Rageh Omar: Award is for man whose finest work is surely yet to come

Click to follow

He was in the Iraqi capital with his colleague, Hans Blix, then the head of the UN inspectors, whilst Baradei was in charge of the nuclear teams. The two men would walk through the lobby of the Al Rasheed Hotel mobbed by journalists hoping for a quote ahead of talks with Iraqi negotiators. Hans Blix could always be relied on for some comment; such was his love of the cameras. But it was Baradei's face; anguished, angry, yet also dignified, which eloquently reflected the truth of his and Mr Blix's mission, which was described by Tony Blair and George Bush as a "last chance for peace". His face spoke of a man who had resigned himself to an already doomed and hopeless mission whose political outcome would be judged elsewhere. I remember one of his aides saying to me with dark sarcasm on that visit: "You have your minders watching your work here in Baghdad - our minders are in London and Washington."

On Mr ElBaradei's last night in Baghdad that February there were dozens of white four-wheel drives used by weapons inspectors in the forecourt of the Canal Hotel which served as the headquarters of the UN, vehicles purchased on the money raised through the UN oil-for-food programme. Inside were crews of some of the most influential broadcasters in the world. We were herded into a hall and each broadcaster was given a separate corner in which to set up our equipment. The idea was that Mr Blix and Mr Baradei could hop from one interview to the next without wasting time. I watched as five other news organisations did their interviews. Not one chose to interview Mr Baradei. I ended up doing an interview with him in a separate meeting room. "We are still making progress," he said, "there is much to do but the momentum with the inspections is moving forward. Slowly, but forward, I see no reason for bringing this inspections process to an end."

One week later after that interview he returned to New York to testify before the UN Security Council. He could not have been clearer: "As I have reported on numerous occasions, he said, "the IAEA concluded, by December 1998, that it had neutralised Iraq's past nuclear programme and that, therefore, there were no unresolved disarmament issues left at that time. Hence, our focus since the resumption of our inspections in Iraq, two and a half months ago, has been verifying whether Iraq revived its nuclear programme in the intervening years. We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq. However, as I have just indicated, a number of issues are still under investigation and we are not yet in a position to reach a conclusion about them, although we are moving forward with regard to some of them".

Three weeks after he said those words, the war had begun.

Mohamed ElBaradei seems to be a man haunted by regrets. Regret that in the weeks before the invasion he was not more forceful about stating that there was no evidence Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear programme, regret that he was not more public with his calls for more time for the UN inspections, and above all, regret at everything that has followed in Iraq and the Middle East since then.

Nobel Peace Prizes are often given in recognition of work that individuals have already done. Yesterday's announcement is very different. The prize gives Mr Baradei and his colleagues at the IAEA a moral authority and the platform of global attention with which they can now be more independent and less susceptible to the kinds of political pressures they faced before the invasion of Iraq.

This prize is also for a man whose best work is surely yet to come. The spectre of Iran looms ever larger. Once again, the issue is nuclear proliferation, once again weapons inspectors are conducting their searches, the Bush and Blair administrations make warnings to Tehran, and Mohamed ElBaradei is centre stage. When Mohamed ElBaradei talks of Iran, Iraq is never far away, but he speaks about it in the context of the lessons that can and must be learnt. It is interesting to watch how it is he, not journalists, who brings up the subject of Iraq, whenever he talks about Iran. He said recently: "The Iraq experience demonstrated that inspections can be effective even when the country being inspected is less than co-operative."

How ironic that the current crisis over Iran's nuclear programme should involve two Nobel Peace Prize winners but from different perspectives. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Muslim, will be making decisions that will have an effect on how this crisis ends, and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Muslim human rights activist who won the prize in 2003, sits in Tehran, arguing that bombing the city in which she lives will be a catastrophe for those activists working for change inside Iran. That, too, will weigh on Mr Baradei's mind in the coming months.