Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was interviewed in Vienna by James Blitz, the FT’s diplomatic editor, and Roula Khalaf, middle east editor
FT: I wonder if you can take us through what your thinking is about the work plan, what your intentions were; the background to it.
ME: The work plan is a routine way of us working with countries with which we have verification issues. This is a standard technical message we apply invariably with all the countries that have issues that need to be clarified.
We have done that with Libya, South Korea, Egypt, Brazil, everywhere where we had some issues. So, there was nothing more to it than our technical people went to Tehran and tried to find a way to essentially implement our mandate under the safeguards agreement, as we have been asked repeatedly by the Security Council to clarify the outstanding issues. These are issues that have been on our agenda.
So, for us to be able to implement this work plan and clarify these issues which are the root causes of all distrust, if you like, or a good part of the distrust which we have with Iran, would obviously be a significant move forward. This is the first time that Iran has agreed to address all the outstanding issues. In the past, as maybe you are aware, there has been an almost linked movement on these issues, to negotiation with the Europeans…As a result of their talks with Solana , a few months ago, there was an agreement that maybe it’s a good thing to focus on developing a work plan as a starting point to…
FT: You discussed this with Solana?
ME: The idea of a work plan? Yes, absolutely, that this maybe a way to start the process of building confidence. So, we were happy that Iran agreed to address all the outstanding issues and we developed this work plan. It was clearly benchmarked with timelines. From our side we made it very clear to them, privately and publicly, that by the end of the year we expect to see these issues resolved. We felt that this is a very good litmus test to gauge or to judge Iran’s intentions, whether they are serious about resolving the outstanding issues or whether they are just buying time. For us, two or three months in a span of four and a half years of an inspection, two years of engagement by the Security Council, we thought it’s a reasonable time to be able to allow Iran to work with us. Particularly as some of these issues are very complex. They will take time because we need to discuss with them documents; we need to see individuals; we need possibly to get access to locations. It’s not overnight that we can resolve the issues. Our technical people need to be satisfied that the issues have been resolved.
FT: But you couldn’t have done it all together, given them a big team, got it done quicker?
ME: We can’t, because it is not a question of numbers it’s a question of identifying the right people whom we should see. Identifying the kind of document, they need to produce. It’s a question of getting through a methodical process of transparency and active cooperation.
I was frankly very surprised and concerned that most of the media was hoodwinked into repeating a myth that this is something that we have done on our own. That this [was], as you call it, a “do-it-yourself” agreement. This is at the very core, the very heart of our mandate under the safeguards agreement, by the Security Council. Maybe we could have done it in two months instead of two and a half months, that would be great but people must not forget that we have been doing this for four and a half years, with the full backing of the Security Council and if we are able to do this in two and a half months, or three months, that would be great. If not, then, this will backfire in their [Iran’s] face because this is the first time they have committed themselves to move forward.
We will not give them a pass unless they answer all the questions we need to ask, until our people are technically fully satisfied that this is the facts, all the facts and nothing but the facts. I don’t know how many times we need to repeat that. But as I said there was a myth repeated by the media, most of the media, I should say. That this is “out of the box”, which is absolutely bonkers. I have been for, at least, a year, publicly calling on Iran to go for double time out which is double suspension. In every meeting I do with them I ask them privately, urge them to go into suspension as a way towards confidence building. I don’t have a magic wand. If the Security Council is not able to get them to suspend, after a year, do not expect me to be able to do that. I’d love to do that. Again, this is an issue directly between the Security Council and Iran.
FT: When you make the statement on November 22nd it’s clear from the work plan that you’ve got a whole range of issues, the P1-P2 [centrifuges] issue and so on. The key question for us is what is the bare minimum that Iran must deliver in order for this process to be positively continuing?
ME: I think we have two issues. First, there is the so-called P1, the extent of research and development they have with regard to their enrichment. We need to know the nature and the scope of their enrichment programme, that is clearly the most sensitive part of the Iranian programme. We would like [to have]…the full status of their enrichment programme and that is key to our understanding the scope and nature, of the programme. The other issue is the so-called research about weaponisation studies.
FT: Studies on weaponisation?
ME: Studies on the weaponisation that they have done, work on some modification…that they might have tried to look into. The Iranians say these are baseless allegations but they have to convince us and we have to discuss with them. We have to show them the paper we have. I can not charge them without sharing with them the charges. These are the two fundamental issues we have. I would hope by November that we would have resolved the two issues but I can’t really say how far we would go. The key is to show if Iran is acting with us in good faith, with good intention, in a transparent manner with a view to resolving the issues. If it takes two and a half months or three months that’s not the issue. The key is the intention to resolve these issues.
FT: Must the P2 issue be clearly resolved in your mind?
ME: I hope so but these are very complex issues. We would have to require environmental sampling. All I know is that I need to see, between now and November, Iran fully co-operating, fully transparent, responding positively to all our requests for access to individuals, to documents, to locations, go beyond the Safeguards agreement, go even beyond the additional protocol which they do not have. It is a results-based process. By that, time we will be in a good situation to be able to say: is Iran serious? If Iran is serious, well, this would be a very significant step. As I said, this was a root cause that triggered the whole suspension and the sanctions by the Security Council. How is the Security Council going to see the result? Are they going to say this is enough to build confidence; Or are they going to say, well, since Iran has been working in an undeclared way for many years we still need a period for Iran to build confidence, this is obviously a judgement call for the Security Council.
FT: If you are satisfied in two or three months, then doesn’t the whole point of suspension become meaningless? The reason they were asked to suspend was because you don’t trust them. If you give them a clean bill of health doesn’t the whole idea of suspension become meaningless?
ME: It’s a very good question. I think this can explain a lot of the misreading of the work plan. I don’t know if it was misreading or partly…
FT: Partly frustration.
ME: Partly frustration, partly malice, I don’t know; particularly by the media. These are not light issues; these are issues that have a lot to do with war and peace. I don’t want the media to come along later and say, oops, we made an error again, mea culpa, because there are hundreds of thousands of lives involved in such a decision. But I come back to your question. People have been saying that we are into diplomacy; I mean, multi lateralism and diplomacy are the two sides of the same coin. When I do verification, I use verification and diplomacy. Diplomacy means convincing, explaining, articulating, having dialogue. In Iraq we use diplomacy and verification as an agency and we succeeded in disarming the nuclear programme in Iraq. UNSCOM, the committee that was established by the Security Council, used verification and arrogance and it imploded. The Security Council itself decided to disband it and establish another committee, as you remember UNMOVIC, to deal with all the problems of UNSCOM. When I try to strengthen our verification system I use a good deal of diplomacy. When we ask countries to join the additional protocol I have to do a lot of cajoling, a lot of talking, a lot of convincing. When I came with this idea that we need to have a multi-national approach to the fuel cycle, this is all diplomacy. When I tried to find a peaceful resolution to the Iranian problem, which is part of our duty under our charter, it is again part of diplomacy. But at no time are we saying that we take decisions. My role is that I implement decisions by states, I advise states based on the facts I see. I am always the adviser; not the decider.
FT: And do you feel that in the case of Iran, because there’s been so much noise about war, about sanctions, that you actually have a role to try to resolve it.
ME: Well this is our statute. I mean, the statute says that we have to work on the basis of principle and objectives, which is basically peaceful resolution of the dispute. But having a role in trying to find the peaceful solution might not mean that we will be soft with Iran, it does not mean that we will be blind to what we see, meaning that we will try every possible means to find the solution through verification and diplomacy. We might succeed, that would be great, but it doesn’t mean necessarily we should succeed. If we don’t succeed, we will obviously tell the Security Council, tell our Board of Governors, and they should take it from there. It is not that we want to avoid any other sanctions or any other enforcement measure at all costs, that’s not our job. But our job first and foremost is to try to find this solution.
Roula, to your question. If I am saying Iran today is clean, in other words, the programme is under safeguards, would that be good enough for the international community to say, well, we now trust Iran, and therefore Iran can go ahead with its enrichment programme? That frankly is the key question that I think the international community is focussing on right now. It is the future of Iran’s intention, it’s how you assess the risk… it’s the risk assessment of Iran’s future intention.
The argument is that if Iran were to have that technology it could then go into a break out scenario, break out scenario meaning leaving the system altogether, develop the highly enriched uranium, which they cannot have as long as they are under safeguards… Whether that distrust scenario will go away, after we come clean here with regard to the past and the present, is frankly the million dollar question. It’s a question which goes much beyond the verification which the organisation can do. We are like a radar screen; I can tell you what’s happening today.
FT: What you’re saying is this is not up to you to decide afterwards whether they should suspend…?
ME: Absolutely. It is not up to me to decide, because as I said, it goes to the heart of, can we trust Iran with regard to the future? And that’s basically saying, I have to go beyond the radar screen of what I see today, I have to look into the future. And that’s a very complicated issue because that goes then into the whole distrust between Iran and the West, which goes over 50 years.
FT: I still come back to the original question I was asking earlier, because the fear of the Western states, the US and UK obviously is that what you’ve done with the work programme is go down a kind of slippery slope , whereby we will get to the end of November and Iran will have said a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but at the same time, there will not be an absolutely clear-cut sense of these historic issues having been resolved. And I still wasn’t clear in my own mind from the answers you gave, exactly what is going to tell you that we are on a positive track here which can go into 2008, or whether in the end, Iran is mucking around.. That’s the bit which is still unclear to me. What do you need to have?
ME: We have the work plan. We have the work plan today. Iran has not implemented the suspension. So Iran went, if you like, 50%. The Security Council could have adopted sanctions right now. I mean, this is a judgement for the Security Council.
FT: Well, the reason they’ve taken the judgement not to do this is because of your work plan, but your work plan has given cover if you like to those countries that don’t want to have sanctions.
ME: But put it differently, they then convince the six that this is a way to give Iran the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it depends on how everybody reads it. I mean, this obviously goes into this political pot which the outcome is obviously as we have seen, that some are clearly saying give them, and others that are a bit reluctant. However, everybody agrees at the end, give the benefit of the doubt…All I can tell you is we will give as transparent a report as possible of what we have done and could not do at that time. What would be the next step is really for the member states.
FT: And that’s an important point, will you yourself make a recommendation or a judgement on the basis of what you have seen, on whether Iran is compliant with the world protocol.
ME: Yes, of course.
FT: You will make your own judgement.
ME: Yes, of course. This is very much part of our… We’ve got the work plan; we will judge the work plan. I mean, that’s part of our job. I’ll have to say, is Iran compliant, or is not compliant ?
FT: But must dossiers be closed? For example on the P2 issue…
ME: I hope it will be closed, I expect it to be closed, but I cannot say it will be closed; I definitely expect it to be closed. We made it clear to Iran that it ought to be closed, it has to be closed, but I cannot guarantee that it will be closed.
FT: But if it is not closed, that might be insufficient to guarantee further progress, or a continuation of the plan.
ME: Well, then again, it’s very difficult. I will tell you where we are in November, I’ll tell you how much we have achieved, how much we have not achieved, and then I will tell you whether Iran is actually implementing the work plan, and what the international community would want to do or not do is up to them.
FT: But you would warn Iran here, would you not, they do have to come up with something ?
ME: Oh, absolutely.
FT: They have to perform a lot.
ME: I think I, I said publicly and I told them privately obviously, this is your litmus test, because you committed yourself to come clean, and if you don’t, you know, nobody will be able to come to your support. You know, I made it very clear to them that if, as I said before, if they don’t, it will completely backfire.
FT: And that means coming clean by November 22nd?
ME: Yes, absolutely, I mean, this is a work plan. Wait, the 22nd, is when we report to the board, I said before, it would take us two to three months, that’s like the end of the year, I mean, 22nd is the time I have to come to report because of our board of governors.
FT: I want to ask you something, one of the main concerns about the work plan is that, what western governments say, is that they were working on a certain path, a diplomatic path, the sanctions, what their concern is that what the work plan may actually do is make it more likely that this process is going end up in a war, rather than in diplomacy, because the diplomacy has become more complicated, that if you take, say six, I don’t know, if this drives on for four or five or six months, then people who want to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities will have much stronger arguments, because they can say, look, the diplomatic process doesn’t work.
ME:…If you talk about war, then if people are talking about war, they need to tell me what is the casus belli. I have to be very clear here, that the casus belli could not be what we see today in Iran, because what we see in Iran today, is as I said, is not far from having a nuclear weapon.
FT: It’s far, or it’s not far?
ME: No, it is far from having a nuclear weapon today or tomorrow. If the casus belli is distrust of Iran’s future intention, and therefore the need to enrich, not have this technology, and therefore we need to make everything possible for them not to have this technology- then that is something else that goes beyond our mandate, as I said before, because my radar stops today.
FT One of our key concerns at the moment is making sure we have robust verification.
ME: From a proliferation perspective, what I see today is that Iran continues to build enrichment capacity, while we are not yet in a position to do robust verification because we are not able to implement the additional protocol. And that, to me, is the most serious concern I have because Iran could suspend its enrichment but if I’m not having a robust verification, there is no guarantee for me that there is no undeclared activity somewhere.
FT: This is a point where I don’t understand what you’ve done because you’ve put an emphasis on the work plan, in other words, clearing up the historic issues, but the way you’ve structured everything, you’ve kind of put the additional protocol in a secondary position.
ME: No, no. The additional protocol is the key for us to clarify the outstanding points. In other words, if you look at our last report to the board where I said that in clarifying the outstanding issues, I need all the measures of the additional protocol, plus some transparency measure to clarify the outstanding issues. And I also said that to clarify the present, not only the past, to make sure that I am comfortable knowing the present, the additional protocol is indispensable. So the additional protocol is not on the back burner, it’s absolutely on the front burner. It’s the key to us being able to achieve and implement the work plan.
FT: Can I ask you, the other problem that people have had with the work plan is that by giving Iran more time, a few months, that perhaps there is a stage that they want to get to in the enrichment programme, given that they might be having difficulties, and that that gives them the time to get to that stage. Is that your information? I mean, your inspectors have been going there, you last report was from August and it mentioned just under 2,000 centrifuges being fed [unclear]. Has that number increased significantly?
ME: I don’t think, as I say, I haven’t seen anything that would say, I mean, they’re still within the range of 2,000 and 3,000, and that is, again, with or without the work plan ruling, they could have continued with their programme. I mean, the work plan has nothing to do, I mean, the Security Council told them to suspend, they said, we’re not suspending, we’re building capacity. So the work plan is totally irrelevant to how far they can go with their enrichment capacity. And we are monitoring that and we continue to report on that and it is under safeguards. But building capacity, I they’re still within the 2,000 to 3,000, but as we have seen, they have fed about 10% of what they could have fed in terms of nuclear materials.
FT: I’m sorry, how much?
ME: Like, 10% of what got fed into the enrichment, so they were not going with full speed into…
FT: [overtalking] Do you think on purpose?
ME: I was asked that question. Again, people say it could be technical. My gut feeling is that it’s political at that stage, you know, how far…
FT: So they’re deliberately not pushing very hard?
ME: That is my gut feeling.
FT: Do you think they have the technical capacity to have the centrifuges going at full capacity but they’re just making a political decision not to push them?
ME[overtalking]: The centrifuges are all running at full speed. Whether they still have some technical problems, whether they can connect them together, this could be. But as I said before, this is not rocket science, its trial and error and the longer they continue to run it, they will master that technology. I mean it’s not that something can continue forever and not be able to acquire that technology.
FT: Do you agree with them?
ME: The power and technical people, the basic knowledge is there, according to our technical team.
FT: I’ve just got one question on historic issues, some people do think that you might accept that Iran would make the argument that we will only provide you with information from 2003 when you first said there were safeguards violations. Do they have to go beyond that?
ME: They have to go to day one, we’ve made that clear. Absolutely, they have to go back to day one, to ’85, I think, or whatever. There is no question. I mean we have to start from the day of birth, if you like.
FT: And more questions have come up as a result of this and they have to answer those questions, as well?
ME: Of, course, but we are not starting from 2003, we are starting from day one, obviously.
FT: Are you personally upset by the way in which people have been talking in the last few weeks about you?
ME: Well, not really.
FT: You know what I mean?
ME: Yeah, not really upset but disappointed, you know, as I said, disappointed that people try, out of frustration, to find a scapegoat. That people did not take the time to really understand what we are trying to do, the work plan became like an obsession.
FT: Did getting the Nobel Prize change your outlook about your role? That is what people are saying.
ME: It gave me more humility. It’s very strange that people think that I’ve become power hungry or that I want to work as an operator. In fact it gave me more humility and understanding about how much we need peace in the world. People don’t understand two things: I speak here as Director General of the agency, I give my report to the boards, but as a Nobel laureate, as a concerned citizen I have my own views, and I believe firmly in the first amendment, in right of freedom of speech. So, I speak, but as I speak as an individual on broad issues, peace and security issues, but that does not in any way influence or change my perception of exactly my role is as Director General. I know what my mandate is, which is to implement the decisions of the member states. I continue to advise them, and I believe I owe it to them, I have a duty to advise them on how I see things, based on facts. But if anything this Nobel Prize has made me more humble. 95% of the time I forget that I am Nobel laureate because I have so much on my plate. Once in a while I have to pinch myself to remind myself I am Nobel laureate, but that is not part of my work plan every day.
FT: Do you regret having talked about the crazies in Washington?
ME: Absolutely. I didn’t say the crazies in Washington; I said the new crazies.
FT: You said there were new crazies.
ME: When I continue to see people who are saying the only solution is to bomb countries. I saw the other day that the only solution is to use force, that it is too late to put sanctions on Iran…
FT: Was that John Bolton?
ME: I don’t want to mention names. Well, yes, I think some of that was Mr Bolton. If Mr Bolton was in charge the world would be a very dangerous place. He has his views, but we obviously hail from a completely different ideological perspective. I put the accent on diplomacy, on the sanctity of human life, on understanding where we are coming from, on a system of security that is not a zero sum game. I don’t start from that the only way to resolve issues is regime change and use of force. There is a fundamental difference. But again, these are my personal views; it is not for me to make these decisions. I can express my views on it.
FT: Can you express your views? This is the thing I find slightly odd. You do have a very significant agency role; I can imagine people in your position being very dry about the politics, really just saying this is what we do, we verify, we inspect, we deliver to the international community a facts on the ground report, and we leave it to the rest of the world to decide. Even in this interview you have a lot of judgments about politics.
ME: Personal judgements. It depends how you interpret your mandate. I don’t sit here and feel that I am just a technician going and taking environmental samples. I owe it to the international community, based on the facts I see, to give them my advice on how we can move forward. They can absolutely overrule what I’m saying; they can sidestep what I’m saying. I’m not saying this is what you should do. I take my role as a senior international civil servant as a person entrusted to help the international community in institution building, in implementing the rules of the game, which is the United Nations charter, the statute of the agency. I’m not talking politics. A lot of what I’m talking about is how I see implementation of our statute and the UN charter under which we work.