Interview: Mohamed ElBaradei

The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate speaks up about the Bush administration, Iran, and his rumored bid to become the next president of Egypt.

Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei knows a thing or two about conflict resolution. During his efforts, he took on some of the world's most intransigent regimes, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, over their development of nuclear weapons -- and that's without mentioning perhaps his biggest antagonist of all: the administration of George W. Bush. But during his 12 years at the helm of the IAEA, ElBaradei also transformed the agency into a key player on some of the planet's most explosive issues -- and in 2005 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Last December, ElBaradei dropped a bombshell: He was considering a run for the country's presidency in the upcoming 2011 election. The potential addition of a respected international figure to the presidential race threatens to weaken the grip on power held by Egypt's aging dictator, Hosni Mubarak. In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, ElBaradei opens up about the state of a grand bargain between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue, his conflicts with the Bush administration, and the conditions under which he will pursue the presidency. ElBaradei also discloses that he will be returning to his native country in the third week in February. The world will be watching closely to see if there are indeed second acts in Egyptian public life. Excerpts:

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?

Mohamed 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.

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.

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.  

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 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 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 than there is no option other then to go towards 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.

FP: How do you answer the complaints of the Bush administration that you failed to uphold the IAEA's standards of compliance toward Iran during your tenure?

ElBaradei: The Bush administration was saying in 2005 that Iran had an ongoing nuclear program, and we were accused of losing credibility by 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: 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: 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.

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.


Shirin Ebadi Prepares for the End

Why the Nobel laureate thinks the Iranian regime's days are numbered.

To listen to Shirin Ebadi's story is to grasp how dramatically Iran has changed in recent months. The Nobel laureate has not been back to Iran since the country's disputed June election. In November, authorities confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize medal from a bank safe-deposit box. After Christmas they arrested her sister in Tehran. Her husband, who is still there, had his passport taken away. Authorities then returned it, only for him to discover that the returned passport was a forgery. I recently had the chance to speak with Ebadi in depth about developments in her country. Now, Iran's most famous dissident tells me she has no doubt that she would be arrested if she returned home.

Last summer the thousands of protesters who poured into Teheran's streets were chanting, "Give us our vote back." But it's no longer just about a fraudulent election. Today crowds in various locations across the country shout "Death to the supreme leader," and reform clerics who had previously insisted that the system remain untouchable now call for free elections, free media, and freedom of speech and assembly.

Ebadi seems to be traveling a similar route. The 62-year-old human rights lawyer had denounced the Bush administration's democracy-promotion efforts. She sought reform of the system, not its demise, she would say. She deplored the "axis of evil" rhetoric and consistently attacked the Bush State Department's initiative to funnel $75 million to oppositionists and civil society groups. She hasn't changed her mind on this point. Ebadi told me she continues to believe that outside aid for the democracy movement is a mistake. But it's hard not to notice, as the situation in Iran has changed, that Ebadi's views are evolving.

In our conversation, she emphasized repeatedly, "You cannot do business with the regime." She is convinced that Iran's leadership is not negotiating in good faith on the nuclear issue and would not abide by any agreement reached with the United States and the European Union.

Ebadi once outspokenly supported U.S.-Iranian talks without preconditions. She still supports dialogue. But she wants that dialogue to involve human rights and a strategy to support civil society and the rule of law. She thinks that only an Iranian government that respects human rights and rules by consent can be a proper, credible partner for the West to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

How to get there? If the United States pursues sanctions, Ebadi says, Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian station), along with the Voice of America and the BBC, must help convince ordinary Iranians that sanctions are aimed at the regime, not the people. Like many Iranians, Ebadi is concerned about the passions nationalism can arouse. She's worried that past mistakes of U.S. foreign policy -- she has her axes to grind -- and a local penchant for conspiracy theories can make for a potent, toxic brew. She insists at the same time, though, that Iranians will endure considerable hardship if they think the endgame is greater respect for human rights.

Ebadi is hopeful about U.S. policy, primarily because she's a great admirer of President Barack Obama. She has defended his Nobel Peace Prize in interviews and told me she thinks he deserves the award for his sincerity and commitment to humane, liberal values. She applauds the president's efforts at health-care reform in the United States. Her effusive praise for Obama, however, sits side by side with her awkward acknowledgment that democracy and human rights are not yet an administration priority.

I asked Ebadi whether she would consider a future in politics. She insisted she has always excluded the possibility. I reminded her that Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel had done the same thing -- until he became president of a free Czechoslovakia in 1989. Ebadi still steadfastly rejects such notions for herself, but knows that the question of leadership is a sore spot for the Iranian opposition. No single figure has yet emerged who can galvanize the entire country and unite the disparate groupings that make up the opposition. In truth, a female secularist is unlikely to provide such leadership. That the regime fears Ebadi's influence, however, is abundantly clear.

Her sister, Noushin Ebadi, was taken from her apartment the evening of Dec. 28 by four security officers. Since then she has been allowed just a one-minute phone call to her husband. Noushin, a medical lecturer at Azad University in Tehran, has never been involved in political or human rights work. In that brief call to her husband, Noushin made clear that the authorities want Ebadi to cease her activity. "My sister is not a political prisoner," Ebadi tells me. "She's a hostage."

In six months, the opposition has become wider and deeper. Ebadi says it's nonsense to think this was ever merely about a small group of educated elites in northern Tehran. The democracy movement in other cities is active and growing, she says. By all accounts, fissures are beginning to emerge in the ruling class. There are signs that the secular and religious opposition have begun to cooperate. If this continues, it would be a dramatic development.

It's still possible that the government will reach a compromise with the protest movement and succeed in co-opting key members of the opposition. But with each week bringing new violence and fresh reports of arrests, beatings, and rapes, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely. In one sign of the regime's growing desperation, Iranian state television recently aired a documentary about the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot to death during protests in Tehran last summer. YouTube images of her death shocked millions around the world. The documentary suggested that Agha-Soltan cooperated with foreign agents and might have staged her own death. This is certain to cause fresh outrage.

Show trials, documentaries vilifying young Agha-Soltan: One ominous sign after another leads Ebadi to concede that the country is headed for a deep freeze and might come to resemble a military dictatorship like Burma. But that's short-term. "This regime is finished," she says passionately -- unless it changes course soon, and dramatically.

If the men who rule Iran are indeed at the end of their bloody reign, the United States and its allies have a lot to think about. Listening to Shirin Ebadi would mark a good start.