Today's date:
Winter 2009

Policy Toward Iran a Failure

Mohamed ElBaradei is director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2005. He sat down in Vienna in December with Borzou Daragahi of NPQ’s associate paper, the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts of that interview follow.

NPQ | Over the past few years, Iran has been front and center on the IAEA agenda as well as the world agenda. Do you think that the policy of the international community has been a failure or a success?

Mohamed ElBaradei | So far the policy has been a failure. We haven’t really moved one inch toward addressing the issues other than adopting a number of Security Council resolutions, imposing sanctions, which led in fact to more hardening of the position of Iran, including among those Iranians who dislike the regime because they feel their country is under siege.

The policy toward Iran will not start to have the possibility of success unless the parties—and here I mean the United States and Iran—sit together directly around the negotiating table and start discussing grievances that go back to 1953 (when the CIA overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq—ed.).

For Iran, at the end of the day, the issue is one of security and competition for power with the US in the Middle East.

Iran is surrounded by a number of nuclear-weapon states and by 150,000 American troops. So there is a sense of insecurity, exactly like in North Korea. Whether it is real or a myth, it is there, and you have to address it.

You have to understand why Iran has been insistent all along in developing nuclear technology. It might not be necessarily going for a weapon right now, as even the US national intelligence estimate concludes, but it is definitely going for the technology because it thinks that having the technology brings it the power, the prestige and the influence that would enable it to ultimately have a grand bargain with the US, with the rest of the world—a grand bargain that would guarantee, from its point of view, the role it thinks it is entitled to play as a major regional power.

For Iran, the pursuit of nuclear technology is primarily an insurance policy, a way of making it a state that has to be taken seriously. Unless you address that, you won’t get very far.

Iranians have 1,000 years of bazaar culture. They are waiting for the right price, and they will do whatever it takes to make sure that they will get the right price. They feel that enrichment is their asset to get a good package. That is not going to change unless the US treats them with respect and looks at the big picture.

Also, of course, the US must discuss with Iran its policies, what is acceptable, what’s not acceptable, all the claims about its respect for human rights or the claims about support for extremist groups. Both sides have grievances that are not going to disappear with a cacophony of mutual accusation.

NPQ | There is a view, popular in the West, that Iran is a religious fundamentalist state that is moving rapidly toward developing nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel, as their leader says. Would you agree or disagree with that?

ElBaradei | I am not a student of Iran, so I can’t make an authoritative judgment on that. But when I go to Iran I see there are all different shades and colors, from atheist to religious zealots to people who are adopting a Western style of life.

So Iran is no different from any other country. It is connected with the rest of the world. It has all the different points of view within the society. Everything depends on who is empowered.

Now, I believe that engaging Iran, integrating Iran with the rest of the world, would empower the moderates. Isolating Iran and putting pressure on Iran will empower the hardliners. That is what you see everywhere else in the world.

Some of the statements made by some of the leaders of Iran about Israel were offensive. However, I have also been told that if you read those statements in Farsi—and I don’t read Farsi—they said that Palestine should be one state and should not be just a Jewish state, which is not different from statements made by Yasser Arafat, many Palestinians, or even Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher.

However, the impression was created that these statements meant that Israel should be wiped off the map. Statements that, to say the least, are offensive and unhelpful. But when you craft a policy that has to last for a generation, you cannot just base it on certain rhetoric.

Even if the rhetoric is offensive, you still have to talk to these people, clarify the issues and make sure that the mindset will change.

This is what we call creative diplomacy. It’s frustrating, it takes time, but that’s the only way to go. I don’t see any other solution.

NPQ | How would you characterize the effect of this rhetorical standoff?

ElBaradei | It has had the effect of stereotyping Iran. Iran is one of the most advanced countries in the region. For example, Farsi is the number-one language into which German philosophy is translated. In Iran, you see a discussion about (Soren) Kierkegaard, about (Martin) Heidegger.

So the idea that the Iranians are just callous people or are just coming from the Middle Ages is obviously a picture that needs to be corrected.

NPQ | You are Egyptian and grew up in the Middle East. Do you feel that you have special insights into the opaque ways of the Middle East?

ElBaradei | Maybe slightly, but not really. At least I am able to communicate with them in their own language. I understand some of their myths, like the conspiracy theories, like a sense of being victims.

But I also understand where they are coming from. A lot of it has to do with a sense of security, but a lot of it is their own doing. Most of the regimes in the Middle East are marred by inequality, by repression, by lack of good governance, by authoritarianism. So I can’t do much about that. I know that these are not the right policies, and that they are not really helping themselves by trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Their priority, frankly, should be on development and education. People in these countries always talk about double standards, and my answer to them is: get education, get science, get technology, get democracy. Then the double standard will disappear automatically.

I fully understand that there is this sense of injustice and humiliation and impotence in the Arab world. As everyone knows, that starts and ends with the Palestinian issue. Unless you address the sense of humiliation and injustice, nothing is going to move in the Middle East, and I fully subscribe to that.

NPQ | Recently the US and India completed a deal to share nuclear technology even though India is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). You have suggested you support that deal because, with the NPT weakening, other arrangements might be able to provide security. Can you explain your position?

ElBaradei | I was very supportive of the Indian deal. I do think the non-proliferation regime is going through a very trying period. The jury is still out on whether we can really succeed in achieving its basic objective—a world free from nuclear weapons. It doesn’t look very good so far, though now a glimmer of hope has come with Barack Obama’s stated commitment to move in that direction.

The ultimate aim of the whole non-proliferation regime at the outset was that if you put a cap on those states that have nuclear weapons—five states at that time—everybody else would commit to not having nuclear weapons. The five nuclear states would then commit themselves to move to a nuclear disarmament.

That did not happen after 30 years. We have three countries that did not join the NPT altogether. North Korea joined but then walked out. So we ended up with nine nuclear-weapon states and 27,000 warheads. That itself obviously created a sense of cynicism among those who have given up the option to develop nuclear weapons. So, today, we have a regime based on haves and have-nots.

It’s a question of equity. “Nuclear weapons are bad for me, I’m told, but it’s very important for the weapons states to keep theirs because it’s a dangerous world out there.” A regime like that is not sustainable.

Unless the weapons states take their obligation seriously, they will lose moral authority, and then we will have many countries either develop nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, or develop the technology, such as Iran, because we still live in an environment which says, “If you have nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons technology, you are in the major leagues.”

In such an environment so unconducive for non-proliferation, the number-one security danger we face is nuclear terrorism.

You can talk about Iran and North Korea as much as you want, but I still believe that they would react to the concept of mutual assured destruction—deterrence. But for a group of extremists, the concept of deterrence has no meaning. They are ready to sacrifice their lives.

So, we need to step back and take a big-picture approach and understand we need to really get serious about a world free from nuclear weapons.

Even Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Bill Perry have now said we need to move toward zero nuclear weapons.

This is a totally new phenomenon. For the last 10, 20 years, I would have regarded this sort of talk as blue-eyed idealism. But right now I think people are coming to realize that if we don’t do that, we might end up frankly destroying our planet by the hand of some extremist group.