VIENNA, Austria - The director of the agency responsible for detecting the spread of nuclear weapons is being hoodwinked while Iran moves perilously close to developing a nuclear bomb.
Or he is quietly, systematically - and successfully - making the best of limited powers to prevent the world's ultimate weapon from getting into Iran's hands.
Whatever the differing views about Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the importance of his efforts is nearly impossible to overstate. He is the person - at least for now - charged with preventing the spread of the most destructive weapons ever created.
The pressure on him has increased drastically in recent months, in part because the countries that make up and fund his agency, in particular the United States, have failed to create new methods to rein in what is fast becoming runaway nuclear technology.
Long past is the era when only countries deemed stable possessed what has become known simply as the Bomb: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and, almost certainly, Israel. Now, though, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, as does India; if its declarations are to be believed, so does North Korea.
The No. 1 item on ElBaradei's agenda, though, is Iran. Its Islamic government is closer to possessing nuclear weapons than anyone outside the country - including ElBaradei's agency - knew as recently as three years ago.
"The IAEA is running around chasing the bad guys, which in a sense is its job," said Paul Leventhal, founding president of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington. "The problem is, there's no shortage of bad guys out there and there's going to be somebody else after Iran - and even the Iran problem is a long way from being solved."
That is mainly because nuclear controls now in place do not control enough. Without the voluntary cooperation of the very governments trying to secretly acquire nuclear weapons, the IAEA is powerless to act in any meaningful way.
"John F. Kennedy said in the early 1960s that by 2000 there would be scores of nuclear weapons states," said Mark Gwozdecky, ElBaradei's spokesman. "By that measure, we have done well to keep the number to eight or nine. That notwithstanding, we say this is the most dangerous period for nonproliferation ever and that business as usual is not an option. Changes and improvements need to be made or we risk disaster."
Those changes cannot be made, though, unless the member states that control the IAEA decide to make changes.
By flawed design, the IAEA operates less like a watchdog and more like a toothless committee with no power to punish nuclear violators other than to refer them to the United Nations Security Council, which has historically been slow to act.
Perhaps because of this, Iranian leaders have offered, at best, only limited cooperation with IAEA inspectors, agency officials say. Iran has delayed inspections in the country, withheld requested documents, offered wholly implausible explanations for several programs and threatened to expel IAEA inspectors.
"Iran is powerful and should be regarded as a member of the nuclear club," the country's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said last summer. "That is an irreversible step."
ElBaradei, the agency's leader since 1997, is up for a third four-year term. Despite broad support, including from European allies of the United States, the Bush administration has been working to replace him. Officially, the reason is that leaders of such agencies should serve only two terms.
But the White House reportedly wants him gone because it believes he has understated nuclear threats, making it more difficult for the United Nations or the United States to wield a credible threat of force.
That conflict was clearest before the American invasion of Iraq, when ElBaradei publicly argued against military action and said that inspections turned up no evidence that Saddam Hussein's government was involved with any nuclear weapons program - findings proved correct after the invasion.
Angering the U.S.
With Iran, ElBaradei has angered the administration by issuing reports that inspections thus far have found no evidence of a nuclear weaponization program.
As far back as 2003, John Bolton, the State Department's undersecretary for arms control, dismissed those findings as "impossible to believe."
This much is clear: Iran has lied about its nuclear programs and not in ways that fall into the category of technical oversights; it has secretly developed two facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, the explosives necessary for the two main families of nuclear bombs; and it had gotten away with its lies for nearly two decades.
The questions now are what should and can be done about Iran - and what kind of example should be set for other nations.
And the answers to those questions depend largely on the answer to this: Can Mohamed ElBaradei and his International Atomic Energy Agency be trusted?