As director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), did Mohamed ElBaradei soft-pedal Iran's nuclear ambitions to ensure that the Bush administration wouldn't attack that country? That's what many in the former administration, as well as nonproliferation experts of various political backgrounds, assert. Last week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ElBaradei sat down with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth to defend his record.
Washington Post: Some in the United States claim that between 2003 and 2007, you protected Iran because you did not want to see a U.S. military attack on it. In retrospect, do you think you allowed Iran to push the limits?
Mohamed ElBaradei: This is a complete misunderstanding. We have done as much as we can do in Iran to make sure that we understand the history and the present status of their program, to try to push them as far as we can within our authority to come clean. The idea people have that we are God, that we are able to cross borders, open doors . . . . We don't have that authority. . . . I am very proud that within the limited authority we have, we have been able to understand the scope of the most sensitive part of the Iranian program, which is the enrichment program, which is now under complete agency inspection.
WP: The Iranian enrichment program is now under inspection?
ElBaradei: We know how much they produce in terms of enriched uranium.
WP: Highly enriched uranium?
ElBaradei: Low-enriched uranium. Iran was cooperating even more before. They cut the cooperation . . . when they were taken to the Security Council in 2005. That was a political decision. . . . I have said for the past six years that the policy of building trust between the West (and the United States in particular) and Iran has failed completely. We haven't moved one iota.
WP: Do you think it is possible?
ElBaradei: I think it is possible. I have been counseling privately and publicly that this is not going to happen unless there is a direct dialogue.
WP: What do you mean, this is not going to happen?
ElBaradei: Trust-building. You're not going to have trust unless you have a direct dialogue. President Obama is saying he's ready to have a direct dialogue without preconditions, based on mutual respect. I say this is absolutely overdue.
WP: So you think President Obama is doing the right thing?
ElBaradei: I have no question about that. This was the missing part of the puzzle. . . . Regional security issues, particularly in the Middle East, will not move one iota until you sit around the table and discuss the grievances that have accumulated over the last 56 years between Iran and the international community -- from 1953, when the CIA and MI6 removed Mohammed Mossadegh, the first nationally elected government, to the hostage crisis in 1979. This is the past, but the present is fundamentally a competition of power in the Middle East between Iran, which has its own specific ideology, and the United States and some of Iran's neighbors.
WP: So you think it's Iran versus the West?
ElBaradei: Well, it's a competition between Iran and the West. Iran wants to have its role as a regional security power recognized. They feel they are the most powerful state in the region right now, and that is true, to a large extent. . .
They see that if you have the technology that can allow you to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time, it gives you power, prestige and security. So it's a security issue [relating to] how great a role Iran will have as a regional power, the grievances the West has vis-Ã -vis Iran about alleged Iranian support for extremist groups, about its human rights record. All these are legitimate issues, but these issues are not going to be resolved by calling each other names across the ocean. When you call Iran [part of] "an axis of evil," you do not expect them to say, "Well, we will give up our nuclear program." Obviously, they look for their own security, and they have seen that if you have nuclear weapons or at least the technology, you are somehow protected from an attack. . . . Obama's change of page is absolutely, in my view, the way to go. . . .
The concern about Iran . . . is that if Iran were to develop [nuclear] technology, they'd walk out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they'd develop highly enriched uranium and the weapon. These ifs are based on, "I don't trust Iran's future intentions." . . . Why isn't the world worried about Japan, which has the full cycle of technology? Because there is trust that this country is not aiming to develop nuclear weapons.
WP: The Japanese government hasn't said that its aim is to destroy the state of Israel.
ElBaradei: There have been a lot of offensive statements, frankly, on the part of Iran, although from what I understand, Iran wants a one-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] -- not, as reported in the media, that Israel should be wiped off the map.
WP: And you know that one state means the end of Israel because there are more Palestinians than Jews.
ElBaradei: I'm not taking sides on that. . . . We need to forget the past and say we have a problem on our hands. The Middle East is being radicalized. Iran is very popular in the Muslim world. You need to empower the moderates and find a solution. Iran could be a very positive element in security in the Middle East. The nuclear issue is the tip of the iceberg. The nuclear issue masks a lot of security, political and economic issues. You have to have a grand package. And that's what President Obama talked about.
WP: During the last eight years, Iran has increased the number of centrifuges it possesses.
ElBaradei: There is no question about that. And that's also part of the failed policy, because the failed policy was to try to find a solution before Iran can master the nuclear-energy technology. On that count also, the policy failed. But as I said, those who rushed to say that we were protecting Iran -- well, we have been reporting once every three months that Iran is not providing the necessary full cooperation or the full transparency we want -- that Iran has a lot [to do] in terms of explaining. The Security Council adopted three resolutions -- where are they? Did it move us anywhere? Rather than saying that the agency has protected Iran, have they looked at their policy? We have done as much as we can technically and will continue to do so, and [the Americans] need to revise their policy.
WP: Do you think there's a chance that dialogue will work?
ElBaradei: You have to try. It might not work, but I know the majority of the Iranian people want to have a normal relationship with the U.S., particularly the young people. They want to be part of the international community.
When Bush came to power, the U.S. stopped talking to North Korea. The result was that they developed nuclear weapons. When you stopped talking to the Iranians, they mastered the technology which the policy aimed to prevent them from doing. . . . You need a different approach, and I'm happy that President Obama immediately understood that. I hope that the Iranians will understand that he is extending his hand to them and that they need also to work with the agency to provide maximum transparency. . . . Those in the previous administration, who say that the [IAEA] is protecting Iran, have to look at their own failed policies.
WP: You were elected director with the support of the U.S., and later the U.S. treated you quite badly.
ElBaradei: It was during my third reelection when former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton initiated a campaign to block my reelection. They did not get one single country to stand against me, and in the end, I was elected by consensus, with U.S. support. You can disagree with the head of the international organization -- we are not there to implement the policies of one country. We are supposed to be independent, but we always have to be impartial and objective. If an organization like IAEA is regarded as a broker for one country, it will be killed.
WP: Is that what you thought the U.S. wanted you to do?
ElBaradei: They did not like that we said we haven't seen Iran developing nuclear weapons in 2003.
WP: The IAEA said that?
ElBaradei: We did not see proof that Iran had a nuclear weapon . . . . In 2007, the [U.S. intelligence community's] National Intelligence Estimate said yes, Iran might have done some studies, but they stopped in 2003. We have been vindicated in Iran, we have been vindicated in Iraq before. We are not beating our chests and saying, "We were right, and they were wrong." They need to understand that we have to continue to report on what we see.
WP: Experts have said you have been soft on Iran.
ElBaradei: If the Security Council were not able to move Iran, how do they expect the agency to move Iran? We have used every possible tool, cajoling Iran, pressuring Iran, doing inspections.
WP: They do say you've been quite tough on Iran since 2007.
ElBaradei: We've always been tough. We haven't changed.
What they don't like is they say I speak outside of the box. I do my job, but my job depends on their policies. In many cases privately and in public, I have been telling them, "You need to support me with your policy, and your policy is not working."
WP: People say you criticized Israel harshly for bombing the nuclear reactor in Syria -- that you weren't tough on Syria for building a nuclear reactor.
ElBaradei: I have been very harsh on Israel because they violated the rules of international law on the use of unilateral force, and they did not provide us with the information before the bombing, which we could then easily have established whether Syria was building a nuclear reactor. To that extent, the blame is also shared with the U.S., who sat on the information for a year and six months after the bombing. Now we are doing our best to try to see what Syria was doing, but it's like Iran. I cannot jump the gun and say Syria was building a nuclear facility because what we are doing now is trying to verify what was there.
WP: Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
ElBaradei: I am proud that the agency is now looked at as a credible instrument for maintaining international peace and security and will continue to play a more important role after my departure with the Obama policies of moving into nuclear disarmament.
WP: You stood up and said there was no nuclear program either in Iraq or Iran.
ElBaradei: I think people are distrustful of politicians and are looking for someone who is telling the truth with no hidden agenda . . . and that's what we have been doing.