SPIEGEL: Mr. Heinonen, if you consider your time as the United Nations' atomic "watchdog," do you look back in anger? Or did you succeed in making the world safer from nuclear bombs?
Heinonen: There are quite a few things I'm proud of. While I was at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we played a significant role in putting Abdul Qadir Khan -- the most dangerous nuclear smuggler of all times -- out of action. But when I think about the nuclear activities of certain states, for instance Iran's nuclear program, I have to say that we allowed ourselves to be placated too often. We should have done more than carrying out our inspections. Yes, with hindsight you could perhaps even say we failed.
SPIEGEL: You sound worried. Is Tehran really on a direct path to becoming a nuclear state?
Heinonen: It's undeniable that Iran's nuclear program is far more advanced than it was in 2003, when the discovery of the Natanz facility brought it to the IAEA's attention. At the time, uranium enrichment tests were being carried out in secret on a small scale. But at the end of 2003, the Iranians admitted they were also planning to set up a heavy-water reactor in Arak to generate plutonium.
SPIEGEL: In other words, the other ingredient you need to create either nuclear power or an atom bomb.
Heinonen: Iran always told us it was only interested in the civilian uses of atomic energy. I've always had my doubts about that, more so now than ever.
SPIEGEL: Why don't you say what your former boss, Mohamed ElBaradei, said: That you haven't found the so-called "smoking gun" -- i.e. clear proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons?
Heinonen: Before opponents of the Iranian regime exposed the existence of Natanz, those in power in Tehran had kept parts of their nuclear program secret for two decades. Today the facts are as follows: The conversion plant in Isfahan has produced 371 tons of uranium hexafluoride. Some 8,000 centrifuges in Natanz are being used to enrich this raw material. In February 2010, Iran began increasing enrichment to 20 percent. That's a significant step closer to making an atomic bomb because it takes only a few months to turn that into weapons-grade material. And at the beginning of this year, Fereydoun Abbasi was appointed the head of the atomic energy organization in Tehran ...
SPIEGEL: ... a scientist who has been on a UN list of suspected bombmakers since 2007, whom a UN Security Council resolution forbids from traveling abroad, and who just barely survived an assassination attempt in Tehran 10 months ago suspected to have been carried out by the Israeli secret service.
Heinonen: In early June, Abbasi announced that Iran was moving the 20-percent enrichment of uranium from Natanz to Fordow, where they are tripling production. Incidentally, the construction of the Fordow plant near Qom was so shrouded in secrecy that the Iranian authorities first admitted it existed less than two years ago.
SPIEGEL: And none of this makes sense for a civilian nuclear program?
Heinonen: You don't need 20-percent enriched uranium to generate electricity for light bulbs. And, in any case, the produced volumes far exceed what Iran might possibly need for its research reactor. What's more, Tehran has announced that it intends to build 10 more enrichment plants, and Iranian experts have conducted experiments with neutron sources and highly explosive detonators that would only make sense for military applications. They're also making progress at the heavy-water reactor in Arak, so much so, that by 2014 they'll have enough plutonium to build an atom bomb.
SPIEGEL: So you think Iran will declare itself a nuclear power in 2014? Will the leaders of the theocracy already have a working atom bomb by then, or will they only threaten to build one?
Heinonen: I don't know. I am, however, convinced that Tehran will reach the "break-out capabilty" -- in other words, the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium -- as early as by the end next year. In that sense Iran aims to be a virtual nuclear power with the capability of producing the ultimate weapons at any time.
SPIEGEL: Was the Iranian program not damaged in any way by the Stuxnet computer worm that it appears Israeli scientists engineered and used to infiltrate the Natanz facility?
Heinonen: Sure it was. It had a delaying effect and was so effective that, by my estimates, it knocked out almost 2,000 centrifuges in Natanz. But the Iranian scientists are smart, and they got the problem under control.
SPIEGEL: Do you favor bombing Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still appears to be considering?
Heinonen: Not in the least. I agree with former Mossad Director Meir Dagan, who considers such a first strike to be "insane." We don't even know all the sites that would have to be bombed.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Heinonen: It's pretty certain that Iran has secret facilities where they have hidden materials and could probably start enriching uranium quickly again if Natanz were ever destroyed. Iran's political leaders certainly wouldn't let the IAEA back into the country after an attack, and they would put all their efforts into making as many atomic bombs as they could. And I suspect they would have the backing of a very large majority of the Iranian people. I'm not a politician, but I dare not think about the consequences of such armament, not to mention the possibility of retaliatory attacks against Israel and the West.
SPIEGEL: So is it better we let Tehran have its way, and focus on limiting its chances of getting the bomb?
Heinonen: We should push the Iranians to abide by the additional protocol to the safeguards agreement, which Tehran has already agreed to ratify and which grants the IAEA the right to carry out as many checks as it wants, even unannounced. If Iran's leaders continue to fail to meet their country's obligations, the UN Security Council must react by continuing to increase sanctions, step by step.
SPIEGEL: That hasn't achieved anything so far. And with all due respect, it sounds pretty helpless. Looking back, do you think the IAEA has been like a guard dog without teeth?
Heinonen: Every global organization is only as strong as its members want it to be. And let's not forget that the Iranians have always been very clever in their actions. Officially they have largely stuck to their obligations ...
SPIEGEL: ... while at the same time leading the international inspectors on a merry dance with new plants again and again.
Heinonen: We protested officially, but they tricked and misled us, and used the time creatively to keep pushing forward. My former boss and good friend Mohamed ElBaradei never understood that it's too late to act if Iran has violated all agreements, has touched the nuclear material and its weapons program is already in its final stages.
SPIEGEL: ElBaradei's successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan, who has headed the IAEA since December 2009, has noticeably toughened the rhetoric against Tehran ...
Heinonen: ... which is also more in line with the (IAEA) Department of Safeguard's perspective. But the situation has also worsened considerably in Syria in recent years. As Tehran did before it, Damascus is now resisting pressure from the international community.
SPIEGEL: Didn't Israel do the IAEA's job for it back in 2007, when it sent planes to bomb a secret Syrian reactor near Deir al-Sur in a night-time raid? Or are there grounds to doubt this story, which SPIEGEL helped to uncover with its reporting but was never confirmed officially?
Heinonen: All the evidence seems to suggest that the destroyed building really was a nuclear reactor. But the IAEA only got one opportunity to inspect the site. I feel the IAEA should have exercised its right to a special inspection. We were refused permission to enter Syria to carry out more research there and at other sites, and that remains the case to this day. It's a clear, sanctionable breach of the agreements. Incidentally, the Deir al-Sur reactor bears a striking resemblance to the North Korean Yongbyon reactor.
North Korea Considers Bomb To Be 'A Kind of Life Insurance Policy'
SPIEGEL: You have very special memories of Yongbyon.
Heinonen: Yes, I lived together with North Korean scientists for several months in the 1990s as an IAEA inspector. It was a very tough time. There wasn't any heating, even in the bitterly cold winter, and we had to go to great lengths to have heaters flown in. Even the vodka distilled on the site did little to offset the cold. Everything was fine while we were able to keep an eye on things. But in 2002, Kim Jong-Il decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and build the bomb.
SPIEGEL: Then, in 2006, the North Koreans tested their first atom bomb. Did that mark the end of your trips to Pyongyang?
Heinonen: No. Things looked better again a year later. I was able to return and monitor the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor.
SPIEGEL: Since then, work has allegedly begun again in secret on a new uranium enrichment facility and the construction of a new reactor. Kim Jong Il considers that to be politically expedient and believes that Libya made a huge mistake by giving up its nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang's state-controlled media has even written that is the only reason NATO dared to bomb the country.
Heinonen: The regime clearly considers the atom bomb to be a kind of life insurance policy.
SPIEGEL: It's rumored you may now be "reactivated" as a negotiator because of your personal contacts with the North Koreans. Is that true?
Heinonen: I can't confirm that. It's true that North Korea has signaled its willingness to enter into negotiations, and I think we should take them up on it.
SPIEGEL: North Korea has benefitted from the black market of terror. Without Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb and later a dealer in atomic know-how and nuclear materials, Pyongyang probably would never have gotten this far.
Heinonen: And not only North Korea. Neither would Iran and Libya.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever met Khan? Were you at least able to question him after his arrest in Islamabad in 2004?
Heinonen: I followed his trail for years, and met several of his confidantes. But I never got to speak to him. Nevertheless, he answered some of my questions in writing through secret channels.
SPIEGEL: From his house arrest he now insists he had nothing to do with passing on nuclear secrets or having made lucrative private deals. Do you believe him?
Heinonen: It brings tears to my eyes. Of course Khan was the worst black marketeer and made millions from it. Even so, it's quite possible that others -- for instance Pakistani generals or leading secret-service officials -- profited even more than Khan did. It's more than likely that his country's political authorities were often aware of his dealings.
SPIEGEL: Just like India and Israel, Pakistan never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA has therefore never been allowed to carry out any official inspections there ...
Heinonen: ... and that worries me, especially in Pakistan's case.
SPIEGEL: Because terrorists could gain access to nuclear facilities?
Heinonen: That, too, is not unproblematic. But I'm even more concerned about the government's official policies. The five classic nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- have halted all production of fissile material and are negotiating on reducing their nuclear arsenals. Not so with Pakistan. It's going in the opposite direction; building new nuclear weapons, increasing its production of plutonium and continues to make highly enriched uranium. It looks like Pakistan is in the process of building another reactor, its fourth, most probably so that it can launch a counter strike in the event of a nuclear war.
SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama is propagating a nuclear weapons-free world. Is that a completely unrealistic dream?
Heinonen: Such bold visions are important. After all, man has managed to scrap the guillotine. Why, then, shouldn't we have a world without nuclear weapons one day?
SPIEGEL: The IAEA is supposed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, yet one of its explicitly declared aims is the promotion of fissile material for civilian use. Did the Fukushima nuclear disaster sow any doubt in your mind about this?
Heinonen: The world needs nuclear power -- and will continue to do so for a long time. There's no affordable alternative for rapidly growing developing nations.
SPIEGEL: Nuclear power is finished in Germany. Do you think Berlin's decision to abandon nuclear power is irrational?
Heinonen: To be quite honest, I think it's an over-reaction.
SPIEGEL: So you believe the risks are calculable?
Heinonen: Yes. But it is also true that, as Fukushima in particular has shown, we have to include calculations for even the most unlikely threat scenarios. In that regard, we were reckless there. The Japanese didn't do so, and that was a huge mistake -- as was the IAEA's reaction to the catastrophe.
SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting your former colleagues weren't on site quickly enough?
Heinonen: For days on end, the IAEA did everything strictly by the book. It reacted like a fire department that notices a major fire, but says, "I'm sorry, the route there would take us down a one-way street. We'd better keep out of that." It wasn't until very late that they turned up at the scene of the disaster with their own measuring devices and specialists. We need higher safety standards. Nuclear installations must be far better prepared for the possibility of losing both normal and backup electricity. Nuclear facilities also need better protection against terrorist attacks and the theft of nuclear materials.
SPIEGEL: Are you still in contact with Mr. ElBaradei?
Heinonen: Yes, he only recently sent me a text message to tell me about the latest developments in Cairo and in the nuclear world.
SPIEGEL: Will he become Egypt's next president?
Heinonen: I don't think so. He's an extremely skilled politician who always looks for balance, but I think a different kind of politician is needed on the streets of Cairo. Nevertheless, the Egyptians should capitalize on his dedication. After all, they'll find no better person to write them a new, democratic constitution.
SPIEGEL: And what about you? Do you ever yearn to return to your exciting job as a nuclear watchdog?
Heinonen: To a limited extent. I enjoy my academic freedoms here in the United States. I occasionally make a little detour into observing politics as well.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Heinonen, we thank you for this interview.