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‘Language of force is not helpful on Iran issue’

Siddharth Varadarajan

Tehran should be more transparent but its nuclear programme does not pose a threat that is imminent, says IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

— Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Mohamed ElBaradei: We need to create an environment based not on confrontation but on cooperation.

As Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei is the world’s top nuclear policeman as well as its most valuable diplomatic asset in the struggle for disarmament and nonproliferation. A voice of sanity in a field otherwise dominated by irrational and sometimes violent rhetoric, Dr. ElBaradei strongly backed the lifting of nuclear sanctions on India and has helped prevent the escalation of the Iran nuclear crisis. In an interview with The Hindu during a visit to New Delhi this week, he spoke at length about the Iranian issue. Excerpts:

What do you think prompted the Iranian authorities to make the declaration on September 21 about a new enrichment facility?

I don’t know. We are yet to go and inspect and verify that new facility. The western countries say this was meant to be a secret facility, that it was declared by Tehran because it was compromised and the Iranians knew they would be discovered. The Iranians insist this is not the case, that they had to delay informing the agency because they wanted to build the facility underground to protect their technology in case of an attack on their nuclear facility. And they have been hearing about the threat of attacks over the past four or five years. Nonetheless, Iran, of course, has not complied with the requirement of the IAEA that they should have told us once they decided to construct the facility. I understand they have been working on it for a number of years.

How many years? What has the U.S. told the IAEA about it?

I think they said the work has been on since about 2005 and we have to go to Iran and verify but Iran should have informed us. This is clearly a setback because we have been trying to get Iran to be more transparent and cooperate more with the IAEA to clarify the issues that are still remaining for us to be able to verify the peaceful nature of the programme. But I also call on those who continue to say that we should use force, to attack Iran — that this is absolutely counterproductive. We need to create a different environment based not on confrontation but cooperation. For the first time, there is hope this could happen with Barack Obama talking about engaging Iran without preconditions, unlike the previous administration. Even after discovery of the [new] facility, he repeated that they are willing to engage Iran and I hope Iran will respond to that offer and I am not sure that offer is going to last forever. They better make use of that offer. It is only through engagement that we can verify the past and present Iranian nuclear activities. In the past, there were some claims that had done some military studies…

In fact, I want to come specifically to that. Your report as DG, on the basis of which the IAEA Board voted in September 2005 to find Iran in non-compliance, listed a set of outstanding issues. All of those issues have since been clarified. In some sense, isn’t that proof of considerable progress?

There is no question we have made considerable progress. At the time Iran was referred to the Security Council, the major concern was about the nature of its enrichment programme and that has been clarified. That is a major achievement. People seem to forget we have through systematic inspection made a considerable advance in understanding the nature of the Iranian programme. Then came these alleged studies.

Now, the first time the U.S. spoke of these alleged military studies was in the summer of 2005, when they briefed the IAEA and some countries about the contents of a laptop computer. Yet, this issue never figured in your September 2005 report.

Information about the alleged studies came over time to the agency. Iran says this information is fake. U.S. intelligence says Iran had weaponisation studies that stopped in 2003, other [Western agencies] claim Iran continued after that. Obviously, this is not very helpful — all agencies should get their act together and come to one conclusion. The IAEA is not making any judgment at all whether Iran even had weaponisation studies before because there is a major question of authenticity of the documents.

And clearly there were enough doubts in 2005 that you did not mention it then.

If I recall, the issue had not yet materialised in 2005.

No sir, the U.S. had done a briefing in the summer of 2005 with the so-called laptop. Your reports begin to flag alleged studies only in 2006. But not in 2005 when Iran was found in non-compliance.

Probably because in 2005, we did not go through the vetting process. We receive information all the time. It is not automatically referred to in our reports. Information continued to come to us. As I have said, if this information is correct, there is a strong likelihood that Iran has engaged in weaponisation studies. But if authentic. And I underlined if three times! That’s why I continue to urge Iran, they are the ones who continue to say it is fake….

But how does Iran prove a negative? This is like the run up to Iraq war, when Baghdad was asked to prove it did not have WMD. Iran says the documents are fake, they have no markings, no seals. The U.S. says they are genuine but the supposed originals are not being given, which you said should be.

Sure.

So how does one square the circle? It seems impossible to resolve.

Well, there is a lot of information in these documents that Iran said is authentic, but in different contexts, done for non-nuclear activities, while some of it is fake. What we want is for Iran to engage in substantive discussions with us, tell us what is authentic, what is not. We need to talk to some of the scientists involved. But I agree with you – this is one of the most difficult questions to deal with. We are very good when we are dealing with nuclear material, we can take measurements and do environmental sampling. When we work with papers, it very difficult because it is one’s word against the other. That is why I continue to call on those who supplied us the information to give us the originals, some copies, to be able to move the discussion with Iran. And I call on Iran to help us clarify the wheat from the chaff. And that’s not happening. And that is why we have this issue still hanging.

But your reports say there has been no use of nuclear material connected with these studies.

That’s right.

Surely this reduces the gravity of the issue. Clearly Iran has not diverted nuclear material for prohibited purposes.

The only time we found Iran in breach of its obligations not to use undeclared nuclear material was when they had experimented in 2003 and 2004 at Kalaye. Those were experiments. And I have been making it very clear that with regard to these alleged studies, we have not seen any use of nuclear material, we have not received any information that Iran has manufactured any part of a nuclear weapon or component. That’s why I say, to present the Iran threat as imminent is hype.

In a sense, this one outstanding issue is far less serious than the issues which prompted Iran’s referral to the Security Council!

It is a serious concern but I am not going to panic, to say it is an imminent threat that we are going to wake up and see Iran with nuclear weapons. Our job is to make sure we do not overstate or understate a case. There are enough people around to use or abuse what we say. The judgment call is very difficult, but based on what we have seen so far — we are concerned, we need to clarify this issue, we need to build confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s programme, we need Iran to adhere to the Additional Protocol because that will help me build confidence. But I am not going to sound an alarm and say that Iran is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons.

You are right that the Security Council referral was based on issues that have since been settled. So if Iran were to continue to cooperate with us, help us to clarify these alleged studies and also if the suppliers [of the documents] should help in that process, we would move quite forward.

Has the world benefited from the Iran file being referred to the Security Council? Or have the costs outweighed the benefits? We’ve lost Iran’s adherence to the Additional Protocol, to the latest Subsidiary Arrangements, it hasn’t stopped enrichment.

The IAEA remains seized of the matter but the Security Council referral was to get Iran to suspend enrichment and apply sanctions. I leave it to those who decided to refer them to make that judgment. I always believe the more we use carrots rather than sticks in such complex situations, the better is the prospect of finding a solution. As you can see now, after three or four years of referral, the focus is not on the Security Council but on engaging Iran! So the focus right now is on dialogue, engagement, incentives and not on the stick. The stick is always there, you can always use it. But first exhaust every possibility of trying to understand where the other party is coming from.

Coming back to Iran’s latest disclosure, the IAEA legal adviser has acknowledged there is a grey area in the implementation of the Subsidiary Arrangements.

Subsidiary Arrangements are a technical requirement but the more important issue is transparency and confidence and Iran lost on confidence with this action, no matter what they said about the need to protect their technology, human resources, passive security. I don’t look only at the legal issue but the political implication.

Even if Tehran failed to report to you on time, don’t you think it was reasonable for them to be secretive given the open threats Israel and the U.S. have made of a military attack on their nuclear facilities?

That’s why I said using the language of force is not helpful. It leads to confrontation, to the other country taking counteraction. It is better to forget the language of coercion and focus on trying to engage in dialogue.

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