Interview: Mohamed El Baradei

As director general of the International Atomic Energy Association, Mohamed El Baradei was put in the spotlight as the showdown with Iraq intensified and now, after Hans Blix’s departure, he has to deal with Iran, North Korea and Syria.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  August 10, 2003

|~||~||~|AB: A few weeks ago there were several articles in the British press with commentary from former UN chief inspector Hans Blix expressing his discontent and using the word ‘bastards’ to describe individuals who may have undermined the mission of the inspectors in Iraq prior to the war. Did you feel there was a decision to go to war in Iraq well in advance of your presentation at the United Nations? Do you share the same sentiments as Hans Blix?

MEB: I am a really not in a position to be categorical on whether there was a decision to go to war before the result of the inspections. I am not sure. I think the United States wanted at least to work through the inspection process but there are obviously different views on whether the war should centre on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or other reasons. As I see it now, there were also other reasons for the war: regime change, fighting terrorism. But whether there was a unified decision by Washington in advance, that irrespective of the result of inspections we will go to war anyway, I am not sure. I think if the inspection process were categorical that Iraq has no WMD, probably it would have been difficult for the US to go to war.

The problem, of course, particularly in the chemical and biological area, was that Hans Blix kept saying, rightly probably, that he had no record that Iraq destroyed all chemical and biological weapons and where he could not have clear evidence that they have these weapons he could not exclude that possibility. I think that was not sufficient for the US, coupled, as I said, with other reasons for which they wanted regime change in Iraq. That was not sufficient to hold their horses so they decided to go to war, but whether there was already a decision before and that decision was final I am not sure.

AB: Do you feel the operations of IAEA have been limited or restricted now by what some are describing as a pre-emptive war? Do you feel your work as an organisation has been sidelined?

MEB: I think quite to the contrary. I think the organisation is coming more to the forefront. People perceive the organisation to be much more important. Our work in North Korea, our work in Iran right now puts us at the very centre of issues that have to deal with international peace and security. I think people have realised that issues of weapons of mass destruction could impact on decisions for war or peace — Iraq to witness.

I think people now are aware that the role of IAEA in the verification area is crucial because we can make statements that could now have clear implications for war and peace, which puts additional responsibility on our shoulders and means that we have to be extremely objective and professional and not to formulate any opinion before we have all the data.

AB: Do you believe that Syria and Iran have weapons of mass destruction, nuclear capability, and if so, do you think they fall within the scope of what America describes them to be?

MEB: I can only speak about nuclear weapons because this is the mandate of my organisation. I think in Iran, the jury is still out. We are still in midcourse in terms of our work and verification. In probably a few weeks and months, I will be able to make a definitive opinion on the Iran nuclear programme. On Syria, I am not sure that we are aware of any effort to develop any nuclear activities that have military implications. When the US talks about Syria, they talk about chemical weapon development, but not nuclear.

AB: Do you feel that there is a double standard in terms of what Arab states or third world states have to comply with and what others don’t, namely Israel?

MEB: Ultimately, if you want to achieve security in the Middle East you have to have a regime by which no country, including Israel, has weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. But that is very much linked to the peace process. I am now hopeful with the restart of the peace process that we will have a parallel dialogue on security and the centrepiece with that will be a total ban on WMD in the Middle East.

You cannot have any security system based on those who have the weapons and those who do not have the weapons. In the final analysis, any country in any region that continues to have WMD will continue to act as a stimulus for others to emulate it. I’d like to look at the situation in the Middle East now as transitory in nature and that eventually with peace we’ll have complete elimination of WMD and nuclear weapons.

AB: Where are the alleged WMD that Iraq has?

MEB: It’s a good question. I am also waiting to see whether there are in fact any WMD in Iraq. I think if there were weapons, everybody would be happy that we found them and we got rid of them. If there are no weapons, of course it raises lots of questions about the veracity of the intelligence information, about whether the war was based on fear of WMD or about other reasons for going to war. [With] every day that passes, of course, I am more sceptical that we will find these weapons because now all the Iraqi scientists are free to speak and the fact that after two months there is not a single technician or a scientist who can point to a location where WMD exist makes one wonder whether these weapons were not really destroyed as Saddam Hussein’s regime has been saying for months.

The question again, which is a very curious one, is, if they had no WMD, why were they not forthcoming and showed evidence and allowed us to interview people to make clear at that time, before the war, that they are really clean? That’s the question to which nobody has the answer. It could be that Saddam Hussein wanted to create the impression that they still had some weapons. It could be that he thought that he would not be attacked. But unfortunately, he was wrong.

AB: What’s the role of IAEA now in Iraq?

MEB: In Iraq now, we have a team that is looking to make sure that nuclear material that remains in Iraq, which is basically natural uranium, not weapons usable material, is under control and in our custody.

There were reports of looting and I asked the occupying power that we should send a team and I think there is, in fact, a team there in Iraq looking at making sure that the material is under our control. Eventually, we would like to go back to Iraq under a Security Council mandate. If there are weapons to be found, we need to validate that. If there are no weapons, again we need to validate that.
We probably need to do some ongoing monitoring and verification in Iraq for the next few years to make sure there is no revival of any program of WMD. We don’t know yet of the new regime. We do not know whether it will be interested in WMD.

The Middle East is an area where there is a lot of demand for WMD because of the insecurity and instability currently in the region. I foresee that we will go back into Iraq and be there for a while.
We have the credibility and the experience, which make us the best organisation to do the job, with due respect to the occupying power.
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