Joby Warrick interviews Mohamed ElBaradei on Iran's nuclear ambitions

By Joby Warrick
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Last week, Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ending a 12-year tenure marked by confrontations with North Korea, Iran and Syria as well as public clashes with Washington. Three days into his retirement, the 67-year-old Egyptian lawyer and Nobel laureate talked with The Washington Post's intelligence reporter Joby Warrick to assess the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. He spoke publicly for the first time about the IAEA's landmark Nov. 27 resolution chastising Iran, and that country's defiant threat to expand its nuclear program. Excerpts:

Has diplomacy with Iran finally reached a dead end?

The resolution was an act of frustration, but there was no mention by anyone that this was the end of the fight for a diplomatic solution. The same people who sponsored the resolution continue to talk about the importance of reaching out to Iran. . . . What we saw from Iran after the resolution was like a tantrum. I hope the tantrum will subside and go away, and they will see their interest, which is clearly to engage on a basis of respect and goodwill. I also hope that the U.S. and its partners will see the need to be slightly more patient, and realize that we will have to go through this domestic hype by Iran and get back on the right track, which is engagement. I don't see any other way.

President Obama famously offered Iran an "outstretched hand." Do new developments suggest he was naïve?

You have to look at it in the context of 50 years of animosity and distrust. . . . We only started to deal seriously with Iran, in my view, with the coming of the new administration in the U.S., when Barack Obama said, "We are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect." That sounds like platitudes, but respect is very much the key to the whole dialogue.

For those who are saying Obama is naïve, I don't see that any of them have come up with a better alternative. The policy that was in place for the previous six years failed. In my view the problem could have been resolved four to five years ago if the previous policy was more pragmatic and based on realism, not ideology.

You believe the previous administration is largely responsible for the setbacks with Iran and North Korea?

There has been mismanagement, in my view, by all sides. I'm not exonerating in any way Iran or North Korea. But diplomacy is the art of the possible. . . . For at least three years, the U.S. was against any dialogue with Iran. This was the ideology of the time -- "we don't talk to countries that are 'axis of evil.' " The animosity was described in biblical terms, and rhetoric makes a lot of difference. You cannot describe a country as part of an "axis of evil" and then turn around and expect them to have trust or behave in certain ways.

You have said you oppose sanctions as counterproductive. But what's the alternative?

People talk about smart sanctions and crippling sanctions. I've never seen smart sanctions, and crippling sanctions cripple everyone, including innocent civilians, and make the government more popular. . . . You can use pressure, but subtly. You can use back channels. What's important is the perception of how the country is being treated. It is a very important psychological factor.

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