Leading article: A highly charged political statement

In selecting the International Atomic Energy Agency and its current head, Mohamed ElBaradei, as this year's joint recipient, however, the Nobel Committee has made a statement that is not only highly political but more subtly interesting as well.

On one level, this prize is an affirmation of the work that the IAEA does, as the UN's global nuclear watchdog, in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are times when this may seem a thankless task: Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons technology is perhaps the most egregious example. By and large, though, the restrictions on nuclear technology have endured remarkably well - testimony to the agency's reputation for fairness and technical expertise. Among the IAEA's unsung achievements has been its success in preventing illegal sales of nuclear materials from the territory of the former Soviet Union.

By naming Mr ElBaradei as this year's joint laureate, the Nobel Committee has effectively endorsed the judgements made by the Egyptian diplomat as head of the IAEA. These include his sharp condemnations of North Korea, but also, most notably, his very public assertions, in the face of ferocious opposition from Washington, that Iraq had abandoned its nuclear weapons programme. He has also made himself unpopular with the Bush administration by persisting in his efforts to keep links open with Iran.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize is thus an expression of confidence not only in the agency but also in Mr ElBaradei's leadership at a time when both have come under pressure. It was only last month that Washington halted its efforts to have Mr ElBaradei replaced as director-general, clearing the way for him to be appointed for a third term. The award cannot but strengthen his position

Responding to yesterday's announcement, Mr ElBaradei said that the award sent the forceful message: "Keep doing what you are doing." We only hope that no new obstacles are placed in the way of him doing just that, whether from Washington, Tehran or Pyongyang.

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