Profil (Austria) Interview With Director General Mohamed ElBaradei

August 1, 2007

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Related Country: 

  • Iran

Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on the dangers of nuclear terrorism, Tehran's atomic ambitions, the turmoil in the Middle East and the Austrians' anxieties about Temelin.


profil: You have now been Director General of the IAEA for just under ten years. Is the danger of a nuclear war today greater or less than it was when you came to office?

ElBaradei: I do not think that the situation has improved in the past few years. Nuclear weapons are becoming ever more attractive, on the one hand for the existing nuclear powers, which are improving their weapons technically and pursuing their national security strategies. On the other hand, we are seeing a growing interest in nuclear weapons on the part of States which do not have any as yet. They hope to achieve a deterrent effect with them. In North Korea, or in Iraq in the past, attempts were made to manufacture nuclear weapons. For other countries it's a question of uranium enrichment, that is, the know-how they could apply to make nuclear weapons. In any discussion of this subject, one has to take a look at the global security situation.

profil: And has that deteriorated?

ElBaradei: Take Europe for example: It is highly unlikely that any further European State will want to possess nuclear weapons, because the continent is secure and protected by NATO, and because there are no major conflicts in this region. In unstable regions where power struggles, oppression and human rights violations are involved, such as the Middle East for example, it is hardly surprising when these countries say: We have the same right to nuclear weapons as the nuclear Powers in order to make ourselves and our authority secure. All in all, the security situation has not improved. Over the past years, the major conflict between East and West has been replaced by civil wars such as those in Sudan, Congo and Iraq - conflicts in which millions of people have died. That leads to a great feeling of insecurity.

profil: In these circumstances, can you summon up sympathy for the nuclear ambitions of countries without nuclear weapons?

ElBaradei: No, I can't. But you have to consider the situation from two angles. On the one hand, we are concerned to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, we do also have to ask ourselves why certain countries feel threatened - why North Korea is developing nuclear weapons, why Iraq had the programme that it did. You can't tell the world that nuclear weapons are bad and a threat to the world, while at the same time modernizing your own nuclear arsenal.

profil: That is what the USA and the United Kingdom are doing ...

ElBaradei: And Russia, because it does not want to be at a disadvantage technologically. If you really want to establish standards, they have to apply to all countries. That is also how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty started. In 1970, we said: Enough is enough, we don't want the world to have even more nuclear Powers. Whereupon five nuclear Powers pledged not to manufacture any more nuclear weapons and to dismantle the existing ones over time. 35 years on, this has still not happened. Then you do have to ask yourself: Are the nuclear Powers really earnest about their promises? There are still 27 000 nuclear warheads - and that's 15 years after the end of the Cold War. This should not however be a justification for countries like North Korea, which are now insisting on their right to nuclear weapons. Because that way, we approach the brink. There is a danger that we will destroy our planet.

profil: Haven't the western nuclear States forfeited their legitimacy to tell Iran what it is and isn't allowed to do?

ElBaradei: Of course the West has the right to say that Iran has to disclose its nuclear intentions. But a solution to the problem can only be achieved if you don't stop at trying to treat the symptoms. Otherwise there is a risk that the situation in the Middle East will just deteriorate even further. The chaos there is already unbelievable anyway.

profil: The USA has recently made an about-turn in its Middle East strategy. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and other friendly States are now receiving huge financial support for their armament efforts. Is this helpful in improving the security situation in the Middle East?

ElBaradei: Investing more money in arming this region is not helping at all. On the contrary: it could lead to a new cold war. This will bring neither stability nor security. This is a very dangerous development.

profil: And what would an alternative strategy look like?

ElBaradei: The money should be invested in the region's development, in projects which improve the human rights situation, combat poverty and improve the poor education system. The major problem in the Middle East is the lack of good governments. There are still many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Security can only be ensured through development in the region. If a population is being oppressed by its own government and has no future prospects, a feeling of despair results and consequently militarism spreads and people become suicide bombers. It is now up to the West to promote the necessary development in the Middle East so that people can finally understand that peaceful coexistence is possible.

profil: The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who share responsibility for the nuclear programme in Tehran, have now been put on the list of terrorist organizations by Washington. What do you think about that?

ElBaradei: A crucial choice must be made: If you opt for confrontation to bring about a regime change, then you can forget discussion and should not be surprised when the other side becomes intent on revenge. The other option is to say: Even if I do not like the regime, I still have to talk to its representatives. The alternatives are dialogue or isolation. In such situations I am always in favour of dialogue, in order to find a long-term solution.

profil: So far, it does not appear that the talks with Tehran have achieved much.

ElBaradei: We need to ensure that Iran discloses its nuclear intentions. There is some progress there. The Iranians are cooperating with us for the first time and drawing up a work plan with us: We are now to learn all about the genesis of their nuclear programme. This is the first step forward in a few years. I now have to wait and see whether this cooperation is meant in earnest. We also want a limitation of their nuclear ambitions, however. This has to go hand in hand with a comprehensive security dialogue between Iran and its neighbours, but also with Israel and the USA. A security dialogue of this type is currently under way in North Korea. The six-party talks are not only about the North Korean nuclear programme, but also about stabilizing the security situation. This is precisely what is lacking in the Middle East. There is a European offer which was made to Iran jointly with the USA and Russia, but unfortunately we have no negotiations yet. The two parties are not negotiating yet.

profil: From the outside it looks as if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is leading the United Nations up the garden path.

ElBaradei: Ahmadinejad is not the only player in Iran. There are a number of people who contribute to the decision processes. Iran is a complicated and heterogeneous society. We must support those who want dialogue. They have to be strengthened. The more you isolate a country, the stronger you make the hardliners. The United Nations Security Council put pressure on Iran because it refused to cease uranium enrichment. But in my opinion you have to enter into direct negotiations in parallel to such measures. Just sanctions without negotiations - that won't lead to any solution to the problem.

profil: An Iranian atom bomb - would Tehran use it? How dangerous is Iran?

ElBaradei: I do not think any State in the region would use nuclear weapons -unless it had gone completely mad. After all you would end up being wiped out yourself. Most countries have nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In the case of Iran or North Korea, the question is: What would these regimes do with such weapons? Of course that is a subjective question. Whom can you trust and whom can't you?

profil: Is there a danger that the Iranians' ambitions will trigger a nuclear arms race in the whole region? That Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia will also start a nuclear programme?

ElBaradei: I very much doubt it, although I can't rule it out. Countries want nuclear weapons because they believe they will acquire more international importance thereby. Nonetheless: We know that nuclear weapons cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. The sooner we help countries with their democratic and economic development, the sooner people will understand that religion, ethnic group and skin colour are not decisive for a better life. Europe and its 27 Member States have recognized this: Europe has disputes, too, with countries being played off against each other, but it would never occur to anyone to go to war against each other over such issues. The European idea should become a global idea.

profil: France recently gave Libya a nuclear reactor. Does that add to global security?

ElBaradei: Energy is crucial. Science and technology are prerequisites for social development. And they require energy. I do not know the exact background to the deal, why the French are giving Libya this reactor, whether they are getting Libyan oil in return. But I am not worried about it as long as the reactor is under IAEA safeguards. One nuclear reactor by itself means nothing, you are still far from having an atom bomb. I am more worried when a country has a plant for industrial-scale uranium enrichment. For that means that the country has highly enriched uranium. In this case it can make a nuclear bomb within a few months. That is why uranium enrichment should take place under international control.

profil: But enrichment is allowed under the NPT.

ElBaradei: Yes, that's true. But that Treaty entered into force in 1970. At that time it was thought that only a few countries would be capable of enriching uranium. In the meantime the situation has changed radically. The technology is available nowadays, and many countries are capable of enrichment. Now we have to adjust to the existing situation. The NPT is no longer up-to-date, for the fact is that every country is now capable of enriching uranium.

profil: Israel is a special case in the Middle East. It is an open secret that it possesses nuclear weapons. What is your position on this situation?

ElBaradei: I am against it - because it gives one a bitter feeling that double standards are being applied. This situation can only be resolved by a peace process. Alongside peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians there must also be a dialogue on security in the Middle East. The fundamental question is: What security system will we have in the Middle East when there are two independent States - Israel and Palestine? This region has been living at war for many years, so a strong, long-term security system is needed that can sustain the fragile position that will exist initially. We must destroy all weapons of mass destruction, including the nuclear weapons that Israel allegedly has. And we need limits on conventional weapons.

profil: A high-ranking Israeli politician has assured profil in an in-depth interview that almost no-one in Israel seriously believes that Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon. The fear is much greater that Iran might provide terrorists with nuclear material for a so-called "dirty bomb". How great is the danger of terrorists getting hold of nuclear bombs and using them?

ElBaradei: Terrorists acquiring a so-called dirty bomb and using it is indeed a much greater danger than that of a nuclear war. Many people wonder why that has not happened yet. But terrorists getting hold of nuclear bombs is very unlikely because they would also have to decipher a lot of complicated codes. The greatest danger at this time is that of a so-called dirty bomb, i.e. radioactive material being dispersed in cities.

profil: Has this danger increased since the attacks of 11 September 2001?

ElBaradei: The security situation in this respect has improved. Governments are cooperating well with us. But there is still a lot of work ahead.

profil: In Austria there are fears of a nuclear reactor accident in Temelin. What are your views on this?

ElBaradei: Nuclear power will be an increasingly important source of power, at global level. By 2020, China for example will be producing five times as much nuclear power as it is today. We are experiencing increasingly insecure energy supply from oil and gas. Then there is the problem of climate change. Six out of seven of Austria's neighbour countries have nuclear power plants. I would advise the Austrians not to concentrate on the fact that power plants exist, but rather on their safety.

profil: But an overwhelming majority of Austrians are against nuclear energy on principle.

ElBaradei: Being against nuclear power today leads nowhere. You will have nuclear power plants around you for the next 20-30 years. Ultimately, it makes no difference whether the nuclear power plants are in Austria or on its borders. We at the IAEA ensure that the best possible safety standards are applied. I want to guarantee to all Austrians that the reactors surrounding Austria have nothing to do with Chernobyl. Of course there can never be a 100% guarantee. It is just like flying: very safe, but with a residual risk. But I am not in the least concerned about Temelin. I can say that with a clear conscience, since I too live here in Austria.