International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.
Mohamed ElBaradei: Yes. The next few months will be crucial for the overall situation in the Middle East. Whether we move in the direction of escalation or in the direction of a peaceful solution.
SPIEGEL: You have been given a central role. The new report on Iran by your International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could lead to more severe sanctions against Tehran.
ElBaradei: The international community will have to make that decision. We can only deliver the facts and our assessment of the situation. There are hopeful and positive signs. For the first time, we have agreed, with the Iranians, to a sort of roadmap, a schedule, if you will, for clarifying the outstanding issues. We should know by November, or December at the latest, whether the Iranians will keep their promises. If they don't, Tehran will have missed a great opportunity -- possibly the last one.
ElBaradei: I am familiar with these accusations. They are completely untrue. It's not possible to manipulate us. We are not naïve and we do not take sides. Our new Iran report also shows that the Iranian government is not adhering to the requirements set forth by the UN, which demanded an immediate stop to uranium enrichment.
SPIEGEL: It is a proven fact that Tehran has spent years trying to keep the international community in the dark over important aspects of its nuclear program.
ElBaradei: That's right.
SPIEGEL: Your deputy, Olli Heinonen, who negotiated with the Iranians, is now talking about a breakthrough, a "milestone." Given Iran's history, wouldn't a healthy dose of suspicion be appropriate?
ElBaradei: Obviously we are all pushing for the same strategic goal: That Iran should not get nuclear weapons. We consistently searched for evidence that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. We found suspicious signs, but no smoking gun. We could now make some progress in setting aside these suspicions by thoroughly inspecting the Iranian facilities and learning details about their history.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect from Tehran?
ElBaradei: We expect information about the scope and nature of its uranium enrichment program and its statements about certain suspicious studies we have. The most decisive element in our assessment will be whether Iran cooperates with us completely and actively.
SPIEGEL: It appears that Iran has fewer centrifuges up and running than experts had assumed until recently. Some say there are substantially fewer than 3,000, which is considered the minimum to produce enough material for a bomb within one year. Have the scientists encountered problems with the technology, or is the surprisingly low number a sign of political accommodation?
ElBaradei: Both possibilities are valid. My gut feeling tells me that Iran has responded positively to my repeated demands that it scale back the program.
SPIEGEL: Aren't there other questions where you are still in the dark?
ElBaradei: No. We can check many things precisely. I am not willing to state definitively whether Iran is following up its promises with actions. I just don't want to lose the opportunity to find out for myself. The UN sanctions against Tehran will remain in place in the interim. It's important to exert pressure. But in addition to sanctions we must also have incentives.
SPIEGEL: Now, you believe, the time has come…
ElBaradei: …to encourage Iran to take a new direction. Yes, that's my opinion. If someone comes to me and says, I want to work with you now, then I have to examine his offer to make sure it has substance. We must see all the documents, be able to talk to anyone and have unfettered access to all facilities. We are talking about two or three months. Then we'll know more.
SPIEGEL: You are essentially asking for a time out. The Bush administration sees the issue quite differently. It wants to turn up the heat on the pressure cooker.
ElBaradei: Careful! If we turn up the heat too high the pot could explode around our ears.
SPIEGEL: Washington wants to place the Revolutionary Guards -- an important and, in the case of nuclear policy, decisive element of the Iranian power structure -- on a list of terrorist organizations. The Bush administration has called on foreign banks to cancel their dealings with Iran. Gregory Schulte, the American envoy to the IAEA, has made it clear that the US government wants to see tougher sanctions. Do you believe that the Russians and the Chinese will vote for more severe sanctions in the UN Security Council once they see the new IAEA report?
ElBaradei: We at the IAEA do not make these political decisions.
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