As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has spent the past 11 years trying to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The Nobel Peace Prize winner recently spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Christopher Dickey about his intense, often frustrating dialogue with the Iranians—and with the Americans. Excerpts:
President Barack Obama addressed a conciliatory video message to Iran two months ago, but the dialogue seems to have gone very quiet since then. Why do you think that is?
Obama does not talk "carrot and stick"—which, it's been said, is a policy suitable for a donkey but not for a proud nation. He talks about mutual respect. And you have no idea, when he said for the first time, as an American president, "the Islamic Republic of Iran," how well that was received by the Iranians. But that has not been followed up by negotiations because the Americans are going through a review of their policy. And the Iranians are not in a rush because they are going through an election and because, as very good bazaaris, they want to know the outcome of the [U.S.] review.
The election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister has complicated matters. He's left open the possibility Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Unfortunately, we have to keep saying what we have been saying for years (and being vilified for it by the neocons): there is no military solution. There is only a diplomatic solution. Israeli President Shimon Peres made the point that you cannot bomb the knowledge [of Iranian nuclear scientists]. I wish that sort of thing had been said three years ago.
Had the Bush administration been more flexible, do you think it could have had a deal to freeze the Iranian enrichment program in its experimental phases?
There is no way you are able to deny them the knowledge. But if they do not have the industrial capacity, they do not have weapons. It is as simple as that. I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, "Iran will buckle under pressure." But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon. And they also understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you're still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don't want to mess with me.
When the United States issued its national intelligence estimate in 2007 indicating that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, that came as something of a shock at the IAEA, which hadn't known about the program in the first place.
We could not have detected that weapons program. We are not an army that can barge in without notice. [The Americans] claim that there are [Iranian] blueprints showing how to put nuclear payloads into one of their Shahab-3 missiles, as well as plans for how to detonate a nuclear weapon—there is no way I would have discovered that, somewhere in some small lab on someone's computer.
You focus on actual nuclear material. But the Americans have supplied the IAEA with the documents in question. The Iranians insist they are fake and refuse to talk about them.
A lot is in documents which we cannot share with the Iranians because of the need to protect sources and methods. Iran says, how can I tell you if it is fake or authentic if I am not getting a copy? So in many ways it's like a merry-go-round.
Tell me a little more about the Iranians' bargaining style.
The Iranians have always been extremely well briefed on the details. They know what they want. They are excellent on the strategic goals, excellent on waiting for the right price. I don't want to make them sound like superhumans; you do see a lot of infighting among them. And part of it is about who is going to get credit for finally breaking out of this 30 years of fighting and confrontation with the United States. Everybody is positioning himself to be the national hero who would finally put Iran back onto the world map as part of the mainstream. They are not like the stereotyped fanatics bent on destroying everybody around them. They are not.