SPIEGEL Interview with Mohamed ElBaradei 'It Was Others Who Failed'

Part 2: A Thousand Years of Bargaining


SPIEGEL: You are one of the very few people to have met the Iranian revolutionary leader in person. How did it happen? What was your impression of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

ElBaradei: I was surprised by how much he knew about the smallest technical details and the progress of negotiations. But during our discussion, it became clear to me just how deeply he mistrusts the West, especially the United States.

SPIEGEL: Were you at least able to reduce his reservations about your organization?

ElBaradei: I believe he understood how determined we at the IAEA are to achieve a solution acceptable to all sides. But that also includes confidence-building measures on the part of the Iranians. I want Iran to ratify the so-called Additional Protocol, which would allow us to conduct more comprehensive inspections. Now when I advise my Iranian counterparts, I tell them: "Take the hand Obama is holding out to you."

SPIEGEL: What exactly do you mean by that?

ElBaradei: I believe that freeze for freeze is the next realistic step. The Iranians would not install any additional centrifuges, while the West would refrain from imposing any further sanctions. This would start a period of intensive negotiation. And because the problem is so complex, it would go on as long as necessary.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't seem to be happening.

ElBaradei: It's important to understand the difference between what the Iranians demand publicly and how they act pragmatically. You are sitting across from the experience of thousands of years of bazaars: They know how to bargain for the best price, but they also know when to give in.

SPIEGEL: At what price do we have to negotiate?

ElBaradei: They want to be treated as equals, and they want security guarantees for their country. For them, complete control over nuclear technology is a means to achieve these goals. But I am not certain what that really says about their willingness to compromise.

SPIEGEL: The Israelis would not get involved with such vague hopes. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently wrote that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities in a few months.

ElBaradei: It would be completely insane to attack Iran. It would transform the region into one big fireball, and the Iranians would begin immediately with a project to build the bomb -- and, in doing so, they could be sure to have the support of the entire Islamic world.

SPIEGEL: The new US government is distancing itself from Israel. For the first time, a member of the US administration has referred to Israel as a nuclear power and is demanding that the Israelis declare their nuclear weapons. Is this the right approach?

ElBaradei: Yes. We have to stop applying different standards in the Middle East. It is this duplicity that is constantly criticized in the Arab world. The goal should be to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

SPIEGEL: Do you seriously believe that Israel will give up its nuclear weapons?

ElBaradai: Not tomorrow. About five years ago, I said to (former) Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon: "In the past, the bomb might have been useful as a deterrent, but after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism has taken on a completely new dimension. If terrorists get their hands on the bomb, they will not be deterred by your arsenal, and they will detonate it." I believe Sharon understood my point.

SPIEGEL: The Israelis accuse you of partisanship because you have sharply criticized the government in Jerusalem for the bombing attack on a Syrian military facility in September 2007.

ElBaradei: What the Israelis did was a violation of international law. If the Israelis and the Americans had information about an illegal nuclear facility, they should have notified us immediately. The fact is that I only learned about it long after the strike was completed. And when everything was over, we were supposed to head out and search for evidence in the rubble -- a virtually impossible task.

SPIEGEL: But your inspectors did travel to Syria, and they did find suspicious evidence.

ElBaradei: Yes, traces of uranium. Where they came from is unclear. There are still questions. Syria is not giving us the transparency we require.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it an eternal cat-and-mouse game, like the one we are seeing once again in North Korea, which expelled your inspectors in April?

ElBaradei: North Korea is obsessed by the fear that the Americans want to topple their regime militarily. As far back as 1992, the foreign minister in Pyongyang gave me a two-hour lecture on how much the Americans had it in for North Korea. Their obsession was only reinforced when George W. Bush placed North Korea on his "Axis of Evil" in 2002. Pyongyang decided then to embark on the road to the bomb.

SPIEGEL: Violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an attempt to blackmail the world. The regime wants economic aid and guarantees to abandon nuclear weapons in return. Should blackmail be rewarded?

ElBaradei: That's the moral dilemma. To help the starving population, we could very well be supporting a bankrupt, illegitimate regime. Nevertheless, I do believe that food aid should never be tied to political conditions.

SPIEGEL: But it is also correct that a regime that we are propping up is selling nuclear know-how on the international black market.

ElBaradei: There is that risk. As far as I'm concerned, the risk of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to the world. Last year alone, we had 200 cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive substances.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any evidence that the al-Qaida terrorist network is using the black market?

ElBaradei: I have no evidence that al-Qaida has abandoned its ambitions to obtain a so-called dirty bomb or even a nuclear weapon.

SPIEGEL: If the Taliban is able to continue its advance in Pakistan, fundamentalists could gain control over an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons for the first time. The Americans see this as a real danger.

ElBaradei: I am also very concerned about this development.

SPIEGEL: In a speech in Prague a few weeks ago, President Obama proposed his vision of a nuclear-free world. Is this realistic?

ElBaradei: The world is at a turning point, and it is also a race against time. Fortunately, there is support for the idea that complete nuclear disarmament is not a utopia, but both necessary and possible. I think it's encouraging that President Obama has come out so clearly in support of this goal.

SPIEGEL: But can he keep his promises?

ElBaradei: That's the million-dollar question. In my opinion, we can easily reduce the 27,000 warheads -- 95 percent of which are in the hands of the Americans and Russians -- to 1,000 or 500. Deep in my heart, I would like to see a world without a single nuclear weapon. But I can also imagine that a small number of nuclear weapons will remain in existence. In that case, they ought to be supervised internationally, for example, by the United Nations Security Council.

SPIEGEL: Is that naïve or visionary?

ElBaradei: You know, if (former US Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger says it, it's considered visionary. If I say it, it is rather seen as naïve.

SPIEGEL: Do we detect a note of bitterness at the end of your time in office?

ElBaradei: You cannot please anyone in this position, and perhaps one shouldn't try in the first place. Many in the Arab world treated me as an agent of the West; and, in the West, I was considered overly sympathetic toward Muslims. But I have no reason to complain. This work is important, and I have actually achieved quite a bit.

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

Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Erich Follath in Vienna.

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