With tensions again building between the Bush Administration and the current regime in Iran, this would seem to be a good time to consult the world’s foremost objective expert on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Spiegel Online did just that, in a wide-ranging interview with United Nations chief weapons inspector, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei.
SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, the international community suspects that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons. Tehran denies this. Have we now reached the decisive phase in which we will finally get an answer to this central question of world politics?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Yes. The next few months will be crucial for the overall situation in the Middle East. Whether we move in the direction of escalation or in the direction of a peaceful solution.
SPIEGEL: You have been given a central role. The new report on Iran by your International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could lead to more severe sanctions against Tehran.
ElBaradei: The international community will have to make that decision. We can only deliver the facts and our assessment of the situation. There are hopeful and positive signs. For the first time, we have agreed, with the Iranians, to a sort of roadmap, a schedule, if you will, for clarifying the outstanding issues. We should know by November, or December at the latest, whether the Iranians will keep their promises. If they don’t, Tehran will have missed a great opportunity — possibly the last one.
ElBaradei easily, but politely, dismisses Bush Administration accusations that Iran is now cooperating as a distraction from its true sinister intentions (the same sort of Bush Administration “logic” that had them, for a while, claiming the escalating violence in Iraq was actually a good sign, because it meant the insurgents were growing desperate, in defeat) by pointing out that his team is objective and above manipulation, and (it might be said, unlike the Bush Administration,) actually knows what it is doing. He also makes clear that a recent breakthrough announced by his deputy, Olli Heinonen, should not be dismissed, simply because Iran has a history of being secretive about its program.
ElBaradei: Obviously we are all pushing for the same strategic goal: That Iran should not get nuclear weapons. We consistently searched for evidence that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. We found suspicious signs, but no smoking gun. We could now make some progress in setting aside these suspicions by thoroughly inspecting the Iranian facilities and learning details about their history.
ElBaradei says it’s his hunch that Iran has fewer centrifuges running than had been suspected out of an attempt to be politically cooperative. He again emphasizes that his team can very precisely analyze Iran’s program, and that despite Iran’s previous obfuscations, their current apparent willingness to cooperate should be fully tested. He warns that the Bush Administration’s contrary desire to escalate the pressure on Iran could backfire. In other words, the present level of sanctions against Iran should remain in place, but they should not be strengthened. He agrees that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but:
There are concrete suspicions against Iran. That’s why I believe that Iran has temporarily forfeited this right, and that it will have to regain it with the international community through confidence-building measures. On the other hand, those in the West must realize that if all they expect is confrontation, they might as well forget dialogue — and they should not be surprised if the other side seeks retribution.
How unusual and refreshing to hear someone actually speaking so reasonably!
The interview then veer off to a brief discussion of North Korea, which ElBaradei holds out as an example of the effectiveness of dialogue. North Korea has a rogue government, and they had an advanced nuclear program, but five years of intensive negotiations led them to abandon their nuclear ambitions. He contrasts North Korea and Iran by making clear that North Korea is clearly cooperating, while Iran is still in a trial period. They also discuss China’s recent admission that they’ve “lost” eight kilograms of weapons-grade uranium, and that enriched uranium continues to turn up in former Soviet states. The risk of nuclear proliferation is very real, as is the risk that a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda might obtain some. ElBaradei does, however, make clear, that even if such terrorists did obtain weapons grade nuclear material, they would have neither the skills nor the resources to actually build nuclear bombs. Dirty conventional bombs, however, could be very deadly, and cause a great deal of panic and economic disruption.
The interview closes with a brief discussion of the IAEA’s official role as promoter of peaceful uses of nuclear power, and his desire to bring India into the IAEA’s fold. And he closes with this warning, which we would all do well to seriously consider:
SPIEGEL: You have headed the IAEA for 10 years now. Has your job become easier or more difficult over the years?
ElBaradei: More difficult. We pay completely inadequate attention to the important threats, the inhuman living conditions of billions of people, climate change and the potential for nuclear holocaust. We stand at a crossroads, and we are moving rapidly toward an abyss. There are currently 27,000 nuclear warheads in the world. If we don’t change our way of thinking, John F. Kennedy’s prediction that there would be 20 nuclear powers will soon come true. And with each new player and each new weapon, the risk of a planned or accidental nuclear war increases.
ElBaradei’s dream is that no individual countries should be independently processing nuclear material, and that it should only be done through multinational processes. Clearly, the man is an idealist and a dreamer. Clearly, we need more such people in such powerful positions. And just as clearly, we must hope and demand that the Bush Administration give him the time to do his job, in Iran, without any unnecessary pressures or additional tensions.