"The man in the middle of the escalating tensions between Iran, Europe and the United States is Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the United NationsÂ´ International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei and the IAEA, recipients of last yearÂ´s Nobel Peace Prize, are charged with verifying IranÂ´s compliance - or lack thereof - with international safeguards against nuclear-weapons proliferation.
In his first interview since Iran broke the seals on nuclear research equipment last week, ElBaradei spoke bluntly at his Vienna headquarters with NEWSWEEKÂ´s Christopher Dickey about his frustrations with Tehran, and his ideas on how to avoid further escalation.
DICKEY: YouÂ´ve said youÂ´re running out of patience with Iran. What does that mean?
MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, IAEA: For the last three years we have been doing intensive verification in Iran, and even after three years I am not yet in a position to make a judgment on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program. We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals [and] locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program.
DICKEY: At one site called Lavizan, facilities were bulldozed by Iran before you could look at them, and you werenÂ´t allowed to run tests in the area.
ELBARADEI: We clearly need to take environmental samplings from some of the equipment that used to be in Lavizan. We need to interview some of the people who have been engaged in Lavizan. We have [also] gotten some information about some modification of their missiles that could have some relationship to the nuclear program. So, we need to clarify all these things. It is very specific. They know what we want to do, and they just have to go and do it. IÂ´m making it very clear right now that I cannot extend the deadline, which is... March 6.
DICKEY: With all due respect, the Iranians donÂ´t seem to care what you think.
ELBARADEI: Well, they might not seem to care. But if I say that I am not able to confirm the peaceful nature of that program after three years of intensive work, well, thatÂ´s a conclusion thatÂ´s going to reverberate, I think, around the world.
DICKEY: Do you have any indication that there is some other completely separate Iranian nuclear-weapons program?
ELBARADEI: No, we donÂ´t. But I wonÂ´t exclude that possibility.
DICKEY: But thereÂ´s another problem. Even if the declared nuclear research is all that Iran has going, thereÂ´s nothing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself to prevent them from enriching uranium - which they say is their right. They could get to the point of producing their own nuclear fuel, or bomb material, then tell you, "WeÂ´re pulling out of the treaty."
ELBARADEI: Sure. And if they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far - a few months - from a weapon. We need to revisit the treaty, because that margin of security is unacceptable. But specifically on Iran, the board is saying, "You have a right under the treaty to enrich uranium, but because of the lack of confidence in your program and because the IAEA has not yet given you a clean bill of health, you should not exercise that right. In a way, you have to go through a probation period, to build confidence again, before you can exercise your full rights."
DICKEY: That was the basis of the European and Russian negotiations with Iran. But thatÂ´s been declared a dead end, and tensions are escalating. ThereÂ´s probably going to be an emergency meeting of the IAEA Board in the next couple of weeks. Washington and now Europe have called for the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue.
ELBARADEI: IÂ´ll tell you, nobody wants to go to the Security Council - if they can avoid that... [But] even if it goes to the Security Council, it will be a graduated approach. If [the Iranians] decide to go the confrontation route, everybody will be hurt, there is no question about it. But at the end of the day, in my view, they will hurt more because there is a more united international community.
DICKEY: Iran has been observing a protocol, which it didnÂ´t actually sign, allowing your inspectors to visit many sites on very short notice. Now Tehran is threatening to stop that.
ELBARADEI: Of course that would be another escalation. It also would backfire on Iran, because at least if we are on the ground we... can see whatÂ´s going on. We are there on the ground and we are saying we donÂ´t see a clear and present danger. If there is no inspection, people can have as wild an imagination as they want [about Iranian activities], and that will hurt Iran.
DICKEY: You talk about "confidence building," but at least since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office last June, IranÂ´s activities have been mostly confidence destroying.
ELBARADEI: It is very frustrating because everybody invested a lot of time and effort in building this confidence. ItÂ´s a very slow process. You can have a crash overnight. I hope the Iranian authorities will understand, again, that if they lose this nascent confidence building it will become even more complicated in the future to [restore]. It is very frustrating. But if you are in a business like mine you have to be very, very patient.
DICKEY: What if the Iranians are just buying time for their bomb building?
ELBARADEI: ThatÂ´s why I said we are coming to the litmus test in the next few weeks. Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.
DICKEY: YouÂ´re angry.
ELBARADEI: No, IÂ´m not angry, but IÂ´d like to make sure the process will not be abused. ThereÂ´s a difference. I still would like to be able to avoid escalation, but at the same time I do not want the Agency to be cheated; I do not want the process to be abused. I think that is clear. I have a responsibility, and I would like to fulfill it with as good a conscience as I can."