Interview

Transcript: Mohamed ElBaradei

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

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.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

Interview: Kanat Saudabayev

Kazakhstan's foreign minister on his country's unlikely new role as Europe's democracy watchdog.

In a landmark for Central Asia, Kazakhstan this year has taken over the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) -- a key intergovernmental organization that monitors everything from security cooperation to political and human rights in 56 member states across Europe. It is the first former Soviet state, the first Muslim country, and the first country east of Austria to assume the chairmanship. But Kazakhstan is hardly a paragon of European democracy. Its authoritarian government, headed by longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev, doesn't allow political parties to compete freely, is routinely accused of violating human rights, and is officially classified as "Not Free" by the U.S. NGO Freedom House. So how, ask critics, can Kazakhstan possibly be charged with upholding democratic standards in other countries?

Foreign Policy's Joshua E. Keating sat down this week with Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, the new OSCE chairman, to discuss his country's new role. Their edited conversation follows.

Foreign Policy: What can you tell me about Kazakhstan's agenda for OSCE chairmanship? 

Kanat Saudabayev: The year of our chairmanship is remarkable. It has been 35 years since the Helsinki Final Act [establishing the organization] and 11 years since the last OSCE meeting in Istanbul in 1999. The first decade of the new century has not made our world more secure, unfortunately. To the contrary, we are witnessing new threats and challenges. Since the events of Sept. 11, we have been facing such phenomena as international terrorism -- which has no exact address or origin and has no respected boundaries. Despite efforts by the international community in Afghanistan, this country still remains a source of international terrorism and drug trafficking. We are also harvesting the negative consequences of the first global economic crisis in the 21st century.

That is why Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called OSCE participating heads of state to convene. Convening a new OSCE summit is our most important priority.

FP: What role do you see Kazakhstan playing in the conflict in Afghanistan? What are your national goals there?

KS: Without stability in Afghanistan, we cannot begin to speak of stability, not only in Central Asia, but in the greater OSCE area. Kazakhstan has actively participated and supported the efforts of the international coalition in Afghanistan, but military efforts are not enough. Kazakhstan has already been engaged in massive humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan constructing roads, schools, hospitals, and we are rendering substantial food assistance to that country. Moreover, starting this year, we started our educational program according to our bilateral Kazakhstan-Afghanistan agreement, which is directed at the education of 1,000 Afghans to civilian professions. Despite the bitter consequences of the international financial crisis, Kazakhstan allocated $50 million for this program. As an OSCE acting chair, we would like to fully utilize this organization's potential mainly in the humanitarian sphere to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.

FP: One concern we hear a lot in Washington from countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Poland is that in the Obama administration's "reset" in relations with Russia, countries in Russia's old "sphere of influence" are being neglected. Obviously Kazakhstan has much friendlier relations with Russia than those countries, but is this a concern that your government shares?

KS: We don't have such conflict. We have developed a strategic partnership with the United States for quite some time and we are equally in a partnership with the Russian Federation -- both of which have great prospects for further development. We never had a feeling that bilateral relations between these two powers are developed at the expense of our interests.

FP: One conflict that the OSCE was active in resolving was the 2008 Russian war with Georgia and I wonder if you believe that a Kazakhstan-led OSCE would have approached that problem in the same way that it was then.

KS: We remain committed as the OSCE chair to the founding principles and values of this organization, and we will work in the interest of all participating states. This is how we will deal with the problem. I believe we all share the vision of a necessity to settle so-called protracted conflicts. On Feb. 15, I will leave on a trip to the South Caucasus to look at the situation on the spot. 

FP:At Tuesday night's Helsinki Committee reception in Washington, Congressman Alcee Hastings mentioned that Kazakhstan had made "certain assurances" to the commission about its record on democracy and human rights. Could you tell me what those assurances were and what Kazakhstan will do to meet them?

KS: The decision of Dec. 30., 2007, of the OSCE ministerial [to award the chairmanship to Kazakhstan] was an objective recognition of Kazakhstan's achievement since independence in its social, economic and political democratic development.

The decision to construct a modern democratic society was a well-thought decision of the people of Kazakhstan and in all the years since our independence we are gradually moving forward on this path. We dealt with the democratization process before our chairmanship. We furthered these processes last year and we are committed that the democratization process will get further impetus after our chairmanship of the OSCE.

Last year we adopted a national human rights action plan and the concept of legal reform in Kazakhstan. Just recently, on the 29th of January, in his state of the nation speech, President Nazarbayev launched a massive program of legal reforms, which is aimed at bringing Kazakhstan's judiciary closer to international standards. This year the Parliament will adopt a law that stipulates total public and legislative control over the activities of the law enforcement. This signifies our ongoing work to further strengthen the protection of rights and liberties of our citizens. This is being done not because we are chairing the OSCE, but in the name of our citizens and their interests.

FP: Last night Sen. Ben Cardin raised concerns over the case of Evgeny Zhovtis [a prominent Kazakh human rights activist who was sentenced, in what human rights groups have called a politically motivated conviction, to three years in jail this week for a fatal traffic accident]. What is your response to that?

KS: In this situation we don't speak about Zhovtis as a human rights defender; we are speaking about the decision of the Kazakh judicial court on the case of a Kazakh citizen who caused the death of another person. Mr. Zhovtis was born and raised in our country and he had not had any problems with the law before but because he was involved in the tragic accident that led to the death of another person, he plead guilty and this is it. I don't even want to comment on this issue. On the same grounds, within that time period 200 people were convicted on the same grounds. The actual penalty foreseen is from three to eight years of imprisonment. Mr. Zhovits was given near the minimum sentence, so why don't you speak about the other 199 convicted?

Switzerland, for example, is not extraditing Mr. Polanksi -- but that is not being discussed at such levels.

FP: But the OSCE does have a role to play in elections this year in Ukraine and Belarus. Do you think that Kazakhstan's democracy is at the point where it can be a model for these countries and credibly oversee their elections?

KS: In response, I would like to come back to my previous statements: If 55 OSCE states voted in favor of Kazakhstan's chairmanship by consensus, then they have accepted and endorsed Kazakhstan's achievements.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images