Mr. ElBaradei, North Korea announced two weeks ago that it is now a nuclear power. Does Pyongyang really have the bomb? And if so, how great is the risk that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il will use it?
ElBaradei: I am extremely concerned about the development in North Korea, even though I cannot say with absolute certainty that Pyongyang already has a usable nuclear weapon. They certainly have the know-how and enough plutonium for at least six to eight bombs. A little more than two years ago, we had to shut down our last on-site monitoring activities and were thrown out of the country. This gave the North Koreans time to continue developing a military nuclear program. But they could also be exaggerating. The regime apparently sees the nuclear bomb as its only trump card for negotiations.
SPIEGEL: How will the world find out whether Kim is bluffing? And if he isn't, how can we defuse his bomb?
ElBaradei: There is only one solution. North Korea's nuclear facilities must be returned to the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pyongyang apparently feels internationally isolated, threatened militarily and in an economically desperate situation.
SPIEGEL: Through its own fault.
ElBaradei: Be that as it may. The regime could only be convinced to give up its nuclear weapons with a comprehensive package solution arrived at through negotiation, a solution that addresses these fears and also offers economic incentives.
SPIEGEL: You assume that Kim Jong Il is not a hot-headed, unscrupulous adventurer, or even a lunatic, but rather a coolly calculating politician.
ElBaradei: I must assume that he is interested in improving the quality of life in his country. After all, a collapse would put the survival of his regime in serious jeopardy. I urge him to allow the IAEA to return to North Korea. And if a special gesture is needed, I would be happy to go there myself.
ElBaradei: We at the IAEA lack conclusive evidence. We have yet to see a smoking gun that would convict Tehran. I can make assumptions about intentions, but I cannot verify intentions, just facts.
SPIEGEL: But Iran repeatedly lied to and deceived your agency. For example, the world only found out about the nuclear enrichment facility in Natans through information provided by Iranian dissidents. Hardliners in the Bush administration have accused you of being inexplicably soft on the Iranians.
ElBaradei: It's not a matter of dispute as to whether Iran lied and deceived in the past. We made that very clear in our reports. In the meantime, however, Iran has improved its cooperation, which, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is obligated to provide. In response to our pressure, Tehran also signed the supplementary protocol last year, which allows us to perform more comprehensive inspections on short notice. I am certainly proud of what we have accomplished in Iran. Eighteen months ago, the country was more of a black hole for us...
SPIEGEL: ... which goes to show how completely the IAEA inspections had failed...
ElBaradei: : ... but now we have a rather clear picture of what is happening there.
SPIEGEL: Really? Or has the game of hide-and-seek just taken on a new, more refined form? Hardly any European expert is willing to believe the claims coming out of Tehran. After all, Iran has enough oil and especially natural gas that it could do without nuclear power.
ElBaradei: There is a technical justification for everything. And I'm not saying that the rulers in Iran are not interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. If they have decided to operate a secret nuclear weapons program -- for which we, as I mentioned, have not found any evidence to date -- they are likely to have a bomb in two to three years. They certainly have the know-how and the industrial infrastructure.
SPIEGEL: The Americans and the Israelis will hardly permit that to happen. That leaves only the military option, which US President Bush has expressly declined to rule out. But is it really possible to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities with missiles? Aren't they too widely dispersed and in some cases underground?
ElBaradei: Aside from the problems you mention, I do not believe that military strikes can solve this problem. They can delay development at best. Following an attack, the Iranians would most certainly go underground to produce a weapon as quickly and deliberately as possible.
SPIEGEL: What is the best way to deter them from acquiring nuclear weapons?
ElBaradei: We need the IAEA inspections. But we also need diplomatic initiatives, such as those initiated by London, Paris and Berlin, which I strongly welcome. However, in my opinion they can only be successful if the United States joins in and throws its weight behind Europe. We need a united front.
SPIEGEL: That seems unlikely. On the one hand, Tehran is making things difficult for the Europeans, because it's playing for time during negotiations and isn't making any verifiable concessions. On the other hand, the US government refuses to use carrots with the Iranians, only sticks.
ElBaradei: The Iranians are clearly interested in greater military security, economic relief and technology transfer. It would be difficult to imagine it achieving any advances in these areas without Washington. Tehran wants to join the World Trade Organization, but that depends on the United States, which already imposed a trade embargo on Iran years ago.
SPIEGEL: Despite the Americans' failings, we certainly can't have a situation in which countries such as North Korea and Iran are actually rewarded for violating international commitments. Or do you share the view, held by many Third World countries, that the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is unfair because it sanctioned the then five nuclear powers and excluded the "have-nots" from acquiring nuclear weapons?
ElBaradei: The NPT only legitimized the arsenal of the then nuclear powers because those powers also agreed to disarm and to pass on their knowledge about civil uses of nuclear power. There were some encouraging steps in the direction of disarmament in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they've almost come to a standstill. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still exist today -- far too many. The current American discussion surrounding "mini-nukes" also contradicts the spirit of the treaty. In this respect, I can understand the criticism coming from the Third World. On the other hand, of course, we cannot constantly have new kids showing up and trying to blackmail everyone else with nuclear weapons, be they real or virtual. Or that they believe this is the only way to guarantee their own security.
ElBaradei: In each individual case, we must try to understand what motivates a country to take this step, what national humiliation, what security concerns. And we must try to dispel these fears. Otherwise, given the pace of technological advances, we will have 20 new nuclear powers in 20 years. Everyone wants to play with the big boys, and the only way to become one of the big boys is to have nuclear toys.
SPIEGEL: You sound like a teacher looking for a compromise, a man who has to forbid his charges from doing something without being able to offer much more than a few sweets.
ElBaradei: I've already drawn the same comparison in discussions with my wife. She teaches at a kindergarten, and we agree that we sometimes use similar approaches.
SPIEGEL: You have been familiar with the nuclear issue for decades. Has the risk that a nuclear weapon could in fact be used ever been as great as it is today?
ElBaradei: Never. We will come closer to nuclear war if we do not consider a new international control system. Three phenomena have radically changed the world in recent years. First we have the tenacious efforts on the part of a few countries to master the technology to produce weapons grade fissile material, second, the development of an international black market for nuclear material and, finally, the declared intention of terrorists to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
SPIEGEL: Do you truly believe that a terrorist organization could build nuclear weapons?
ElBaradei: Al-Qaida also wants the bomb. According to documents found in Afghanistan, the organization was looking into ways to acquire such weapons. There are no indications that they have succeeded. There is also no evidence that terrorists, in the confusion following the breakup of the Soviet Union, managed to get their hands on a significant amount of nuclear material. But it cannot be ruled out. Terrorists would be likely to detonate the bomb. It's part of the nature of their ideology that they could not be deterred from doing so. I keep my fingers crossed that this scenario will never happen.
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