Mohamed ElBaradei's Advice on Iran
Past Policies Have Failed, Says Former IAEA Chief

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| January 28, 2011       
[Updated April 8, 2012]

Mohamed ElBaradei Nobel Prize Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei was Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009. Prior to this post, he was a civil servant, professor and diplomat at the United Nations.

Born June 17, 1942 in Cairo, Dr. ElBaradei is the eldest of two sisters and two brothers. Their father, Mostafa, was a pro-democracy activist who opposed President Nasser's rule. Like him, ElBaradei pursued a career in law, attending the University of Cairo and later completing his graduate work at NYU. While in New York he began his diplomatic career, serving on two Permanent Missions of Egypt to the United Nations. He returned to Egypt in 1974, where he became Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmi's special assistant. In 1980, he took a job at the UN, and by 1984, he moved to the UN's other body, the IAEA, where he served in legal and advisory positions before eventually being elected Director General in 1997.

In 2005, ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way."

In recent years, ElBaradei has been seen in the media regularly commenting on the Iranian nuclear program. He has long advocated the careful use of diplomacy in the nuclear standoff, describing the military option as "madness". His stance put him at odds with the Bush administration, who repeatedly attempted to undermine him, if not oust him completely.

In January 2011, ElBaradei returned to Egypt to assist with the pro-democracy movement in the country, calling for the end of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

The Age of Deception (2011)
Excerpt from chapter 11: IRAN, 2007-2008: Squandered Opportunities

The Age of Deception - book The U.S. perception of the Iranian regime as a gang of glassy-eyed radicals had deep emotional roots, reaching back to the hostage crisis of 1979-1981. For the Iranians, their sense of the United States as the Great Satan went back still further, to 1953 and the overthrow of the Mossadegh government by the CIA. In both capitols, talk of the relationship was frequently tinged with an element of ideological and even religious fervor.

For the hard-liners in the Bush administration, the very notion of engagement with Iran represented a moral compromise. Their ultimate goal was regime change. But by 2007, the catastrophe of the Iraq War meant that a military strike on Iran no longer appeared to be a viable option, at least for the present. So the administration promoted Plan B: a policy of sanctions and isolation intended to cause Iran to buckle under pressure, particularly on the nuclear issue.

Sanctions served to express the international community's displeasure, but, in my view, they could not resolve the issue. And the notion of Iran buckling was a fiction: although the idea played well inside the Beltway, it had nothing to do with reality. Nonetheless, U.S. hard-liners worked to undermine all European efforts to resume dialogue with Iran, especially when it came to uranium enrichment. At any point that conditions for a breakthrough seemed within reach, the Americans found a way to block progress.

Enigma Magazine Interview
December 2010

Iran of course, want[s] to use nuclear energy, and they are using nuclear energy now, they built their first power reactor with Russian assistance in Bushehr. But there are also concerns about whether Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapon. And, that's a very complicated issue which goes back fifty years when the West toppled the first nationally elected government in Tehran, the Mossadegh government. We went, then, through the hostages in, there's a huge gap, or a huge period of distrust between the U.S., in particular, and Iran.

CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS Interview
February 1, 2009

ZAKARIA: Let's talk about what these negotiations might look like. You have spent a lot of time negotiating with the Iranians. From the outside, it looks they are tough customers.

ELBARADEI: Oh, they're very tough customers. I mean, they have, I always say, and they have 1,000 years of experience as "bazaaris." They know what to ask for, what is the right price. And they are...

ZAKARIA: And they negotiate the price up to the last minute.

ELBARADEI: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And they are very good at that, and they are very clever negotiators. And they think strategically, unlike the Arab world, where there is an emotional reaction.

In Iran, it's a very strategic thinking, long-term thinking, which is — again, I admire them for that. But it is not going to be easy.

And the negotiation will have to cover, primarily, their security. I mean, there is a sense of insecurity, whether you think of Iran regime as a theocracy, a democracy. Every regime — for them, regime survival is number one priority.

ZAKARIA: Well, and they are surrounding by nuclear weapon states...

ELBARADEI: And they are...

ZAKARIA: ... Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel.

ELBARADEI: All of them, and 150,000 American troops. So, one has to understand they have a sense of insecurity. We have to address their sense of insecurity.

They have been called "Axis of Evil". They have been — you know, there has been money allocated for regime change.

So, put yourself in their shoes. I mean, there is insecurity. Whether you agree with their ideology, you hate their ideology, that's a different matter.

But they have to, you know, to protect themselves. It's a — fundamentally, it's a security issue. It's a competition of power between the U.S. and its ideology and Iran, which obviously have a different ideology.

Well, you need to reconcile your differences. You need to put all your grievances on the table. The grievances go back from — until 1953, when the CIA toppled the first nationally elected president of Iran, President Mossadegh [correction: Prime Minister]. Then we came to the hostage crisis. Then we came to the nuclear crisis.

And we need to do a lot of work to put all this on the table and build trust. I mean, it is not really about — many other countries are enriching uranium without the world making any fuss about it. Why are we making a fuss about Iran?

Washington Post / Newsweek Interview
January 2009

Interview with Lally Weymouth at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland during the last week of January 2009 (published February 1st).

Some in the United States claim that between 2003 and 2007, you protected Iran because you did not want to see a U.S. military attack on it. In retrospect, do you think you allowed Iran to push the limits?

This is a complete misunderstanding. We have done as much as we can do in Iran to make sure that we understand the history and the present status of their program, to try to push them as far as we can within our authority to come clean. The idea people have that we are God, that we are able to cross borders, open doors . . . . We don't have that authority. . . . I am very proud that within the limited authority we have, we have been able to understand the scope of the most sensitive part of the Iranian program, which is the enrichment program, which is now under complete agency inspection.

The Iranian enrichment program is now under inspection?

We know how much they produce in terms of enriched uranium.

Highly enriched uranium?

Low-enriched uranium. Iran was cooperating even more before. They cut the cooperation . . . when they were taken to the Security Council in 2005. That was a political decision. . . . I have said for the past six years that the policy of building trust between the West (and the United States in particular) and Iran has failed completely. We haven't moved one iota.

Do you think it is possible?

I think it is possible. I have been counseling privately and publicly that this is not going to happen unless there is a direct dialogue.

What do you mean, this is not going to happen?

Trust-building. You're not going to have trust unless you have a direct dialogue. President Obama is saying he's ready to have a direct dialogue without preconditions, based on mutual respect. I say this is absolutely overdue.

So you think President Obama is doing the right thing?

I have no question about that. This was the missing part of the puzzle. . . . Regional security issues, particularly in the Middle East, will not move one iota until you sit around the table and discuss the grievances that have accumulated over the last 56 years between Iran and the international community — from 1953, when the CIA and MI6 removed Mohammed Mossadegh, the first nationally elected government, to the hostage crisis in 1979. This is the past, but the present is fundamentally a competition of power in the Middle East between Iran, which has its own specific ideology, and the United States and some of Iran's neighbors.

So you think it's Iran versus the West?

Well, it's a competition between Iran and the West. Iran wants to have its role as a regional security power recognized. They feel they are the most powerful state in the region right now, and that is true, to a large extent. . . .

They see that if you have the technology that can allow you to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time, it gives you power, prestige and security. So it's a security issue [relating to] how great a role Iran will have as a regional power, the grievances the West has vis-ŗ-vis Iran about alleged Iranian support for extremist groups, about its human rights record. All these are legitimate issues, but these issues are not going to be resolved by calling each other names across the ocean. When you call Iran [part of] "an axis of evil," you do not expect them to say, "Well, we will give up our nuclear program." Obviously, they look for their own security, and they have seen that if you have nuclear weapons or at least the technology, you are somehow protected from an attack. . . . Obama's change of page is absolutely, in my view, the way to go. . . .

The concern about Iran . . . is that if Iran were to develop [nuclear] technology, they'd walk out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they'd develop highly enriched uranium and the weapon. These ifs are based on, "I don't trust Iran's future intentions." . . . Why isn't the world worried about Japan, which has the full cycle of technology? Because there is trust that this country is not aiming to develop nuclear weapons.

The Japanese government hasn't said that its aim is to destroy the state of Israel.

There have been a lot of offensive statements, frankly, on the part of Iran, although from what I understand, Iran wants a one-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] — not, as reported in the media, that Israel should be wiped off the map.

Los Angeles Times Interview
The Los Angeles Times - December 2, 2008

In December 2008, ElBaradei discussed Iran with Borzou Daraghi at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

Over the past few years, Iran has been front and center on the IAEA agenda as well as the world agenda. Do you think that the policy of the international community has been a failure or a success?

Mohamed ElBaradei: So far the policy has been a failure. We haven't really moved one inch toward addressing the issues other than adopting a number of Security Council resolutions, imposing sanctions, which led in fact to more hardening of the position of Iran, including among those Iranians who dislike the regime because they feel their country is under siege.

The policy toward Iran will not start to have the possibility of success unless the parties — and here I mean the U.S. and Iran — sit together directly around the negotiating table and start discussing grievances that go back to 1953.

For Iran, at the end of the day, the issue is one of security and competition for power with the U.S. in the Middle East.

Iran is surrounded by a number of nuclear-weapon states. They are surrounded by 150,000 American troops. So there is a sense of insecurity, exactly like in North Korea. Whether it is real or a myth, it is there, and you have to address it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There is a view, popular in the West, that Iran is a religious fundamentalist state that is moving rapidly toward developing nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel, as their leader says. Would you agree or disagree with that?

Mohamed ElBaradei: I am not a student of Iran, so I can't make an authoritative judgment on that. But when I go to Iran I see there are all different shades and colors, from atheist to religious zealots to people who are adopting a Western style of life.

So Iran is no different than any other country. They are connected with the rest of the world. They have all the different points of view within the society. Everything depends on who is empowered.

Now, I believe that engaging Iran, integrating Iran with the rest of the world, would empower the moderates. Isolating Iran and putting pressure on Iran will empower the hardliner. That is what you see everywhere else in the world.

Some of the statements made by some of the leaders of Iran about Israel were offensive. However, I have also been told that if you read those statements in Farsi — and I donít read Farsi — they said that Palestine should be one state and should not be just a Jewish state, which is not different from statements made by Yasser Arafat, many Palestinians, or even Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher.

However, the impression was created that these statements meant that Israel should be wiped off the map. Statements that, to say the least, are offensive and unhelpful. But when you craft a policy that has to last for a generation, you cannot just base it on certain rhetoric.

Even if the rhetoric is offensive, you still have to talk to these people, clarify the issues and make sure that the mindset will change. This is what we call creative diplomacy. It's frustrating, it takes time, but that's the only way to go. I don't see any other solution.

Academy of Achievement Interview (2006)
June 3, 2006 - Los Angeles, CA [Interview Link]

Mohamed ElBaradei: Iran is a very complicated issue. Iran is really about security in the Middle East.

The nuclear issue is the tip of the iceberg in Iran. It masked a lot of grievances from both sides, ranging from the hostage-taking in 1979 to the overthrow of the nationally elected government in Iran in the '50s, the Mossadegh government. So there's a lot of grievances that span over five, six decades, and the only way to resolve these issues of grievances, insecurities is just for all the parties to sit and talk together.

I am delighted that now the U.S. have decided to go and talk to the Iranians directly, face to face, put all the issues on the table. That is the only way. I have been saying that for a couple of years. There is no other solution. There is no military solution, and there is no solution that is enduring which is not a negotiated solution. Talking to each other does not mean weaknesses. Talking to each other does not mean that you legitimize or de-legitimize a particular regime or you accept the records of human rights, none of that. Talking to each other means that we have differences, and we can only settle our differences through talking face to face.

So I am hopeful. I hope that dialogue will flourish, and I will continue to do my very best to make sure that I continue in my little way to undergird that process and make sure that it comes to fruition.

Do you think sanctions would be effective?

Mohamed ElBaradei: I don't believe in sanctions. You can go through escalation. You can go through using sanctions, using pressure. It's a process when both parties will hurt each other. We will go into a period of mutual hurting.

Sanctions didn't work in the past, will not work in the future. In fact, it puts the hard-liners in both camps in the driver's seat when you apply pressure. It's the hard-liners who become popular. When you start dialogue, when you start to exchange ideas, goods, when people start to travel, when the Iranian people will continue to enjoy a new fleet of Boeing aircraft, when they start getting their new computer software, I think that is when you empower the silent majority in every country who are eager to have a decent life as part of the human community. So the more we — the more we de-emphasize the muscle and the punching, and the more we emphasize the shared humanity, the incentives, the better off we are.

Related links:

Egypt's Mohamed Hassanein-Heikal on Nasser, Suez, Mossadegh

Former IAEA Chief Hans Blix on Iran's Security Concerns, Mossadegh (Audio)

IRAN to OBAMA: Show Us the Change (Exclusive Speech Translation)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts - "If I sit silently, I have sinned"

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