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ElBaradei says sanctions on Iran will fail

In rare interview, former head of UN nuclear agency says sanctions in Iran are likely, but doomed.

Former head of the U.N. nuclear agency Mohamed ElBaradei is seen with fellow worshippers and supporters outside the El-Hussein Mosque in Cairo, March 26, 2010. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

MEDFORD, Mass. — Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, believes it is likely the international community will move to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

But the genteel, bespectacled diplomat, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his tireless efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons, is just as convinced that sanctions will fail.

“I am not a fan of any sanctions. They talk of smart sanctions, but I haven’t seen them. … They punish the people, not the regime. We saw that in Iraq,” ElBaradei said Thursday while visiting Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

In 1998, when ElBaradei was center stage in his efforts in Iraq to control weapons of mass destruction, it was a very different time in the world. But there was a similar struggle over the issue of sanctions and their effectiveness as a tool to impose U.N.-mandated inspections.

Then-President Bill Clinton was facing a standoff with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who was blocking ElBaradei and his inspectors from checking sites where Iraq was suspected of harboring a secret program of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Back then, sanctions had crippled Iraq, resulting in the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children, according to an extensive study by The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Society. Still Saddam clung to power while the people suffered. Clinton ordered punishing air strikes on Baghdad. But the sanctions and the cruise missiles did little to change anything except to perhaps more deeply entrench Saddam's Baathist dictatorship. In that historical context it is easy to see why ElBaradei has no faith in sanctions as a way to impose pressure on Iran.

“In both cases, regime survival is supreme. They will do everything to secure the regime,” explained ElBaradei.

“And I see absolutely no aspect of progress on these issues with Iran unless you change the paradigm. … Sanctions will not work,” said ElBaradei.     

ElBaradei stepped down last year as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But his political profile has been rising since February when he returned to his native Egypt to crowds of supporters urging him to challenge the three decades of rule by 81-year-old President Hosni Mubarak in next year’s election.