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.
Israel has talked about the end of the year as a deadline for Iran to give in to international demands, suggesting that a military strike might be on the table.
That would be absolutely the worst thing that could happen. There is no military solution. . . . If a country is bombed, you give them every reason -- with the support of everybody in the country and outside the country -- to go for nuclear weapons, and nobody can even blame them.
. . . We've seen in our last report that Iran is not accelerating its production of enriched uranium. Whatever the reason -- technical or political -- it is something we need to take into account. We don't see an imminent threat tomorrow.
In September, Iran acknowledged a secret uranium enrichment plant at Qom, the latest in a long list of hidden nuclear projects to be exposed. Can there be any doubt about Iran's intentions?
There is definitely concern about Iran's future intentions, but as I've always said, I can't read future intentions. . . . There have been allegations that Iran has done some studies on weaponization -- I emphasize these are alleged studies, not the manufacture of nuclear weapons -- but even your own national intelligence estimate concluded that they stopped this in 2003. . . . Is there a risk? There is always a risk. But the approach should be "Yes, we are concerned, but we are not panicked." And then you try to find a solution that is not based on panic.
After 12 years at the IAEA, are you more optimistic or pessimistic that the world can avoid a nuclear exchange or terrorist attack?
On one hand, I think we are facing more threats, because of the spread of nuclear technology and nuclear material, coupled with the rise in extremism. On the other hand, right now, and especially since Obama has come to power, there is definitely a change in the air, an environment where people are talking more and more that we need to get rid of nuclear weapons. Hopefully this will be followed by concrete steps. I'm waiting to see the new START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] treaty. Hopefully the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] will be coming into force. If these things start to come along, the nuclear wannabes -- the ones who still believe that acquiring nuclear weapons brings them insurance, or brings them power -- will have to rethink their strategy.
Do you worry that a nuclear Iran could trigger an arms race in the Middle East?
I'm not sure you can link it to Iran, per se. You have a region in which good governance is in short supply, and you also have poverty and inequality. With this combination you should not be surprised that there's an environment of insecurity, in which countries may be tempted to obtain dominance through acquiring nuclear weapons or at least capability. . . . We cannot continue to live under a Damocles sword of nuclear weapons, because it will lead to more proliferation, and sooner or later, someone will use a nuclear weapon, either by design or by computer error.
Under your leadership the IAEA has assumed a far more prominent role -- some would say a more political and controversial one as well.
You can't separate security from politics. We cannot be unaware of the political context in which we operate and the political ramifications of our work. Iraq is an obvious example -- how verification can make the difference between war and peace. . . . I find that it is part of my job to see how we can build a political solution that can build trust and build confidence. If people consider it politicization, so be it. But for the agency to take a myopic approach to its role, it would be a disservice to the world.
Why you think the United States got it so wrong on Iraq and WMD?
We operated from here on the basis of good faith. We were assigned to verify whether Iraq had nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. It was not an easy task, dealing with a horrible dictator like Saddam Hussein, but we had to do our job in a fair and objective way. However, unfortunately in hindsight, we discovered that the decision to go war was not based on our work but was based on so-called regime change. The decision was taken in 2002, a year before we started our inspections.
How does regime change fit with international law? How do you justify that almost a million innocent civilians have died as the price of getting rid of a dictator? Who is accountable for this at the end of the day, after it was found that there were no weapons of mass destruction?
Obama will give his acceptance speech this week for the Nobel Prize. As a fellow Nobel laureate, what advice would you give him?
In my view he is a man who is changing the world. Since he took power he has sent a message that had been missing for many years, which is that we are one human family and that we have to coexist -- that we have to respect each other's race, creeds and religion. We are doomed to live together and we have to do everything we can to live together and bring the best out of our humanity.
I'm sure that his message is that "We can change." That was his slogan for the campaign. He applied that to the U.S., and I think he should apply it to the world.