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.
'Al-Qaida Has Shown an Interest in Producing a Bomb'
SPIEGEL: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that, based on your latest report, the ball is now in the Iranians' court. He insists that it is time for them to cooperate, otherwise the chances of a diplomatic solution happening in the near future will continue to dwindle. He also mentions the possibility of new sanctions by the UN Security Council.
ElBaradei: I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Steinmeier.
SPIEGEL: Sanctions are already in effect, and have even been gradually intensified. But this doesn't seem to have impressed the Iranians. They apparently have no intention of abandoning their uranium enrichment program, as the UN has demanded.
ElBaradei: In my talks with Tehran, I have argued that they should suspend uranium enrichment to build trust -- so far unsuccessfully. Iran's leadership knows that the ability to enrich uranium gives it a decisive potential for deterrence, as well as prestige and influence. It's a dodgy situation. Formally Tehran is still within the limits of the permissible. And yet the message Iran's leadership is sending to its neighbors, as well as the rest of the world, is this: We could build the bomb in a relatively short amount of time, if we decided to do so.
SPIEGEL: In other words, it isn't even necessary to have nuclear weapons? All it takes is the credible threat of being able to flick the switch from civilian to military to become something on the order of a virtual nuclear power?
ElBaradei: Yes. But we will not resolve the nuclear issue with military strikes. That would be a ludicrous idea. It would also encourage the entire nation, and even Iranians in exile, to close ranks with their country, as it comes under attack, and its leadership. Besides, a crash program for building the bomb could begin on the day after the attack. Therefore, all that remains are confidence-building measures and a diplomatic solution that uses broad economic and diplomatic incentives. A package that includes security guarantees.
SPIEGEL: That's what Europe is trying to offer. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana had trouble setting up a meeting in the first place. Now he's traveling to Tehran next week. The Iranians seem uninterested, probably because the United States isn't part of the deal.
ElBaradei: There are different directions, different interests in Iran. But there are also Western politicians who aren't exactly eager to bring about a solution, because they fear that it would improve the Tehran government's image, and because they prefer to push for regime change.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that to achieve progress we'll have to wait for Barack Obama to move into the White House and, as he has indicated, enter into far-reaching talks with Tehran? Or perhaps pin our hopes on Ali Larijani, the former Iranian chief nuclear negotiator who resigned and now, as president of the parliament, has become Ahmadinejad's most important rival, and could even challenge him in the 2009 presidential election?
ElBaradei: Larijani was a tough but realistic negotiator. One could speak plainly and make deals with him. I hope that, in his new position, he will continue to play a moderating role in the nuclear debate. Unfortunately, it will probably be a long time before we have a comprehensive Middle East solution that includes Iran. Open talks that include offers and incentives for the other side are and remain our best opportunity -- as we have seen with North Korea, our other major problematic case.
SPIEGEL: The North Koreans went further than the Iranians. They withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They tested nuclear weapons, and instead of being penalized for it, they were rewarded with economic gifts.
ElBaradei: I never understood why Washington -- in the context of the six-party talks -- could negotiate with Pyongyang but not with Tehran. North Korea is now dismantling its nuclear program under international supervision.
SPIEGEL: Are you optimistic that North Korea will abide by its promises?
ElBaradei: We are hopeful. We have verified the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reaction since July 2007, even though we are not involved in the actual dismantling process. One-third of the spent fuel rods have already been removed, while two-thirds are still inside the reactor. There are various opinions over whether North Korea did in fact withdraw from the NPT. The Americans believe that they did, while the Europeans do not. It would be desirable for the situation to be resolved soon and all of North Korea to be placed under our nuclear supervision. But at least things are moving ahead.
SPIEGEL: And then there is the problem of the nuclear black market, and the risk that it will supply terrorists.
ElBaradei: We are very concerned about that. Nuclear and radioactive material is repeatedly being smuggled and offered for sale. The al-Qaida terrorist organization has also shown an interest in producing a bomb.
SPIEGEL: After four years of house arrest in Islamabad, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapon and the worst of all nuclear black market players, seems to be moving around freely once again
ElBaradei: and yet, to my regret, he still refuses to answer our questions.
SPIEGEL: But at least three presumed members of his network are now likely to go on trial soon: the Swiss engineer Friedrich Tinner and his sons. But the prosecutors lost valuable evidence when the government in Bern had 30,000 potentially damaging documents shredded. Insiders speculate that the CIA "turned around" the Tinners and guaranteed them immunity from prosecution in return for their help in drying up the nuclear swamp. Is it correct that your agency, the IAEA, took part in the shredding incident?
ElBaradei: Yes, at the request of the Swiss government, we observed the destruction of the materials.
SPIEGEL: You, hand-in-hand with the CIA -- now that's a surprise.
ElBaradei: The more you have to do with the underground, the more you discover what a dirty game this is. But I cannot imagine that the Americans used us. We cannot be manipulated.
SPIEGEL: Your agency is being loaded down with more and more international tasks. Is there anything to the rumor that you are also helping the Chinese organizers of the Olympic Games to avert potential nuclear risks, based on a concrete threat?
ElBaradei: All I can say is that we are helping out in Beijing. But it is true that we are being called in to put out many fires. I prefer to be the nuclear watchdog, not the fire department. And I want the necessary tools. We need our own satellite images, and we would need more laboratories to optimally carry out our tasks. But how well we do our jobs depends on the member nations. According to the conclusions reached by an independent expert commission, we would have to double our budget by 2020. I know everyone needs money. But our job is especially important. If we fail, the survival of humanity will be on the line.
SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo and Erich Follath.