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

Mohamed ElBaradei, 66, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), discusses the record of his term in office, his bitter struggle with the Bush administration and the dangers that new nuclear powers pose.

SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, you have been the director general of the IAEA for more than 11 years, and you plan to retire in November, at the end of your third term.

Mohamed ElBaradei: There can be no question of retirement. The nuclear threat is too great for me to be able to put this issue to rest. I will continue to play an active role.

Iranian female athletes form a human chain around the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities at a protest in support of Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian female athletes form a human chain around the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities at a protest in support of Iran's nuclear program.

SPIEGEL: When you took office, you wanted to make the world a safer place; but now the threat seems greater than ever. Nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of the Taliban in Pakistan. North Korea has announced plans to test another nuclear weapon. And, in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts about being able to close the nuclear cycle. Have you failed?

ElBaradei: No, I don't think so. We did what we could. We at the IAEA are merely a tool as strong as our member states allow us to be. We cannot make political decisions; nor are we in a position to implement them. We cannot simply march into any country without its consent. It was others who failed.

SPIEGEL: Whom do you mean?

ElBaradei: The international community. The world has ignored our warnings. Take the case of Iraq, for example. Even though we had no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, they were used as justification for the war -- the most dangerous moment of my tenure. Or take Pyongyang. Efforts to engage North Korea in ongoing disarmament talks have failed. And the dialogue with Tehran was tied to preconditions that were unacceptable to the Iranians.

SPIEGEL: It was because of assessments like these that you were accused of being naïve, especially by the administration of former US President George W. Bush.

ElBaradei: That's unfair. In the case of North Korea, for example, we pointed out in 1992 that the country was in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And we have consistently pressed the Iranians to respond to unanswered questions about their nuclear program. The world has the IAEA to thank for almost everything it knows about Iran's nuclear progress.

SPIEGEL: Information coming from the exiled opposition led to the discovery of the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

ElBaradei: Unlike some nations, we do not have our own satellites for aerial photographs. Sometime they give us something because it suits their geopolitical goals, and sometimes they withhold things.

SPIEGEL: The Bush administration was so suspicious of you that US intelligence agencies tapped your phones.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency: "The world is at a turning point."

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency: "The world is at a turning point."

ElBaradei: That didn't bother me so much because I never had anything to hide. On the contrary, it gave me a shot in the arm because I knew that I was doing the right thing. But my daughter was deeply disturbed that people were listening in on her private conversations.

SPIEGEL: Would you have thought the Bush administration was capable of that sort of a wiretapping campaign?

ElBaradei: It didn't really surprise me. What can you expect from an administration that -- in a mixture of ignorance and arrogance -- passed over countless diplomatic opportunities to conduct a dialogue with Tehran? The entire Middle East was turned into a complete mess.

SPIEGEL: The new American administration has announced a change of course.

ElBaradei: Indeed. (President) Barack Obama has turned US policy around by 180 degrees. For instance, he announced plans to double the IAEA budget in the next four years. The Europeans, including Germany, want to freeze the budget, which I find alarming.

SPIEGEL: But you also gained a great deal of recognition in 2005, when you and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

ElBaradei: Yes, that's true. It was a vote of confidence in the organization, and it strengthened my immune system against attacks, especially because this recognition was triggered by the policies of the powerful. We managed to draw attention to the organization; the letters of our name were always being mixed up by politicians. I am also pleased to see that, after two more or less wasted decades since the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament is now a central issue once again. This reflects the realization that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons has actually increased considerably and that the bomb could fall into the wrong hands.

SPIEGEL: Such as the hands of fanatics in Tehran.

ElBaradei: We still have no ultimate proof of a military nuclear program in Iran. However, we do have some unanswered questions.

SPIEGEL: You are choosing your words with extreme caution. As the IAEA concluded in its last report, the Iranians have now reached breakout capacity, meaning that they have enough low-enriched uranium to build a functioning bomb within a few months.

ElBaradei: I have told the Iranians that they have to clear up inconsistencies and address unanswered questions if they want to reestablish trust.

SPIEGEL: But the Iranians have already forfeited their right to uranium enrichment. In the past few years, they have given the IAEA the runaround with their tricks and deception.

ElBaradei: It is true that the Iranians have given us false information in the past and have not declared facilities and materials that they were required to declare. This led to a trust deficit. However, it was the Americans' mistake to insist on the suspension of all forms of uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks. This should have come at the end of negotiations. As a result, Washington stayed away from the negotiating table…

SPIEGEL: …and the Iranians continued to develop their technology and played for time by conducting half-hearted nuclear talks with the Europeans.

ElBaradei: The Americans thought they could threaten Iran with a big stick and force it to back down. But the arrogance of treating a country like Iran like a donkey led to a hardening of positions. But there were two times when we were close to a solution, brokered by countries I cannot identify.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the secret plans of the Russians and the Swiss…

ElBaradei: …I can't comment on that. Under one of these proposals, Iran would stop when it reached a scale of 31 uranium enrichment centrifuges. That's enough for research purposes, but not nearly enough for bomb production. In any case, they already have the know-how. What worries me is when a country reaches an industrial capacity that could enable it to turn this knowledge into weapons production. The United States immediately rejected the proposal because it believed that Iran should not have a single centrifuge. Later, in 2005, when the Iranians were already much further along, there was a plan drawn up by a European country that called for limiting the number of centrifuges to 360.

SPIEGEL: Were you involved in the negotiations?

ElBaradei: I was in North Korea when the Iranian chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, called me to say that this would be a very good basis for negotiation. But Washington's answer was again "no." Now that it appears that the Iranians have more than 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges, it looks as though Obama is prepared to negotiate without preconditions because he knows that there is no other solution than a political one.


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