBaradei made his home there with his wife, Aida Elkachef, and the couple's son, Mostafa, and daughter, Laila. Mostafa became a television director, Laila a lawyer; both live in London. Aida Elkachef worked as an early childhood educator. "I find a lot in common in the way I manage things and the way Aida manages three-year-olds," ElBaradei observed to Jennifer Cunningham of the Glasgow, Scotland, Herald. "We humans are the same when we are three years old and when we are 50."

Named IAEA Director-General

In 1997 ElBaradei succeeded Hans Blix of the Netherlands as director-general of the IAEA. He was backed for the post neither by Blix nor by the Egyptian government, but it was due partly to the influence of the United States (ironically, in view of the conflicts that were to come) that ElBaradei won the support of a majority of the member governments on the IAEA board. At the time, his background seemed to have an ideal mix of Western education and familiarity with the Third World. "ElBaradei is exactly the kind of person you would want in the role—someone from a developing country who has a Western intellect but a Third World sensitivity," former U.S. IAEA ambassador John Ritch told Tom Hundley of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. The IAEA board appointed ElBaradei to a second term in 2001.

Up to this point, ElBaradei's name was little known except among those who followed arms control efforts, but the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a period of international tension concerning the possibility that terrorists or rogue states might acquire nuclear weaponry. In his 2002 State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush charged that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea constituted an "axis of evil" that sponsored terrorism at the state level, and that all three of those states had historically been involved in attempts to manufacture an atomic bomb. Lurking in the background was renegade Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, who gave technical assistance to a variety of nuclear aspirants. Suddenly ElBaradei's name was in the headlines, and his work was closely scrutinized.

The immediate area of concern was Iraq, where the Persian Gulf War (1991) had uncovered a clandestine nuclear program proceeding under the direction of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. That program, ElBaradei reported, had been largely dismantled after the war, but U.S. diplomats, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, claimed that it had been restarted on several fronts. A team of United Nations inspectors, led by Blix and including ElBaradei, went to Iraq to search for banned weapons, but found none. The United States went ahead with its case for war, despite ElBaradei's March 7, 2003, announcement before the United Nations Security Council that a piece of evidence central to the U.S. argument, a letter pertaining to the alleged purchase of uranium by Iraq from the African country of Niger, had been shown to be a forgery.

A small coalition of countries led by the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, and U.S. officials were reportedly angered by ElBaradei's challenges to their claims about Iraq's nuclear program. Iraq, however, was not the only state on ElBaradei's nuclear proliferation agenda. North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors and remained, in ElBaradei's view, a serious threat. "My gut feeling is that they have a [nuclear] capability," he told Newsweek. "They probably have enough plutonium to make a few bombs. That makes [North Korea] the most dangerous proliferation situation … a country that is completely beleaguered, isolated, has nothing to lose and a weapons capability." Talks involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States led to preliminary agreement by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program in 2005, but North Korea remained a nuclear danger point.

Favored European Approach in Iran

In Iran, where a dissident group revealed the existence of a nuclear weapons program unknown to the IAEA, ElBaradei was pressed by the United States to take a hard line by referring the matter immediately to the U.N. Security Council. ElBaradei agreed (as quoted in Newsweek) that "Iran's policy of concealment over a number of years [has] created a confidence deficit," but he favored a European Union-backed strategy of negotiation. "You will never solve your problem until you sit around the dinner table and put your grievances on the table and find out how to move forward," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Some people equate that with being soft—that if you do not pound on the table and if you do not scream, then you are being soft. I think this is a total misconception." ElBaradei's approach contributed to an agreement by Iran in November of 2004 to temporarily halt its nuclear program, but the issue flared again in 2005.

In October of 2005 ElBaradei was named the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. The award was seen by some as a rebuke to the United States for its largely unilateral approach to the Iraq situation, but Nobel committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said (according to the Tribune) that the selection was "not a kick in the legs to any country." ElBaradei agreed. "I don't see it as a critique of the U.S.," he was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times. "We had disagreement before the Iraq war, honest disagreement. We could have been wrong; they could have been right." ElBaradei said (as quoted in the Tribune) that the award "recognizes the role of multilateralism in resolving all the challenges we face today," and that it would "strengthen my resolve and that of my colleagues to speak truth to power." As an international black market in nuclear arms components grew, ElBaradei argued, multinational cooperation became more and more important, and he criticized existing nuclear powers, including the United States, for their lack of progress in arms control. ElBaradei was Egypt's fourth Nobel Prize winner, following president Anwar Sadat, novelist Naguib Mahfouz, and chemist Ahmed Zewail. The selection of ElBaradei followed a pattern: figures devoted to the control of nuclear arms had been chosen for Nobel awards on several anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.

The United States, led by hardline U.N. ambassador John Bolton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, attempted to derail ElBaradei's bid for a third term as IAEA director-general, proposing Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer instead. But the American delegation got nowhere with other countries represented on the IAEA board, and had to retreat after evidence surfaced that U.S. intelligence services had tapped ElBaradei's office phone. ElBaradei was unanimously approved for a third term in October of 2005, and he said that he considered his disagreements with the United States to be closed questions. The Bush White House offered congratulations on his reappointment.

Even after receiving the Nobel Prize, ElBaradei continued to receive criticism from some observers on both ends of the political spectrum. Conservative National Review commentator Jay Nordlinger derided ElBaradei as "the classic international-organization man"; he quoted writer Joshua Muravchik's contention that "for 'rogue' regimes, the IAEA has presented few barriers." From a different perspective came critiques by several Arab commentators described in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly Online, who argued "that the IAEA chief would have never received the prize had it not been for his determined avoidance of any criticism of Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity"—though Israel is generally believed to possess nuclear weapons, it has never officially confirmed them. As the Iranian situation heated up again at the end of 2005, with the country's Islamist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcements that the country would move toward restarting its uranium enrichment program, ElBaradei's third term promised to be a busy one. He has often stated that his greatest fear is that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists.


America's Intelligence Wire, October 7, 2005.

Chicago Tribune, October 7, 2005.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 8, 2005.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 1, 2005.

National Review, November 7, 2005.

Newsweek, February 9, 2004; July 11, 2005.

New York Times, October 8, 2005.

Seattle Times, October 8, 2005.

U.S. News & World Report, October 17, 2005.


"Atoms for peace," Al-Ahram Weekly Online, (January 6, 2006).

"Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei: Director General," International Atomic Energy Agency, (January 6, 2006).

"Mohamed El-Baradei," Egypt State Information Service, (January 6, 2006).

"Profile: Mohamed ElBaradei," BBC News, (January 6, 2006).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 18, 2017).

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

ElBaradei, Mohamed

Mohamed ElBaradei (ĕlbärä´dā), 1942–, Egyptian lawyer and United Nations diplomat, b. Cairo, grad. Univ. of Cairo (1962), New York Univ. School of Law (1974). He worked (1964–80) in the Egyptian diplomatic service, becoming special assistant to the foreign minister (1974–78). He headed the international law program at the UN Institute for Training and Research (1980–84), taught at New York Univ. (1981–87), and joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where he served as a senior official (1984–97) and as its director general (1997–2009). He oversaw the IAEA's shift from promoting the peaceful development of nuclear energy to also monitoring the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and pursued a careful and persistent but generally nonconfrontational approach to verifying nonproliferation treaty violations. He was criticized by the G. W. Bush administration when the IAEA would not, due to the lack of conclusive evidence, confirm the existence of alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, later, an alleged nuclear weapons program in Iran. He shared the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize with the IAEA for their efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. ElBaradei returned to Egypt in 2010 to head the National Coalition for Change, an opposition group campaigning for democratic change, and in 2011 he was active in the protests that led to President Mubarak's resignation. Subsequently, he became a leader of the liberal opposition to the government of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. After Morsi was ousted by the army in July, 2013, ElBaradei was named interim vice president for foreign relations, but he resigned after the military crushed pro-Morsi protest camps in August.

See his The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times (2011).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 18, 2017).

"ElBaradei, Mohamed." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from