Interview with IAEA Boss Mohamed ElBaradei: 'If We Fail, Humanity's Survival Will Be on the Line'

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei talks to SPIEGEL about Israel's propensity for unilateral action against countries like Syria, the US's tendency to keep the IAEA in the dark and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, last September Israeli bombers destroyed a Syrian compound in which plutonium was allegedly being produced for nuclear weapons. Now we could even see an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Is this a trend in the Middle East -- attack instead of negotiate?

ElBaradei: I hope not. Of course, the use of force can only be legitimized by the United Nations. Unilateral military actions undermine the international treaty framework. We are standing at a historic turning point.

SPIEGEL: What did you find out about the strike in Syria?

ElBaradei: Too little, and it came too late. We learned of the Israeli operation from the television news. No one shared information or any suspicions with us, suspicions that, as I now know, already existed a year before the attack. The images of the factory and its destruction were also not made available to us until recently, concurrently with their being provided to the US Congress. This is unacceptable, and I protested sharply against it. The Syrians deny that it was a nuclear facility.

SPIEGEL: You believe the government in Damascus, which is closely aligned militarily with Pyongyang? You don't see the similarities to the design of the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea?

ElBaradei: I take the accusations very seriously. If there had been anything nuclear there, the Syrians would have been obliged to inform us, of course. I asked for an explanation and demanded that our inspectors be allowed to gain their own impressions on site. Damascus has now agreed to that. The inspection trip will take place from June 22-24, and will be led by my deputy, Olli Heinonen. But it is doubtful that we will find anything there now -- assuming there was anything there in the first place.

SPIEGEL: The Syrians supposedly covered up the suspicious al-Kibar complex with concrete and cleaned it up. Under these circumstances, can you even absolve Damascus of all guilt?

ElBaradei: We will do everything within our power to clear things up…

SPIEGEL: …take soil samples, perform groundwater analyses…

ElBaradei: …whatever our experts recommend. I expect complete transparency from Damascus, and that also applies to places other than the destroyed complex, to which these components could have been taken. If we still have concerns, we will document them in our report.

SPIEGEL: Israel -- itself a nuclear power that refuses to submit to inspections -- has taken matters into its own hands in the case of Syria. And in the United States, the UN inspectors aren't exactly highly regarded. During his visit to Washington last week, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened to use "all possible means" to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Has diplomacy already failed?

ElBaradei: Of course, we could toss out everything in the way of collective security systems that we have built up since World War II and say: Let's go back to the Middle Ages and pull out our clubs. This is a decision that must depend upon the international community of nations. I am horrified by how little protest the military action in Syria has triggered.

SPIEGEL: Not even in the Arab world.

ElBaradei: It's a deafening silence. I especially regret having to say this, but the Arab world is now in a more disastrous state than ever before. There is no longer any solidarity, a common goal or regional cooperation -- just mistrust everywhere. Incompetently and corruptly governed, many countries in the Middle East are lurching from one crisis to the next, creating breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. But the real challenge is to wipe out the roots of violence -- lack of opportunity and bitter poverty.

SPIEGEL: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't miss any opportunity to provoke the world. He is constantly announcing Israel's destruction.

ElBaradei: There is heated rhetoric. But it also comes from the other side, too.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who said on Friday: "If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it." Some Israelis are even calling for a preventive nuclear strike. And the Israelis aren't the only ones who are fed up with the Iranians' nuclear cat-and-mouse game. After five years of this stonewalling, the United States and Western Europe are also beginning to lose patience.

ElBaradei: Naturally I am also frustrated.

SPIEGEL: Is that why your most recent report on Tehran's nuclear program, published a few days ago, was so surprisingly harsh, taking a completely different tone than usual -- to the delight of the Americans, who usually accuse you of being too soft on Tehran, but to the annoyance of the Iranians?

ElBaradei: The report is neither harsh nor lenient, but is shaped by technical facts -- as always. But I am aware of the enormous political consequences of our reports. They can spell the difference between war and peace, in Iraq in the past and in Iran today. I produce 20 to 30 drafts before I make my decision. However, I must provide the international community with all available information and put it in the right context -- not exaggerating any dangers, but also not playing anything down.

SPIEGEL: A few months ago, the American intelligence agencies announced that Tehran once had a secret military nuclear program, and that it was shut down, in response to international pressure, in the fall of 2003. The Americans did not say whether they believed it had been resumed. What's your position on this?

ElBaradei: The American material was not made available to us, which is why I cannot make any judgments on the matter.

SPIEGEL: It is clear, however, that the government in Tehran spent almost 20 years deceiving the world and withholding relevant nuclear information from the UN. Do you see this differently?

ElBaradei: They have concealed things from us in the past, but that doesn't prove that they are building a bomb today. They continue to insist that they are interested solely in using nuclear power for civilian purposes. We have yet to find a smoking gun that would prove them wrong. But there are suspicious circumstances and unsettling questions. The Iranians' willingness to cooperate leaves a lot to be desired. Iran must do more to provide us with access to certain individuals and documents. It must make a stronger contribution to clarifying the last unanswered set of questions -- those relating to a possible military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe the Iranian assertions, or are you, like so many other experts, now convinced that Tehran is seeking to build nuclear weapons?

ElBaradei: I cannot evaluate intentions, and it isn't even my job to do so. We have pressing questions on supposed experiments involving precision detonators, and on the source and use of "dual-use" components that are suitable for both civilian and military purposes. And we have made it clear that these must be answered soon. In this regard, perhaps you are right about the new tone. I want to bring the matter to a close.

SPIEGEL: In our last conversation, in the late summer of 2007, you mentioned a roadmap, a fixed timetable.

ElBaradei: It still applies.

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