Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Interview with Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (Excerpts)

September 1, 2009

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

. . .

BAS: Is Iran minimizing the risk of its nuclear program - namely by keeping it purely civilian-oriented?

ELBARADEI: We have not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran´s nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped. Yes, there´s concern about Iran´s future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and international community. We still have outstanding questions that are relevant to the nature of Tehran´s program, and we still need to verify that there aren´t undeclared activities taking place inside of the country. But the idea that we´ll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn´t supported by the facts as we have seen them so far. It´s urgent, however, to initiate a dialogue between Washington and Tehran to build trust, normalize relations, and allay concerns as proposed by President Obama. To me, that´s the only way forward.

That´s not a popular position. I´m accused by some of politicizing the evidence. About Iran, I´ve been told, "Mind your own business; you´re a technician." And yet, at other times, on other matters, I have been told that I´m the custodian of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - sometimes by the very people who tell me to mind my own business when it comes to Iran. I don´t put much stock in either designation. I´m neither a custodian nor a technician; I´m merely someone who is trying to do his job. And I know the world won´t be successful in achieving nuclear disarmament unless there´s an equitable universal arms control regime in place that deals with the root causes of proliferation such as poverty, conflicts and violence. So when I tell our member states, "If you want the agency to do a good job at stemming proliferation, you have to work on the root causes," that´s not politicization; that´s looking at the big picture and being faithful to my job.

BAS: What lessons have you learned from your experiences with Iran - and the same for North Korea and Iraq?

ELBARADEI: One lesson is to keep the dialogue going - particularly in the case of North Korea. There, whenever a dialogue was taking place, things were on the right track. Whenever the dialogue stopped, things started to go bad. Now, two nuclear tests later, we have no choice but to talk to the North Koreans and understand where they´re coming from.

Another lesson is to use sanctions only as a last resort and to avoid sanctions that hurt innocent civilians. As we saw in Iraq, sanctions only denied vulnerable, innocent civilians food and medicine, resulting in some of the most egregious human rights violations I´ve ever seen - all in the name of the rule of law. So we should try very hard to establish an ongoing dialogue, because sanctions are never a solution.

As for force, I´m not against it. But to me, you have to exhaust all other possibilities for a peaceful resolution until force becomes the last option. You can´t jump the gun as the United States did in Iraq. In total, one out of three Iraqis has had his or her life pulverized because of a war that never in my view should have been fought in the first place.

BAS: When might military force be used to deal with proliferation?

ELBARADEI: Very, very rarely. In fact, usually the use of force and isolation leads to nuclear programs expanding, not retreating. Let´s look at a couple of the cases you asked me about. Saddam Hussein only started his huge clandestine nuclear program after the Israelis bombed his Osirak facility in 1981. In terms of Iran, when it was denied nuclear technology by other countries after the Islamic Revolution, Tehran took part of its program underground. In retrospect, wouldn´t it have been better to deal with both Iraq and Iran differently? Obviously, there need to be incentives and disincentives, but overall, I believe in a comprehensive approach that addresses the symptoms and root causes and is based on mutual respect.

BAS: Is this how being IAEA Director General has changed your worldview the most?

ELBARADEI: My worldview has changed a lot in the last 12 years. We still haven´t absorbed that the world has become one global village. We talk about it, but we don´t act like it. We continue to put an emphasis on border, language and ethnicity. That´s wrongheaded. More and more I believe that unless we have a security system rooted in human security, which would allow everyone to live with dignity and freedom, we´ll never truly be secure - either as nations or individuals.