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Transcript of Interview with IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei


"Süddeutsche Zeitung" with Paul-Anton Krüger

25 September 2008

(Read article in Süddeutsche Zeitung, in German)

(Translated from German)

Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei talks about nuclear non-proliferation issues, the threat of nuclear terrorism and the future of the IAEA.

The Cold War is over, but not the nuclear threat: the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, warns of terrorists with nuclear weapons.

Mohamed ElBaradei, 66, has been Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna since 1997. The Egyptian diplomat has announced that he will not be seeking a fourth term of office next year.

SZ: Mr. ElBaradei, you have been Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 11 years. Has the world become safer in that time, or has the risk of an atom bomb exploding somewhere in the world increased?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, IAEA: The threat of nuclear war between the former Soviet Union and the USA is no longer there, I hope for good. But the threat of possible use of nuclear weapons has increased. The number of countries that possess nuclear weapons is growing. Moreover, we have seen that knowledge about nuclear technology has become much more readily available. The recipe for nuclear weapons has been passed about on electronic data storage media. So I presume that many countries now have it. Whether they have the ingredients is another question. We are trying through our inspections to prevent them from getting hold of fissile material. We are also confronted with the relatively new phenomenon of nuclear terrorism. That is currently the most serious threat, as terrorists are not susceptible to traditional deterrence. It is part of their ideology to sacrifice their lives for their cause, unlike States which want to avoid being destroyed, be they democratic or theocratic. We have swapped the threat of a nuclear holocaust for a greater risk: that nuclear weapons will actually be used.

SZ: Faced with this situation, would you say that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is in crisis?

ELBARADEI: The Non-Proliferation Treaty was developed in 1970. Its goal - and this is often forgotten - is a world free of nuclear weapons. That means that no more States should acquire such weapons, but also that the nuclear powers should disarm. Obviously, we are a long way away from that. Nevertheless, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been successful in that it has prevented possible proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond current levels. Apart from the nuclear powers, there are a number of countries that have the ingredients to manufacture nuclear weapons in a few months, i.e. they have fissile material or the technology to make it. Iran is on this road too. The hope is: as long as these countries stay in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, they are monitored by our inspectors, and the likelihood is low that they would risk the international isolation they would face if they left the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SZ: Critics hold it against you that nothing has undermined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as much as your agreeing to the nuclear cooperation agreement between the USA and India.

ELBARADEI: That is a complete misunderstanding. I have made efforts in the past to bring India, Pakistan and Israel closer to the Non-Proliferation Treaty at a point when the USA rejected this completely even in the case of India. We have to draw these countries in, not isolate them. So I am happy about this agreement. You have to see the whole picture: if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must ask ourselves how we can achieve that without India´s cooperation. That is true of all the other important weapons control agreements as well, such as the Test-Ban Treaty or the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

SZ: How do you draw these countries in without harming the Treaty?

ELBARADEI: Access to civil nuclear technology was the incentive to join and renounce nuclear weapons. We have exhausted this route with the 189 countries who came into the Non-Proliferation Treaty through the front door. India, Pakistan and Israel will not come in this way because, from their point of view, their security situation does not allow them to come to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons states. Every intelligent politician knows that the Treaty must be adapted to fit these changed circumstances. It is an illusion that we will achieve a world free of nuclear weapons without the cooperation of these countries. India is separating its civil nuclear programme from its military programme, it is putting 14 reactors under our control, it is complying with strict export controls - these are all steps in the right direction.

SZ: If India gets access to nuclear technology and fissile material, can it then use a larger proportion of its own resources to build bombs?

ELBARADEI: I find that a questionable argument. India has fissile material, though not in unlimited quantities. That would be used for the weapons programme anyway. The country would then have to meet the growing energy demand with gas, oil and coal, all of which are not clean energy sources. In India, there are 650 million people living in poverty. It would be cynical to deprive them of this clean, urgently needed energy. Furthermore, I would ask the critics: should India, like all other countries with a civil nuclear programme, get facilities which are state-of-the-art, or should it stay limited to its own technology? It is also a question of safety.

SZ: Iran too says it only wants to produce cheap electricity with its nuclear programme. Aren´t there various motives inseparably entwined here?

ELBARADEI: Unfortunately, we still live in a world where nuclear weapons hold out the promise of power and prestige. Even the nuclear powers still rely heavily on nuclear weapons in their security strategies. If one is striving for power or security against attack, it is tempting to develop nuclear weapons or at least the capability to develop them. That is why I say that the Iran question is, in the last analysis, a security problem. The nuclear programme is just a symptom of an underlying feeling of insecurity and the desire to be acknowledged as a power in the region. So, in my opinion, the nuclear dispute can only be solved through direct negotiations on regional security in the Middle East.

SZ: You are asking for direct negotiations between the USA and Iran?

ELBARADEI: Of course, Europe isn´t in the driving seat, the USA is. The sooner there are direct negotiations, the sooner there will be a prospect of finding a solution. But that will not work without identifying Iran´s role in the region and the role of other countries in the Middle East. And of course there is still the big problem: Israel´s nuclear programme. Everything has to be put on the table, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as well. Only a comprehensive solution will open up the prospect of development for the region, allowing action to be taken against the growing radicalism which one day could end in nuclear terrorism.

SZ: In your report it says that Iran is gaining an ever greater mastery of uranium enrichment. Can the USA and Israel accept the fact that Iran is on the threshold of becoming a virtual nuclear power?

ELBARADEI: The question is, what can they do? What are the alternatives to direct negotiations? As long as we are monitoring their facilities, they cannot develop nuclear weapons. And they still do not have the ingredients to make a bomb overnight.

SZ: It´s a matter of months.

ELBARADEI: Above all, it is a matter of risk assessment. I cannot read minds as to whether Iran will really build a nuclear weapon sometime.

SZ: Isn´t that, if Iran goes beyond a certain point, precisely the grounds for a military solution?

ELBARADEI: I am afraid there is no military solution. That would only lead to all of Iran, even the opposition, uniting behind the government and its nuclear programme. More important still, it would give Iran the justification for a crash course in building nuclear weapons. They would simply barricade themselves in and resuscitate the enrichment programme. The knowledge is there; you cannot take it out of people´s heads even with bombs. You could perhaps delay Iran developing nuclear weapons, if that is what Tehran really has in mind. But Iran might have realized that it is enough to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons. In the event of an attack, we would be confronted with a much worse problem in a couple of years. And an attack would turn the whole region into a fireball.

SZ: The USA has its reasons for declining negotiations. Iran´s involvement in terrorism...

ELBARADEI: If the USA will sit at the negotiating table with North Korea, a regime that is not seen as being the most democratic and that also already has nuclear weapons, I do not see why it cannot negotiate with Iran.

SZ: Both the USA and the UN Security Council are demanding that Iran come to heel.

ELBARADEI: If you believe in diplomacy, you have to talk to your opponents not your friends. The idea that you can effectively isolate countries does not work, and usually you achieve the opposite of the desired effect. The only option I can see is negotiations.

SZ: The USA tried that with North Korea. And now that country is starting up its reprocessing activities again because it did not get what it wanted.

ELBARADEI: Diplomacy isn´t instant coffee that you stir in and there is your solution. When we talked to North Korea in the 90s, it had no nuclear weapons. Then the talks were suspended for years. Now they have nuclear weapons. Of course, the situation at present is not heartening. But if we do not talk to North Korea, it will only get worse. You have to understand the opposing view. You need the carrot and the stick; one or the other alone does not work. Sanctions alone do not solve any problems.

SZ: What weaknesses in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would need to be addressed to avoid such crises in the future.

ELBARADEI: Five points! Firstly, the nuclear powers have to finally take their disarmament obligations seriously. Secondly, we have to internationalize the fuel cycle to prevent further spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology. Thirdly, collective action against the possibility of nuclear terrorism. Fourthly, the International Atomic Energy Agency must be given the right and the resources to implement reliable and comprehensive controls, including of the existence of undeclared nuclear material or facilities. Fifthly, we need a UN Security Council with the moral authority to confront countries that do not play by the rules. All that has to happen if the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to stand up to the challenges of the 21st century.

SZ: Mr ElBaradei, you have announced that you are leaving. What qualities and qualifications must your successor have?

ELBARADEI: It is not important what country he or she comes from and I hope the decision is not based on geographical considerations or similar, traditional UN criteria. Independence is undoubtedly the most important thing. The Agency sits in judgement on governments, which is fairly unique. That means there is a great deal of pressure from all sides. The person in question must be entirely independent and objective. Secondly, he or she must be acquainted with the full spectrum of issues we deal with, from development to security policy. And he or she must be a manager. I have 2500 staff to manage, and relations with 145 Member States with conflicting interests. And a little diplomatic skill would help too.