With Iran now threatening America with new missiles and the United States hunting down agents of the mullahs in Iraq, the conflict in the Middle East is again threatening to escalate. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei warns in a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview: "The Middle East is in the worst condition I have ever seen."
SPIEGEL: The United States government is threatening to capture or kill Iranian agents in Iraq and Tehran has announced it will install thousands of centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium in Natanz. Are we witnessing a dramatic escalation of the conflict?
MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, IAEA: If we continue on the same course, we could see a spiral of escalation. There is an urgent need for creative diplomacy and leadership. Diplomacy is pressure and engagement, and I very much hope that we can find the right balance. A durable, peaceful solution will not come through pressure only. It will ultimately come at the negotiating table.
SPIEGEL: You don't sound very optimistic.
ELBARADEI: The United Nations resolution itself recognizes the importance of finding a negotiated solution that will allow for the development of relations and cooperation with Iran. Clearly the sanctions were the expression of concern by the international community. I think the message was heard loud and clear in Iran.
SPIEGEL: So why not simply wait until Iran gives in and stops its nuclear program?
ELBARADEI: My concern is that if we only focus on sanctions, that might lead to confrontation on both sides, ending in an uncontrolled chain reaction. My worry right now is that each side is sticking to their guns: The international community is saying "sanctions or bust," and Iran is saying "nuclear enrichment capability or bust." Ultimately sanctions are useful to send a message, but they have to be followed by an effort to create conditions for negotiations.
SPIEGEL: So how could this happen?
ELBARADEI: I hope now we can put our heads together. I have been calling for a simultaneous time-out: That means Iran would take a break from all its enrichment-related work and at the same time, the UN Security Council would put a hold on implementing sanctions. We could agree through dialogue on the basic objectives and principles to govern the negotiations and then have a three-month time-out in the hope of achieving a comprehensive settlement which would not only cover nuclear issues, but security, economic and political concerns as well.
SPIEGEL: Do you see any signs that Iran would consider stopping its enrichment activities even for a short period?
ELBARADEI: Iran is very keen to see an affirmation of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nobody is questioning this right, what is at stake is confidence-building. Until confidence is restored, Iran should put a hold on enrichment-related activities, and to restore this confidence Iran needs to commit to being fully transparent and to start giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the full access we need for verification. This includes inspections under the Additional Protocol.
SPIEGEL: Is there general support for the idea of a time-out?
ELBARADEI: I hope the dialogue will start this weekend in the margins of the Security Conference in Munich. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be there, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian National Security Council. I encourage everybody to seize the opportunity.
SPIEGEL: But it seems to be very clear that the US government is convinced that the only thing that can help is to apply more pressure on Tehran.
ELBARADEI: There are differences of opinion about tactics, how to find the right balance between pressure and incentives. It's not an easy issue, it's a question of policy judgement. I personally believe that in a situation like the one you have in the Middle East today, where it's like a ball of fire, you have to be very cautious. We cannot afford to add oil to that fire. The more we have confrontation, the more the Middle East will become militant and angry. The earlier we move into a conciliatory mood the better for everybody.
SPIEGEL: So you're hoping for less hostile rhetoric from each side?
ELBARADEI: Absolutely. We should not ride a train wreck. The Middle East is in the worst condition I have ever seen. I have just seen reports that North Korea is moving to start a process of nuclear disarmament. That only came about through negotiations - direct talks - that included the United States. So why not engage Iran in the same way?
SPIEGEL: Iran just announced that some inspectors are no longer allowed to enter the country: This includes specialists from countries who pushed for sanctions, Germany for example. How long will you be able to track what they are really doing in Natanz?
ELBARADEI: ItÂ´s regrettable that Iran restricted the number of inspectors and we wrote to them and asked them to reconsider. It restricts our flexibility. I hope the Iranians will understand that the more transparency there, the better it will be for them. But I can also say that there are over 100 designated inspectors accepted by the Iranians. So we have enough people to do the job. We were just in Natanz and will soon go again.
SPIEGEL: Is Iran seeking to start enriching uranium on an industrial scale?
ELBARADEI: The Iranians themselves said that they want to install 3,000 centrifuges and are now moving forward in installing them. They call it the second phase. How long it will take to install and operate them will be part of my report to the IAEA Board of Governors on February 21. So the window of opportunity for a time-out is very narrow. If my report is negative in the absence of any movement on the part of Iran then the Security Council will work for more sanctions. That would mean a further escalation that will become more and more difficult to scale back.