As rumors of war gather around Iran, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, are determined to head off any rash action. Last month ElBaradei announced a "work plan" with Iran to resolve outstanding questions about parts of its nuclear program that Tehran had kept hidden for almost 20 years. Yet Iran, claiming its intent is peaceful, continues to enrich uranium and master technology that could eventually produce the raw material for atomic bombs. ElBaradei spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey. Excerpts:
DICKEY : The Israeli airstrike on Syria may have targeted a nuclear facility supplied by North Korea. What do you have on that?
ELBARADEI : We have zilch on that. We would be happy to investigate it if anybody has any information that is nuclear related, but today we have nothing.
Is the speculation about impending military action against Iran hurting or helping efforts at a negotiated settlement?
We still have issues that we need to clarify in Iran. But I don't see Iran, today, to be a clear and present danger. And our conclusion here is supported by every intelligence assessment I've seen that even if Iran has ambitions to develop nuclear weapons [which it denies], it's still three to eight years away from that. We need to continue to do robust verification. But we do not need to hype the issue. What we need right now is to encourage the moderates in Iran.
Earlier this month French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner raised the possibility of war as a last resort if negotiations fail.
I am very happy to see that Foreign Minister Kouchner now says he is for dialogue and he is supporting our work plan.
When the plan was announced, critics said it could undermine the Security Council ' s efforts to pressure the Tehran government.
There was a lot of commotion and misunderstanding about this plan. It's a litmus test for Iran. In two or three months we'll know if Iran is serious about coming clean. If they do, that obviously will create better conditions for negotiations. If they [don't], then of course we will be in a different ball game altogether.
Yet the Iranians refuse to suspend their efforts to enrich uranium, despite U.N. Security Council pressure.
We never said that this plan is the be-all and end-all. Iran did not want to suspend. This is obviously a matter between Iran and the Security Council.
Why do they need three more months? If they want to come clean, let them come clean.
What option do we have other than to continue? As long as Iran is ready to cooperate, well, I have to accept yes for an answer. Unless we get the parties to the negotiating table we will never find a durable solution. You can delay a program [with military action], you can disrupt a program, but if you really want a comprehensive solution it has to be negotiated.
What if in three months Iran hasn ' t delivered? If this diplomacy isn ' t backed by a credible threat of force, the Iranians can stall and keep enriching and eventually they will have the material that could go into a bomb.
If Iran were to prove that it was using this period for delaying tactics and it was not really acting in good faith, then, obviously, nobody—nobody—will come to its support when people call for more sanctions or for punitive measures. That is a point that has been made very clear to them by everybody, including myself. If we come [back] with a negative report after three months, I don't see that anybody will come and say, well, give them another chance.