Mohamed ElBaradei on the Iranian Nuclear Issue

As we follow the NPT Review Conference in New York and the enormous salience of the Iranian nuclear issue there, it is useful to consider some recent observations about the Iranian case by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s former Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei.  Baradei was in the Boston area last week, where, among other things, he took part in an extended Q&A session with Graham Allison; the event was hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Baradei talked about a range of topics — e.g., his difficulties with the George W. Bush Administration over Iraqi WMD (final score: Baradei and the IAEA, right; Vice President Cheney, wrong as could be), the illegality of coercive regime change, and prospects for a world without nuclear weapons — all in an extremely interesting and insightful way.

We thought he was exceptionally sharp on the Iranian nuclear issue, which took up most of the discussion.  Here are some of his main points on this topic:

  • The George W. Bush Administration missed real opportunities to negotiate meaningful limits on the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment infrastructure.  Indeed, but for its unwillingness to deal seriously with a member of the “axis of evil,” the Bush Administration could have won Iran’s agreement to limit its centrifuge program to “laboratory scale,” rather than the industrial scale program we see taking shape today.
  • Iran wants a “nuclear weapons capability” — which is not the same as actual nuclear weapons — to be taken seriously as a regional power by the United States.  (Baradei says that Iranian officials have told him many times they have no problem with the United States as a global power, but want the United States to recognize Iran’s status as a regional power.  Baradei also says that developing a “nuclear weapons capability” — again, not the same as actual nuclear weapons — is “kosher” under the NPT.)
  • Baradei believes there is still a deal to be made with regard to refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).  More specifically, he argues that storing Iranian low-enriched uranium under IAEA supervision in Iran pending delivery of finished fuel for the TRR — as Tehran has proposed — should be acceptable as the basis for a deal.
  • While the Iranian nuclear issue is being handled through the P-5+1, the nuclear issue is fundamentally a U.S.-Iranian problem.  Only the United States can offer the Islamic Republic the security assurances that it needs.  Conversely, only Iran can help the United States stabilize key zones of conflict in the region — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.
  • At its root, the Iranian nuclear issue is about the balance of power in the Middle East — and, more specifically, the balance of power between Israel and Iran.  Ultimately, the balance of power in the Middle East can only be stabilized through the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region — including Israel.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 3 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.  A video of the Q&A with ElBaradei may also be viewed at the Web site of the Institute of Politics.

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