Transcript: Mohamed ElBaradei

The extended transcript of Foreign Policy's interview with Mohamed ElBaradei.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In January, Foreign Policy published excerpts from its interview with former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei. Following his return to Egypt on Feb. 19, here is an extended version of ElBaradei's comments on his time at the helm of the IAEA, his opinion of the George W. Bush administration, and his ambitions to run in Egypt's upcoming presidential election.

Foreign Policy: What were some of the primary skills that you needed to be effective in your job, during your 12 years as director general of the IAEA?

In January, Foreign Policy published excerpts from its interview with former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei. Following his return to Egypt on Feb. 19, here is an extended version of ElBaradei’s comments on his time at the helm of the IAEA, his opinion of the George W. Bush administration, and his ambitions to run in Egypt’s upcoming presidential election.

Foreign Policy: What were some of the primary skills that you needed to be effective in your job, during your 12 years as director general of the IAEA?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Well, I think the No. 1 skill is impartiality — and that is key. Particularly in the area of verification, you are sitting in judgment of countries’ behavior, and that is very difficult for countries to stomach. You are, in one way, hired by them — and on the other, sitting in judgment of their behavior.

That means you have to be impeccably impartial and stick to the facts. But, that being said, you will always have disagreements because, obviously, you are trying to be an objective judge in a very subjective political environment — the security environment. 

Foreign Policy: During your time as IAEA director general, does any one country or administration stick out to you as the greatest challenge to deal with?

ElBaradei: Well quite a few. Of course, it was not easy in some cases to deal with the Bush administration. In the case of Iraq and the case of Iran, we had different viewpoints of the meaning of diplomacy and, in many cases, about the facts themselves. This is equally true with North Korea.

The problem, in our area of work, is that you are dealing with very subjective policy views from different states. So you try to separate the wheat from the chaff and make sure that you are only dealing with facts. You must try to understand where people are coming from.

There is a lot of misconception when you hear that this is just a technical organization. Every aspect of our work is in nuclear security, nuclear verification, or nuclear power, and so there is always a policy dimension to it. And you have to understand the context within which you are working and the implication of what you are doing or saying. There is always an effort by people to use and abuse what you say. So you have to walk on very thin ice in terms of exactly measuring every word you author and every action you take — that doesn’t mean politicizing the work of the agency, but that means understanding the context in which you are operating.

That will continue to be the same. When I get a piece of intelligence, for example, I have to be very aware that there is misinformation and that there are people who like to hype the issues for their own political ends. These are all policy issues, and you must make value judgments. You try to find a way to get the antagonistic parties together and try to find a solution. Of course, you cannot impose a solution but, from where you are sitting, you can see options and possibilities where things can move forward.

At the end of the day, we are not doing verification for the sake of verification. We are doing inspection to make sure that countries are not developing nuclear weapons. If, in addition to our verification, you see a way for direct engagement between the parties and a way to build trust, of course you try to suggest the way forward.  I’ve been doing that in the case of Iran and in tough cases like North Korea.

Just before I left office, there was this deal about fuel [where the Iranians would transfer their stocks of enriched uranium out of the country, in exchange for fuel plates for their nuclear reactor], which I still believe is a fantastic opportunity for both the United States and Iran to get engaged. I have been, while doing verification on Iran, actively pursuing that package on behalf of the United States and behalf of Iran — I was mediating between the two. That is part of the job: You have to understand that it is partly mediation, partly inspection, partly diplomacy. You wear so many hats and switch between them quickly in order to keep your eye on the ball. That way, you keep the world safer and more secure and ensure that we do not end up killing each other for the wrong reasons.

FP: It seems like people are beginning to doubt that the Iranians are negotiating in good faith. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think this deal still has potential?

ElBaradei: I think that, unfortunately, as we were moving ahead with this fuel package deal, which we were about to conclude, Iran fell into an internal fight as a result of the [contested June 2009] election. This issue became [part of] a payback situation in Iran, as I see it. I still have hope that this domestic hype will come to an end and then Iran will see the fantastic opportunity you have in that deal. It is not the deal per se, but the horizon that it opens.

I know from President Barack Obama, personally, that if that deal were to take place, it would defuse that crisis by giving him the space to negotiate a comprehensive package with Iran where nothing is off the table. This would be the opening of what everybody has been hoping for, for many, many years. I hope that the Iranians, as they settle down their domestic situation, will understand the value of such an opening.

To have somebody like Barack Obama, who for the first time offers to negotiate with them without preconditions — which is something we have long been waiting for — and [for Iran] to have an opportunity to sit directly with the United States and talk about all the mutual grievances, is also an opportunity that will not last very long. If the Iranians are not negotiating fair and straight then there is no option other than to go toward sanctions, which would not resolve any issues and would make things worse. But people will have to take the other road, if the road of dialogue and negotiation is not open.

However, as I said, I think there is still some hope. Turkey is still doing their best; you remember I offered that Turkey would be a place we could store Iranian fuel until Iran receives its fuel [plates, for its nuclear reactor]. Brazil is also still active in trying to find a way out. I haven’t lost hope but, frankly, I have been disappointed that this deal has not been picked up by the Iranians so far.

FP: With regards to Iran, do you think the IAEA would have behaved differently if the Bush Administration wasn’t in office at the time? Was part of your concern that the Bush Administration would move too quickly to war?

ElBaradei: No, not at all. I would have behaved exactly the same. I’m a lawyer. I go for due process, I go for fairness and equity — these values mean a lot to me. I think we reported every piece of information we had on Iran to our member states and to our clients in the Board of Governors. In fact, the reason that Iran was not immediately referred to the Security Council was a value judgment by the member states. It was a deliberate decision by the Europeans and the time, the EU-3 [the United Kingdom, France, and Germany], not to take Iran to the Security Council, because during those couple of years, they were negotiating with Iran about a comprehensive package.

There was a package [deal] offered first, I think in 2003 and 2004, by the EU-3. Not referring Iran to the Security Council was part of that package. It was held out by the Europeans as a carrot to induce Iran to come to the table and to negotiate a comprehensive package. We were aware of that. That’s why I was saying earlier — that you have to be aware of the environment within which you operate. But all the facts we had from the day we started inspection in Iran until today are shared with all of our member states.

The Bush administration was saying in 2005 that Iran had an ongoing nuclear program, and we were accused of losing credibility by [U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations] John Bolton and company when we said we did not see concrete proof of an ongoing program. But we were exonerated, if you like, and our conclusion was validated by the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] report in 2007, which said that Iran had [done] some weaponization studies but was not developing weapons, and that they stopped it in 2003.

So when we said in 2005 that we don’t have concrete proof of an ongoing program, we were correct. However, nobody came back to us to apologize after all of the vilification we had in 2005. It was the same in the case of Iraq, when Dick Cheney said before the war that I was wrong. After the war all he said was that he misspoke. Well, the result of the "misspeaking" was horrendous, as I see it today.

FP: On a personal level, did you believe then, and do you believe now, that Bush was a threat to the Arab world?

ElBaradei: I’m not sure I would say he was a threat to the Arab world. I would say that his policies of relying heavily on the threat or use of force, and of adopting a diplomacy that is black and white — that was completely counter-productive. If there is one thing I have learned, there is little that is black and white; there is a grey zone which you have to deal with.

If you really want to resolve issues, you have to engage the parties. You cannot call them biblical names — Axis of Evil, Satan, and what have you — and then expect them to have trust in you. This was not just vis-à-vis the Arab or Muslim world — it was a policy that has not yielded positive results in terms of integrating the United States with the rest of humanity. You have seen Latin American countries bolting; many regimes were moving away from the Bush Administration at the time.

You have seen the same phenomenon in the Muslim world. You still have a couple of wars you don’t know how to get out of, and you have also gotten an increase in terrorists. The so-called moderate regimes have lost a lot of credibility, because they were not able to deliver. So it was not a policy of inclusion, rather it was a policy of exclusion. That has been manifested more in the Middle East because the Middle East is still a hotbed of tension, and will continue to be until people understand that you have to find a solution to the Palestinian issue, and you have to fix the problem of repression in many Arab regimes.

You have to make people feel that they are being treated as human beings by their own governments and by the outside world, and that perception is not there. People feel that they are being unfairly treated by their own government and unjustly treated by the outside world. That’s the most fertile ground for increasing radicalism. That is really my worry in the long term, in that part of the world.

Foreign Policy: Officials in your own safeguards committee have said that Iran is trying to construct a nuclear weapon. What prevented you from including some of that information in your dossier to the IAEA’s board? Was that a difficult decision?

ElBaradei: Again, this is from the people who wanted to hype the Iranian issue for their own policy objectives. All the information about alleged weaponization studies was information received by member states. We don’t have the expertise or the human intelligence to be able to get this information. All of it is provided to us by a handful of countries. We obviously compile this information and analyze it, and we engage Iran to try and clarify these issues. Unfortunately, Iran has not been substantively engaging us on these issues, and I have stated a number of times that we are quite concerned about these allegations. Iran continued to say that these are all fake documents and reminded me of our experience in Iraq. But also, we were not able to provide Iran with original documents or even copies.

So the question, as I mentioned to our member states in one of our closed sessions with the board, is that the entire issue hinges on whether these documents are authentic. If these are authentic, then you don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to know that Iran has been engaged in weaponization studies. But I am not in the business of forensic science.

We are very good in dealing with nuclear material — I can do environmental sampling analysis, and I can take measurements. I can give you litmus tests on nuclear material — but when it comes to [verifying the authenticity of] paperwork, we are really out of our depth. However, we have a lot of this kind of information, and I keep reporting to the member states that we are quite concerned. We have a lot of these allegations but we are not able to come to a conclusion on them.

My last report to the board, shortly before I left, mentioned that we are on a dead-end street unless Iran engages with us on clarifying these issues and proving to us that [these documents] are fake or manufactured. Or unless we get the original documents, and we are convinced that these are accurate. I told them we had reached a dead-end. We have published in our reports a summary of all of this, but it is not a question of analysis — that’s what I want to make clear. As I’ve said, I’m not even a nuclear physicist. But I told the board that, if these are accurate documents, then Iran has been engaged in weaponization studies. But the million dollar question is the question of authenticity, and that continues to be the issue today.

People must understand that we cannot jump the gun. A decision by us to say that Iran has been engaged in weaponization studies without being absolutely certain could have major ramifications. People want us to say that, unfortunately, because we are the ones who have credibility. But I will not abuse my credibility unless I’m sure of my facts.

FP: Transitioning now to Egyptian politics, there has been a great deal of talk that you will be a candidate in the next presidential election. Why do you want to be president of Egypt?

ElBaradei: I don’t want to be president of Egypt! I have a lot of plans other than being president of Egypt. You can understand that after having this thankless job for 12 years, that I wanted to have some time to do other things that I like to do, including spending time with my family — we have a house in the south of France, and I also have a granddaughter. However, this issue is coming to me by default; a lot of people are saying that they want me to be engaged in domestic politics — they want me to run for president of Egypt.

What I’ve said is that I would not even consider running for president unless there is the proper framework for a free and fair election — and that is still the major question mark in Egypt. I don’t believe the conditions are in place for free and fair elections. In fact, I just sent an article to an Egyptian newspaper today setting out what needs to be done before I could consider it. These guarantees [include] an independent judicial review, international oversight, and equal opportunity for media coverage — there is a lot that needs to be in place — and of course, the ability to run as an independent. The Constitution is written in a way that I cannot run unless I join an existing party, which, to me, is not how a democratic system works.

I would like to be, at this time, an agent to push Egypt toward a more democratic and transparent regime, with all of its implications for the rest of the Arab world. If I am able to do that, I will be very happy because we need to achieve democracy in the Arab world as fast as we can. Democracy meaning empowering people, democracy meaning a proper economic and social development, tolerance — it means building up modern societies.

FP: You faced some pretty bitter attacks in the Egyptian state media for these statements. Do you fear that foreshadows some of the repression you will face when you return to Egypt?

ElBaradei: I think the immediate reaction was a vicious attack by the government newspapers. Then I think they realized they made a terrible mistake because it backfired in their face. All of a sudden I became a national hero, sitting here in Vienna. People were just disgusted by how they reacted [to my statements].

So that immediately stopped, and now you don’t see any of that any longer and I just saw a representative of the ruling party saying that they are looking forward to my return to Egypt and that they will welcome me back. I think they realize that a vicious personal attack is not the way to go about it because they need to address the issues I have raised and will continue to raise, whether I’m in Egypt or outside Egypt.

FP: Assuming that there is a free and fair campaign, what would you bring to the office that [President Mubarak’s younger son] Gamal Mubarak would not?

ElBaradei: Well, I would let him speak for himself if he decides to run. I would bring a regime where people feel that they are the ones who are making the calls. A regime that is based on the rule of law, based on established institutions, based on freedom, equal justice, transparency accountability — I mean basically anything that you have in a functional democracy.

FP: Earlier this month, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, there was an attack on the Copts emerging from mass. Has this government done enough to improve relations between Muslims and Copts, or is that something you would want to work on as well?

ElBaradei: I do not know how much they have done. However, I do know that we still have a problem, which is terrible, between Muslims and Christians. [Fixing this] is part of moving forward — of tolerance and of rational thinking.

I think it is a manifestation of social and economic conditions: Poverty, in my view, brings out the worst in people. Education and economic and social development is the way to move forward. We have lived for thousands of years together, Muslims and Christians; we are part of the same society. Of course, tolerance and teaching people to practice tolerance would be one of my immediate priorities from wherever I am. You don’t need to be in office, and it is one of the issues that I talked about today and I will continue to talk about it.

FP: President Mubarak has been criticized harshly in Egypt and from outside, from some quarters, for his policy toward Gaza. Do you have any opinions on his policy toward Hamas?

ElBaradei: I don’t really know the details about his relationship with Hamas. All I know about Gaza is that you have to distinguish between national security and humanitarian assistance. I would quote Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, who wrote that we are failing Gaza and that 1.5 million innocent civilians have been penalized because of the behavior of some of the Hamas members. To me this is not much different from what happened to Iraq before and after the war. You end up penalizing the innocent and the vulnerable — the citizens. According to Patten, Gaza is only getting 31 of the "essential items" from the Israeli side, while they need thousands of items. They’re not getting any construction materials. They received 41 truckloads of materials; the whole place is rubble.

That, to me, goes against the "responsibility to protect", which was adopted with lots of fanfare in 2005 by all of the heads of state at the U.N. The need to separate your politics from humanitarian needs and from protection of civilians is a principle that was established a hundred years ago with the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions. I feel that we are moving away from that in many ways. We talked about "crippling sanctions," for example. When you talk about "crippling sanctions," you have to understand that those who are being crippled are not the people in power — it is the innocent civilians, the elderly, and the young. That is to me absolutely the wrong approach.

FP: Does that mean you would stop the construction of this underground wall that is currently being constructed between Egypt and Gaza?

ElBaradei: As I said, I don’t really know the details, but if this [border area] has been used for smuggling, drugs, weapons, or extremists, then Egypt has the right to make sure it protects its security. But what Egypt can also do is use the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow Gaza to have humanitarian assistance. For example, one idea I have is to create a free zone in the Egyptian part of Rafah [the border town]. I don’t see why we can’t have a free zone there where people from Gaza go and buy their own basic needs. So there is a difference between protecting national security, which no one questions, and providing humanitarian assistance.

Right now, Gaza — as was mentioned by the former head of UNWRA, Karen AbuZayd — is the biggest prison in the world. It pains you to hear that. It pains you to hear that about any people, anywhere in the world.

FP: As you transition from a career as the head of an international agency to one in Egyptian politics, are there different skills that you’ve had to learn?

ElBaradei: Well, I’m not sure that I will play a role in Egyptian politics. But, of course, in sitting at the IAEA — one important skill you learn is management. You have to identify the problems, the options available to you, how to motivate people, and how to make sure you have the right people around you. Managing a country is like managing a company, in many ways. It maybe involves more complicated issues, but it’s the same skills.

Of course, [both positions require] the art of compromise. I have been dealing with officials from a hundred different nationalities, each one coming with their own prejudices, their own culture, and their own way of thinking. You have to see how to adopt an inclusive approach and get people to work together.

You talked to me about the Muslims and the Copts in Egypt, for example. It’s really essentially to accept each other — to cut a deal, if you like, you have to compromise and reconcile your differences. I was working with 150 member states [at the IAEA] and, again, there aren’t two who see eye to eye on anything. And you have to find the highest common denominator that you can get. You get a lot of that through psychology — it is not really substance, as you learn. It’s really respect and dialogue: These are all skills that you need wherever and whatever you do in public life.  Whether you are a CEO of Coca-Cola, whether you are the head of the IAEA, or whether you are the president of a country.

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