By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/7/2005 12:56:53 PM ET 2005-10-07T16:56:53

In light of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's effusive praise for Mohamed ElBaradei's selection as the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner (along with the International Atomic Energy Agency), it's worth noting that he has long had a strained relationship with the Bush administration.

In fact, last September NBC's "Nightly News" reported that the U.S. had spied on ElBaradei as it tried to make a case that he was compromising nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

Hardliners — led by John Bolton, then in charge of anti-proliferation efforts at the State Department — suspected that ElBaradei was "coaching" Iranian officials during nuclear negotiations. 

ElBaradei dismissed criticism
During an interview at the time, ElBaradei told NBC News that he was not surprised by the spying. "Look, if I have been coaching the Iranians I have been coaching the Iranians to tell them they ought to cooperate — that they need to be transparent."  

Even then, ElBaradei had some defenders in the administration who disagreed with his hard-line critics. The result was a deadlock on Iran policy, a deadlock that is only now being resolved with a new diplomatic push by State Rice.

As with Iraq during President Bush's first term, the U.S. case against ElBaradei on Iran was hurt by the administration's isolation from the rest of the world. 

In fact, when the administration tried to maneuver ElBaradei out of being elected to a third term as international watchdog last November, it had no support. 

Signaling a U.S. diplomatic defeat, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in June that if other nations on the IAEA’s board voted for a third term for ElBaradei, the United States was prepared to join the consensus and register its support for his third term as well.

How did the relationship become so frayed?

Much of the tension between the Bush administration and ElBaradei grew out of his skepticism about the U.S. case against Saddam Hussein. ElBaradei very publicly pressed to prolong U.N. inspections in Iraq, rather than go to war in March of 2003.

Change of tune
Now, the administration has determined it must work with him. A clear sign of the new approach was Secretary Rice's call to him today to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Prize.

In her written statement, Rice said, "I congratulate the International Atomic Energy Agency and its Director General, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, on being awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

“In conferring this well-deserved honor on the IAEA, the Nobel Committee noted, ‘At a time when...there is a danger that nuclear arms will spread both to states and to terrorist groups, and when nuclear power again appears to be playing an increasingly significant role, IAEA's work is of incalculable importance.’

"The United States is committed to working with the IAEA to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology."

ElBaradei's chief critic during the first Bush term, Bolton, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that he joined in Rice’s congratulations.

Asked if he saw the prize as a rebuff to the U.S. strategy, Bolton said only: “I’ll stick with the secretary’s statement.”

Andrea Mitchell is NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent.

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