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.
SPIEGEL: The Bush administration seems more concerned about Tehran's nuclear program than that of North Korea. The Iranian government claims it is only interested in nuclear energy for civilian uses. However, former CIA director James Woolsey says that there is "not a shadow of a doubt" that Iran's leadership is trying to build its own nuclear weapons. Who is correct?
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.
SPIEGEL: The new kids are probably saying to themselves that the world accepted, without much objection, the fact that India, Pakistan and Israel became nuclear powers.
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.
NEXT PAGE: "The world, as we know it, would not survive the tsunami brought on by a major collapse in the mechanisms that control nuclear weapons ..."
SPIEGEL: Can you do more than keep your fingers crossed?
ElBaradei: We are working hard on exposing the black market and its many facets. I would love to be able to say that we have figured out exactly what happened where and when, and, perhaps, what is still happening. It's a market that involves a tremendous amount of cleverness and huge sums of money. The players are business-savvy scientists, unscrupulous companies, possibly even government organizations -- a true nuclear supermarket.
SPIEGEL: The network that developed around Pakistan's "father of the nuclear bomb" has been destroyed for the most part. Abdul Qadir Khan has confessed to having delivered technology and construction plans to Libya, and is currently under house arrest in Islamabad. His most important source, Buhary Sayed Abu Tahir, is in a Malaysian prison. Do you have access to these two men?
ElBaradei: IAEA experts were able to have an extended conversation with Tahir. We would like to talk to Khan, but the Pakistani government hasn't allowed us to do so yet. But we are permitted to submit written questions, which are then answered. The investigation is underway, and the results are secret. But everything that I hear sounds promising.
SPIEGEL: Nuclear smuggler Khan visited North Korea more than a dozen times. One of the greatest fears now is that Pyongyang could become the center of the international black market.
ElBaradei: A regime that is isolated, suffers from a dramatic shortage of funds and feels driven into a corner could certainly hit upon such export ideas.
SPIEGEL: Don't you have to admit to yourself, to your organization and to the entire world that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has failed?
ElBaradei: The NPT has given us some successes in recent years, but it is correct to say that things cannot continue this way. It's absolutely essential that we amend the treaty. This May, we will have a unique opportunity to make the world a safer place. The world's most important heads of state will meet in New York for the NPT Review Conference, which takes place once every five years.
SPIEGEL: What will you propose?
ElBaradei: To intensify security inspections by making inspections, now based on the supplementary protocol, the norm. To automatically impose sanctions by the UN Security Council for violations against the NPT, especially withdrawal from the treaty. To bring weapons-grade material, such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium, under multinational control. Everyone will have to give up something, because we are standing with our backs against a wall. The construction of new plants for producing fissile material must be suspended for at least five years. Nuclear powers must guarantee the have-nots the delivery of nuclear fuel for civilian use in return for the non-nuclear powers agreeing to do without the technology, and must also disarm more quickly and comprehensively.
SPIEGEL: That's an ambitious program that requires a radical shift in thinking. What makes you optimistic that all the key players won't just play for time once again?
ElBaradei: Everyone must understand that time happens not to be on our side this time. That political tensions in some regions, such as the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, will fuel the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. That we cannot get the genie of nuclear weapons back into the bottle.
SPIEGEL: The conference in May could also be one of your last official appearances. Hardliners in the Bush administration are trying to force you out. Do Washington's hawks hate you because you were so on the money in your assessment of Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons potential?
ElBaradei: I don't know. The official reason US politicians cite in opposing my third term is that, in their opinion, two terms are enough. I will campaign for re-election. I haven't heard anything about an opposing candidate yet, and I believe that many countries support me. Most of them probably wouldn't stake their lives on me, but they seem to be able to get along with me rather well.
SPIEGEL: Does it bother you that, according to press reports that have not been denied, US intelligence apparently bugged your telephone? And should we assume that someone is also eavesdropping on this interview?
ElBaradei: I have nothing to hide professionally. But it becomes unpleasant when you apparently cannot even have a private phone conversation with your wife or your daughter. There is also a concerted smear campaign against me. For example, they say things like: An Egyptian can't be impartial toward Islamic states, and will tell them all our secrets. I refuse to comment on people at this low level.
SPIEGEL: And despite all that you would like to continue?
ElBaradei: I won't lose any sleep over it if it doesn't work out. But I would like to launch the reform of the NPT and move the situation in North Korea and Iran in a positive direction -- from my standpoint of strict neutrality. After all, I know exactly what the consequences would be of a major collapse in the mechanisms that control nuclear weapons: The world, as we know it, would not survive such a tsunami brought about by human activity.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Baradei, thank you for speaking with us.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Interview conducted by Erich Follath and Georg Mascolo.