You Can’t Bomb Knowledge: An Interview With Mohamed El Baradei

Before he stepped down last month, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had to deal with some of the world’s toughest regimes, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

El Baradei met with Newsweek’s Jerry Guo last week to discuss the ongoing struggles over Iran’s enrichment program and his legacy. Excerpts:

Jerry Guo: Some say that you were not as harsh on Iran as you could have been.

El Baradai: People should understand we don’t have an army or God’s authority. I cannot barge into Iranian facilities or factories. Look at the Security Council: they adopted three resolutions (against Iran) that weren’t implemented.

Q: Iran announced late last month it will build 10 more enrichment plants. What are its intentions?

A: I’m not sure this is going to go through. I see it as a reaction, a bit of a tantrum.

Q: What are the chances it has other black sites we don’t know about?

A: Iran does not implement what we call “additional protocols” that give us additional access to information and locations. So we don’t have confidence about undeclared activities. We were only told about Qum when the Iranians sent us a letter in September. Regrettably, many international agencies knew about that and were monitoring it for a couple of years, but they didn’t give us a hint.

Q: Your inspectors visited Qum twice. What did they find?

A: It’s in an advanced stage. There are no centrifuges or nuclear material, so it would take another year or two before completion. It’s built on a mountainside. I continue to say these threats toward Iran do not help. It just leads to more confrontation and possibly leads to the country’s (nuclear program) going underground.

Q: If you’re opposed to military action and reluctant to endorse harsher sanctions, what leverage is there?

A: At best, the use of force would delay a program for a couple of years. If you bomb them, they will go on a crash course to develop a weapon. And they have the knowledge. You cannot bomb knowledge. So we should forget about force. You can talk about sanctions provided you have exhausted every possible way of peaceful resolution. We only started trying to engage them at the beginning of Obama’s administration. Iranians need time to respond.

Q: But it seems like the hardliners are gaining more and more control. Are they really negotiating in good faith?

A: It’s a lot of posturing, but in the long run I am still optimistic. I know the people in power (in Tehran) want normalization with the U.S. Even after the June election, there is still genuine desire to engage the U.S. and reach a comprehensive package. We have been working the last couple of months on a fuel package. That proposal is not completely off the table: Iran says they “are ready to ship out the stockpile if they get fuel immediately.” There are still venues that need to be explored.

Q: Should this much attention be paid to North Korea’s weapons program?

A: As a result of lack of dialogue, they converted their fuel into plutonium and developed a weapons program. The lesson of North Korea is no matter how you much you disapprove of certain behavior, you have to continue to talk. Trying to call them names-the Axis of Evil-only strengthens the hardliners.

Q: Obama has said he wants a world without nuclear weapons. How can we make that happen?

A: We wasted two decades. We can take concrete steps. Obama is about to send a proposal to Congress. He is negotiating in good faith with Russia to slash the nuclear arsenal by a third. We are about to start negotiating a treaty to prohibit production of nuclear material for weapons purposes. Eventually we’ll reach a stage where nuclear weapons are seen the same way as slavery or genocide.

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