"The world has ignored our warnings"

Nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei talks about being wiretapped by the Bush administration, whose "arrogance and ignorance" turned the Middle East into "a giant mess."

Published May 20, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), discusses the record of his term in office, his bitter struggle with the Bush administration and the dangers that new nuclear powers pose.

Mr. ElBaradei, you have been the director general of the IAEA for more than 11 years, and you plan to retire in November, at the end of your third term.

There can be no question of retirement. The nuclear threat is too great for me to be able to put this issue to rest. I will continue to play an active role.

When you took office, you wanted to make the world a safer place; but now the threat seems greater than ever. Nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of the Taliban in Pakistan. North Korea has announced plans to test another nuclear weapon. And, in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts about being able to close the nuclear cycle. Have you failed?

No, I don't think so. We did what we could. We at the IAEA are merely a tool as strong as our member states allow us to be. We cannot make political decisions; nor are we in a position to implement them. We cannot simply march into any country without its consent. It was others who failed.

Whom do you mean?

The international community. The world has ignored our warnings. Take the case of Iraq, for example. Even though we had no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, they were used as justification for the war -- the most dangerous moment of my tenure. Or take Pyongyang. Efforts to engage North Korea in ongoing disarmament talks have failed. And the dialogue with Tehran was tied to preconditions that were unacceptable to the Iranians.

It was because of assessments like these that you were accused of being naive, especially by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

That's unfair. In the case of North Korea, for example, we pointed out in 1992 that the country was in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And we have consistently pressed the Iranians to respond to unanswered questions about their nuclear program. The world has the IAEA to thank for almost everything it knows about Iran's nuclear progress.

Information coming from the exiled opposition led to the discovery of the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

Unlike some nations, we do not have our own satellites for aerial photographs. Sometime they give us something because it suits their geopolitical goals, and sometimes they withhold things.

The Bush administration was so suspicious of you that U.S. intelligence agencies tapped your phones.

That didn't bother me so much because I never had anything to hide. On the contrary, it gave me a shot in the arm because I knew that I was doing the right thing. But my daughter was deeply disturbed that people were listening in on her private conversations.

Would you have thought the Bush administration was capable of that sort of a wiretapping campaign?

It didn't really surprise me. What can you expect from an administration that -- in a mixture of ignorance and arrogance -- passed over countless diplomatic opportunities to conduct a dialogue with Tehran? The entire Middle East was turned into a complete mess.

The new American administration has announced a change of course.

Indeed. [President] Barack Obama has turned U.S. policy around by 180 degrees. For instance, he announced plans to double the IAEA budget in the next four years. The Europeans, including Germany, want to freeze the budget, which I find alarming.

But you also gained a great deal of recognition in 2005, when you and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yes, that's true. It was a vote of confidence in the organization, and it strengthened my immune system against attacks, especially because this recognition was triggered by the policies of the powerful. We managed to draw attention to the organization; the letters of our name were always being mixed up by politicians. I am also pleased to see that, after two more or less wasted decades since the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament is now a central issue once again. This reflects the realization that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons has actually increased considerably and that the bomb could fall into the wrong hands.

Such as the hands of fanatics in Tehran.

We still have no ultimate proof of a military nuclear program in Iran. However, we do have some unanswered questions.

You are choosing your words with extreme caution. As the IAEA concluded in its last report, the Iranians have now reached breakout capacity, meaning that they have enough low-enriched uranium to build a functioning bomb within a few months.

I have told the Iranians that they have to clear up inconsistencies and address unanswered questions if they want to reestablish trust.

But the Iranians have already forfeited their right to uranium enrichment. In the past few years, they have given the IAEA the runaround with their tricks and deception.

It is true that the Iranians have given us false information in the past and have not declared facilities and materials that they were required to declare. This led to a trust deficit. However, it was the Americans' mistake to insist on the suspension of all forms of uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks. This should have come at the end of negotiations. As a result, Washington stayed away from the negotiating table ...

... and the Iranians continued to develop their technology and played for time by conducting halfhearted nuclear talks with the Europeans.

The Americans thought they could threaten Iran with a big stick and force it to back down. But the arrogance of treating a country like Iran like a donkey led to a hardening of positions. But there were two times when we were close to a solution, brokered by countries I cannot identify.

You are referring to the secret plans of the Russians and the Swiss ...

... I can't comment on that. Under one of these proposals, Iran would stop when it reached a scale of 31 uranium enrichment centrifuges. That's enough for research purposes, but not nearly enough for bomb production. In any case, they already have the know-how. What worries me is when a country reaches an industrial capacity that could enable it to turn this knowledge into weapons production. The United States immediately rejected the proposal because it believed that Iran should not have a single centrifuge. Later, in 2005, when the Iranians were already much further along, there was a plan drawn up by a European country that called for limiting the number of centrifuges to 360.

Were you involved in the negotiations?

I was in North Korea when the Iranian chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, called me to say that this would be a very good basis for negotiation. But Washington's answer was again no. Now that it appears that the Iranians have more than 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges, it looks as though Obama is prepared to negotiate without preconditions because he knows that there is no other solution than a political one.

You are one of the very few people to have met the Iranian revolutionary leader in person. How did it happen? What was your impression of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

I was surprised by how much he knew about the smallest technical details and the progress of negotiations. But during our discussion, it became clear to me just how deeply he mistrusts the West, especially the United States.

Were you at least able to reduce his reservations about your organization?

I believe he understood how determined we at the IAEA are to achieve a solution acceptable to all sides. But that also includes confidence-building measures on the part of the Iranians. I want Iran to ratify the so-called Additional Protocol, which would allow us to conduct more comprehensive inspections. Now when I advise my Iranian counterparts, I tell them: "Take the hand Obama is holding out to you."

What exactly do you mean by that?

I believe that freeze for freeze is the next realistic step. The Iranians would not install any additional centrifuges, while the West would refrain from imposing any further sanctions. This would start a period of intensive negotiation. And because the problem is so complex, it would go on as long as necessary.

That doesn't seem to be happening.

It's important to understand the difference between what the Iranians demand publicly and how they act pragmatically. You are sitting across from the experience of thousands of years of bazaars: They know how to bargain for the best price, but they also know when to give in.

At what price do we have to negotiate?

They want to be treated as equals, and they want security guarantees for their country. For them, complete control over nuclear technology is a means to achieve these goals. But I am not certain what that really says about their willingness to compromise.

The Israelis would not get involved with such vague hopes. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently wrote that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities in a few months.

It would be completely insane to attack Iran. It would transform the region into one big fireball, and the Iranians would begin immediately with a project to build the bomb -- and, in doing so, they could be sure to have the support of the entire Islamic world.

The new U.S. government is distancing itself from Israel. For the first time, a member of the U.S. administration has referred to Israel as a nuclear power and is demanding that the Israelis declare their nuclear weapons. Is this the right approach?

Yes. We have to stop applying different standards in the Middle East. It is this duplicity that is constantly criticized in the Arab world. The goal should be to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Do you seriously believe that Israel will give up its nuclear weapons?

Not tomorrow. About five years ago, I said to [former] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon: "In the past, the bomb might have been useful as a deterrent, but after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism has taken on a completely new dimension. If terrorists get their hands on the bomb, they will not be deterred by your arsenal, and they will detonate it." I believe Sharon understood my point.

The Israelis accuse you of partisanship because you have sharply criticized the government in Jerusalem for the bombing attack on a Syrian military facility in September 2007.

What the Israelis did was a violation of international law. If the Israelis and the Americans had information about an illegal nuclear facility, they should have notified us immediately. The fact is that I only learned about it long after the strike was completed. And when everything was over, we were supposed to head out and search for evidence in the rubble -- a virtually impossible task.

But your inspectors did travel to Syria, and they did find suspicious evidence.

Yes, traces of uranium. Where they came from is unclear. There are still questions. Syria is not giving us the transparency we require.

Isn't it an eternal cat-and-mouse game, like the one we are seeing once again in North Korea, which expelled your inspectors in April?

North Korea is obsessed by the fear that the Americans want to topple their regime militarily. As far back as 1992, the foreign minister in Pyongyang gave me a two-hour lecture on how much the Americans had it in for North Korea. Their obsession was only reinforced when George W. Bush placed North Korea on his "Axis of Evil" in 2002. Pyongyang decided then to embark on the road to the bomb.

Violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an attempt to blackmail the world. The regime wants economic aid and guarantees to abandon nuclear weapons in return. Should blackmail be rewarded?

That's the moral dilemma. To help the starving population, we could very well be supporting a bankrupt, illegitimate regime. Nevertheless, I do believe that food aid should never be tied to political conditions.

But it is also correct that a regime that we are propping up is selling nuclear know-how on the international black market.

There is that risk. As far as I'm concerned, the risk of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to the world. Last year alone, we had 200 cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive substances.

Do you have any evidence that the al-Qaida terrorist network is using the black market?

I have no evidence that al-Qaida has abandoned its ambitions to obtain a so-called dirty bomb or even a nuclear weapon.

If the Taliban is able to continue its advance in Pakistan, fundamentalists could gain control over an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons for the first time. The Americans see this as a real danger.

I am also very concerned about this development.

In a speech in Prague a few weeks ago, President Obama proposed his vision of a nuclear-free world. Is this realistic?

The world is at a turning point, and it is also a race against time. Fortunately, there is support for the idea that complete nuclear disarmament is not a utopia, but both necessary and possible. I think it's encouraging that President Obama has come out so clearly in support of this goal.

But can he keep his promises?

That's the million-dollar question. In my opinion, we can easily reduce the 27,000 warheads -- 95 percent of which are in the hands of the Americans and Russians -- to 1,000 or 500. Deep in my heart, I would like to see a world without a single nuclear weapon. But I can also imagine that a small number of nuclear weapons will remain in existence. In that case, they ought to be supervised internationally, for example, by the United Nations Security Council.

Is that naive or visionary?

You know, if [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger says it, it's considered visionary. If I say it, it is rather seen as naive.

Do we detect a note of bitterness at the end of your time in office?

You cannot please anyone in this position, and perhaps one shouldn't try in the first place. Many in the Arab world treated me as an agent of the West; and, in the West, I was considered overly sympathetic toward Muslims. But I have no reason to complain. This work is important, and I have actually achieved quite a bit. 

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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George W. Bush Iran Middle East North Korea Nuclear Weapons Syria U.s. Military