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Mohamed ElBaradei Discusses Iran, North Korea, and his Political Future

Aired November 5, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Iran and the West at yet another impasse. Are they about to miss a golden opportunity? Both sides try to rescue a nuclear agreement. And brokering it, our guest tonight, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to this program.

Just a month ago, it seemed that Iran and the world powers were on the verge of a historic agreement to defuse years of nuclear tension and inch towards detente. Tehran would ship out much of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France in return for the nuclear fuel it needs for a reactor that it's using for medical purposes.

The agreement was designed to buy time and build trust between Iran and the West. But now, mistrust and Iran's internal politics could scuttle the whole deal. And it's fallen to one man, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, to act as last-ditch go-between.

But time is also running out on him. He steps down at the end of this month. And so can this deal still be pulled of?

First, we look back on all the challenges ElBaradei has faced in 12 years at the helm, from the Iraq war to Iran today. Here's CNN's Matthew Chance.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From shock and awe in Iraq, the war he tried but failed to prevent, to nuclear negotiations with North Korea and Iran that he's still hopeful about, for the past 12 years, Mohamed ElBaradei has been at the center of global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. In diplo-speak, it's called "proliferation."

It's been 12 years marked by setbacks, like the failure to stop India and Pakistan joining the nuclear club, and the inability to prevent rogue scientists, like the father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan, from selling nuclear technology to rogue nations.

But there's been successes, too. In 2005, ElBaradei and the U.N. nonproliferation agency he heads, the IAEA, received the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee described him as a man who stood out as an unafraid advocate of new measures to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Norway's foreign minister praised ElBaradei for his insistence in the run-up to the Iraq war that weapons inspectors must be allowed to continue their work in the country.

But the U.N. nuclear chief isn't without his critics and in the Arab world feel he should have done more to secure access to Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal. In the West, he's been lambasted for being too soft on Iran, amid efforts to halt that country's nuclear program.

So despite his achievements, as Mohamed ElBaradei leaves the IAEA, he may be leaving behind an impossible job: halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


AMANPOUR: Joining me now, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Thank you very much for coming into the studios. It's your last round of interviews before you depart, but it's not easy slowing down right now.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, IAEA DIRECTOR GENERAL: Christiane, it's a pleasure to be with you here again. No, it is not easy slowing down, but I hope if we can, you know, come to an agreement on this Iran issue, that would be a wonderful exit for me.

AMANPOUR: And it would crown -- crown your tenure.

ELBARADEI: More than that, it would be the opening for a detente, as -- as you mentioned, between Iran and the international community, something which is absolutely needed for stability in the Middle East, you know, for -- for peace and security in that -- in that region.

AMANPOUR: So what on Earth has gone wrong? Just a month ago, there were smiles, there were apparently agreements in principle. Everybody thought this was going to work. The Iranians were seemingly thrilled at what was going on.

ELBARADEI: Listen, well, as always, you know, we are dealing with 50 years of mistrust, pride. And to take the first step, to build confidence, Christiane, is a very rocky, rocky road.


We still have an agreement, you know, that Iran will ship its low- enriched uranium, its material, to the West to be -- to be manufactured into -- into fuel and sent back. The major issue, the rocky issue we're still facing with is the sequencing, when they should ship that stuff out of Iran and when -- you know, when do they get the fuel? I mean, the Iranians basically want a swap, so when...

AMANPOUR: You mean a simultaneous swap?

ELBARADEI: Simultaneous.

AMANPOUR: Ship out low-enriched and get the high-enriched.

ELBARADEI: And, yes, that's it. Yes.

AMANPOUR: Well, there you are. There's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and you in Tehran. What are they saying, and what are you saying to them?

ELBARADEI: Well, I'm basically saying this is a unique opportunity. This is the first time I've seen a U.S. president genuinely committed to engage Iran fully in every aspect of the relationship after 50 years of animosity. And I've heard the same from Ahmadinejad, that he also is really interested to fully engage the U.S. It's an opportunity that, as I said, will have a positive impact in every part of the Middle East. And we need -- people need to look at the big picture.

AMANPOUR: OK, let's look at the picture, which is the deal. All of this LEU, what is the precise nature of their complaint right now?

ELBARADEI: The precise nature that you should trust us, or why should we ship our stuff before we receive the -- the -- the fuel? So...

AMANPOUR: Is that a non-starter?

ELBARADEI: For -- for -- I think for the U.S., you know, the whole symbolism that we need to ship the stuff out because that will defuse the crisis, the perception that Iran's accumulating materials that could be used in a weapon, that perception will completely be eliminated if we -- if we move the stuff out of Iran, and then would give Barack Obama and -- and his administration the time that he needs to negotiate with Iran in a calmer environment. So...

AMANPOUR: And how long was meant to be the time between shipping it out and getting back the enriched material?

ELBARADEI: Well, it usually depends on how -- how fast you can get the -- the fuel. It's a technical issue. It would be probably within -- we will make sure that the act (ph) will continue in operation all the time, but they will get the whole fuel by the end of 2010.

AMANPOUR: So it was about a year...

ELBARADEI: It was about a year, but the reactor will never stop. It's a question of technical manufacturing, technical.

AMANPOUR: So their complaint or their mistrust is about guarantees?

ELBARADEI: Correct. It's really the question of the guarantees. Are we -- can we be sure that we will get the fuel? In the past, we had bad experience, from their perspective, with the French, with the Germans. We never got our stuff back.

But we tried in that agreement, in that proposal of mine to have everything guaranteed. The agency will be taking custody of that material, so, in other words, the international community will be -- will be taking custody of that material. The Americans for the first time agreed to guarantee that that program will be -- that that project will be implemented. That's huge for the U.S.

AMANPOUR: How -- how -- how does the U.S. guarantee...

ELBARADEI: By -- by joining -- by joining in that -- in that package and by signing a political declaration. And the Russians are committed again that that deed (ph) will be implemented. So there is enough guarantees.

And what I'm asking my Iranian colleagues, look at the big picture. You know, you have to take a risk for peace. Don't miss that opportunity, because it is -- it's -- the deal itself is very symbolic, but it's -- it would open the way for a huge change in -- in -- in the Middle East.

AMANPOUR: Would Iran's worry about guarantees be alleviated if they weren't dealing with Russia, but rather directly with the U.S., in other words, if they were to get this enriched uranium back from the United States?

ELBARADEI: Well, I think, in fairness to the U.S., the U.S. is trying to be as creative as possible. We are looking into all sorts of different options, including possible the U.S. direct involvement in the -- in the package. We are looking into a third country, Christiane, that we can put that material as a -- as a collateral until they get the fuel. We are -- we are, you know...

AMANPOUR: What kind of third country?

ELBARADEI: Well, it could be -- it could be a country that Iran has trust.

AMANPOUR: Such as?

ELBARADEI: Turkey, for example. You know, we can -- we can -- I mean, we haven't talked to the -- Turkey, but I'm sure they would be happy to be an agent, you know, to -- to keep the materials, under IAEA custody.

So we are and I am looking for every possible opportunity. And I must say, the Russians are doing the same, the Americans are doing the same. And I'm really calling on Iran, also, to help in not look at the trees, but look at the forest.

AMANPOUR: And you have said that, "They are talking through me now." You've been to Washington; you've talked to President Obama and other officials; you've been to Tehran. Tell me what's happening in those talks. What are you saying to each side?


AMANPOUR: And what are they saying to you?

ELBARADEI: I think both of them understand the huge opportunity that lies ahead.

AMANPOUR: But technically?

ELBARADEI: Technically, I think that the U.S. would like to see the material out of Iran, that any deal has to involve the material out of Iran, because that will diffuse the crisis. It will -- it will give Barack Obama the opportunity to negotiate without -- without all the pressure surrounding this -- this type of -- this material in Iran.


AMANPOUR: You mean, negotiate on a -- on a bigger picture?

ELBARADEI: On a bigger picture. I mean, I think he made it very clear, you know, to me and publicly that he's ready to negotiate the whole nuclear issue, the trade, the technology, which -- security issues. I mean, and that's...

AMANPOUR: So the grand bargain?

ELBARADEI: The grand bargain, of course. And -- and -- and Iran is absolutely needed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine. So it's a win-win situation for everybody, and I see that everybody is -- understands that. But -- but there is still this animosity, distrust, pride, if you like, dignity, and we have to -- we have to overcome that.

AMANPOUR: Let me show you -- we've got these satellite pictures that the whole world has seen about the Qom facility, the one that, on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Brown said that they had caught Iran red-handed at yet another secret nuclear facility, this the Revolutionary Guards facility outside Qom. Your investigators, inspectors have been in. What have they found?

ELBARADEI: Well, that facility, of course, should have been reported to us from the day Iran decided to build that facility. So Iran, as I said, has been on the wrong side of the law by not informing us in accordance with our regulation.

However, they allowed us to go there. We have got quite a good cooperation. It's still a facility under construction. There is no equipment; there is no nuclear material. But they showed that to build confidence. They should have told us in advance.

Their argument, that we could not tell you in advance because we have been threatened every day that we are going to be bombed, so we had to protect, as they say, passive defense, protect our technology, nonetheless, that was a violation of their obligation under the agency IAEA regulation.

AMANPOUR: Even though say -- even though they say that their obligation was to tell you a certain number of months before they introduced the -- the material?

ELBARADEI: That's their interpretation. We disagree with that. I mean, I think every country, without exception now have agreed after the Iraq '91, that they should tell us from the day they decided to build a facility.

AMANPOUR: OK. What did you find that you said -- I think it's a hole in the mountain? What do you think it's for?

ELBARADEI: Well, they said it's for enrichment, it's for enrichment and to protect their technology. I mean, they -- what they told me, that this is a passive defense, as they say it, in case we were bombed, we need to protect our technology, so this was meant to be a small enrichment facility.

AMANPOUR: You've talked about bombings. We've talked about other disincentives, like sanctions. We're going to talk about that with you right after a break.

Iran is not the only challenge that ElBaradei faces; so is North Korea. I witnessed Pyongyang blowing up its cooling tower at its nuclear reactor more than a year ago. But now, North Korea says it's produced more plutonium that can actually make nuclear weapons. All of that when we come back.



AMANPOUR: There's something profoundly disturbing about being forced to face a threat that we believed had faded along with the Cold War. What India and Pakistan have unleashed could slow the process of global nuclear disarmament and damage the decades-long effort to stop the spread of these weapons of mass destruction.


In the United States, the Doomsday Clock, which tracks the dangers of the atomic age, has just been reset from 14 to 9 minutes before midnight. Midnight signifies a nuclear holocaust.


AMANPOUR: And that was from our documentary "Ground Zero" back in 1998. The nuclear clock is now 5 minutes to midnight. So how close is the world to a nuclear catastrophe?

Joining me again, Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director-general of the IAEA.

Welcome back.


AMANPOUR: You have won the Nobel Prize, along with your agency. You have said in one of your farewell speeches that actually the nonproliferation attempts, you said, are in tatters. What do you mean by that?

ELBARADEI: Well, the system is facing a lot of challenges, Christiane, that we have not really had the tools to address the new challenges. We don't have the technology we need, the satellite imagery we need. We don't have the labs that allow us to do environmental samplings, of which are modern-day tools for verification. We don't have the legal authority in many countries.

There is a sense of cynicism that, why do -- should we continue not to develop nuclear weapons while the nuclear weapons states continue to modernize their weapons? That, however, has -- that technology is out of the tube.

AMANPOUR: I'm truly -- my mouth is hanging open. You're telling me you don't even have the technology to do this job?

ELBARADEI: In many cases, we don't. I mean, if you -- for example, you -- you -- you mentioned Qom. I mean, we didn't have...

AMANPOUR: There was a satellite picture we showed.

ELBARADEI: We were -- we only got that satellite picture, you know, a couple of weeks ago. I mean, we have a problem sometimes of having the satellite pictures in time. We have to rely on supplier of satellite imagery. That is part of the problem we face, is we don't get the information in time. I mean, you take the Syria bombing of -- the Israeli bombing of Syria.

AMANPOUR: It was a couple of years ago.

ELBARADEI: Yes. We got -- we got -- we got the information six months after the bombing. Well, that does not empower the IAEA to do its job properly.

So, I kept saying, as I mentioned at the Security Council summit with Barack Obama last week, that we need the legal authority, we need the technology, we need the human resources. We will continue to be a sleepy watchdog if we don't have the -- the -- the tools that allow us to bark.

And -- but then, again, you know, that is changing a lot, with Barack Obama now committed to -- to move towards a world free from nuclear weapons. That would give, I think, the U.S. and many (inaudible) more authority to go after those wannabes and saying, "We are moving in that direction. We do not tolerate anybody developing nuclear weapons."

But -- but the bigger threat I want to talk about, Christiane, is nuclear terrorisms. That is -- the technology is out of the tube, as you know, after A.Q. Khan network, and that is really my greatest worry. It's not a state acquiring nuclear weapons; it's a group of extremists acquiring nuclear weapons, because if they do, they will simply use it.

AMANPOUR: But, for instance, if you don't have this kind of -- of technology and the wherewithal, how do you stop the idea of not a state actor, but -- but a militant or an extremist using it for terrorist purposes?

ELBARADEI: Well, we do a lot of work with other countries in nuclear security, as we call it, make physical protection of nuclear material of -- of radioactive sources. But there's a lot -- there's a gap between...

AMANPOUR: Well, who's not stepping up to the plate? Is it the national actors? Is it the U.S., France, Britain, Russia? Who is it?

ELBARADEI: I -- I think the member states. I mean, they're asking us to -- you know, they say nonproliferation -- or proliferation is the number-one national security issue, and then we are not getting the tools to be able to do the good -- the job. It only took Barack Obama recently to say that the agency needs to double its budget in four years. He committed himself to double the IAEA budget in four years. But I would like to see that message understood and echoed by the rest of the international community.

AMANPOUR: Just -- just to be clear, does the technology and all the stuff you need, does it exist?

ELBARADEI: It does exist, but we are not -- it's not available to us all the time.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you again about Iran. There was a memo leaked about your agency itself saying that you personally have been underestimating Iran's ability on the military nuclear front. What is your answer to that?

ELBARADEI: Well, my answer to that, that's absolute bonkers. I mean, it is not true at all. I mean, I think every piece of information we have about Iran -- the world, in fact, knows about Iran -- has been through our consistent work in Iran for the last six years. I mean, there's a lot of hype, you know, which we...

AMANPOUR: All from dissident organizations which (inaudible) Natanz.

ELBARADEI: Oh, dissidents, we have to -- yes, we have to -- to distinguish between the meat and the chaff, as -- you know, we have to make sure that our reports are based on the fact and facts only. We cannot jump the gun.

Christiane, you remember -- everybody needs to remember Iraq. You know, we have to be very cautious in coming to a conclusion that can make the difference between war and peace.

AMANPOUR: Let me show you a -- a sound bite -- or, actually, part of a speech you gave at the G.A. -- at the U.N. in your farewell speech there.


ELBARADEI: We must act within the framework of international institutions -- in this case, the IAEA and the Security Council -- and empower them, rather than bypass them, through unilateral action.


The agency, for its part, must draw conclusions justified by the facts only. It must not jump the gun or be influenced by political considerations. Force should never be used unless every other option has been exhausted and then only within the bounds of international law, as codified in the United Nations Security Council.


AMANPOUR: So you have said over and over again that you disagree with the use of force, except under those conditions that you mentioned, and you don't even agree with sanctions. The United States, particularly Hillary Clinton, has talked about crippling sanctions on Iran if it doesn't come up to the plate on this deal. Why don't you agree?

ELBARADEI: Well, I agree, Christiane, because my experience tells me that the only way to resolve issues is through engaging in meaningful negotiations. When the U.S. decided for three years not to talk to Iran because they are part of "axis of evil," I mean, the situation got from bad to worse. When they then, for the next three years, adopted impossible conditions for Iran to accept, to suspend all its activities, which should come as an outcome of negotiations and not as a prelude, we didn't -- we went from Iran having an R&D enrichment to Iran having 6,000 centrifuges with a full-fledged program.

Sanctions -- of course you can apply sanctions, but our -- our experience with sanctions is that it hurts the innocent and vulnerable. It never really hurts a regime. In fact, we have seen it in Saddam Hussein. We have seen with Milosevic. And it makes them sometimes even more popular.

So I need to focus more on the meaningful dialogue in Iraq, in Iran and North Korea. Then, of course, you can -- I mean, if...

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about North Korea.


AMANPOUR: North Korea has just said that it's got enough plutonium for more nuclear devices.


AMANPOUR: And yet you've been there. There's been no force used against North Korea. What's the reality in North Korea? How to -- how to change...


ELBARADEI: The reality of North Korea, again, is an example of how we mismanaged a case of proliferation, because in 1992...

AMANPOUR: Yes, but the U.S. and North Korea last year, we saw the blowing up of the cooling tower...

ELBARADEI: Yes, but that was...

AMANPOUR: ... we had tried to get closed.

ELBARADEI: That was, you know, after a number of years when the U.S. stopped talking to North Korea. And, again, North Korea ended up from having few -- maybe suspected grams, kilograms of plutonium, turned out to be a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. The result of that, that on again-off again dialogue, which -- which led us to see North Korea moving all the way to having nuclear weapons.

So you can speak -- you can on the table (ph), you can apply sanctions, but -- and you can, you know, use force. But, first, focus on what really makes a difference, which a meaningful dialogue.

AMANPOUR: And you're about to step down after 12 years, a very, very difficult 12 years, and some have said that you may be a candidate for presidential elections in your home native land of Egypt. Yes or no?

ELBARADEI: Well, there's a lot of voices saying that I should be an agent for change, Egypt needs -- needs a change politically, economically, socially. But I would obviously -- I'm just about to step down from 12 years of a most stressful job, Christiane.

However, I will only consider that if -- if there is built-in guarantees there is a fair and -- and -- and fair and free election.

AMANPOUR: So you're not closing the door?

ELBARADEI: Well, I will never -- you never say "never," but -- but there are clearly conditions. I will only consider it if it is free and fair elections, and that is a question mark still in Egypt.

AMANPOUR: On that note, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

ELBARADEI: Thank you very much for having me, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Good luck in your future.

ELBARADEI: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: We have much more on nuclear proliferation on our Web site,, where you can find out about the Doomsday Clock, which, as we said, is now, incredibly, 5 minutes to midnight.

And next, our "P.S." How deep is the mistrust between Iran and the United States? How long will it last?



AMANPOUR: And now, our "Post-Script." As we focus on the tortured nuclear negotiations with Iran, it's worth looking again at the promise that U.S. President Barack Obama held out in a New Year's message to both the government and the people of Iran last March.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So in this season of new beginnings, I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek, instead, engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.


AMANPOUR: Since that speech, Iran has violently cracked down on the opposition that exploded after the disputed June 12th election there. And it is mired in internal domestic strife.

And this week, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said of Obama, quote, "They have made some conciliatory remarks in recent times, but whenever they smile at the Iranian officials, we notice that there is a sword hiding at their back."

Those comments highlight the lack of trust between Iran and U.S. leaders. But even so, restoring relations with the United States would be hugely popular with the majority of the Iranian people.

And you can find out much more about Iran online on our Web site, We have an interview with the mother of Neda, the woman who was killed on the streets after Iran's disputed election, and photos of her life. So please join us.

That's it for now. Thank you for watching. And from all of us here, goodbye from New York.