Friday, October 07, 2005

Nukes and the Nobel: Where Fuels Rush In

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, didn't give many interviews over the last few months. One of those, however, was at the beginning of July when I visited him in Vienna. We talked mainly about Iran, but he kept coming back to the more fundamental issue of "the fuel cycle," since a country that can make its own atomic fuel can also make its own fissile material for an atomic bomb. Since we met, Iran has re-started part of the conversion process that turns uranium into fuel, Tehran's talks with Europe have broken down, and after much wrangling the IAEA has opened the possibility it will refer the matter to the UN Security Council (see the September archive on this site). This morning, ElBaradei and the IAEA won the Nobel Peace Prize. Following are some previously unpublished excerpts from the raw transcript of our hour-long conversation last summer:

ElBaradei: I have been saying, not only vis a vis Iran, but also globally, that dissemination of the fuel cycle could be the Achilles heel of the non-proliferation regime. It’s an issue brought to the surface by Iran, but not only Iran. … We know now better than 30 years ago that if you have the fuel cycle you are nuclear-weapons capable, and we need to limit that number. In fact we need to reduce that number and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons capabilities rather than having 30 or 40 countries who can have nuclear weapons [whenever] they change their security perception.
Dickey: That’s what you’ve called “virtual” weapons states.
ElBaradei: "Virtual" weapons states, "closeted" weapons states. Whatever. I’ve tried in many ways to explain it. But you have the fuel cycle, then you are really like six months away from a nuclear weapon. And if I look at it from a global security perspective, well, that is too precarious. We need to reconcile the need for the use of technology and the need to protect ourselves.... I would like to have a system, not only in Iran but everywhere, that is not simply based on trust. I’d like to have a system that is inherently safe. … Can we assure countries that they will have access to the technology without having to have the whole fuel cycle?
Dickey: This is what’s called the fuel bank.
ElBaradei: Yes. ...
Dickey: What do you think Iran wants out of all this?
ElBaradei: Iran wants to get the best from its own perspective. Obviously it wants to get the maximum technology, and not just nuclear. Reactor technology is key for them. They want IT, all the modern technology, Airbus, Boeing. They need the technology to modernize. And I think they understand that the fuel cycle enables them to be part of the big boys club, and it’s a smart insurance policy, if they can get that, because again it sends a message to their neighbors. Iran wants to be a major player in the whole Middle East which is being reshaped right now. …I don’t want to speak for them, but they also would like to normalize their relationship, ultimately, with the US. Their dialogue with Europe is a bridge toward their ultimate normalization with the US. So these are the things that I guess are on their agenda. But I can’t speak for them.
So, again, when you talk about the nuclear program in Iran you are talking about regional politics, regional security – global politics, global security. So, you will have the European agenda, the American agenda, the Iranian agenda, the neighbors agenda, the Israelis, the Arabs. Everybody is affected by how this dialogue between Europe and Iran will play out. I think everybody understands that it is not just the nuclear issue, it is the whole future of the Middle East, it is the whole future of regional security, global security. That’s why it makes it more difficult, and that’s why it takes time, and that’s why people should be patient. As long as they are talking, I’m comfortable. As long as the fuel cycle is suspended, as long as they are making progress, keep at it.
Dickey: The Europeans are sounding very pessimistic these days. It’s very hard to see in the current environment how the Americans are going to offer security guarantees and a face-saving solution for this Iranian regime.
ElBaradei: The number one threat for the entire world is weapons of mass destruction. I’d rather assure our security first, and then I’ll worry about all the other issues: legitimizing regimes, democracy, human rights. If we do not have global security it might be too late to think about any of these issues. So unless I have defanged all the potential proliferators or terrorists or what have you I will not have a chance to discuss these other issues. It’s a question of priorities.
Dickey: What is the risk that talks will collapse and we’ll be looking at a breakout, Iran just walking away from the table and the treaty.
ElBaradei: I am still hoping that at the end of the day, with all the posturing, nobody can afford a confrontation. Confrontation is a lose-lose proposition. … You might see some hiccups in the process, some delays in the process, but I think we need to keep at it.
Dickey: At the end of the day, do you think Iran will become a virtual weapons state?
ElBaradei: [long sigh] What I’m trying to do is put a stop to this madness…

Also see:
Shadowland: Rita's Revelation, 23 Sep 2005
As oil prices soar, so will demands for atomic energy. Iran knows this and Americans should, too. Why it's time to rethink the global approach to nuclear proliferation.

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