Spiegel Interview with IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei Anger, Frustration and Humiliation Abound

In a SPIEGEL interview, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discusses military escalation in Lebanon, waiting on Iran, India's gift and North Korea's persistent defiance

SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, how can you contribute to ending the conflicts in the Middle East?

ElBaradei: I can't remember the last time I felt that the situation in the region was so ominous. The people in the Middle East believe that their lives aren't worth much to the rest of the world, that it sees civilian victims as collateral damage. The security system in the region has collapsed. Governments have no control over the militias that are committing acts of violence upon their territory. Everywhere I look I see anger, frustration and humiliation.

SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of an immediate deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops with a "robust" mandate in southern Lebanon?

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed Elbaradei

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed Elbaradei

ElBaradei: That is the only solution. The bloodbath must be stopped quickly and a cease-fire must be brought about without delay. But what's even more important is a comprehensive solution to the underlying problem. The Palestinian question is the elephant in the room. One cannot constantly treat only the symptoms. The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been living under an occupying regime for 39 years now. We should not be satisfied with drafting one road map after the next and merely looking on as they fail.

SPIEGEL: A stabilization force would have to create a buffer zone, which would mean disarming Hezbollah. Is the UN capable of doing this?

ElBaradei: Lebanon will inevitably descend into civil war as long there is no cease-fire. That's why the most important thing is for open combat to stop. And then the force would need a robust mandate. The UN can disarm militias and reduce tensions. The long-term solution, however, is political and not military. The same applies to the muddled situation in Iraq. My greatest worry is that when civilians are attacked in the Middle East, all the rules designed to protect human life, as they are stated in the UN charter, are being undermined.

SPIEGEL: The Israelis have a legitimate need for security. They see their massive attacks as a way to destroy Hezbollah once and for all.

ElBaradei: The more violence they commit, the more they radicalize their enemies. This conflict threatens to extend to epidemic proportions, even beyond the region. The Middle East has no real borders. Everything that happens there directly influences the rest of the world.

SPIEGEL: Iran is Hezbollah's main source of funding. Many Middle East experts believe that Tehran's mullah-led regime is behind the current escalation, hoping to use the situation to deflect attention from its nuclear program.

ElBaradei: I don't know, but one thing is certain: Iran is an important regional power. And like it or not, it will be difficult to find a solution without entering into a dialogue with Tehran.

SPIEGEL: This is precisely what US President Bush wants to avoid.

ElBaradei: That is a problem. One cannot always negotiate through middlemen. This makes it all the more significant that the United States has decided to join in nuclear talks with Tehran. It's an important breakthrough.

SPIEGEL: Most of the world is dismayed over Iran's delaying tactics in the dispute over its nuclear program. You also stated, in January, that you were losing patience with Tehran.

ElBaradei: That's true.

SPIEGEL: It's now July, and Tehran is still showing no willingness to cooperate. The international community is getting impatient waiting for a response to the offer that was drafted by the five nuclear powers and Germany. It includes both political and economic incentives, such as supplying Tehran with a light-water reactor. In return, Tehran is being asked to stop its uranium enrichment activities, one of the key conditions for building a nuclear bomb.

ElBaradei: It's a good offer, and I expect an answer soon. The Iranians tell me that they need a few more weeks to take a close look at everything. Last week's announcement from Tehran -- that they are "seriously considering" the package and that they view it as a positive approach to finding a diplomatic solution is encouraging...

SPIEGEL: ...or just the usual cat-and-mouse game...

ElBaradei: ...but there is mutual mistrust between Iran and the West. It will take time to get past this.

SPIEGEL: But it was the Iranian regime that clearly lied and deceived the West in recent years when it came to its nuclear program. Doesn't Tehran have to accept the offer without conditions and stop its uranium enrichment activities?

ElBaradei: There is no other choice. To our knowledge, however, the Iranians have not accelerated their nuclear research program, which would be a sign of their developing a nuclear program for military use. There are apparently competing political directions in Tehran. And there are many shades of gray.

SPIEGEL: Is the threat of UN sanctions effective?

ElBaradei: We must be patient. A few weeks won't make a difference. The issue is not just one of Iran's nuclear program, but also of regional security.

SPIEGEL: You sound optimistic. But isn't it likely that Tehran will insist on uranium enrichment and respond to the offer with an unacceptable counteroffer?

ElBaradei: It would be fatal if the Iranians were to miss this great opportunity. It would lead to a spiral of escalation. Sanctions would be unavoidable but wouldn't eliminate the problem, and if the situation deteriorates, we risk losing our last inspection opportunities.

SPIEGEL: Tehran recently complained about your chief inspector for Iran, Chris Charlier, a Belgian. Is there anything to reports in the press that you removed him from his position in response to Iranian pressure?

ElBaradei: That isn't quite the way it was. Our statutes give any state being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) the right to reject an inspector who is not to their liking. It's the same thing in diplomacy, where a state can reject a proposed ambassador as a persona non grata.

SPIEGEL: So he was suspended at the request of the mullah regime?

ElBaradei: No, he continues to work in a key position relating to the Iran issue. But he will not be traveling to Tehran until further notice. We have 200 inspectors who can conduct inspections in Iran. Individual employees aren't the issue. The issue is getting the job done. I will denounce the policy the minute we are no longer able to do so in Iran.

SPIEGEL: Are you worried that Tehran will terminate the agreements and expel the IAEA?

ElBaradei: This threat has been mentioned.

SPIEGEL: There have not been any UN inspectors in North Korea since the end of 2002. Does Pyongyang pose a more dramatic threat to humanity?

ElBaradei: Most specialists and intelligence experts, including the Americans, believe that Iran is still five to ten years away from building nuclear weapons. In this respect, North Korea is much further along than Iran. Indeed, a nightmare scenario has already developed in North Korea.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe Pyongyang's claims that North Korea is already a nuclear power?

ElBaradei: There are many indications that this is the case. They certainly have the plutonium and the know-how.

SPIEGEL: And they have missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. In early July, (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong Il conducted missile tests, despite all international warnings, prompting the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the regime.

ElBaradei: North Korea is a perfect example of how not to deal with a crisis situation. The international community failed there. The issue isn't whether we like a regime, not even whether we find its record on human rights deplorable. We must make compromises, not when it comes to principles, but in terms of tactics -- we can never lose sight of the big picture.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you would travel to North Korea if negotiations were a possibility once again?

ElBaradei: Of course. I would like to imagine that we could develop a comprehensive offer for North Korea similar to what we've presented to Tehran. Creative diplomacy is required.

SPIEGEL: But Kim Jong Il's regime has just said it would not return to the negotiating table. In fact, now that he's been sanctioned by the Security Council, the dictator is threatening to expand his weapons arsenal even further, and says he plans to continue testing with "all means and methods."

ElBaradei: I am greatly concerned about the consequences the North Korean situation could have for the entire East Asian region. I see no alternative to talks.

SPIEGEL: But in the end, this only means that the international community is rewarding states for playing the nuclear card.

ElBaradei: I disagree. We're not talking about rewards. After all, what we are demanding in return is that these countries open up and submit to our rules. Nothing is free.

SPIEGEL: New Delhi just got something for free, and from the United States, no less. The Bush administration has recognized India as a nuclear power and plans to supply it with the latest in nuclear technology, even uranium. Aren't you troubled by this deal?

ElBaradei: It's a win-win situation. India is being provided with clean and modern nuclear technology and is included as a partner in our nonproliferation efforts. After all, India is the world's largest democracy and a nuclear power...

SPIEGEL: ...without having signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

ElBaradei: Anyone who believes they will join the treaty is naïve. But at least we will have the right to send our IAEA inspectors to India to inspect their civil nuclear reactors. I would prefer to have greater say on the subcontinent, but realpolitik is what it is. We also have significant reservations against the five original nuclear powers who, contrary to the provisions of the Non-proliferation Treaty that call for reducing their weapons arsenals, are in fact upgrading these weapons.

SPIEGEL: You have just come from the G-8 summit, where, in addition to the Middle East, energy issues were the main topic of discussion. With the exception of Germany, everyone seems to be betting on new nuclear power plants. Is this the right approach?

ElBaradei: Every state has the right to choose its own approach, just as Germany is doing. In your country, a few nuclear power plants will be in operation for another 20 years, at least according to current plans. Perhaps the Germans will change their views within this period of time, and perhaps they'll decide to extend it. Nuclear energy is undoubtedly experiencing a renaissance. Environmentally friendly nuclear power will play a role in energy policy worldwide. 1.6 billion people, or a quarter of the world's population, have no access to electricity. They'll have no future without affordable energy.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you concerned about the security risks of nuclear power?

ElBaradei: Nuclear power plants, like all major energy facilities, will have to be protected against terrorists.

SPIEGEL: We were actually referring to the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. The United States and other countries now plan to send some of their nuclear waste to a giant final-storage site in Russia.

ElBaradei: I don't think it's such a bad idea. Russia has the right geological conditions and the technical expertise to handle this. Of course, it's absolutely necessary that the highest security standards are maintained.

SPIEGEL: More and more responsibilities for the IAEA. Are you equipped for this? Or is the world community's nuclear watchdog rather toothless?

ElBaradei: Of course we need more authority, more competencies. There isn't a single state that could manage without cooperation with other states. That's something even the most powerful state has since recognized.

SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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